MIAMI -- The yellow rope to provide a sanctuary for the NBA champions in the midst of the arena was in place, ringing the court near the feet of the ticket holders in the most expensive seats. The orange armbands that would allow reporters inside that yellow rope had been dispensed. A league official had all the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player ballots in his hands and was busy tallying the media's votes.
They were all the accoutrements of success, the logistical necessities that come before the official ceremony crowning the NBA's new king.
And the San Antonio Spurs, the only team that could win the series in Game 6, had brought them on by virtue of a late flurry by Tony Parker (a 3-pointer and a driving shot to the lane) and some Manu Ginobili free throws accompanied by a Spurs defensive effort that kept the Miami Heat from even getting the ball to the rim on three consecutive possessions. San Antonio led by five points with 28.2 seconds remaining. Less than half a minute had to elapse from the clock, and the Spurs would be inside that golden cord, celebrating.
"I saw the rope," Spurs reserve Gary Neal said. "Everybody saw the rope. But they continued to play, they made shots, and they came back and won the game."
The shots the Heat made were a LeBron James 3-pointer with 20.1 seconds remaining and a Ray Allen 3 with 5.2 left to send it into overtime, where the ropes went back to wherever they're stored and the Heat prevailed 103-100 to stay alive and force Game 7.
"Obviously it's a tough loss," a grim Parker said. "We had a great opportunity to finish it."
It's not just that a Spurs team that values its rest exerted so much energy in Tuesday's game, with Parker, Tim Duncan, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard all logging more than 41 minutes. It's the cruel way San Antonio lost, akin to someone swooping in and snatching the Larry O'Brien trophy just before commissioner David Stern handed it to Spurs owner Peter Holt.
The Spurs let the Heat off the mat by blowing a 13-point lead in the second half, then came up short in crunch time, when they're supposed to win the possession-by-possession battle. It's a psychological and physiological double whammy that will put all their poise and professionalism to the test as they attempt to regroup for Game 7 on Thursday night.
"I have no clue how we're going to be re-energized," Ginobili said. "I'm devastated. But we have to."
Ginobili could use a vacation, not another game. He was a mess, with two turnovers in overtime and eight for the game, making his 24-point, 10-assist Game 5 seem like nothing more than a last hurrah.
The only benefit of the short turnaround is it will afford the Spurs less time to revisit all their costly mistakes, the turnovers and missed boxouts and even questionable strategies that contributed to the loss. Heck, it might take the rest of us that long just to sort out the messy storylines.
Duncan went from being the dominant presence on the court to fading in the fourth quarter and finally sitting on the bench while two critical rebounds went to the Heat.
Duncan had made a strong case for Finals MVP with 30 points through the first three quarters. His two 20-point games in the series had been overshadowed by Green's two 20-point games and 25 3-pointers.
But Duncan had provided a steady rebounding effort, made a ton of unsung hustle plays in Game 3 and took over this closeout game. He personally outscored James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh 25-21 in the first half. He had 30 points through three quarters. And he didn't score again, after the Heat finally started sending Bosh some much-needed defensive help.
"I have no idea what happened in the fourth and in overtime," Duncan said. "Just the opportunities weren't there."
Parker was silent most of the game, only to roar back in the final 90 seconds and score the five points that took the Spurs from a 3-point deficit to a two-point lead. And he was on the bench for the Spurs' final possession in overtime.
"I was cramping a little bit at the end of the game," Parker said.
There were rare Gregg Popovich coaching decisions that didn't work out, right after it seemed all his moves this season were about to be rewarded with his fifth championship.
Duncan explained the decision to keep him on the bench for the Heat's final two possessions of the fourth quarter as standard operating procedure for when opponents need late 3-pointers and the Spurs' defense would be likely to switch on the perimeter.
This called for something different. Popovich had already done different; he had Duncan on track for a 40-minute game through the fourth quarter, a minutes threshold Duncan reached only once in regulation all season. Why not leave the leading rebounder in the series (he had 17 more in Game 6) out there for the final 30 seconds? Besides, there was no need for the Spurs to switch with him. They could just leave Duncan's man, Bosh, alone and let him shoot the 3-pointer. Didn't they remember how that worked in their favor late in Game 1?
Maybe the time has come for the Spurs to follow the lead of Leonard, the youngest of their regular players.
Leonard could have hung the Spurs' predicament on his success, after making only one of two free throws with 20.1 seconds remaining, leaving the door open for Allen to tie the game with his 3-pointer. But who scored the Spurs' first four points of overtime? Leonard.
"I felt calm [at the free throw line]," Leonard said. "The first one just rattled out a little bit. But I was confident and knocked down the second one.
"I just tried to put it behind me and just went out and tried to win the game in overtime."
That has to be the new mantra for the Spurs. Put it behind them and try to win the series in Game 7. It's a task Popovich indicated would be so basic:
"Get them on a bus, it arrives at the ramp over here, we get off the bus, we get on the court and we play."
It won't be that easy. Not after fumbling the chance the Spurs have waited so long and worked so hard to get, not after giving the Heat new life, not after allowing all the symbols of victory to morph into tormenting teases.