The rope was being laid along the baselines, a braided border signaling finality, a familiar indicator of the revelry to come. Security guards crouched along it. Somewhere, just out of sight, the Larry O'Brien trophy awaited its reunion with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich.
Twenty-eight seconds were left on the clock Tuesday night when the NBA began prepping for the San Antonio Spurs' coronation - their first in six years, their fifth since 1999. The lead was 94-89. The Miami Heat were wheezing, their fans turning away in despair.
Legacies were hurriedly being revised and enhanced —Duncan's legend growing, LeBron James' shrinking. The end was that close.
The trophy never did see the court, its moment postponed by Ray Allen's shooting stroke, by James' stubborn insistence, by Chris Bosh's spiteful palm.
The Heat wiped out the deficit on two shots, spaced 15 seconds apart, then overpowered the Spurs in overtime, taking a 103-100 victory that will rank among the greatest games in finals history. The series is tied again, 3-3. The championship will be decided here Thursday night.
James, his much-debated legacy still intact, posted a triple-double and led the Heat back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, leaving no doubts about his will or his intent.
Every player, coach and team official looked spent afterward - the Heat exhausted and giddy, the Spurs simply shattered.
James was shaky early and brilliant late, scoring when he had to, feeding open teammates and shutting down Parker down the stretch. Mario Chalmers was vital, with 20 points. And Bosh was absolutely essential, with two huge blocks in the final minute, including a swat of Danny Green's 3-point attempt at the final buzzer.
"It's a hard one to shake off," Green said. "We're going to have to."
Duncan scored 30 points, his highest total of the postseason, but he went scoreless in the fourth quarter and overtime. Parker had 19 points and eight assists, but he missed a 12-footer at the regulation buzzer, and his shot was blocked by Bosh in the final minute of overtime. And Ginobili, whose re-emergence keyed the Spurs' Game 5 victory, this time undermined their chances with eight turnovers. "I have no clue how we're going to be re-energized," Ginobili said. "I'm devastated."
Seconds away from a championship, the Spurs are faced with a Game 7 and a truly daunting task. No road team has won a Game 7 in the finals since 1978. Five others since then have failed.
The Heat are now 7-0 in this postseason after a loss. But to claim the title, they will have to win consecutive games - a feat they have not accomplished in weeks, having alternating wins and losses for 13 straight games.
Over to Thursday.