The stage is set. Thursday night the Heat and Spurs will play for the NBA title but before we look ahead, let's look back at an epic Game 6.
1. Which play in Game 6 will you remember most?
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: When Chris Bosh yanked the ball out of the air after LeBron's jumper caromed off the rim. Ray Allen was still in the paint. Tracking Allen, it didn't look like he'd have a chance of scampering back behind the line. If he had run toward the sideline instead of backpedaling, he wouldn't have had the space to turn, catch and shoot. But Allen took three perfect steps backward at high speed, never once looking down. A master of his craft.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Ray Allen's game-tying 3-pointer. The footwork to get himself in position behind the line has been drilled into him over so many years that it's second nature, and yet it's still so beautiful to watch. It was an incredible play.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Shoeless Mike Miller's 3-pointer. There were about 20 memorable and hugely important sequences after that -- headlined, of course, by Ray Allen's OT-forcing 3 from the corner -- but the whole Miller episode sticks with me as one of the evening's first big momentum changers. It's a contrarian view, I know, but that's me. Sometimes.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: I tried to pick a cool, unsung moment, but there's no resisting the Ray Allen 3-pointer. It wasn't just the shock of the make and the comeback, all coming to a head. It was also the flawless form and the swish. That 3 was a perfect moment by which to remember an incredible career. The unsung moment to reference was Wade poking the ball away from Kawhi Leonard twice after LeBron missed a three with 26 seconds left.
Adry Torres, ESPN Deportes: I'd like to think of Ray Allen's 3-pointer because in that situation, I'm in favor of a quick foul when you're leading by 3 points. But Chris Bosh's block will forever be replayed in Finals history clips.
2. Did the Spurs let this win slip away?
Arnovitz: "Let" is a tricky word. Did the Spurs participate in events that led to their demise? You bet. They missed free throws and didn't secure the glass at decisive moments. The execution could've been better, but it wasn't the result of willful neglect or even carelessness. The Heat also made some huge plays and there were a fair share of random events.
McNeill: I'll say yes based on the free-throw shooting down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili each missed free throws late in the fourth quarter that could've put the Heat to bed. Tony Parker missed one in overtime as well. It didn't cost them the series, but it cost them a chance to close it out.
Stein: Uh ... yeah. League officials were in the process of wheeling the Larry O'Brien Trophy to the court in that final minute of the fourth quarter because the Spurs' late lead seemed unassailable. So many Spurs (Manu, Kawhi, Tony, Pop) had a hand in the unraveling, too. And, most of all, I can't remember a game -- ever -- that generated so much second-guessing of Pop. Resilient as the Heat were to hang in there, San Antonio will be rueing that one for a l-o-n-g time if it can't pull out Game 7.
Strauss: Post-game facial expressions don't lie? Manu Ginobili looked like he'd just chugged bleach. Yes, sometimes even the Spurs can flub it. Yes, they got unlucky, but even bad luck shouldn't be enough to undo a five-point lead with under 30 seconds left. San Antonio missed free throws and whiffed on defensive boards. Perhaps it was fatigue, but they certainly wrested defeat from the jaws of victory.
Torres: Coming into Game 6, I thought that the Spurs' worst enemy was the fact that a loss in Game 6 gave them a second shot. But that second shot is in a do-or-die setting. There's a number of reasons why they let this get away: (a) Popovich's biggest mistake was removing Tim Duncan from late in the third to the early going of the fourth quarter as Miami chopped down their deficit from 12 to 4 points, and (b) Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were kept in check.
3. LeBron James in the fourth quarter and overtime was ...
Arnovitz: Relentless, transcendent and, at times, even reckless. When LeBron bullied the Heat back into the game with those series of drives in the first half of the fourth, it looked like he was on track for one of the storybook individual performances in Finals history. Then when he coughed the ball up twice during the final minute, you could almost sense the material from 2011 being dug out and resurrected for a fresh run.
McNeill: Back and forth. He dominated for stretches and made sure everyone who was watching knew he was the best player in the world. Then he got clumsy and settled for mediocre shots. If Ray Allen hadn't sank that 3, I don't know how much criticism James would've been able to avoid.
Stein: Epic and mystifying all at once. He was so unexplosive through the first three quarters -- if that's a word -- that you started wondering if he was secretly injured. Then he lost his headband and turned into a rim-attacking demon. But what I want to know now is: How on Earth can he dare play with the headband in Game 7?
