SAN ANTONIO -- It's as if a new best-of-three NBA Finals is under way. The four games so far, as important as they've been, were the prologue. Game 5 on Sunday becomes the most important game of this NBA season -- played on the Spurs' homecourt, with the momentum leaning hard toward the Heat.
"It is a must‑win," said Tim Duncan of the final game his Spurs will play at home this season. "We don't want to go back down there down a game with two games remaining at their house. Huge pressure if we have to go back there and try to win two."
Back and forth these Finals have gone, a win by the Spurs answered by a win by Miami. For the Heat that trend has carried on for two series now.
"Enough is enough for our team," said LeBron James of the Heat. "I'm not saying it's going to result in us having a win, but we need to play with the same sense of urgency as if we were down 2‑1 or whatever the case may be. And we can't wait around."
All of the storylines and trends have been reset. This Finals was hyped as a matchup of Hall-of-Fame trios. The hype has turned out to be true. The difference is that we know more about the matchup than before the series began.
The certainty coming out of Game 4 was that the Heat trio had finally found a way to peak at the right time as James (33 points), Dwyane Wade (32) and Bosh combined for 85 points while impacting the game at both ends. The question now is whether the Spurs' trio was capable -- on their own terms -- of providing a similar impact.
Duncan at 37 is averaging 13.3 shots, which is at least three fewer than he averaged in any of his previous four NBA Finals (16.3 shots per game in 2007 vs. the Cavaliers, 18.4 vs. the Pistons in '05, 18.2 vs. the Nets in '03, and 19.0 vs. the Knicks in '99). Neither he nor 35-year-old Manu Ginobili appears likely to carry the team as in previous championship years.
Ginobili has been giving the Spurs 7.5 points per game while converting just 18.8 percent of his threes. With his contract expiring this summer, he may be entering his final game in San Antonio, and the enduring pride and stubbornness of Ginobili and his famed teammates may yet be a crucial influence on the outcome of Game 5.
"He came through for us all those years, and I just have confidence in him," said Tony Parker of Ginobili. "You have to have faith he's going to have a big game. So me, I just trust him, because I've been playing with him for so long."
The most important storyline of all for the Spurs has been the potential of Parker to dominate the series with his penetrating ability to control the tempo. Apart from Game 1, which he clinched with the most memorable play of the Finals, he has not made the necessary impact. When the Spurs were overwhelming Miami with their three-point shooting in Game 3, Parker was in the trainer's room receiving treatment on his strained right hamstring. He was unable to keep up with the Heat's stars in Game 4.
"My hamstring can tear any time now," said Parker on Saturday. "So if it was the regular season, I would be resting like 10 days. But now it's the NBA Finals. If it gets a tear, it's life."
It would also be the end.
The equalizer for the Spurs has been their three-point shooting. They've shot better outside the arc (45.1 percent) than within; they've made 50 percent of their threes each of the last two games and yet were only able to manage a split because of turnovers in Game 4 along with the dominance of Miami's Big Three and the second-half ineffectiveness of Parker. Can the Spurs continue to shoot a high percentage from distance? And if their numbers fall naturally, will they be able to survive?
"If they shoot the ball like they did last game, it's incredibly tough," said Duncan of Miami's Big Three. "They got a lot of easy stuff in the open court, some lay‑ups, that can really boost their confidence. Defensively we have to be really on it, really get back and get in front of them. Let them see as many bodies as possible and then continue to play the way we have and hope they don't shoot the way they did."
As laid out by Duncan and several of his teammates, the Spurs must be at their best to overcome the Heat when Wade is performing as he did Thursday. "We just played better because if we lose that game, it's trouble -- we might not make it back to Miami," said Wade of the Heat's breakout Game 4 win. "So in a sense we had a little nervousness in us. We played with that nervous energy, and we did what we normally do. We respond where we need to."
The trick for Miami now is to pretend that they're still in trouble. It shouldn't be hard for the Heat to conjure up the necessary inspiration, because a Game 5 loss will leave the Spurs one win away from upsetting Miami for the championship. "We're really looking forward to just competing like we did in Game 4,"said Bosh. "We're not going to have any more letdowns for the rest of the year. We've had enough. We've had many. We have a nice little mix of fear and motivation."
If the Heat's Big Three brings forth the same effort as in Game 4, and the environment of the homecourt is able to bring out the best in the Spurs' Big Three, then the forecasts of a classic series may be within reach. This Finals is worthy of a memorable game. Game 5 should deliver it.