SAN ANTONIO -- A mere five days after the NBA Finals arrived in Miami deadlocked at one game apiece, the series returns to Texas with an unexpected air of inevitability.
Back-to-back blowout victories on the road by the Spurs will do that, especially with their offense looking so invincible. Local support around the city's only major professional sports team has been strong throughout the postseason, but it has swelled to fever pitch following San Antonio's impressive showings in Games 3 and 4. "Go Spurs Go" signs are ubiquitous throughout the downtown area, with window artwork, flags, and banners multiplying by the day.
The Spurs' Game 4 thrashing of the Heat drew an astounding 47.4 local television rating in the San Antonio market, and anticipation seems to outweigh anxiety with the franchise just one win away from its fifth championship of the Tim Duncan era and first since 2007.
Such is the confidence that comes with a commanding 3-1 series lead, a deficit that no team has erased in Finals history. Teams holding 3-1 advantages are 31-0 in the Finals, and the Spurs will have two shots at home -- where they are 10-2 and winning by an average of 14.1 points during the postseason -- to close out the series. It's also worth noting: San Antonio has lost three or more consecutive games just three times since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. And, when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are all healthy, only one team has beaten the Spurs three or more times in a row during the last three seasons: the Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference finals.
Saturday's media sessions, frankly, were lacking in fireworks. The biggest news of the day was Gregg Popovich expressing a desire to return as Spurs coach next season. San Antonio is notoriously tightlipped about just about everything, including their future plans, but the dominant nature of their play this postseason has filled that vacuum nicely. How could Popovich hang it up when his team has looked so unstoppable for months, dating back to a 19-game winning streak during the regular season? How could 38-year-old Tim Duncan walk away from the game when he's been the league's best big man during the postseason? Why would Manu Ginobili, who has been back in a big way this season at age 36, call it quits? Why would this party stop when all three have contracts (or contract options) for next season, and when the Spurs have assembled so much talent and depth that the burden is shared so evenly?
Shouldn't we be speculating about whether the Spurs can repeat in 2014-15 rather than whether various retirements are around the corner? San Antonio must close out this series first, of course, and perhaps the talk about the possibility of San Antonio's first back-to-back will pick up if and when they do.
In the meantime, we take our cues from the Heat, who are on the brink of elimination for the first time since Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Overwhelmed, a bit awed and seemingly bordering on concession following Game 4 on Thursday, the Heat appeared rejuvenated on Saturday after spending the extra off day away from basketball. Maybe because of the growing consensus that San Antonio will seal the series on Sunday, Miami also appeared strangely relaxed. Both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade gesticulated more often than usual, and James adopted a more conversational tone on Saturday than he's used during the rest of the series.
"Why not us?" James said, referencing the history of 3-1 deficits. "History is broken all the time. Obviously we know we're against the greatest of odds. ... History is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great. That would be a great storyline, right?"
There's no more obvious sign of the strength from the Spurs than somehow transforming the Heat, the NBA's perma-favorites, to a newfound status as legitimate underdogs.
The "Why not us?" approach is a logical one, but some of James' other observations undercut that hypothetical. Through four games, James' stat line is typically excellent: 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 steals, 60 percent shooting and 61 percent three-point shooting. His Player Efficiency Rating of 31.8 leads all players in the Finals by a wide margin. With the exception of Game 2, though, San Antonio has mostly weathered the storms he creates, and James' teammates -- especially Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers -- have faded or outright disappeared around him.
"I've been telling myself I need to do more," James admitted Saturday. "Is it too much to ask myself? I don't know. I don't know."
He coupled that open question with what might be interpreted as a bit of emotional detachment. While acknowledging that he suffered through "all the bad emotions you could have" following Games 3 and 4, he then took a major, neutralizing step back in framing his mindset.
"I'm in a good place in my life," James said. "It's basketball. I understand it's the media and the sport is the greatest sport in the world. I love it. It's done so many great things for me, but it's just basketball. It's just basketball. ... I give everything to this game. But right after Game 4 I was in the ice tub in the locker room, and my two boys coming running in there talking about, 'Let's play some more basketball.' I was like, 'If y'all don't get away from me -- it's the last thing I want to do right now.' But it puts things in perspective, and I'm able to have a clear head about it."
Had Miami played with the requisite urgency in either Game 3 or Game 4, perhaps James' comments would seem properly measured. The Heat didn't, though, which made the "It's just basketball" ring with just a bit of resignation. Coach Erik Spoelstra and his players offered no specifics on their desired adjustments going into Game 5, underscoring that feeling. How are they going to turn this series around? Their team-wide silence suggested that perhaps they don't have a clear set of answers.
Recent history provides a glimmer of hope for Miami, if you squint hard enough in the face of San Antonio's sensational play. The Heat are 5-0 over the last three postseasons when facing elimination, rallying from 3-2 to beat the Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, 3-2 to beat the Spurs in the 2013 Finals, and eliminating the Pacers in a do-or-die Game 7 in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.
In addition to falling in their two shots at closeout victories against the Heat in the Finals last season, the Spurs also failed to close out the Mavericks in Game 6 of the first round and the Blazers in Game 4 of the conference semifinals. However, all four of those games were on the road, and San Antonio would go on to series-sealing blowout victories over Dallas and Portland in their subsequent home games. What's more, the Spurs closed out the Thunder in their first shot, winning in overtime on the road to take Game 6.
San Antonio, as an organization, seems so determined to avenge last year's Finals loss that the recent history likely provides little comfort for Miami. If anything, the Spurs' merciless focus might just be one more cause for concern for the Heat.|
"We go back to last year and we learn from that," Duncan said Saturday. "We were 30 seconds away. We feel that we have it in the bag and it slips out of our fingers. We learn from that, and we draw on that, and we say, 'Hey, it's not over till it's over.' Our goal right now is to just win one more game. We'd love to do it [Sunday]."