The Finals, Vol. 2

Playing at Home, even when you’re away

Welcome back to The Last Chip, the newsletter where I share stories and lessons from behind the scenes of The Big Three’s last championship season. This is a free post, but if you want access to every issue of The Last Chip—and if you want the chance to talk with me directly in the comments—you should become a paid subscriber.

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I wanted to open this with a good metaphor. Because I can talk—I have talked—about what it feels like to lose at home in the playoffs. But losing the first game of the Finals? It’s hard to find anything that actually compares. 

We spent every day of the season fighting to get home court advantage. That’s what motivated us during our 27 game winning streak. And it’s why we played hard until our final game. And then, with one crazy shot from Tony Parker in Game One of the finals, our home court advantage vaporized.

That’s one of the strangest, most frustrating parts of the Finals: Inevitably, you’re going to find yourself in situations you don’t want to be in. I mean, really: Tell me a shot you’ve seen that’s been anything like that one. I won’t hold my breath.

It was a dramatic loss, mostly because we didn’t feel like we’d done anything to make it happen. It just...happened to us. Which isn’t any better.

That meant Game Two was a must-win. Because San Antonio was tough to beat under any circumstances—and beating them in their house is even harder. So we practiced and rehabbed and watched film, and we found strength thinking about our crowd, knowing that if we didn’t step up, it could be our last time playing in front of them. 

Thankfully, we brought our A game; and when I say we, I mean everyone: Bron owned the boards, Ray peppered in the outside shots while D assisted, and Rio started cooking. I focused on things closer to the rim, fighting for rebounds on both ends of the court while putting up shots I felt confident in. They were falling—a lot of ours were. When you feel like your own game is slotting into a steady rhythm, it’s usually because the same is true of the rest of the team. But the score was still close at the half, so the feeling in the locker room was like that of a business meeting: sheets being passed around, some guys talking, some silent, all of us staying focused. In the finals, if you’re up ten, you want to win by twenty. We spent the rest of the game pulling steadily ahead, until we did exactly that.

There wasn’t much of a celebration, though, because we were heading to San Antonio, which very well might be the most difficult basketball town in the world. Let’s start with the stadium: The AT&T Center is next door to a barn. Seriously—the SA Rodeo is a half-mile away from where the Spurs play their games. It even shares a parking lot with their practice facility, where we had our shootarounds. So the minute I knew we were going to be facing them, one of my first thoughts was: That’s a few hours in the bug den. The horseflies from the stables like to migrate onto the court. It’s hard enough to stay focused in the run-up to a game. Imagine trying to do it with insects zipping around you.

And here’s some buzz (sorry) on the team itself: San Antonio’s not dirty, but they certainly are physical. There’s a reason Tim Duncan made that turnaround hook off the glass for 20 years: he’d gladly put an elbow in your face, throat and chest while doing it. That’s the Pop ethos: give it to ‘em nasty. The fans feed on that. They start wanting blood during warmups.

Before we faced any of that, though, I had something else to worry about: We were going to my home state, and I had to get some family into the game. Not just Adrienne and the kids—three, back then. I have relatives in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. I’ve even stayed at that exact same hotel, bugs and all, on childhood trips to visit my aunts and uncles and go on the rides at AstroWorld, way back before Six Flags bought it. So, in some ways, away games in San Antonio felt like I was going home. 

During the season, getting tickets for family members was easier. Depending on where you are, you’ll get two to four automatic comp tickets. But the playoffs are a different story. Everyone thinks the bigger the game, the more tickets there are. Wrong. No matter who you are, it’s tougher to put someone in a seat if you don’t share blood or a home with them. This problem came up a lot—every Finals I played with the Heat was in or around my home. Luckily, I was tight with our PR team, and they hooked me up. And I’m glad they did, because having family in the stands has always been crucial to me. Whether you’re on the bench, in the huddle, or running the baseline, glancing over to find them cheering you on is one of the biggest shots of energy you can get.

We were going to need a lot of those. Heading into Game Three, the Spurs were guaranteed to have a major emotional response. We knew what it was like to head home to a raucous crowd after a big loss. And then, from the moment of tip onward, we faced an early storm. Weathering it meant getting comfortable with the fact that they might very well hop out to a quick lead.

Turned out, it wasn’t so quick. The Spurs’ own big three—TD, TP, and Manu—had been quiet the last game, but they slipped right back into facilitating guys we weren’t even expecting to dominate. Danny Green and Gary Neal (who the Spurs had picked up from FC Barcelona—the basketball team) sunk three after three, while Kawhi nailed us down on defense. Remember when I said halftime should be silent? This one was too quiet, even though we had managed to slice their lead to six. We were biting our nails, waiting for the second half to start.

But when it did, it wasn’t any better. The Spurs pulled ahead and didn’t stop. It’s hard to stay determined when the guys you’re facing are that many steps ahead of you. Everything the Spurs were doing so well—moving the ball, finding the open man—they were doing even better at keeping us from doing. They went up by ten, then by twenty, and in the end, they won by even more. Again, it’s hard to find a good metaphor for losing like that. The only thing it felt like was playing five-on-six.

We already knew what the next day was going to look like. By now, so should you: an unhappy Spo, letting us know exactly why he felt that way. He was also going to be embarrassed. We all were. And in practice, we’d have to toe the line between waking ourselves up without punishing our bodies.

But right after the game, I didn’t want to think about any of that. So I repeated what I did after our tough loss in Round 2: I got in the car and got myself a burger. And in Texas, you don’t go to McDonalds. You get Whataburger. Bacon Cheeseburger. Fries. Think. Think the whole two-AM drive back to the hotel room, all the way into bed. Think about the loss, sure, but try your best to think about anything else, too—not to run away from your problems, but to keep from obsessing over them. Because at that hour of the night, you can’t let things get truly dire.

We were down 2-1, we were going to be in San Antonio for another week, and I had to stay grounded, in my own skin. Even if that skin was getting feasted on by the flies.