You know when people are witnessing something historic, then claim they never realized the importance until after the fact? With Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, you knew. You knew the entire time. The first 47 minutes and 31.8 seconds had already earned Game 6 a lifetime of NBA TV replays. But what happened next? That’s what made it stupendous.
With Miami trailing by five points, LeBron James launched a desperation 3 from the top of the key, maybe two steps to the left, and sent the ball sailing over the rim. Actually, it was worse than that — it bounced off the bottom of the backboard like a freaking Super Ball. I watched the trajectory from our makeshift television set across the court, crammed behind San Antonio’s basket, so I could tell right away it was off. That shot couldn’t have been a bigger brick; LeBron should have just fired that thing with a T-shirt cannon. It also couldn’t have been a better break for Miami. One of the most famous sequences in NBA history was officially in motion.
Waiting for the rebound in front of Miami’s basket, four different Spurs had boxed out three Heat players in a perfect square. Any basketball camp could show their alignment to campers with the note, This is how you box out as a group. If any Spur secured the rebound, San Antonio would bring home the title — the fifth for Duncan and Popovich, and probably the sweetest one too. But none of them expected the basketball to carom that quickly.
The ball found Kawhi Leonard first. He’d been brilliant all series, playing a stretch 4 and bothering LeBron despite battling ongoing discomfort in his left knee. The team’s doctors declared that Leonard’s knee needed rest, but San Antonio needed Leonard’s athleticism too much. He played through pain for the entire playoffs. Later that summer, Erik Spoelstra told me that Miami charted Leonard’s rebounds during those seven games — somehow, he caught every rebound that touched his fingers except for two. This was one of the two. Famous for his gargantuan hands, Leonard couldn’t swing those oversize mitts up fast enough.
As Leonard fumbled for a second chance, Dwyane Wade soared in and tipped the ball away, looking like a cornerback breaking up a touchdown catch. The basketball popped up perfectly, as if an invisible referee threw everyone a jump ball. Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw pursued, all arriving from different directions, all of them practically colliding in air. Had Popovich never removed Duncan for Diaw for that defensive possession, it’s difficult to imagine Duncan — the third-best playoff rebounder ever at the time, trailing only Chamberlain and Russell — not grabbing the biggest board of San Antonio’s season. But Miami trotted out five shooters and Popovich … well, Popovich overthought this one.
Duncan and his nearly 16,000 career rebounds watched from afar. His three teammates tipped the ball toward Miami’s bench, right to Ray Allen, who immediately turned into Justin Bieber after five joints and 10 cups of sizzurp. The man lost all of his coordination. He whipped his left arm for the loose basketball, botched the catch and somehow redirected the ball backward toward San Antonio’s bench. LeBron’s brick had morphed into basketball’s version of the magic bullet. The same rebound had changed direction four times. Half the players on the court had already touched it.
Mike Miller touched it before everyone else — he inbounded the ball to LeBron, then floated toward the foul line for a possible rebound, failed to sneak past the doughier Diaw, watched the basketball get redirected three times, then chased down the loose ball after Allen’s rebounding spasm. Meanwhile, LeBron had remained behind the 3-point line, drifting near Miami’s bench, waiting for a second chance. Miller quickly shoveled the ball his way. LeBron buried it. Two-point game.
The entire sequence took 8.1 seconds. Seven players touched the ball. Leonard, Miller and LeBron touched it twice. Incredibly, Miami was still alive. Timeout, San Antonio.
I don’t remember much about Game 6. But I absolutely remember standing there in a medicated haze, thinking to myself, Wait a second … they aren’t gonna screw this up, are they?”
After I joined ESPN’s studio crew last season, my biggest fear was getting sick during the Finals. My immune system stinks. Throw me on enough airplanes and I’m probably catching something. I had stayed healthy for eight straight months, with everything falling apart after Game 5 of the Finals. We landed in Miami and I holed up in my hotel room, the thermostat jacked as high as it could go, trying to sweat out whatever evil bronchitis demon had possessed me.
