MIAMI (AP) - When the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the 2007 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan took time to find a young LeBron James and offer some quiet words of encouragement.
Six years later, it was Duncan who needed the comforting.
As he walked off the court after a valiant effort came up just short in Game 7 against the Miami Heat, Duncan was met by James and Dwyane Wade. The two victors hugged the proudest of these old San Antonio Spurs, who pushed them to the limit in defense of their title.
``He's one of the greatest of all time,'' Wade said of the 37-year-old Duncan. ``It's an honor to be able to go through this battle against him. And at his age, if I can still do that, I would have a hell of a career. So I just wanted to congratulate him and thank him for being the competitor that he is.''
Just as the pep talk Duncan gave James probably failed to sink in on that moment back in 2007, the admiration and respect offered him by two of the game's greatest players did little to help Duncan come to grips with the fact that a fifth championship had just slipped through his fingers.
They had so much to be proud of during an incredible run through the playoffs and they seemed to turn back the clock in challenging the Heat like they rarely have been challenged before. But in the hours after their 95-88 loss in Game 7, thinking back to all the doubters the Spurs once again proved wrong didn't help.
Looking at his stat line - 24 points, 12 rebounds, four steals - didn't help, either.
He had just watched James dominate the biggest game of the season with 37 points, the most painful of them coming on a jumper with 27 seconds to play after Duncan missed a point-blank putback that would have tied the game. And this all came less than 48 hours after the Spurs squandered a five-point lead with 21 seconds to play and lost in overtime in Game 6.
For a player who has spent 16 years keeping his emotions in check and guarding his privacy more ferociously than he protects the paint, it was all just a little too much to handle.
``To be at this point with this team in this situation, where people every year continue to count us out, is a great accomplishment,'' said Duncan, barely able to raise his head as his voice quivered in a rare moment of vulnerability. ``To be in a Game 7 or be in a Game 6 and up one with two chances to win an NBA championship, that's tough to swallow.''
Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich had been in big games like these last two so many times before. And they'd closed it out almost every time. Duncan and Popovich were going for title No. 5, Parker and Ginobili for their fourth.
They had the Heat on the ropes in Game 6, up five points with 21 seconds to go and the Larry O'Brien trophy getting wheeled their way. Then James hit a 3, a free throw was missed and the Spurs couldn't corral one last offensive rebound, leading to Ray Allen hitting the tying 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds to play.
The Heat prevailed in overtime, but the Spurs didn't let that disappointment keep them from challenging for 46 minutes of Game 7. They were down 90-88 when Kawhi Leonard hit a 3 with two minutes to play, but Duncan's potential game-tying tip-in rimmed out and James sealed the heart-breaking defeat with a jumper on the other end.
``We were five seconds away from raising that trophy and it just didn't happen,'' said Ginobili, who scored 18 points but committed two costly turnovers down the stretch. ``At this point it's very hard because we're all sad and disappointed. We were so close to winning it.''
The questions will start once again, just as they have almost since the Spurs last won the title in 2007. Will Ginobili return? Can Duncan keep turning back the clock? And does the 64-year-old Popovich have another year left in him?
``I can't believe you're asking that question,'' Parker snapped. ``It's been five, six years you saying we're too old, so I'm not going to answer that.''
Duncan said flatly that he will be back next season - ``I have a contract that says I am'' - and Ginobili said it was too soon to think about that.
``It's not the moment,'' Ginobili said. ``I'm very disappointed, very upset. I really can't say anything.''
Popovich said he will take some time to do some traveling and be with his family before he makes a decision. But he sure didn't sound like the kind of guy who was pondering riding off into the sunset.
``After a little while just getting up when you want to in the morning and really not having challenges gets a little boring,'' Popovich said before the game. ``You can only grow so many tomatoes and read so many books. You want to get busy, get competitive again.
``When I stop feeling competitive around September, then I'll hang it up.''
The Spurs have long resisted breaking up their core, so the possibility remains that all four will unite for one more rodeo in the Alamo City. Whatever happens, there will be a time that they can look back on this run, how they pushed the mighty Heat to the absolute brink, and smile.
But not today.
``I'm going to get a meal,'' Popovich said. ``I'm not going to think about next season. I'm going to enjoy what they accomplished this season and feel badly about the loss all at the same time. I don't know how you do that, but I'll figure it out.''
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