Oh, blessed good fortune. It wins an 84-year-old woman the $590 million Powerball lottery on a Quick Pick ticket … and it helps the teenager texting while driving avoid the accident that causes paralysis … and it is one of the many reasons that confetti is falling all over South Florida this weekend to celebrate a Miami Heat champion that makes this region feel as good about sports as it ever has.
Oh, cruel bad fortune. It doesn’t give that old, widowed Powerball winner much time left in life to enjoy her literal good fortune … and it fills this newspaper with sad stories of circumstance, changing lives in a blink, causing pain and grieving in random ways that shake faith … and it is one of the many reasons that the haunted and valiant San Antonio Spurs now begin a crushing offseason carrying a heavy sickness that won’t lift for days or weeks or, according to Tim Duncan, maybe ever at all.
Such a tiny difference between the Heat and Spurs, between winning and losing, between joy and pain, between history and hysteria. Duncan wore all that on his weary body at the end of his great series and great season, shoulders sagging, heavy head in a hand that wasn’t keeping it up, a portrait of defeat. It was amazing and hard to watch, this literal giant weakened, and in such pain. He is such a great champion, and the best power forward ever, and at 37 years old he reduced the younger, eight-time All-Star Chris Bosh to a bag of bones in the two most important games of the season, only to fail toward the exhausting end of this splendid game, this splendid season and this splendid career for no good reason at all.
Duncan, maybe the quietest star in sports, has spent two decades before us with nearly total stoicism around everyone but the refs, as private as someone this public can be, emotional as a flatline. But this was as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him, slapping the court after missing an easy shot he nearly always makes and then saying afterward that shot will haunt him for the rest of his days. It is only the most interesting, honest and raw thing this private man has said in two decades in front of the lights and cameras. And if you care about sports, or if you care about people, and even if you care about the Miami Heat, it was heartbreaking, and made no less so just because it was being endured by a multimillionaire who makes his living playing games. We all understand caring deeply, and we all understand feeling crushed, and we all understand the frustration in having control leave your hands in a way that is random and hurts.
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What happened to the Spurs was cruel. Duncan, under optimum circumstances, simply missed an easy shot he makes almost every time. He could have made the score 90-90 in Game 7 with less than a minute remaining in both seasons, putting Miami in that no-safety-net position that had the Heat fumbling and bumbling so much at the end of Game 6. Shane Battier, too small, is a good defender, but admitted afterward that he had nothing at all to do with Duncan missing that close, that he and the Heat were lucky in a way that will harden into enduring and willed greatness over time with every step we take away from it.
That’s how it works. The winners get to write the history. And luck fades with memory in a way that championships don’t. As writer Adam Smoot points out, nobody cares that the Patriots are one David Tyree and one Wes Welker catch from five Super Bowls or one tuck rule and bad field-goal snap from feeling more like those loser Bills of Jim Kelly. The scoreboard freezes scores forever, and it doesn’t come with a “Yeah, but … .”
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.