Rick Carlisle stopped for a moment. He always pauses and stares into space for a split second before answering a question.
"Game 7 is the ultimate game. Ultimate in meaning, ultimate in challenge, the ultimate opportunity."
It felt that way, too, before the game started. There was a special feeling in the tunnels, around the locker rooms. Some of it is that the game has an early start, and everyone was drinking coffee before the pre-game pressers instead of soda. Undeniably, though, this game was different than the others.
The atmosphere wasn't electric, either. It was a bit tense, because everyone knew what was at stake. The writers -- all fans at heart -- were visibly nervous for their teams. People started asking each other "what do you think is going to happen?" but the conversations never lasted long, as no one could bear to say anything other than "anything can happen."
This nervousness, however, the tension, was only betrayed in small moments, in instants where a laugh or a quiet smile shifted momentarily into a blank stare. More than anything else, this game felt different because everybody was so damn light hearted. The arena wasn't electric because it was practically the opposite: it was laid back.
"I can't speak for the Spurs, but we're playing with house money," Mark Cuban said. Carlisle pointed out that, "at this point, overanalysis isn't necessary. It comes down to simplicity, to execution, hard play, and making those plays." Worrying, in essence, gets you nowhere now.
Even Popovich was light hearted and relatively jolly. He echoed Carlisle's sentiments. He was asked what he could tell his team, now, and he responds with, "nothing." He's asked what adjustments they need to make, and he says, "Nothing. It comes down to the guys playing. It's Game 7 of the series, and it's about the players, and they step up and they play."
As I went to my seat, way up in the rafters, it occurred to me that the atmosphere was so special because there was nothing left to do but hope. Nothing for the coaches to do, nothing for the media to do, and everybody was in the same boat. Everyone was busy laughing because there was no point in getting serious. They laughed because it was time to do or die, with nothing to do but wait and see.
The season was on the line, and there was no way to make the odds any better.
10 minutes passed in discomfort as I waited with nothing to kill the time, no laughter to diffuse the nerves.
When the team introductions started, though, when the national anthem was performed, then I found the electricity I was looking for. The AT&T center roared to life upon request from the jumbotron.
I've been to San Antonio for every game so far -- I live only a mile away in Austin -- and the atmosphere for Game 7 was unlike the atmosphere of any game prior. It was loud, it was energetic, it was aggressive, and it was frantic, on the edge of losing control. 2:30 start on a Sunday be damned, the fans of both teams demanded to be heard.
The Mavericks threw down alley-oops in the pre-game shootaround, and the Mavericks' starters sat in a long, close huddle for a few minutes on the sideline before the game started. This game was different. It was bigger. You could tell that, even if you didn't know ahead of time that it was a game 7.
Dirk hit the first shot of the game from the top of the key. It had begun.
Dirk's first shot excepted, though, the Mavs got off to another cold start, not that that's really anything new for this series. At any rate, some of the Mavericks' best games came on cold starts.
Dallas was working really hard to get Dirk and Monta going early, but to the extent that Dirk and Monta were taking a lot of hard shots. Add in the fact that the Spurs were getting the benefit of most foul calls (including a particularly egregious flop by Manu Ginobli that resulted in a Rick Carlisle technical foul and big momentum swing) and were hitting some incredibly difficult shots, and the Spurs came out to a big 12 point, 35-23 lead in the first quarter.
This was not one of the Mavericks' best games, however.
This was a slaughter.
This was a brutal murder.
The Mavericks' defense looked like it had all season, not like the playoffs, and the Spurs were at their best offense, finding open shooters, cutters, paths to the paint. Everyone on San Antonio was blazing hot, even if they were contested. Dallas couldn't stop anybody.
On the other side, the Spurs were defensive dervishes, whirlwinds of death and destruction. They denied every Maverick the ball on every possession, and the Mavericks were having a hard time initiating their offense and motions given that no one could get around anyone else. The ball stagnated. The Mavs turned it over on any even remotely risky pass, and every shot was contested.
The reffing was a problem, early, too, without a doubt. DeJuan Blair was called with a huge, and perhaps unfair, flagrant on a drive to the basket that caused a 4 point swing and started the Mavs' real slide into despair. The reffing wasn't even really in favor of San Antonio, it was just categorically awful, but the Blair flagrant was huge.
What was in the first quarter a "slow start" quickly became an unbearable, vicious surgery, executed with Spurs-ian precision and a parade of free throws. The blood of the Dallas Mavericks coated the San Antonio hardwood, and you couldn't hear their cries of pain through the indescribably loud roars of joy from the AT&T Center. What was once a sign of excitement, of energy, from the crowd became a sadistic mockery of the Dallas fans in the building.
The Mavs ended the half down by 22, 68-46, after a run by the Mavericks, which was almost somehow made more disheartening by the realization that the run actually had little to no impact on the actual game.
The second half was no better. The Mavericks came out into the third quarter with their three guard lineup, Jose-Devin-Monta with Dirk and center, and got out to a huge run to cut the lead to only 14. The Spurs countered with their own small lineup -- Kawhi at Power Forward and Diaw at Center -- and a run of their own.
From midway through the second quarter and on, the game was a Sisyphusian exercise in futility. Credit to the Mavericks, they didn't lay down and die. They never gave up the game. They failed to show effort from time to time on defense, but they never stopped running and working and trying.
They lost, but they continued to push that rock up the hill, no matter how many times that it rolled back down at them. They rolled the rock with a fury, an anger, that never got the rock any farther up the hill, but is worth no less of our admiration for failing to do so.
The final score was Spurs 119, Mavericks 96. Full box score can be found at nba.com.
There is something undeniably special about basketball. We're all fans for a reason. Game 7 is a high stakes, incredible environment, and atmosphere. Game 7 is, in some senses, what basketball fans live for.
This particular Game 7 was heartbreaking. Fine. It was miserable. Ok. It was made particularly painful by the fact that Game 7's are not supposed to be painful to watch, to be a miserable experience. They're supposed to be fun, and this wasn't, and that made this hard to deal with.
But remember: the Mavericks were not supposed to be here in the first place, either. These were the "Miracle Mavs," because they were destined -- so everyone said -- to be swept, or at most win one game.
Forget the game, for a moment, and instead remember how you felt before the game. Remember the awe, the energy, the unassuagable worry in the pit of your stomach that you desperately tried to laugh (or, maybe drink) away. That feeling is what the Mavericks gave us in this series. They gave us hope. They gave us promise. They gave us excitement. They entertained. They performed so far above and beyond expectations.
In defying our expectations, in flying in the face of what everyone said that they could or couldn't do, these Mavericks gave us a taste of something that we didn't think we could get; we tasted a potential outcome for this season that we hadn't dreamt of before the Mavericks started winning.
These Mavericks deserve to be proud, and they deserve us being proud of them. As cheesy as it sounds, they gave us a taste of a type of hope that we had abandoned at the start of the season, and they chased that hope with an intense, season-long fervor. These Mavericks didn't just lie down and die. They refused to do so, even in this game, where they were presumed to lie dead on the surgeons' table.
They flied in the face of expectations, they flied in the face of their own failure, and they embraced their own ability to do the impossible. That deserves our admiration, and it deserves our respect.
These Mavericks deserve to be thought of as the minor miracle that they were; that they are.