Funny thing, a basketball fan's psyche. Had the Spurs gotten blown out by 30 instead of having a championship snatched out from under Ray Allen's feet in the final five seconds of Game 6, it's safe to say San Antonio would be a far more cheerful pace in the hours leading up to the final tip in an NBA Finals that's destined to go the distance.
But here we are, still dazed from either one of the most egregious closeout-game chokes in NBA history, or simply one of its best games, period. Gregg Popovich made it clear in the post-game press room that he stood in the latter camp, enthusiastically extolling the virtues of an ultra-dramatic tug-of-war between the league's best teams. He did this despite uncharacteristic murmurs that his fourth-quarter substitution idiosyncrasies may have cost him his fifth title as San Antonio's head coach.
But here's the thing about Pop: He doesn't hear the murmurs. Or if he does, they go in one ear and out the other. This is what makes him a great coach, and this is why his Spurs are better equipped than any team in the league to bounce back after such a soul-crushing defeat.
But that doesn't mean we're not going to offer him some advice on what to do in Game 7:
- Don't play a single minute without either Tim Duncan or Tony Parker on the floor. All season, Pop has been content to begin his fourth quarters with T 'n T on the bench, ceding primary playmaking duties to Manu Ginobili. Now that Manu, despite a spectacular Game 5, has proven once again to be Manure, Pop simply cannot trust him to carry such a load in the final frame. You almost never catch the Heat sitting LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the same time; Pop should follow suit with his two stars, if only for one (very important) game.
- Don't play a single minute with both Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter on the floor. The bizarro version of the Duncan-Parker combo, Ginobili and Splitter have been absolutely toxic in terms of negative point differential when they've been on the floor together in this series, thus proving -- again -- that what works in the regular season can often go up in flames the deeper you get in the playoffs.
- Don't feel obligated to play Ginobili down the stretch. If Pop wants to start Manu, that's fine. Surrounded by the Spurs' other four starters, any damage he can do is minimized, and he stands a decent chance of building confidence against a defense unable to key on him. But Ginobili has killed the Spurs one too many times this postseason to be a shoo-in for closer status. Only if he's put together a hot and heady body of work heading into the game's final six minutes should he be allowed to set foot on the floor. Otherwise, Gary Neal and Boris Diaw are far safer alternatives.
- Goad LeBron James into passing to Dwyane Wade by leaving the latter wide open. Did you notice how the Spurs made their late-game run -- before Miami caught them at the wire -- shortly after Dwyane Wade subbed in for Mike Miller with three-and-a-half minutes to go? That wasn't a coincidence. As soon as Wade entered the game, James became noticeably less selfish on offense, which worked to Miami's disadvantage. Had the Heat lost, there would have been renewed debate about whether these two alpha dogs could really coexist, especially with Wade's knees being a few calcified whale semen injections (not on the league's banned substance list, although it should be) away from crumbling into dust. So, when defending Wade, whichever Spur is checking him shouldn't bother clogging the passing lane. Just let Wade catch the ball, close out quickly, and pray that he'll find a way to fuck things up once he's in the air and the double-team's there.
- Put DeJuan Blair in the game early to try and draw a technical on Chris Bosh. Pop's doghouse is a strange place, and we maintain that DeJuan Blair deserved to be let out of it a long time ago. Unlike the Spurs' other bigs not named Tim Duncan, the burly Blair is anything but soft. Meanwhile, Chris Bosh, for all his virtues, is the epitome of soft. And he's a hothead. Put Blair on him for a few hyper-physical possessions, and Bosh might blow his stack in what has been a phenomenally diplomatic series in terms of opponent interaction.
- Don't run high pick and rolls with Parker and Duncan on every goddamn fourth quarter possession. Okay, so this might be the Spurs' most high-percentage half-court set, but run it enough times against an elite defense like Miami's, and they're going to figure out how to defend it. In fact, they already have. It's maddening to watch such a fluid, dynamic offense be constantly reduced to this; it's like Pop's voluntarily offering to engage in a gunfight with three bullets instead of six.
- Give Tracy McGrady four minutes of run at the start of the second quarter, just to see what happens. We get that T-Mac isn't quite the stud he used to be, but we've long suspected Pop of harboring a secret plan to unleash him on his former all-world contemporaries in a key road game in this series. And there's only one road game left.