The ball rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs once more.
An incredulous Miami has a flashback for the late flag for pass interference in Ohio State’s end zone.
The last strike eluded the history-challenged Texas Rangers one more time.
And the fifth title that would further cement the San Antonio Spurs’ already cemented greatness escaped their grasp Tuesday night in one of the most epic NBA Finals games ever played.
Heartbreak comes in many forms. Pop goes the championship.
The title that never was for Buckner’s Red Sox against the Mets, the title that the Hurricanes were already celebrating by storming the field in Arizona was gone, the crown that seemed to be one Cardinals swing and miss away for Nolan Ryan’s Rangers slipped away.
And speaking of cardinal sins, Gregg Popovich committed a fatal one.
He didn’t go down with his best players on the court.
Not when it counted.
Pop has benched Tim Duncan before, even in fourth quarters and overtimes of this same post-season, and the Spurs were none the worse for it. But in the biggest moments of the biggest game of the year when the 37-year-old power forward was at his absolute best, Duncan sat by Pop late in the game when one more rebound would have brought out the championship trophy.
Pop also sat point guard Tony Parker, the piston that drives the Spurs machine, when one more slicing drive to the basket would have ended the series.
The Heat won this one, but Popovich should face some heat as well.
“It was a helluva game,” a stoic Popovich said afterward. “A game of mistakes.”
Yes, and the Hall of Fame coach made some.
It was hardly all his fault, just a key contributing factor to the most painful loss in franchise history when the Spurs were seconds away from yet another ceremony, this one on the road where the hometown fans had given up on their team long before the Heat did.
Pop’s rare errors of commission would have gone completely unnoticed, a quickly forgotten footnote to a classic NBA game, had one more Spurs free throw gone through the net. But this one was no ordinary game.
Mike Miller lost his shoe.
LeBron James lost his headband.
Then the Spurs lost their mojo.
Leading with six seconds to play, San Antonio watched helplessly as Ray Allen, the best 3-point shooter in league history, drained another to knot the game with 5.2 seconds left. Had Duncan remained in the game, maybe he would have grabbed the rebound instead of Chris Bosh, who found Allen in the corner after Boris Diaw blew his assignment and raced to cover a shooter.
Then in overtime, the Spurs missed two free throws, missed chances at two defensive rebounds and more than anything missed a chance at history.
Game 7’s supposed to top this? Impossible, because Miami’s 103-100 overtime victory will go down as one of the most epic battles in NBA Finals history.
The Spurs lost a game they had seemingly won.
Everything had to go wrong at the end for San Antonio to drop Game 6. Everything did.
Manu Ginobili missed a free throw.
Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw.
San Antonio didn’t rebound in two pivotal moments when Duncan was sitting.
San Antonio didn’t call a timeout when it did get a big rebound with 10 seconds left but had Parker on the bench.
San Antonio didn’t foul someone, anyone, when it led by three before Allen’s dagger.
San Antonio didn’t get a call on Manu Ginobili’s turnover — one of his eight — or on Danny Green’s desperation three at the buzzer.
But Miami took it. James willed it. Allen stole it. Bosh, who catches most of the heat, blocked it, getting a hand on both a Parker shot and a Green shot.
The best team didn’t win because the team with the best player did. James turned in a quadruple-double with 32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and double-digit rants at the refs.
“It was the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” James said in his post-game press conference. “Both teams had a will to win. It just came down to one play.”
And now it comes down to one game when it’s doubtful Duncan has enough in reserve after a brilliant 30-point performance in Game 6. Now Pop has to pray Parker and Green can both regain their shooting touch. Now Ginobili has to stop the bleeding or Pop has to keep him on the bench instead of Duncan or Parker.
“It’s been a very unusual series,” Allen said. “There hasn’t been great momentum for either team.”
Until now. When an exhausted and emotionally spent Spurs team has to regather itself for the challenge of a lifetime. Pop should not, however, be blamed for playing four starters more than 42 minutes. He knew the stakes and what would face his team in a Game 7. Now he’ll find out.
The Spurs weren’t boring Tuesday night.
But they weren’t champions either. And Pop’s partly to blame.