MIAMI -- Just when America had come to appreciate the San Antonio Spurs, to value their professionalism and teamwork and resolve, they went away.
In the end, we weren't watching the Spurs that used to battle Kobe and Shaq, or the group that schooled LeBron James back when a lost headband would have revealed a more fortified hairline. It's as if we fast-forwarded to a day when they were getting together to relive the glory days and brought out a ball to see what they had left.
The sustainability of the stars had been the Spurs' greatest asset, but they finally ran out of it. It took 337 minutes of a seven-game series for them to go away, but in the end, with one last shot at this NBA Finals -- and perhaps their final opportunity at a championship -- the Spurs couldn't deliver. They didn't even look like the same Spurs we've known over the years.
It was a calamitous end to what had been an uplifting story, these space cowboys making one last ride at it.
For the first time, Duncan stood on the court when the final buzzer of the NBA season sounded and didn't walk off a winner. He didn't walk anywhere, initially, as if he were unsure of the procedure. In his four previous trips to the NBA Finals, Duncan and the Spurs always wound up holding the Larry O'Brien trophy. With Game 7 over and the scoreboard reading Heat 95, Spurs 88, what was he supposed to do?
He looked left, he looked right and started walking, zombie-like, at an angle off the court at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Dwyane Wade ran up to him and embraced him.
"He's one of the greatest of all time," Wade said. "It's an honor to be able to go through this battle against him. And at his age, if I can still do that, I would have a helluva career. So I just wanted to congratulate him and thank him for being the competitor that he is."
They were the first of many kind words said to and about the Spurs by the Heat organization, from owner Micky Arison on the championship trophy stage to Shane Battier in the interview room. If basketball fans can't appreciate the Spurs after their role in producing these memorable NBA Finals, they might as well stop being basketball fans.
I'm not sure Duncan processed what Wade told him. Duncan was in a daze. The fog hadn't lifted later on, when he struggled to find answers to questions posed by the media.
"The obvious word is 'disappointing,'" Duncan said.
His body language was like a thesaurus, spitting out synonyms that went beyond just "disappointing." "Crushing" came to mind. He has poured so much into this, shedding weight and repeatedly changing his role in the offense in the late stages of his career. He had spoken so candidly in recent weeks about his desire, at age 37, to add one more championship ring to the collection. And he still showed flashes of his greatness, most notably his 25-point first half in Game 6. His final stats of 24 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7 looked right in line with his first-team All-NBA status this season.
But he couldn't finish. He literally couldn't finish. Duncan missed two field goal attempts that would have tied the game at 90 in the final minute. The Spurs didn't get another point.
Duncan might not get another chance.
"Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me," Duncan said.
Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.
”-- Tim Duncan
It speaks to the excruciating finish to this series -- which the Spurs led, 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 -- that there wasn't even a consensus on which loss was the worst.
"In my case, I still have Game 6 in my head," Ginobili said.
That was the game the Spurs led by five in the final 30 seconds, and were still six seconds away from winning until Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer that sent it into overtime.
"Being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy," Ginobili said, reaching out with his right hand and clutching an imaginary gold statue, "and then seeing it vanish is very hard."
It's a testament to the Spurs that they came back 48 hours later and pushed the Heat to the limit. James and Battier were unrelenting with their 3-point shooting, hitting 11 of the Heat's 12 between them. Yet the Spurs kept manufacturing three-point plays of their own, kept thwarting Miami's attempt to break free. In the end, there were 11 ties and seven lead changes, and the Heat's lead never grew larger than the final seven-point margin of victory.
"I thought they gave everything," Gregg Popovich said.
"That's character. We've got a bunch of guys who aren't going to give in, keep playing with each other, for each other, and really feel the responsibility to each other."
There are no measures for character, however, not even in this era of advanced statistics. The cold numbers showed Duncan, Ginobili and Parker shot a combined 4-for-13 in the fourth quarter, with six turnovers.
If the Spurs ever get back to this stage, at least they know 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard won't be afraid of it. He grabbed 16 rebounds, scored 19 points and made San Antonio's final basket of the game. In fact, Leonard might be the one leading the Spurs back here one day. He looked like a star in these playoffs, perhaps worthy of being put on the same level as Indiana's Paul George.
But neither of them -- no one in the league, really -- can be placed in the same category as LeBron James right now.
In the second half, James almost single-handedly matched the scoring output of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. He had 22 points, they had 25. Or rather, Duncan and Ginobili had 25; Parker didn't score in the second half.
A tight hamstring, fatigue -- who knows for sure what it was? But this wasn't the Parker who was an MVP-caliber player. He couldn't get past the Heat consistently -- especially when James guarded him -- and he refrained from shooting jumpers. His final line: 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting, with four assists.
Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook will return from the first major injury of his career; Golden State will benefit from this year's playoff run; the Clippers could be remade and better-coached if they ever finish negotiating with the Boston Celtics.
We don't know for sure whether Ginobili will be back, or how much longer Duncan can do this.
Popovich did his best to think of the accomplishments of this season. "I couldn't love our guys more," he said. "What they accomplished this year is something nobody would have expected."
But the way they went out wasn't what you'd expect from the Spurs. At least not the Spurs as we knew them.