Ten rows behind the bench, the architect of these San Antonio Spurs had watched LeBron James closing hard, the shot clock lurching to its end and Tony Parker losing his balance and dropping to his knees. Parker's tumble promised to be a painful twist in the Game 1 plot, his dribble alive but hope fading fast.
"How the hell is anything good going to happen from this?" Spurs general manager R.C. Buford remembered thinking to himself within an hour of the Spurs' 94-88 victory here in the opener of the NBA Finals.
As a kid in France, Parker had been mesmerized with the Harlem Globetrotters. "I loved Curly Neal," he told Yahoo! Sports late Thursday. For a moment with Game 1 of the NBA Finals on the line, Parker became him.
He had become so discombobulated on his dribble, nearly losing control once – and again – before slipping and dropping to his knees before King James.
And once Parker had gone down on the right side, James' instincts were immediately to lunge, grab the ball and force a jump. He had expected Parker to lose his dribble, clutch the ball and spare the Spurs a turnover inside the final 10 seconds and Heat trailing by two points.
Out of room, out of time, this was the Heat's chance to get back the ball for a final shot at redemption.
Only, with barely air between the bounce and the floor, Parker never lost his dribble. James had Parker – 7 inches shorter – trapped, and it felt like that shot clock should've run out. "The longest 24 seconds that I've ever been a part of," James said.
Back on his feet, Parker still had nowhere to go and Tim Duncan was praying that somehow, someway his point guard could get a shot over James and reach the rim. "I was trying to work [Chris] Bosh up the lane a little bit, so I could get back to the board," Duncan said.
As Parker climbed to his feet and finally picked up his dribble, James held his arms straight in the air. Parker couldn't see the rim. There was no time to pass the ball and James was smothering him. James called his defense "a great contest," until something surprised him.
"He went under my arm," James said.
Parker ducked under James' out-stretched arms and pumped once, pumped again as his weight thrust him forward now. The shot clock had reached one second left, and Parker finally finished his pump fake, leaned beneath that arm and lobbed a jumper destined high on the backboard to give Duncan a chance to chase it down.
The ball left his fingertips and the red light blinked on the backboard. "It felt good when it left my hand," Parker said, and soon the shot had hit the glass, the rim and dropped into the net. The referees had to watch the replay to be sure, but the ball had left those fingertips with .001 seconds left on the shot clock and Parker had punctuated the most improbable shot of his peerless performance.
History will remember it as one of the great shots in NBA Finals lore, especially if the Spurs win this championship.
"Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession," James said.
In that wild final possession – on a night Parker had 21 points, six assists, two steals and no turnovers – there was the Frenchman's career in a capsule: What started out wild and untamed turned into something so polished and poised in a pressure moment. This is the headlining job Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave Parker two years ago. For everything Duncan had been to these Spurs, they belonged to Parker now.
"Get me my fifth ring," Duncan tells him over and over.
Parker loves the burden, the responsibility and embraces it. For all the discussions of legacies in these Finals – from Duncan to James, Popovich to Pat Riley – there's Parker chasing his fourth championship and perhaps his second MVP of the Finals. To elevate these Spurs over the Heat, there's a case to be made that Parker's the greatest European player to ever come to the NBA.
From a 19-year-old who endured the harshest of Popovich indoctrinations to this 31-year-old controlling these playoffs like there isn't a point guard on the planet worthy of him. Over the summer, two events galvanized Parker: Nearly losing his eyesight when shards of glass injured him in a nightclub melee; and thrusting France into the Olympic Games for the first time in his career.
One reminded him how precious and precarious a basketball career can be, and the other reminded him how strong his shoulders are when it comes to lifting a team upon them. Miami sent James for him in Game 1, and Parker never let him have his way with him.
"I knew he was coming," Parker said.
It didn't matter. Before James got a chance at the ball, within two points with five seconds left on Thursday night, Tony Parker took him on a tour of American Airlines Arena.
Those 24 seconds felt like the longest of James' basketball life, and that's because Parker tortured him all the way to the bank shot that secured a Game 1 victory, that secured one more heroic basketball night for Parker. Sometimes, winning and losing can come down to something so minimal – an inch, a second – and this vanquishing of the Heat had come to all of them for the San Antonio Spurs.
After Parker hustled into the winning locker room, his teammate, Gary Neal, told him: "I'm glad you clipped your nails today."
A tenth of a second, a lunge beneath the arms of LeBron James, and Tony Parker had made the man responsible for drafting him all those years ago marvel over the magnificence of the moment behind that Spurs bench.
How in the hell is anything good going to happen from this? After all these years, all these performances and finally an immense Game 1 victory over the Miami Heat, Buford understood the answer. How? Tony Parker never lost his bearings, never lost the ball and, and most of all, never lost his belief.