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Fran Blinebury

San Antonio would join elite company if they can topple the Grizz after being down 3-1 in the series.
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NBA history should inspire Spurs to write own comeback tale

Posted Apr 27 2011 10:17AM

SAN ANTONIO -- Stranger things have happened. That's what the Spurs have to tell themselves.

Some of us have seen them up close. In fact, this is the 30th anniversary of one of the most memorable comebacks in league history.

It was the spring of 1981 and the Boston Celtics had dug themselves a 3-1 hole against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals. It seemed that Larry Bird & Co. didn't have a clue.

What they had was attitude. After the Celtics squeezed out a win in Game 5, a young Kevin McHale made a pronouncement before Game 6 to a few writers in Philly.

"They better win this one," McHale said. "It's their chance, because they know they won't have one in Game 7 in Boston."

In fact, the Sixers had more than a few chances in Game 7. The last came when a guard named Lionel Hollins made a steal and set up Maurice Cheeks for a pair of free throws in the final seconds. But with M.L. Carr standing by giving him the choke sign, Cheeks missed one of those shots and the Celtics completed one of the comebacks for the ages in the NBA with a 91-90 win.

In the spring of 1994 after the Houston Rockets had lost the first two home games of a playoff series to the Suns and given themselves a spark of life with a win at Phoenix in Game 3, I found Hakeem Olajuwon in the locker room prior to Game 4 and observed that the pressure was all on his team to get the series tied up that night.

"Here, have a seat," Olajuwon said as he pulled up a folding chair. "Let me explain it to you. The pressure is all on Phoenix. They must win tonight. If they do not and we tie the series, then they know they will lose Game 5 in Houston. Then they will have pressure just to stay alive in Game 6 in Phoenix and they know they don't have a chance in Game 7 on our home court."

The Rockets won in seven.

A year later in 1995, the same Charles Barkley-led Suns took a 3-1 lead on the Rockets in the West semifinals. This time the Suns held home-court advantage in the series and this time I figured I had Olajuwon boxed into a corner.

"So the roles are reversed and the pressure is all on you now?" I asked in the pre-game locker room.

Olajuwon looked up, remembered and said, "Where is your chair?" He sat me down again and smiled.

"Don't you see the pressure is all on the Suns tonight?" he said. "If they don't finish us off now, they know they don't have a chance in Game 6 back in Houston. Then the last thing you want to do is be the home team carrying all that pressure in Game 7. If you miss a few shots early, you feel it. Then it will all go away."

Obviously, all of Olajuwon's fanciest footwork wasn't done down in the low post.

The YouTube clips show Mario Elie burying his "Kiss of Death" jumper out of the left corner and the Rockets winning Game 7 on the way to their back-to-back titles.

The point of the history lessons is that all is not necessarily lost yet for the Spurs against Memphis in what has become the shocker of the first round . As much as it is about the Spurs needing to make shots, it can also simply be about believing or planting the seed of doubt in the other guy.

With all they have accomplished so far, the Grizzlies are still trying to become only the fourth No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 and only the second to do it in a best-of-seven set, joining the 2007 Golden State Warriors. The longer a series lasts, the more chances for the top dogs to find themselves.

For McHale, Olajuwon and others who have been in these desperate straits, sometimes it's about playing mental gymnastics inside your own head.

First, you unburden yourself and become free. You make a play, then you make another play. You win one game, then you win another game.

Pressure rides in and out like tides in the playoffs. A shift in momentum can come in on the next wave. The idea is to take that first step and give the team with the commanding lead the slightest reason to feel vulnerable.

The Spurs may not have the likes of Bird or Olajuwon in their prime. But Memphis is not a veteran team such as those Philly and Phoenix clubs that buckled under pressure. If it can happen to the Sixers and Suns, could it happen to the Grizzlies, who came within a desperate 3-pointer by Zach Randolph of dropping Game 3 on their home court?

If you're the Spurs, you tell yourself that the young, green Grizzlies have never been in this position before. You remember that you trailed the New Orleans Hornets 0-2 and 2-3 in the 2008 West semifinals and things looked bleak then. In all, the Spurs lost the first three games of the series played in New Orleans by margins of 19, 18 and 22 points and, at the time, everyone believed the that young Hornets were the team on the rise, ready to zoom right past the Spurs, who were one year removed from winning their last championship.

Then San Antonio won Game 7 in New Orleans.

So what do the Spurs do now in a position where 194 teams have been before and only eight have succeeded?

"We deal with the old cliché -- take it one game at a time," said Tim Duncan.

"We'll just go play," said coach Gregg Popovich.

Not because the comeback will happen, but because it can.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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