SAN ANTONIO -- This was the chance to finish them off, to put the Heat in a 3-1 hole from which no victim had ever recovered in an NBA Finals. With 4:15 left Gary Neal pivoted out of a team huddle and threw a fist at no one in particular. He had heard he was coming out of the game. His Spurs were losing by 15 and that was that. The reserves were coming in and it wasn't going to happen Thursday night.
For the first time in weeks all of Miami's stars were playing like stars. They won Game 4 Thursday 109-93 to equalize the NBA Finals because the four of them -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen -- had outscored San Antonio all by themselves. It was as if a moment of truth had been revealed.
The Spurs gave credit to Miami while refusing to concede anything. Their disappointment was hidden in their stoicism. They are a unique dynasty that has won four championships, and yet they've gone starving since 2007 to win again. This was the chance to finish what they started when Duncan arrived 16 long years of contention ago. No one understood better than they how much harder it was going to be now that they'd lost this game.
"It's frustrating," said Manu Ginobili, who was 1 of 5 for five points. "We had a great opportunity, up 2-1."
While the Heat stars were reverting to form, the Spurs were left to curse the misfortune of Tony Parker's strained right hamstring. He provided 15 points and nine assists in 32 minutes, but during his scoreless second half he was 0 for 4 as the Heat trapped the ball out of his hands and yanked away this game as if they'd been teasing the Spurs all along. While James and Wade had been firing up one another in anticipation of this game they absolutely needed to win, Parker had spent the morning shootaround convincing coach Gregg Popovich to let him play.
"I just told Pop, let's see how it feels in the first quarter," said Parker. "And I told Pop I'll be honest with him if it doesn't feel good after the first quarter. We'll shut it down and not take a risk to get a tear."
Popovich was surely considering the bigger picture. He knew Miami's stars were going to respond to the humiliation of their blowout Game 3 loss two nights earlier. The Spurs would try to absorb the punches, but if they were knocked down in Game 4 then he wanted Parker to be able to get up and fight for the next three games. The panicky move would have been to go all-in with Parker in Game 4, but Popovich isn't the panicky type. He limited Parker's runs to six or seven minutes at a time before returning him to the bench, with the result that Parker never was able to establish the exceptional form that the Spurs need from him.
Not that he could have established it in this game anyway. The Spurs yielded 19 turnovers to Miami's tightening defense.
"It was kind of weak," said Parker of his hamstring. "I didn't know what to expect. So the first three, four minutes I was testing it, and the first half it felt OK. And the second half I think I got fatigued a little bit. But overall I'm just happy I didn't make it worse. That was the goal, to not try to get hurt, because Pop was not really happy -- meaning I wanted to play and took a little risk. So I'm happy I'm not worse."
That was the best news to come from this disappointing night that they'd waited so long for and worked so stubbornly to create for themselves. Duncan, 37, had lost weight and worked hard to rehabilitate his bad knee in order to renew the production that he used to take for granted. He was first team All-NBA this season, but in this game there weren't enough chances for him: 20 points on no more than 10 shots, and only five rebounds on a night when the Spurs were outrebounded 41-36 overall and 7-5 offensively.
Ginobili is averaging 7.5 points in the Finals while shooting 34.5 percent overall and 18.8 percent from the three-point line. His plus-minus impact has averaged negative-9.0 points per game. "Yes, I'm surprised," he said of his poor numbers. "I should score more, but it isn't happening."
He added, "I'm not feeling pressure that I have to score 20 to win. It is not who we are."
But it is who they were when they were winning their championships. The Spurs need at least one big game from Ginobili, now 35. "I think he's just trying to be incredibly unselfish right now," said Duncan. "He's trying to make the right play at the right time; he's trying to make the right pass, make the defense move instead of looking more for his own. We need him to be a little more aggressive, be a little more selfish maybe, and hopefully we can find him a way to get him to do that."
This would have been the game to bring out the old habits. Win this game with the old killer instincts and they would have had the Heat cornered and doubting themselves after two bad losses in a row. But this Miami team was never going to enable that to happen. Now, instead, the doubt has been refocused on the Spurs.
Of course, this series is there for them to seize. They can still win Game 5 and go to Miami needing to win one of the final two games. But that's going to be winning the championship the hard way against a team that is used to surviving and thriving when things get hard.
"Those two days," said Parker, looking ahead to the break before Game 5, "I'm going to make sure I do a lot of treatment and get to 100 percent. Tonight I was not 100 percent. By Sunday that's my goal, to be good to go."
They remained optimistic. They had turned the NBA Finals into a best-of-three, which is better than anyone would have guessed for the Spurs weeks or months ago. They still had a lot to play for and yet they had lost something along the way here Thursday night. It was the thought they put off to the side that was bothering them: The idea that they may look back one week from now and realize this had been their best chance.