by Mike Seely
If you wanted to, you could blame the San Antonio Spurs' gut-wrenching 95-88 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Danny Green (1-12, 5 points), petrified in the last two games after setting a league record for three-pointers made in a championship series. Or you could blame it on Manu Ginobili (18 points), who, after acquitting himself nicely for 47-1/2 minutes, made yet another moronic jump-pass under the hoop that resulted in a turnover which salted the game away for the Heat.
Tim Duncan, who missed a running jump-hook he makes nine times out of 10 that would have tied the game in the final minute (compounded by a missed tip-in), was not entirely innocent either, despite a heroic 24-point, 12-rebound, four-steal effort. Nor was Tony Parker (3-12, 10 points), whose battery basically died after the first quarter.
But I blame the loss on Cal Ripken Jr.
During a break in first-quarter action, ABC's camera panned the crowd in search of celebs. There, they found Jack Nicklaus, whose presence in South Florida was understandable due to his advanced age and the circulatory enhancement tropical heat can provide. But then there was Ripken, clad in a "White Hot" button-down. One would think that Major League Baseball's stoic ironman would have a cerebral kinship with Duncan, but there he was, the least Miami guy on the planet rooting for the hometown Heat. If you believe in omens, that was a bad one.
Fact is, the Spurs got beat by an evenly matched opponent that possessed the best player on the floor--and that's typically the difference in a series like this. That LeBron James (37 points, 12 rebounds) struggled mightily until Thursday night is testament to the Spurs' superbly disciplined defense, anchored by the unflappable 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard (19 points, 16 rebounds), who made the leap from skilled role player to franchise foundation in seven stellar games. It's Leonard's upside which will likely lure Duncan back for another title try when he could credibly call it a career, and make free-agent-to-be Ginobili consider signing at the sort of steep discount (a $4 million annual salary sounds about right) that would enable the Spurs to add a J.J. (Hickson or Redick) or Andre (Iguodala or Kirilenko) to their rock-solid core. (Kirilenko spells his name with an "i" at the end, but that would have really dicked with our rhythm.)
It may have been tough for most Spurs fans to watch what transpired after the final horn, but for someone with a little emotional distance from the outcome, it was morbidly heartwarming. Gregg Popovich closely embraced his former Olympic charges, Dwyane Wade (23 points, 10 rebounds) and James, and Wade went out of his way to pay tribute to Duncan during an on-floor interview, capping a series-long trend of sportsmanship not seen between two NBA teams since Bill Russell (also in attendance) roamed the paint.
The Spurs may have lost, but the game of basketball won. And, by the way, fuck Cal Ripken, Jr.