-- 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.
"You always believe," said Parker of the failed final run. "You always believe you can win the game."
The Spurs need that same belief Sunday, when there will be a mixed bag of prior league precedence going both for and against them.
There have been only five instances in league history when a No. 8 seed upset a No. 1 seed, but none of those upsets came in a Game 7. Top seeds are 6-0 all time when forced to a Game 7 by the an eighth-seeded team.
Of course, history can be pretty much thrown out the window at this point of the Spurs-Mavs series.
Like how San Antonio ran its winning streak to 10 straight games against Dallas in the regular season and postseason combined when it won Game 1, becoming a distant memory after the Mavs stormed back to win three of the next five.
Or how the Spurs were 55-1 this season heading into the fourth quarter with a lead only to see the Mavericks outscore them 37-30 in the final period Friday to win the game.
Or in the case of those No. 8 seeds seeing their upset dreams die in Game 7, none of them ever had Nowitzki on their team. The Mavericks are 4-0 in Game 7s during Nowitzki's career. What's more, he's one of the best to ever do it in elimination games. Nowitzki's 22 points on 11-for-20 shooting in Game 6 made an impact, as he went for consecutive 20-point games for the first time this series, but it was actually below his own lofty standard. Coming into Friday, Nowitzki had averaged 28.9 points in 20 elimination games in his career, a scoring average that trails only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson and Jerry West in win-or-go-home scenarios.
Or how Popovich came into Friday with the best winning percentage in potential series-clinching games on the road in league history (.731), according to Elias, only to see his 19-7 all-time mark fall to 19-8. Something's got to give. And it will.
The Spurs have company in heading to a Game 7, of course: Clippers-Warriors, Thunder-Grizzlies, Pacers-Hawks and Raptors-Nets have all gone the distance.
"Everywhere around the league is tough teams," said Danny Green, who broke out of his series-long slump to score 17 on 7-for-7 shooting Friday. "There's a lot of Game 7s going on."
And as mentioned above, winning Game 7 has little incentive in store for the Spurs other than a chance to exhale, while it will be a major accomplishment for the Mavs, even making up to some degree for their own first-round collapse in 2007 when the Golden State Warriors did to them what they're trying to do to the Spurs.
"We're in a situation where we know what's at stake Sunday," said Dallas' Rick Carlisle. "They've got a great building, their fans are fantastic, but we've got to really just concentrate on us."
It's the same thing the Spurs will try to do -- or else stew on another Game 7 loss for months to come. One that in some ways, considering all the effort they put in to reestablish their dominance after the Heat broke their hearts, would be just as devastating a letdown.
"It is what it is, it's gone," said Duncan of the failed opportunity in Game 6.
It will be up to him and his teammates to make sure their season, and the dreams of redemption for that meltdown in Miami, stay alive.