You can’t call in sick for television. You don’t have a choice; you have to keep going. Just keep sucking cough drops, popping Advils and staying hydrated and hope you don’t cough up a lung on live TV. And so I wore my best suit and one of my favorite ties. They caked my face with makeup. They used drops to save my reddened eyes. You wouldn’t have known I was ill, even if I felt like I was heading for my own funeral. Right down to how my body had been prepared. And that’s how I watched one of the greatest basketball games ever — in a foggy haze. I remember Duncan dropped 25 points in the first half, torching Miami like he was 25 years old again. I remember discussing him at halftime, wondering if we’d remember it as the Duncan Game — his unexpected last chapter, the night that could cement his legacy as his generation’s defining player. I don’t remember much else.
But the fourth quarter? I remember a bunch of things. I remember Duncan fading as LeBron ascended to an ungodly level. Stretch Bo Jackson to 6-foot-8, give him T-Mac’s streaky jump shot, Jordan’s competitiveness, Pippen’s defensive prowess and Bird’s brain, and that was LeBron dominating both ends for nine solid minutes. He fought off a slightly better San Antonio team, by himself … and then, just as unexpectedly, he remembered he was human and ran out of gas. That’s when Tony Parker made a couple of Tony Parker plays, and before we blinked, San Antonio’s bench was celebrating and Miami had bungled the series.
During that now-fateful timeout with San Antonio up five, Jalen Rose and I watched NBA officials wheel the Larry O’Brien Trophy into the runway to our right. It couldn’t have been farther than 15 feet from us. We watched security guards assume positions around the court, and we watched Heat employees hastily sticking up yellow rope around the courtside seats. Like they were cordoning off a homicide scene. Even after LeBron’s second-gasp 3, I still thought we were going home. Some Heat fans had already trickled out. We watched them leave in disbelief. How could the Basketball Gods reward … that?
After Miller fouled Leonard with 19.4 seconds left, he strolled impassively to the free throw line, with Miami’s rejuvenated crowd suffocating him with boos and screams. I remember thinking, Forget about making these free throws — I wonder if this kid is hitting the rim. Leonard sized up those freebies, the clatter bouncing off him, a Spurs collapse suddenly in play. How many current players could have nailed these specific free throws? Maybe 10 total? Leonard clanged the first one. Mayhem. He made the second one, and by the way, I will always respect Kawhi for making that second one. Three-point game.
After Miami’s timeout, we watched in disbelief as Pop removed Duncan for the ensuing defensive possession. How can you keep the power forward GOAT off the floor twice? Jalen and I were flipping out. What was Pop thinking? As we were venting, they started playing basketball again. Chalmers dumped it to LeBron, who missed another 3 near Miami’s bench. The ball caromed to the right side, with Bosh securing it right before Ginobili bounced off him. (For what it’s worth, that was a GREAT rebound by Bosh.) As Ginobili tumbled to the ground, Allen furiously retreated toward the right corner. None of the Spurs was close enough to him. And Bosh was tossing the ball his way.
I watched Ray Allen play for my favorite team for five years. He goes to the same spots and does the same things the same ways — not just for weeks, or months, but for years and years and years. He’s the closest thing we have to an NBA robot. He treats 3-pointers like tennis players treat their serves, golfers treat their swings and pitchers treat their delivery — quick jump, quick release, perfect form, line drive, bang. Every shot looks the same. Watch Ray long enough and you instinctively realize when he’s heating up, when he’s shooting from a spot he likes, and when he’s thrust into a situation that — even if it seems chaotic — happens to be perfect for Ray Allen and Ray Allen only.
With seven seconds left in Game 6, suddenly, we were in one of those situations. And I knew just from watching him backpedal those first two steps.
True story: When Ray practices 3s from different parts of the court, sometimes he blindfolds himself so he can’t see the 3-point line. His complicated shooting routine unfolds hours before games — like, HOURS before games — sometimes with cheerleaders practicing and arena employees turning the lights on and off. He practices footwork as diligently as a ballerina, partly because he’s a perfectionist, partly out of basketball OCD, and partly because he always wants to be prepared for anything. And you know what’s really crazy? Ray Allen is enough of a lovable weirdo that he practiced this specific shot. In fact, he’s been practicing it since his Milwaukee days.
Five seconds left, down three, rebound, I’m in the corner, I have to backpedal as fast as I can … what’s next?
