SAN ANTONIO – A couple missed free throws cost the San Antonio Spurs last season's NBA title.
A few more misses — by their two best players — probably cost them a chance for a 2-0 lead in this year's finals as well.
Tony Parker scored 21 points and Tim Duncan added 18, but they went 0 for 4 from the foul line in a critical nine-second stretch of the fourth quarter, and those points loomed very large at night's end.
Final score: Miami 98, San Antonio 96.
"We can't miss four free throws in a row," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich lamented when it was over.
The Spurs finished 12 for 20 from the foul line, their third-worst showing from the stripe in 53 home games this season. That, and a whole lot of LeBron James, was simply too much to overcome.
James scored 35 points, Chris Bosh added 18 and the Heat would be flying back to South Florida with what they wanted — a split. Now home-court edge is theirs, meaning if they win three home games, a third straight NBA title will belong to Miami.
"It was a tough one," the Spurs' Manu Ginobili, who scored 19 points, said of the 0-for-4 stretch from the line. "I think we were up two. We've got a stop ... the opportunity to score four points when we get to the line and we missed all four. Yeah, that hurts. We were pretty poor from the line, 12 for 20. And in a game that is so close, that always helps."
Game 3 is Tuesday.
There were many factors why Miami won, like a video-game-level third quarter from James, a pivotal late 3-pointer from Bosh, a 14-point effort from Rashard Lewis and some outstanding interior defense down the stretch by Chris Andersen.
And for the 13th straight time, the Heat immediately followed a postseason loss with a victory.
"You have to play through doubt, which is a powerful thing," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You have to play through when it's going your way and you have to keep an even keel while somehow keeping a ferocity to your play. But the mental toughness starts two days ago of having to go through the film and trying to own what we could do better."
The Spurs seemed like they were threatening to run away from the Heat early. James and Dwyane Wade were both slow to get going offensively, San Antonio had an 11-point first-half lead and the AT&T Center was roaring.
But the Heat clawed back into a 43-all tie by halftime, and the second half was back-and-forth — with the last swing going Miami's way.
The Spurs had some costly foul-line misses by Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard in Game 6 against Miami last season, part of a wild Heat comeback from five points down in the final 28.2 seconds to force overtime and a deciding seventh game.
This stretch wasn't as dramatic, but just as costly.
Even though games are often remembered by one play — Ray Allen's 3-pointer that tied Game 6 of last year's finals with 5.2 seconds left in regulation being a prime example — coaches routinely say that winning or losing hardly ever comes down to a singular moment.
But when the Spurs look back on Game 2, it'll be that nine-second stretch that they regret most.
Miami guard Mario Chalmers was driving with 6:43 left when he elbowed Parker in the midsection, getting called for a Flagrant-1 foul. But Parker missed both free throws, and after Duncan was fouled nine seconds later he missed another pair from the line.
"It definitely affected me," Parker said of the pain from the Chalmers elbow, which left him writhing on the court for a few moments. "But I'm a little bit frustrated. Should have made them."
Nine seconds, four free throws, two Spurs leaders, zero points.
"It was a toughie," Ginobili said.
It wound up getting tougher a few seconds later.
On the ensuing Miami possession, James made a 3-pointer from the left wing, and the Heat had an 88-87 lead. Back and forth the teams went, but in the end, just like last season, the Heat simply found a way.
Just like that, San Antonio's run of eight straight home playoff wins — all by 15 or more points — was over.
And so was the Spurs' chances of boarding a plane on Monday halfway to a fifth NBA title.
"We will try to do better," Parker said.