Are the Spurs over Game 6 yet?
SAN ANTONIO -- On the first day of the new season the lights were off and the windows were blacked out at the San Antonio Spurs' practice facility. No new banner had been hung to join the others honoring past Western Conference titles.
The darkness was for photographic reasons on media day, but it was also fitting. This is a franchise that's undeniably still in mourning.
The Spurs have been the class of the NBA for nearly two decades. Their front office and coaching tree extend across the league. They are the envy of numerous teams for their stability, their experience and their ingenuity.
But even with all of that foundation, no one here had ever dealt with the kind of professional setback they absorbed last June when they inexplicably blew a five-point lead with 24 seconds to play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. The subsequent Game 7 loss was the final blow, but not where the pain comes from.
If it seemed like the words "game" and "six" were echoing in the corners Monday it's because they were. The Spurs haven't stopped talking about it because they haven't moved on yet.
"I've thought about it every day and I'm wondering when it will go away," coach Gregg Popovich said. "It hasn't happened yet."
Manu Ginobili was on vacation in the Caribbean and was reminded incessantly by waiters and other guests about it at a resort, even if they were trying to offer encouragement. Danny Green was asked questions about it while on a trip to Mongolia over the summer, and when visiting his parents he went to his old room when his dad dared flip on a replay.
Matt Bonner tried to escape to his cabin in New Hampshire, but unlike Walter White he couldn't hide. Tony Parker rushed to be with his French national team because he considered immediately getting back to basketball as "therapy."
"It's painful, the whole end of the series is painful," Tim Duncan said. "I try not to dwell on it daily. I don't think it's time to heal all wounds yet, we're going to let it fester for a little while. We're going to continue to think about it. It's going to continue to hurt whether we talk about it or not."
It's been analyzed sufficiently. There were officials' judgments questioned and plenty of what-ifs. Ultimately the Spurs missed two free throws and allowed the Heat to get two offensive rebounds in that fateful stretch. Regardless of any outside force or any Miami heroics, if the Spurs had executed on any one of those four miscues they'd still be basking right now. Instead there's still wallowing, in various stages of disbelief.
The Spurs will spend this week in Colorado Springs training at the Air Force Academy, where Popovich graduated in 1970 and later coached. It figures that "Popo," as he was known during his time there, will have an activity, speech or symbolic gesture planned to help his team shake the sting. One of the many things Popovich is known for is his various motivational techniques and how he values team bonding.
With an older team and in the altitude, the Spurs are not headed for a boot camp at the Academy. Besides, Popovich says, "I was a poor example of a military person." It may well serve as a catharsis camp.
The Spurs have frequently held training camp offsite over the years, going to Duncan's native Virgin Islands and Parker's native France several times. This retreat will be different and certainly more personal.
"As time goes on, as we all know in our lives, you get back to the day-to-day," Popovich said. "It's time to get over it."
Once the Spurs do move on, and they will, they enter this season once again with a legitimate chance to get back to the Finals. Duncan has once again arrived trim as he comes off his best season in three years. Ginobili, after a negotiation with general manager R.C. Buford on a new contract that "lasted about six minutes," is healthy. Parker is in excellent shape and playing with momentum after leading the French to the Eurobasket title less than two weeks ago. After a summer of rest Kawhi Leonard's knee tendinitis has dissipated.
Leonard is a central reason why the Spurs are still feeling good about their future. He had a breakout performance in the Finals, averaging 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds in the seven games. He had 22 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6, 19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7. To perform at that level, on the road, under such pressure, for a second-year player was just remarkable.
It has the Spurs talking very big about his future.
"I think Kawhi is the new Parker, Ginobili, Duncan kind of guy. He's going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on," Popovich said. "He's been phenomenal, he's improved more quickly than any player we've ever had because his mindset is such that he wants to be great. And he has all the reasons to be."
In Leonard and Parker, who finished sixth in the MVP voting last season and was a Ray Allen 3-pointer away from perhaps winning the Finals MVP, the Spurs feel that they still have two young stars who will keep them where they have been accustomed to being.
"We'll talk about what happened as a team and we'll move past it," Parker said. "We'll use it as motivation."
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