MIAMI — Historians might bring up the 1976 Game 5 triple-overtime affair between Boston and Phoenix. But no championship was on the line that night.
There was the 1974 double-overtime Game 6 between the Celtics and Milwaukee. But even ancient Tim Duncan wasn’t born then, so we’ll just confine this to A.D.: After Duncan.
With that in mind, a case could be made that Tuesday night’s battle at AmericanAirlines Arena was the greatest Finals game of the modern era.
“It’s the best Finals game I’ve ever seen,” Miami Heat center Chris Bosh said. “Just the ups and downs and the finish.”
Heat forward LeBron James didn’t disagree. He called it “by far the best game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Sure, James felt quite dandy after Miami mounted a dramatic last-minute comeback in regulation and defeated the San Antonio Spurs 103-100 in overtime in Game 6. That tied series 3-3 heading into Thursday’s Game 7 in Miami.
But losing coach Gregg Popovich also knows greatest when he sees it. Even after perhaps the most devastating defeat of his career, Popovich’s first words afterward were, “It was a hell of a game. It was a hell of a game.”
Making it that were the twists and turns, how much was at stake and the comebacks mounted by the Heat. They trailed by 13 points late in the third quarter before rallying to take a three-point lead entering the final two minutes.
Then they fell behind by five points with less than a half minute left. But they fought back to live for another game.
“The ups and downs, the roller coaster, the emotions, good and bad throughout the whole game,” James, who had a triple-double of 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, said of why it was the best game in which he’s ever played. “To be a part of something like this is something you would never be able to recreate once you’re done playing the game. And I’m blessed to be a part of something like this. And I’m happy about the way we dug down and were able to get a win.”
James, who scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime after he had shot just 3 of 12 for 14 points in the first three quarters, doesn’t throw around that kind of praise lightly. But he knows what it would have meant had the Heat lost Tuesday.
James’ legacy would have been tarnished due to having dropped three out of four Finals and not playing too great in this one. And there would have been talk had Miami lost about whether the Big Three would be broken up, namely with Bosh being dispatched.
Of course, the Heat aren’t home free yet. They still have to win Thursday. But home teams have won the past five Game 7s in the Finals, with no road team having broken through since Washington won at Seattle in 1978.
And the Spurs look spent. Big man Duncan, 37, might have turned the clock back by scoring 25 points in the first half and 30 through three quarters. But he looked very tired in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he didn’t score a single point.
“It’s obviously disappointing, having the lead that we went into the fourth with,” said Duncan, whose Spurs blew a 75-65 lead after the third quarter. “The opportunities we had to close it out.”
What really hurt was what happened after the Spurs led 94-89 with 28.2 seconds remaining, a lead that would have been six had swingman Manu Ginobili not made just one of two free throws. James then drilled a 3-pointer with 20.1 seconds left to make it 94-92.
After Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard split a pair of foul shots, James missed a 3-pointer with 8 seconds left. But Bosh grabbed the rebound and got the ball to Ray Allen, who made a dramatic 3-pointer from the right corner to tie the score 95-95 with 5.2 seconds left.
“It’s going to be a shot that I’m going to remember for a long time,” Allen said.
It figured that the adversity-loving Heat fell behind 100-97 with 2 ½ minutes remaining in overtime. But after Miami took a 101-100 lead, Allen stole the ball from Ginobili on a last-ditch drive. Allen then hit a pair of foul shots with 1.9 seconds left and Bosh blocked a Danny Green 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
“You write scripts like this,” Bosh said of all the twists and turns. “This is the stuff you think about when you’re a little kid.”
But how about this one? After the Spurs had taken their late five-point lead, a yellow rope was hauled out ready to be put up for what would have been their fifth championship celebration in 15 years.
“When they brought out that yellow rope and you know you’re not the one that’s going to celebrate, we kept fighting and believing,” said Wade, whose Heat are trying to win a second straight championship with the Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh after having lost to Dallas in the Finals during their first season together of 2010-11.
The Heat have fought back from adversity regularly the past two years. Last season, they became the first team ever to fall behind in three series and win the championship. This season, they’ve trailed in two series and now they will be playing a second Game 7.
But never has it gotten as dicey as it did Tuesday for Miami.
“We got fighters on this team,” said guard Mario Chalmers, who scored 20 points. “We got a lot of people that put a lot of, blood, sweat and tears to be in this moment. … A game like this, our backs to the wall, them leading with a minute left by (five). What more can you ask for if you’re a fan?”
When great Finals games are discussed, Boston’s 128-126 triple-overtime win over Phoenix in Game 5 in 1976 comes up. But that just gave the eventual champion Celtics a 3-2 series lead, so no team was fighting with a season on the line.
Two years earlier, the Bucks had their season in jeopardy. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made a skyhook with 3 seconds left in the second overtime and Milwaukee won 102-101 at Boston to tie the series 3-3. The Celtics, though, won Game 7 on the road.
But those games, back when the NBA was much less popular, were in the dark ages compared to sports these days. Adding to the aura of Tuesday’s game is how it will be dissected from every angle through mainstream and social media.
“To be a part of something like this, once you’re done playing this game, you would never be able to create a feeling like I had, we had, the fans had, (the media) had, people at home,” James said of the greatness of the game. “Never be able to recreate that.”
Well, maybe it can be recreated Thursday, when the stakes will be even higher.