The championship stage had been set - literally - and was being pulled into position for the most unexpected of San Antonio Spurs celebrations. The yellow tape that only comes out in title time was being unraveled, officials at American Airlines Arena planning to block the many Miami Heat fans who may have grabbed LeBron James by the shoulders and asked him how he let this happen. And then Ray Allen happened, his scissor-kick three from the right corner with 5.2 seconds left in regulation sending the crew, the tape and the stage back into hiding in what would become the Heat's 103-100 overtime win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
The Spurs may not be far behind them.
Gregg Popovich has a habit of reminding the masses that this truly is a game of centimeters, that one play can be the difference between being the champion or merely the final victim. On that one play that led to overtime, that miracle shot that kept the Heat's dream alive and eventually forced a Game 7 on Thursday, everything the Spurs had fought for was compromised by the smallest of failures.
Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili stood for a moment too long as James' three-pointer caromed off the rim, with Chris Bosh grabbing the rebound and finding Allen alone in the corner. Tony Parker rushed his way a little too slowly, rising up along with Allen but unable to get a finger on the shot that changed everything.
These were but a few of the items on San Antonio's laundry list of lost opportunity, the moments that will haunt them in the coming months and years if they aren't able to respond on Thursday for Game 7. A five-point lead with 24 seconds left should be enough, but here they are faced with so much frustration and doubt. And, as Ginobili admitted after, his Game 6 was as disastrous as his Game 5 had been dominant, a good, old-fashioned crisis of confidence.
"I was very insecure - well, I had a career high in turnovers (eight) in a really bad moment," Ginobili said. "It really helps to make me feel terrible. Even with all that, we were so close of winning it. So it's one of the many things I'll be thinking tonight.
"I have no clue how we're going to be re-energized. I'm devastated. But we have to. There's no Game 8 afterwards."
Duncan's early greatness had led to Parker's late heroics, and it seemed the Spurs had fully understood how tough it would be to get this done in a Game 7 on the road. But the team that is so known for its execution, for minimizing mistakes when the moments matter most, fell apart in ways its members may soon regret.
• Two missed free throws in the final minute of regulation - one from Ginobili and the other from Kawhi Leonard that ruined his otherwise incredible night (22 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, no turnovers).
• The offensive rebound off a badly missed three-point attempt from James that gave him a second try and - when he buried it deep on the left wing - cut the lead to two with 20 seconds left. The ball bounced off of Leonard's fingertips twice and Boris Diaw's once, then fell into Allen's right hand, was scooped over to Mike Miller and dished to James for his face-saving shot. (His two terrible turnovers in the final minute threatened to overshadow what was his most dominant quarter of the Finals as he scored 16 of his 32 points in the period.) There was luck in there, but failure too, and Allen finished the play that added to his already-impressive legacy.
• Even Popovich found himself being questioned: He took Duncan out on defense for the possessions where James and Allen each hit their second-chance threes.
"It's what we've done all year," Duncan said of the situation. "In a situation where we were going to switch a lot of things (defensively, it was) just unfortunate the way it happened. We got a stop, and we got a bad bounce, and (Bosh's pass went) right out to Ray Allen for a three. Just situational."
Popovich's choice to have Parker on the bench for the final 31 seconds of overtime came under scrutiny as well, especially considering the way his point guard had nearly finished the game on his own in regulation. Popovich sat Parker numerous times down the stretch for defensive purposes so the Spurs could switch on pick and rolls without risking a mismatch.
"I don't know," Parker said when asked about the decision. "Me personally, I trust Pop. Whatever decision he makes - I was cramping a little bit at the end of the game. ... But I'll go with whatever Pop decides."
When Popovich was asked why he didn't have his team foul at the end of regulation rather than risk giving up the three, he fired back, "That's a European question, right?" The international reporter replied, "Yes. We usually do in Italy and Europe, anyways." To which Popovich said, "Right. We don't."
• Last and certainly not least: Ginobili. The turnover with 44 seconds left in overtime with the Spurs trailing 101-00, a telegraphed pass from the baseline to James near the free throw line; his furious drive through the lane on the Spurs' final possession where the whistles stayed silent and Ginobili had his new career high in turnovers.
James may be the one who's known for the memory that never forgets a play, but each and every one of these will be burned on to the minds of each and every Spurs player and coach should they falter in Game 7. Long after they were gone for the night, when the yellow tape was put away and the stage saved for another day, an arena employee rolled a cart full of ice and champagne back into the refrigerator from whence it came.
Someone will be toasting on Thursday night. And if it's not the Spurs, this will go down as the night they let the title slip away.