Strauss: Energetic. He was far from perfect, but he did deliver a mammoth effort in that fourth quarter. His late-game defense on Tony Parker was ferocious as well. You can fault the turnovers and fault the missed shots, but you certainly couldn't question LeBron's desire. He kept fighting and it's a huge reason why Miami came back.
Torres: Headband-less. LeBron has been the butt of the joke for his decision -- failing to accept he's going bald. He ditched the headband, led the epic comeback and the social media world just exploded. A triple-double wasn't too shabby, dropping 32 points, dishing out 11 assists and grabbing 10 boards.
4. This was the best playoff game since ...
Arnovitz: My first thought was the Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, but the basketball was awful that night, which wasn't the case in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals between the Spurs and Pistons in Detroit. Robert Horry's game-winner with the Spurs trailing by two, Tim Duncan's two-handed putback falling just short at the regulation buzzer, Chauncey Billups' huge night leading to Bruce Bowen playing fireman.
McNeill: Spurs-Warriors Game 1. Neither the Heat or the Spurs erased a deficit quite like the one San Antonio faced in Game 1 of their second round series with the Warriors, but Game 6 of the Finals had a similar back-and-forth quality to it. Allen's game-tying 3 in the fourth quarter is the closest we came to a signature shot in this game.
Stein: I've got ask you something, 5-on-5. Why do you always ask us this one? The last amazing game you saw is always the best. Always. Especially when it happens in the NBA Finals. I have to give you a Pop-esque answer because I'm too drained by the drama to give you a well-reasoned answer. I'm sure there have been great ones over the past decade that, at this hour, I simply won't remember. But I get a pass because a) it was an instant classic no matter where it ranks with all the members of this particular fivesome and b) I'm older than pretty much every 5-on-5 respondent except that David Thorpe character.
Strauss: Hey, it might be the best since the 1976 Suns-Celtics triple-overtime thriller. This was certainly the best NBA Finals game I ever saw, personally. I can't speak to the past, but I can speak to the Jordan era and beyond. "Best" is subjective, of course, but this was near-objectively the greatest Finals game from the 90s on. Lucky us, we get a Game 7 for an encore.
Torres: As a fan I think the NBA playoffs have lacked some excitement ever since that thrilling Golden State-Dallas series. Over the years there have been some games that have left us wanting more but Game 6 was on another level. From LeBron getting rid of the headband to the Heat rallying back. From the Spurs leading comfortably to Leonard missing free points to Ray's 3 to Joey Crawford holding up play after that bucket to the extra five minutes.
5. What's the biggest takeaway heading into Game 7?
Arnovitz: That the NBA has a tremendous product. It's not perfectly adjudicated and every game isn't a classic, but when the best players in the world excel at the biggest moments with this quality of production, NBA basketball is near-perfect entertainment.
McNeill: The Heat are now defending Danny Green. After setting the record for made 3-pointers in Game 5 and generally finding himself open on a lot of trips down the floor, the Heat clamped down on Green in Game 6. Limiting his looks takes away a lucrative source of offense for San Antonio.
Stein: That no one, after what we just witnessed, can possibly feel good about their prediction for Thursday night's finale in the 2013 What Next Finals. I said it before Game 1 and get to say it again leading into Game 7: You know it's going to be a good game (or series) when no one is making predictions with any conviction.
Strauss: As we saw in another fourth-quarter run, LeBron James keeps finding space when Dwyane Wade's on the bench. Given how San Antonio is defending James, Erik Spoelstra has quite the decision ahead. Trusting Wade paid off in Game 4, but it's become increasingly clear that San Antonio struggles more when facing four 3-point shooters (Bosh doesn't quite count). Related to that, don't be shocked if the Spurs bounce back to win this series. They dominated most of Game 6 with their defense on the space-starved Heat.
Torres: I'm going to go off topic here and say Nike's floral colorway of the LeBron X shoe with an insole(s) declaring LeBron's second NBA title before the series even ended. Not sure how may pairs Nike has produced but if Miami loses Game 7, sneaker aficionados will be hunting that shoe down.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz, Marc Stein, and Ethan Sherwood Strauss cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Adry Torres writes for ESPN Deportes. Andrew McNeill contributes to the TrueHoop Network.
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