DALLAS -- So here is where the San Antonio Spurs find themselves once again. Back in a Game 7 after seemingly having control late in Game 6. Back to the brink when victory seemed at hand. Back to trying to shut out the questions, the doubt, the uncertainty that comes with having something wrapped up only to see it slip away.
Back to trying to convince themselves that they'll have a clean slate when they host the Dallas Mavericks at home on Sunday after Friday's 113-111 road loss knotted their first-round series 3-3.
The stakes aren't nearly as dear as the last Game 7 they played, against the Miami Heat back in June, of course. The prize? Merely a chance to advance to the conference semifinals to play a growing-by-the-day Portland Trail Blazers team. A moment of relief, really, more than a moment that would have lived forever, getting to lift that Larry O'Brien trophy once again.
All that work the Spurs put in following the Miami letdown led to them holding home-court advantage throughout the playoffs thanks to a league-best 62-20 record. They just didn't expect to be needing to cash in on that achievement so soon.
"It doesn't guarantee you anything," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of the AT&T Center venue for their final showdown with the Mavs. "We've won Game 7s and we've lost Game 7s."
Before we get to the implications for Sunday, here's how the Spurs lost Game 6.
Despite giving up 34 points in the first quarter on Friday, despite seeing Manu Ginobili suffer through maybe his worst game since that failed Game 6 against Miami, despite their vaunted bench getting outplayed by the 37-year-old Vince Carter and the energizing DeJuan Blair, the Spurs still had their chances.
After trailing by as many as 11 in the second quarter, the Spurs methodically worked their way back in it. Tiago Splitter hit his free throws, going 11-for-12 from the line. Tony Parker went nose-to-nose with Monta Ellis, finishing with 22 points to Ellis' 29. Tim Duncan was as efficient as ever, putting up 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting with nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Nearly halfway through the fourth, the Spurs led by four. Parker had made a couple of momentum-saving jumpers, one on the baseline after scrambling down court following a jump ball that San Antonio secured, the other a dead-eye 3-pointer that came on the heels of consecutive buckets by the Mavs.
Dallas went ballistic from there, reeling off a 14-2 run in 3½ minutes thanks to Blair (10 points, 14 rebounds, four steals for the game) and Ellis and Carter making shots to give the Mavericks an eight-point lead with 2:59 to go.
The Spurs gave it one last shot, cutting it back to one with 49.9 seconds remaining following a pretty step-through layup by Parker around Dirk Nowitzki. And again, pulling within two with the ball when Ellis threw it away out of bounds with 1.3 seconds left. But with no timeouts remaining, Boris Diaw's full-court pass to Duncan was broken up by Ellis. By the time the Spurs got to reset from the sideline where the ball went out, the 0.4 seconds left wasn't enough to set up a potential game-winning shot. Patty Mills tried a 3 on a catch-and-shoot that fell short, but it wouldn't have counted anyway if it went in.