Heat fans don’t want to hear about luck, of course, because it sounds like a diminishment of skill, an indictment or dilution of the greatness we today stand to applaud. What we do with sports worship is outsize human strengths to superhuman levels, turning triumph into a character virtue, pretending that the winner has control over all, immune to randomness as a matter of will. This is ridiculous, of course. LeBron James, most skilled basketball player on the planet, and maybe on his way to most skilled player ever, couldn’t stop admitting after this series just how lucky his Heat had been. If he doesn’t view luck as a diminishment of his skill and triumph, why should you on his behalf? He knows how much he spit up at the end of Game 6 … and how fortunate he is now that America isn’t laughing at him again.
So crazy, what South Florida felt and endured. Heat owner Micky Arison said that the end of Game 6, when security was roping off the court around him for a Spurs trophy celebration that Ray Allen postponed forever, was “the worst feeling in the world.” To go from that to this is total insanity, and where this blessed team has lived for the better part of three bleeping years. Really? The difference between a parade and the worst feeling in the world is one shot?
The Spurs and Heat played seven games, more than a thousand total possessions, and when it was over, with Miami holding the trophy, the Spurs had actually outscored Miami … by all of five points, 684 points to 679.
Consider this: Allen very easily could have missed that one shot, and Miami would have been in the awful position of being remembered in a totally different fashion, mocked all offseason instead of celebrated for all time. This is only nuts. Miami is no better or worse as a team because Allen makes or misses a single shot. Miami is exactly as good, champion good, if that’s the one that skims away. But everything about that just-as-good team would have felt very, very bad. And that’s where good fortune comes in. Since the mid-1990s, 122 teams have been down five with between 20 and 30 seconds left in a postseason game. And before Allen’s shot, those teams that were in the Heat’s position were 0-122.
But this wasn’t even the first time that Duncan has been on the wrong side of this kind of up-down sports cruelty, believe it or not. In 2004, he made an amazing shot with four-tenths of a second left in a playoff game, falling to his left, off his wrong foot, 18-feet away with giant Shaquille O’Neal in his face. It was the best feeling in this world. It was maybe the most memorable shot of Duncan’s career, even though what happened next rendered it barely remembered at all, Derek Fisher making an absurd panic shot with the four-tenths of a second Duncan had left him. And that was the worst feeling in this world, joy and pain separated by less than half of one second. Miami is very lucky to be on the right side of Duncan’s miss today, and anyone objecting to the role luck plays as a virtueless randomness can’t get around this:
The Miami Heat, two-time champions, now a team for the ages, was standing helplessly at the wrong free-throw line at the end of Game 6, totally at the whims of what the Spurs did or didn’t do, spectators like the rest of us, and it was because San Antonio missed free throws over which Miami had no control that America isn’t laughing at the Heat today instead of watching us bang pots and pans in the street.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was kind afterward, calling Miami the better team, but that’s not what anyone would have been saying if Allen had missed a single shot or if the Spurs had made a couple of free throws. It is a tribute to the respect the Spurs and Heat have for each other that Popovich would say such a classy thing during his emotional moment of defeat, as his star of almost 20 years couldn’t keep his head up in his hand. But you could see the mutual respect in all those hugs on the court between opponents afterward. And after all those elbows and skirmishes with the Bulls and Pacers, can you remember a single moment during which a Heat and Spurs player shoved each other or trash-talked? Think about that one for a second. The Heat and Spurs just played seven games at the very height of competition, and you never once saw one player get in another’s face.
Much of what the Spurs have experienced in the past 16 years under Duncan the Heat have now experienced in the past three. There is not and was not a lot of difference between those two teams, no matter how history remembers it. Time and luck just ran out on one of them.
Heat fans probably don’t want that kind of greatness extended to the haunted and valiant and conquered San Antonio Spurs.
But they would have appreciated it being extended to them if a shot or two had gone the other way.