Nobody in NBA history was better prepared for this moment. Ray moved backward quickly, knowing he needed six steps — he couldn’t take five, and he couldn’t take seven — because, again, Ray Allen is a brilliant obsessive who practices these things. He had three Spurs sprinting at him, with Tony Parker arriving in time to throw both hands up like Mini-Hibbert. Allen had to halt his momentum from going backward, straighten his body, launch off two feet and keep his release as mechanical as ever. Oh, and he could allow himself only a cursory glance at the floor — something that happened in a split second of a split second, as Allen was gathering the ball, when he quickly looked down to his left.
It’s the last point that amazed me the most. The 3-point territory in the corners isn’t exactly cavernous. You have maybe three feet in all. Misjudge it one way and you’re touching the line, costing yourself a point. Misjudge it the other way and you’re out of bounds. Every time I play pickup basketball on an NBA court, I’m always startled by the lack of room in those corners. And it’s not like these players have tiny feet, either. Maybe it’s the easiest 3-point shot by percentages, but it also allows the least room for error. Especially when you’re backpedaling at full speed.
And with all of that said … I knew that shot was going in.
I would have wagered anything. Even with a 102-degree temperature, even with dried contacts, even with a lump of phlegm wedged in my throat, even with everything feeling vaguely white and hazy — the same way you feel right before you die, I’m guessing — I saw the future once Ray started moving backward. I had watched him nail those shots too many times. Nobody had been better in those moments. Nobody. I remember yelping when the shot went through. I remember the fans losing their minds. I remember thinking, There’s no way he didn’t step on a line; it’s impossible, even for Ray, there’s just no way.
They started reviewing the play. We whirled around and studied replays on our undersized monitor. Unbelievable. Never touched either line. You could compare it to only one other NBA shot: Kareem’s walk-off sky hook in Game 6 of the 1974 Finals, which saved Milwaukee at the buzzer in double overtime. If Kareem missed it, Boston took the title. If he made it, Milwaukee hosted Game 7. He made it. One problem: The Celtics flew to Milwaukee and won the title there, anyway.
This time around, Ray Allen saved Miami’s season and swung the title. There’s never been a greater NBA shot. With all due respect to Jordan’s iconic jumper against the ’98 Jazz, Allen’s shot had similar clutchness, bigger stakes and a higher degree of difficulty. If you or I caught that pass as we were backpedaling, then launched a desperation 3 with someone running at us, we’d screw up every time.1 Only a few players could dream of making that shot with that footwork — Kobe, Durant, Bird, T-Mac, Reggie Miller, maybe Jamal Crawford with lower stakes — but the moment itself made it a different animal. You wouldn’t want anyone else shooting that shot other than Ray Allen. His whole career led to those three seconds. It really did.
When I played at Staples Center a few months ago, I kept trying Ray’s shot with Grantland’s Dave Jacoby playing the role of Bosh. It’s just about impossible to furiously backpedal and land perfectly between those two lines, much less launch a coherent 3-pointer. It’s a wildly unrealistic ask for normal NBA players, much less normal humans. Ray Allen is neither.
I love so many things about the NBA, but over everything else, it’s those moments when you know you’re seeing something special — something that will get replayed forever, something that lets you say, “Yeah, I was there,” and someone else turns into Will Hunting and screams, “Really? You were there? YOU WERE FUCKING THERE?” I was there for Gar Heard’s miracle heave in Boston, Bird’s steal from Isiah and Magic’s baby sky hook over McHale and Parish. Now, I was there for Ray’s 3. That’s four all-timers. Only Ray’s moment remains hazy. Everything was white and blurry, and then, there was Ray, and everything got clear for a second. Yeah, I was there.
And here’s what happens when you’re there: You’re crammed around a basketball court watching these physical freaks bring out the best in each other, and occasionally, something unbelievable happens, and it creates this sound that can’t even really be described. It’s the single best sound, actually. When Bird dueled Dominique in 1988, Game 7, we made that sound for most of the fourth quarter. We knew something magical was happening. You attend hundreds and hundreds of games waiting for that sound to happen. In Game 6, it happened. Ray’s 3 swung the title and preserved a small chunk of LeBron’s legacy. It shattered a magnificent San Antonio team and kept Miami’s three-peat alive. And it guaranteed that Ray Allen would make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
You know what happened next. Parker missed San Antonio’s last shot in regulation, with a little help from a barely perceptible shove by LeBron. Miami prevailed in overtime, escaping after Bosh swallowed up Danny Green’s last-second 3 attempt. Our studio show popped on TV after midnight. Wilbon went first, then Magic, then Jalen, then me. I declared that no NBA team had ever come closer to winning a title without actually winning a title, which I hoped was true. (It was.) We bantered for a few minutes, then returned a few minutes later and did it again. We filmed a couple more segments, then we were done. The whole thing wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as I expected. In retrospect, I would have rather written about it.
