The two-time defending champions are on the ropes.
And that’s not simply via a decision — no, not like “The Decision” that took LeBron James from Cleveland to Miami — but rather, following a couple of big-time knockdowns on the Miami Heat’s home turf, that the champs never saw coming. The San Antonio Spurs’ debilitating blows left the Heat dazed, staggered and searching for answers.
“This was probably the biggest surprise of the series,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said, after witnessing San Antonio dismantle his team for a second straight game in Miami.
This time, it was a 107-86 pasting on Thursday night that gave the Spurs a commanding 3-1 lead in a 2014 NBA Finals which seem to be on the verge of ending a lot sooner than most believed it would.
Spoelstra added, “I think everybody expected something different than this.”
Everyone except for San Antonio, maybe.
All that’s left now is for the Spurs to deliver the knockout punch back home after taking their own talents to South Beach, where they made history as the first team to win consecutive NBA Finals games on the road by at least 15 points.
It was one thing to crush the Heat once. But to do it for a second game in a row was particularly impressive, given that until Game 4, Miami had gone 48 straight games without losing two playoff contests in a row (just six games short of the NBA record).
While James led all scorers with 28 points on efficient 10-of-17 shooting, the Heat – which only had three other players barely reach double figures, but with none of them scoring more than 12 points – shot a pedestrian 45.1 percent (32-for-71) while being dominated in the paint, 46-30.
Conversely, the Spurs, the ultimate purveyors of exemplary team execution and communication, played 13 players, and had each of them score, led by forward Kawhi Leonard‘s 20 points (on 7-of-12 shooting) and a game-high 14 rebounds, and 19 points from Tony Parker (who was 8-for-15).
“Great ball movement,” Leonard said, keyed the Spurs’ offense, which shot 57.1 percent (40-for-70) while producing a dozen more assists (25-13) than the Heat’s. “We’re knocking down shots, so we’re keeping their defense honest.”
At 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, forward Boris Diaw (who was only two points and a rebound shy of recording a triple-double) had a game-high nine assists, as many as Miami’s starting backcourt of Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, and just two fewer than all of the Heat’s starters, combined.
San Antonio also played lockdown defense, especially in the opening half, while building leads of 26-17 after the first quarter and 55-36 by halftime. From there, Miami got no closer than 61-48 early in the third quarter.
Parker had a simple yet accurate take while wondering how the Heat never made a serious run.
“I just think that we’re playing Spurs basketball right now,” Parker said. “We’re clicking… I’m kind of surprised that we’ve been holding those [big] leads because it’s really tough [to do that in the NBA].”
Perhaps the biggest reason San Antonio seems poised to win its fifth league title (and first since 2007) is the pervasive attitude throughout the Spurs’ roster that stems from head coach Gregg Popovich.
Even after the Spurs went to Miami with the series tied, 1-1, and embarrassed the Heat in Games 3 and 4, Popovich said, “Now we’ve got to go back home and play as well or better.”
If there’s yet another level that San Antonio can get to in Game 5, it might not be worth it for the Heat to board a plane to Texas.
As another example of always keeping the Spurs focused on the right things, Popovich answered a post-game question about future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan (10 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes) setting two career playoff records — most minutes (8,852, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and most double-doubles (158, passing Magic Johnson) — on a single night by saying, “I can assure you he doesn’t care.”
And he’s probably right.
The only numbers that Duncan was likely concerned with were: Spurs 3, Heat 1.
Well, those and the ones from last year’s Finals (Heat 4, Spurs 3), which San Antonio was seconds away from wrapping up.
“We just have to think about last year,” Parker said. “We don’t need more motivation than that.”
So far, recalling the bitter disappointment of last season’s Finals has driven the Spurs all season long – to the NBA’s best regular season record, and now, to within a game of adding to their already well-stocked trophy case.
But San Antonio is far too savvy, experienced and has been in the business of winning for much too long to get overconfident before its mission is complete.
“Every closeout game is very difficult,” Popovich reminded his squad.
Popovich will be sure to have his team forget the overwhelming odds against suffering a collapse and losing the series.
He’ll be sure that the Spurs ignore the fact that with Popovich as their coach, they’re a perfect 10-0 in best-of-7 playoff series when taking a 3-1 edge; that teams with such leads in the NBA Finals have never lost in 31 of those occasions; and that in the NBA playoffs overall, only eight teams (most recently, in 2006) have won a series in the 221 times a team has led 3-1 (although Popovich won’t let San Antonio know it, that’s only 3.6 percent).
“We put ourselves in a position where it’s about making history,” James said. “I do know the numbers, it’s never been done before. We’re still a confident bunch even though our heads are down right now.”
James added, “The series is not over. We’ve got guys with too much pride to start thinking about that.”
However, the Heat certainly didn’t play that way, even in a place that before Game 3, Miami had normally excelled in over the past two years, en route to its back-to-back championships.
Despite maintaining his optimism, James acknowledged of the Spurs, “They smashed us, two straight home games. They were much better than us, it’s just that simple…they’re a high-oiled machine.”
Seemingly, one that can no longer be stopped until the Spurs knock out the champs for good, and take the title back for themselves.