Gregg Popovich (center) congratulated Heat
stars Dwyane Wade
(left) and LeBron James
(right) on their title. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)
You can't blame Gregg Popovich for dwelling on June 18, the night the Spurs lost Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Heat in one of the modern era's most memorable games. You can't blame San Antonio's longtime coach, just as you wouldn't blame Utah's Bryon Russell for deciding to legally change his name or move to Mongolia if he thought doing so would burn the footage and erase the memories of the 1998 Finals.
It's easy to forget that an "instant classic" and a "shot for the ages" are still subject to the zero-sum law of professional sports. Indeed, these are precisely the moments -- Michael Jordan's push-off, Ray Allen's step-back corner three-pointer -- in which "the agony of defeat" is the most perceptible. It might take an extra minute to home in on the response of the vanquished amid all the celebrations, but the anguish is unavoidable, even if it's usually expressed in shock or silence rather than tears.
The San Antonio Express News reported that Popovich, three months later, is still processing the Heat's miraculous comeback overtime win in Game 6, a victory that set the stage for Miami to clinch its second straight title two days later.
“I think about Game 6 every day,” Popovich said. “Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron's first shot, and the rebound, and the second ...”
Then he paused and said, “I've been quite lugubrious.”
“As sad as you can possibly be.”
He tells himself he has no right to act this way. After [Tim] Duncan fell to him in the lottery, how could he ever feel sorry for himself again? “Shut the hell up,” Popovich tells himself. “It's not all going your way.”
His daughter, Jill, told him something similar this summer. With a personality she clearly gets from her father, she said: “OK, Dad, let me get this straight: You won four championships, and you go to a fifth Finals. Other coaches lose all the time. But poor Greggy can't lose because he's special. Can you please get over yourself? End of story.”
Simply reading that admission from Popovich is enough to realize that these are wounds that possibly will never heal. That much isn't surprising to anyone who witnessed the Spurs' demeanor after their last two losses.
"I'm devastated," Manu Ginobili said after Game 6.
After Miami's championship-sealing win, Duncan said: "Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
As Popovich can surely attest, running through all of the game-deciding plays over and over again won't undo them. No time machine is activated when the mind rewinds Allen's three-pointer, or Chris Bosh's offensive rebound to set it up, or Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard's missed free throw with 19 seconds left that helped keep Miami alive, or Tony Parker's failed end-to-end dash at the regulation buzzer, or Ginobili's two turnovers in overtime (including one on a disputed no-call), or Duncan's two late misses in the paint in Game 7, or, or, or.
Interestingly enough, basketball life has already moved on for Parker, who spent his September, as he always does, playing for France's national team. From a healing standpoint, things couldn't have gone any better at EuroBasket in Slovenia: Behind MVP Parker, France launched a fairly insane comeback of its own to topple archrival Spain in the semifinals and beat Lithuania in the gold-medal game to win its first international tournament. None of that does much for Popovich, Duncan and Ginobili when it comes to slaying their demons, but this was certainly the hoops equivalent of getting back up on the horse as quickly as possible. Life did go on.
San Antonio's core is uniquely positioned to respond to the franchise's devastating Finals loss. It's won titles before -- and won titles together; it's led by a grandmaster in Popovich; it has two in the top six of The Point Forward's Top 100 Players of 2014 and a host of others further down the list; and it brings back nearly every key rotation piece from a group that has won at least 70 percent of its regular-season games for three consecutive seasons. Sure, Duncan is 37, Ginobili is 36 and Parker is 31 with 12 regular seasons and 173 playoff games already under his belt, but the Spurs have long had minutes management down to a science.
If ever there was a team to bounce back from the 2013 Finals, it would be this group. The Spurs aren't distracted by self-doubt like a team without previous titles to fall back on would be. They aren't bothered by the notion that they lost to an undeserving opponent; in fact, they know better than anyone exactly how good LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat were at that moment in history. The Spurs weren't forced to retool or shift gears for financial or contractual reasons. Smart, steady, mentally tough, established, experienced, cohesive, talented, unselfish: These are San Antonio's characteristics, the exact ingredients you would want a team in its position to possess.
Popovich and company surely recognize -- assuming we've learned anything about them over the years -- that revenge will not be the proper motivating factor. Even if San Antonio beat Miami in the 2014 Finals, that eye-for-an-eye transaction wouldn't be enough to prevent Allen's shot from being replayed for decades. Jordan's Wizards era was a bit of a bummer, but we still see him hold that follow-through in Salt Lake City year after year, don't we? A historic moment like Allen's three -- a shot with so much at stake for two dominant teams and more than a handful of Hall of Fame players -- is here to stay, just like Jordan's (sort of) farewell. That's true for the basketball community as a whole, and it's true for the Spurs specifically. Would a fifth ring really save Popovich and Duncan, ultimate competitors and perfectionists, from their 2013 heartbreak? That seems exceedingly unlikely.
Since 1998, Popovich and Duncan have built something bigger than a single shot. They've become a model of consistent excellence, advancing to the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons, making five Finals appearances and winning four championships. Once Popovich officially "gets over himself" -- to use his daughter's phrase -- and the Spurs get back on the court, they will realize that nothing clears the mind of bad memories quite like another year of pursuing greatness. The next step for San Antonio -- the first step of the new season -- will be a familiar one: recommitting to greatness while trusting the process, rather than being derailed by an individual result.
Even if that result happens to be among the most agonizing and unforgettable in league history.