Instead, I returned to my hotel room, cranked the thermostat to 80 and crashed. I stayed in bed for the next 36 hours. I lost six pounds. I finished the first half of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. I watched the Bruins blow a Stanley Cup game. I launched an antibiotics cycle with help from an NBA doctor. I ordered room service and barely touched it. I felt like a failure for never writing a Game 6 column. I took hot shower after hot shower, since it was the only thing that made my head feel better. I wondered if I would make it to Game 7. I remember every single thing about that dark room.
Around 4 p.m. the following afternoon, the TV adrenaline started kicking in. We were five hours away from Game 7. I took another hot shower, shaved my face, slipped on a wrinkled suit, knotted a colorful tie, gnawed on another cough drop. Then I pulled open the curtains to my room, the light blinding me from every angle. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and when they did, I could see the water and the buildings lurking in front of me. Downtown Miami was waiting. So was Game 7.
When the Spurs made the 2014 Finals last weekend, Popovich couldn’t hide his appreciation for his players, marveling at their ability to bury such a catastrophic defeat. Most franchises would have been broken by Game 6. Pop’s team just moved forward. He mentioned being delighted that they didn’t have a “pity party” for themselves. Only Pop would come up with that one. Pity party. Meanwhile, Miami needs four victories to become a team for all time. You’d have to go back to 1987 — the rubber match of the Bird-Magic Finals trilogy — for an NBA Finals with more at stake historically for both sides.
The Spurs are favored, barely, thanks to their home-court advantage and a season spent mastering small ball. With Marco Belinelli and a rejuvenated Ginobili, the Spurs are deeper and craftier than ever. And a now-healthy Leonard has blossomed into a fantastic two-way player and a worthy foil for LeBron. The 2014 Spurs are definitely better than the 2013 Spurs. Also helping: The 2014 Heat are slightly worse than last year’s team — Wade isn’t the same anymore, their role players have been increasingly unreliable, and there’s a decent chance that the Eastern Conference was more dreadful than we thought. If you’re picking Miami this series, it’s because of LeBron and LeBron only. He’s at the peak of his powers. That’s an excellent reason, by the way.
But there’s a karmic element that normal NBA Finals just don’t have. San Antonio seeking revenge against the dastardly Heat team that stole their title? San Antonio earning a second chance after failing only because of a mind-blowing series of events? If you played the last 28.2 seconds 100 times, San Antonio would probably win 99 of them. So, why? Why was that the 100th time? Why did that have to happen to Duncan, of all people?
You might remember that sadness drifting into the final minute of Game 7, right after Duncan missed what would have been a game-tying bunny over Shane Battier that he’s probably made 24,326 times in his life. Duncan jogged back downcourt in abject disbelief, like someone staggering away from an accident. Miami called timeout and Duncan sank into a despondent crouch, remaining that way for a couple of seconds, finally slapping the floor with two open hands.
Everyone in the arena could read Duncan’s mind. How did we blow this? How? How did that happen? The great Tim Duncan thought he had squandered his last chance.
And here’s how fast things can flip. Back in October 2003, the Red Sox choked away Game 7 in Yankee Stadium, one of the most demoralizing defeats in franchise history. It felt like something of a final straw for Boston fans. We’d be thinking about Grady Little’s mistake and Aaron Boone’s homer forever. The Baseball Gods hated us. It was official. We would live our entire lives, then croak, without ever seeing them win the whole thing. Twelve months later, we won the whole thing. Ten years later, the Boone Game doesn’t matter anymore. I never think about it.
If the Spurs beat Miami, Allen’s 3 stops haunting them — and if that’s not enough, we’ll remember San Antonio as the greatest franchise of the post-Jordan era. If the Heat prevail, they move into a different category historically: four straight Finals, three straight titles, one of the best teams ever. Those are the stakes. The rematch kicks off Thursday night. Miami and San Antonio, the sequel. You gotta love sports.
Illustration by Aaron Dana.