In a sidebar to his piece on Game One of the Spurs-Lakers series, USA Today
writer Jon Saraceno placed that game's second-half meltdown fourth in a list of the 10 worst moments in Spurs history. At the time, I thought Saraceno's inclusion of Game One was premature. After all, a low moment only becomes memorable if it affects the ultimate outcome of a season.
In 2003, the Spurs repeatedly blew big leads in the playoffs. For instance, they squandered an 18-point lead at home against the Mavericks, thanks largely to some bizarre officiating, which sent the Mavs to the free-throw line 50 times (and the fact that Dallas made an uncanny 49 of those 50 attempts). For my money, that loss (which cost the Spurs their home-court advantage in the Western Conference Finals) was more brutal than the Game One defeat to the Lakers, but it was quickly forgotten because the Spurs recovered to win the series in six games.
When you win a title, the bumps on the road fade into obscurity. If the Boston Red Sox had rebounded to win Game Seven of the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner's Game Six fielding miscue would be a footnote rather than an eternal headline.
If the Spurs had followed last week's Game One collapse with three straight wins, how important would that game look today? Unfortunately for the Spurs, Saraceno's conclusion is hard to dispute in the wake of the Lakers' 93-91 road win in Game Four. It's more obvious than ever that the Spurs had no margin for error in this series. They're playing a confident, athletic team with the home-court advantage. They needed to grab the loose balls, hit the clutch free throws, make the accurate passes, and, yes, get the referee's calls, down the stretch. They had a remarkable chance last Wednesday to steal a game in Los Angeles and they blew it. That chance may not come again.
Of course, Saraceno's number-one pick for worst moment in Spurs history is Derek Fisher's buzzer beater in the final 0.4 seconds back in 2004. It's amazing that Fisher, an amiable journeyman at best, has now played a central role in two of the Spurs' greatest post-season heartbreaks. I agree with the consensus that the Spurs were outplayed last night and didn't deserve to win the game, but that has little to do with the logic of the refs who swallowed their whistles while Fisher landed on Brent Barry.
We all know that refs call the game differently in the final seconds (particularly in the playoffs) than they do in the first quarter, and I've never been able to get my head around that logic. In football, if a lineman jumps offside, it's a penalty whether it happened in the first minute or the last minute of a game. And if a runner is thrown out at first base, it doesn't matter whether it happened in the third inning of an April game or the ninth inning of Game Seven of the World Series. By the same token, a foul is a foul, and if the refs opt for the "let 'em play" approach, then let's stick to that philosophy for the full 48 minutes every night.
One final note about Saraceno's list: He left out at least one definite heart-on-the-floor moment for the Spurs: Dirk Nowitzki's three-point play in the final seconds of the Mavericks' Game Seven win in the 2006 Western Finals. If not for Manu Ginobili's foul on the play, it's likely that the Spurs -- not the Mavs -- would have played Miami for the NBA championship that year. Saraceno also included the Spurs' 1985 trade of George Gervin to the Bulls. While seeing the Iceman go was painful for sentimental reasons, it hardly qualifies as a low point for the franchise. Gervin only played one year for the Bulls before ending his NBA career. David Greenwood, the player the Spurs got in return, was no world-beater, but at least the team got three-and-a-half years of production out of him.