SAN ANTONIO — It’s still there, rattling around inside their heads like a ghost in the attic.
Whether you’re Danny Green willfully using the harsh memory as a painful everyday fuel or you’re Manu Ginobili trying hard to push it back into the shadows, it’s as much a part of what they take onto the court as their sneakers and jerseys.
Those 28 seconds at the end of Game 6 in the NBA Finals when the Spurs let a five-point lead over the Heat and a fifth franchise championship slip through their hands is now who they are and, maybe because of that, what they can be. Again.
They are the same old Spurs for whom the camouflage uniforms they wore against the Wizards were redundant, since nobody ever seems to notice them until they get to the end of yet another 50-win season. It’s a league record 14 in a row and counting.
These Spurs have won six straight, running their record up to 8-1, which trails only the unbeaten Pacers in a year after when it might seem natural to have a hangover.
“I’m sure it crosses everybody’s mind once in a while,” Green said. “I’m sure it gets brought up in a lot of conversations, not just with (media), but with mutual friends, family.
“This is a new year, a new season. You try to let that go, but I think it’s a good motivational tool that could keep us at it. February, March, sure. Let it keep pushing us.”
The veteran Ginobili takes the opposite approach.
“If somebody asks me, you can’t force not to remember it,” he said. “But if not, I’m just focused on … the next game and my health and the next game and trying to get better. I really don’t think about what happened last year.
“It’s something that we’re going to have in the back of our heads forever. It’s not that it’s going to leave. I still remember the semifinals I lost in 1997 with the Under-22 team (in Argentina) because it was a game like that. So it is going to stay there forever. You’re going to bring it when you need to, not on an everyday basis because it doesn’t help.”
What helps is simply getting back to the basics, getting back to what the Spurs do best, which is to play the game to their own selflessly exacting standard that comes together like a symphony.
“San Antonio runs offense perfectly,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat. “It was like listening to Mozart. It’s just ridiculous how they play.”
What would seem insanely impossible anywhere else is that the Spurs have sprinted out of the starting gate while other would-be contenders — Grizzlies, Nets, Clippers, Rockets — stumble, all with perennial All-Star Tim Duncan struggling to find his shot.
When Duncan went 1-for-12 against the Wiz, it was the third time this season that he scored a single field goal. He is shooting 32 of 83 (.386) to open his 17th NBA season and matched his single-game career low with two points. Nevertheless, the Spurs have trailed for a total of only 11 seconds in their last four wins over Golden State, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
It has been about Tony Parker setting the pace with his scoring, passing and constantly attacking style on offense, about Green getting back his shooting stroke following a bumpy start, Kawhi Leonard continuing to bloom and Ginobili coming back healthy and confident to begin the season. The Spurs are also getting production up and down the lineup from Tiago Splitter to Marco Belinelli to Boris Diaw.
While everyone on the outside keeps looking at the calendar and the clock and thinking that the time running out on the Spurs Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would make them lost in the fog of what got away last June, the point that’s missed is the sense of urgency they take into each season, each game, every possession at both ends of the court.
The Spurs simply keep playing the game according to the Xs and Os you would expect to see drawn up in a coach’s textbook, based on an organizational style and philosophy that is plainly demanding and with an inherent sense of responsibility to the whole.
“We don’t talk about it as a group,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “We did that the beginning of the year like we do every year. We start with the end of the season before, whoever knocked us out of the playoffs. We go through that film … We went over it in every single detail. We do it excruciatingly, honestly … We already did it, so there’s no sense doing it again.
“But you never forget that. I still remember 0.4 (when Derek Fisher’s 18-foot fadeaway for the Lakers beat San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2004 West semifinals). It goes through once every month or something.
“The Miami thing goes through my head every day. Pretty soon it will be every two days and then it will be every week and every month. That’s the way it is. Everybody remembers things good and bad. It’s not something to be dwelled on. Like I told the team, it’s just another episode in your life, one of the easier ones that you’ll face. When you think about all the things we have to face — family-wise and friends-wise and all that stuff. The things that go on in our lives, basketball, that’s a joke compared to the real stuff.”
Which is how the Spurs inch away from the past while keeping it within everything they do today.