The confetti has fallen. The champagne bottles are empty.
After eight-plus months in pursuit of basketball's ultimate goal, the finality of a championship series loss is devastatingly overwhelming. The San Antonio Spurs pushed the defending champion Miami Heat to the brink of defeat, but when that final Game 7 buzzer sounded, they were left with nothing more than a 95-88 loss and a myriad of questions.
It's too soon to say with any certainty that San Antonio's championship window has officially closed, but the Spurs know that time is not on their side.
Their battle-tested trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are all on the wrong side of 30. And their young reinforcements (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal) are still working on their consistency at a time when the team might not be able to wait any longer.
But the consequences of this finals loss aren't the issue right now; the wounds are far too deep and far too fresh to start thinking about tomorrow.
That crippling sting of a season lost greets 29 of the 30 teams in this league at various points of the season. But to get this close, to have the Larry O'Brien Trophy ripped from your fingers at the last possible second carries an entirely different kind of pain.
Despite what the scoreboard said, despite the fact that Game 7 was just a two-point contest with less than 30 seconds left, the Spurs didn't lose this series on Thursday night. The cumulative effects of a crushing collapse at the end of Game 6 are the real culprit:
The Spurs were seconds away from having their fingers sized for championship bling some 40-plus hours before a Game 7 that never should have been needed. A 7-0 run gave San Antonio a five-point lead with 30 seconds left in regulation—an advantage that history said was a guaranteed victory:
Before last night, teams were 122-0 in the playoffs since 1998 (Duncan's first postseason) when up by 5 pts w/ between 20-30 seconds left— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 19, 2013
But that's when disaster struck.
Gregg Popovich started thinking too much. His players tried doing too much. And just like that San Antonio's quest for a fifth title in franchise history was finished.
Popovich pulled the game's best power forward in history, Duncan, for each of Miami's final two possessions of regulation. Both times the Heat missed contested threes. And both times Miami tracked down the offensive rebound and poured in a crunch-time triple.
Miami's six points in the final 20 seconds of the fourth were enough to force overtime. And Popovich again lost his cool, this time arguably costing his team a title.
San Antonio forced an errant Dwyane Wade jumper with nine seconds left in the period, and the Spurs raced down to the other end. Popovich opted not to call a timeout, despite the fact that his All-Star point guard Tony Parker had been benched for the previous defensive possession.
Instead, Popovich left the game in the hands of Ginobili, who was already mired in an awful seven-turnover performance. Ginobili sprinted down the lane, where he was greeted by a swarm of Miami defenders. Turnover No. 8. Game over, series over.
San Antonio knew it. And, even worse, so did Miami:
Ray Allen believes his Game 6 shot was the biggest of his career: "Yeah, because it changed everything. Everything."— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 21, 2013
Players always say that games aren't determined on a single possession, and they're right; empty possessions and defensive breakdowns are just as damning on the opening trip as they are late in the fourth quarter.
The Game 6 loss was no different. Both Ginobili and Leonard had trips to the free-throw line in the final 30 seconds of regulation, and each could only manage a split. If either of the two missed foul shots would have fallen, we would have been spending Thursday night away from basketball and looking ahead to next week's draft.
But there was still one game left to decide the 2012-13 season—unfortunately one more chance to throw salt on San Antonio's wounds.
Green, who was brilliant through the first five games of the series, had a disastrous performance in Game 7: five points, 1-of-12 from the field, 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. But with Tony Parker (3-of-12) struggling to find any offense, Popovich clung to the hopes that the sharpshooting-but-streaky Green would rediscover his stroke.
Needless to say, that never happened. Not during the entire 38 minutes that Popovich stuck with the former D-Leaguer:
Popovich staying with Danny Green tonight is beyond inexplicable.— Kent Pavelka (@KentPavelka) June 21, 2013
There were other moments on Thursday night that are going to stick with the Spurs for some time.
With San Antonio only trailing by three with less than 3:30 remaining, Duncan threw away a pass that LeBron James swiped and turned into a Shane Battier triple eight seconds later. Facing the same deficit with less than a minute left on the clock, Duncan misfired on a hook shot, then couldn't convert the tip-in:
After James hit a 19-footer on the other end, San Antonio had one last chance to spark its own dramatic comeback. But Ginobili got himself caught under the basket and couldn't float his touch pass over the outstretched arms of James. Three Miami free throws later, the Spurs lost and their season came to a crashing halt.
The Spurs aren't going to make this a summer of sorrows. San Antonio's probably going to find value with the 28th and 58th picks in next week's draft. The Spurs have substantial cap room to attack the free-agent market and address their weaknesses.
But thanks to untimely turnovers, defensive breakdowns, head-scratching coaching decisions, missed free throws and a historically woeful collapse, this may well be the summer of regret.