MIAMI -- Slowly, painstakingly, Tim Duncan climbed the stairs of the dais late Thursday night, folding his battered body delicately into a cushioned chair. He stared down at a stat sheet vacantly, unable to look up to address a reporter's question, unable to finish a sentence without his voice trailing off. This one hurt. Never before had Duncan tasted failure like this in the NBA Finals.
"I don't know what to say," Duncan said.
He was so close, Duncan was. So close to bookending one of the most historic careers with a championship, so close to cementing this Spurs team as one of the greatest groups ever assembled. Since Duncan's arrival in San Antonio in 1997, the Spurs have won better than 70 percent of their games, better than the New England Patriots, better than the New York Yankees, better than any team in the four major sports. With two chances to claim a fifth title, San Antonio watched a five-point lead evaporate in the last 30 seconds of Game 6 and point-blank shots rim out in the closing seconds of Game 7.
"Game 7 is always going to haunt me," Duncan said.
"I still have Game 6 in my head," Manu Ginobili added.
"It's tough to come so close," Tony Parker said. "Those last two games were tough."
There was no shame in how San Antonio lost, no goats to eviscerate in the days and weeks that follow. Sure, Manu Ginobili struggled, but it was his transcendent performance in Game 5 that put the Spurs in position to close the series out on South Beach. Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw that could have put Game 6 away and a three that would have given his team a late fourth-quarter lead in Game 7, but Leonard was consistent on both ends of the floor all series. Parker, his hamstring hurting, his body worn down, was 9-for-35 in the final two games, but without him San Antonio would have been eliminated days earlier.
The Spurs were beaten by a great team, by great players. They played well. Miami played better.
"Players step up in the playoffs," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Tonight, a great example of that was Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. They played Hall of Fame basketball tonight ... if you're going to match that, you have to be pretty perfect."
The Spurs weren't perfect these last two games. But, for all the talk of how San Antonio was gift-wrapped the Western Conference, that they owe Patrick Beverly a playoff share for the knee-on-knee collision that took out Russell Westbrook, the Spurs deserved to be here. No, they may not have swept Oklahoma City out of the conference finals the way they did Memphis. But they were neck-and-neck with the Thunder all season, and who's to say Oklahoma City, without James Harden, would have beat them?
"I couldn't love our guys more," Popovich said. "What they accomplished this year is something nobody would have ever expected."
Some decisions need to be made this summer in San Antonio, none bigger than Ginobili. Ginobili is 35, though he plays like a man 10 years younger with a body that aches like one 10 years older. Popovich is fiercely loyal to Ginobili, staying with him even as he committed eight turnovers in Game 6, refusing to sub him out in Game 7 when a pair of costly fourth-quarter miscues sabotaged San Antonio's chances to squeeze out a lead. Ginobili could call it quits or elect to take his talents elsewhere. But he is so woven into the fabric of the franchise that most around the league expect him to take pay cut (he made $14.1M last season) and come back for one more run.
It's likely everyone will be back, which begs the question: Why can't San Antonio get here again? The argument against traces back to Duncan, how he can't duplicate a turn back-the-clock, All-NBA season, not at 37, not with the wear and tear of 16 years and 211 playoff games on his body. But Duncan's commitment to fitness the last few seasons has rejuvenated him, and Gregg Popovich is a master of managing his big man's minutes so that his body is preserved for the playoffs.
And the argument that they can return to the Finals may be more compelling. The Spurs have been pigeonholed as this old team, as a group of graybeards, though that couldn't be further from the truth. Duncan and Ginobili are careening toward 40, but Parker (31) is in his prime and the rest of the core is years from getting there. Leonard (21) is a blossoming superstar, "the closest thing I've seen to becoming Scottie Pippen-like," tweeted former Nuggets exec Rex Chapman, while Danny Green, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter are fresh-faced and bound to improve.
"[Kawhi] really is a star in the making," Popovich said. "He's just beginning to feel what he has. He's like a little baby learning how to walk, as far as the NBA is concerned."
It's tradition to kick dirt on the Spurs' grave, to write epitaphs for this era. Then a draft pick here, a smart trade there and boom, San Antonio is right back at the top of the standings. The Western Conference will be loaded next season, stocked with young, talented teams eager and equipped to take the Spurs out. It will be a long, hard road to get back to this stage. But does anyone really want to bet against them?