Heat facing Finals demise after Spurs stun again

Friday June 13th, 2014

LeBron James and the Heat now trail 3-1, a deficit which no NBA Finals team (0-31) has ever overcome.
John W. McDonough/SI

MIAMI -- Scattered boos began coming down in the first half, the lower bowl was mostly vacated by midway through the fourth quarter, the remaining fans wore panama hats and sullen faces, the public address announcer's final "DOS MINUTOS" call went out without a response, and the trophy-inspired "Larry Loves Miami" posters lay discarded in the aisles. The party seems all but over for the Heat, losers of two straight blowouts at home, back-to-back champions who looked broken on both ends by the Spurs.

Usually, a tight seven-game series has a certain ebb and flow, but 48 hours after taking a decisive Game 3 victory, San Antonio cranked hard and turned off the faucet. The Spurs' 107-86 victory in Game 4 on Thursday was even more impressive than their prior dismantling of the Heat. This was the moment for season-on-the-line urgency, and yet it was San Antonio displaying the desperation, jumping out to a 13-4 lead before the first timeout. It was arguably over right then and there. A team that has cherished its identity as a bounce-back team, winning 13 straight postseason games after losses, sputtering flat.

The Heat's only lead came on the game's opening basket and they trailed for the game's final 45:26. On one end, San Antonio continued its graceful, easy, smart play; on the other, Dwyane Wade couldn't buy a bucket (3-of-13 shooting) or a call, and Miami devolved to a "LeBron James versus the world" approach that is doomed to fail against this particular opponent.

All that was left: the candid admissions.

"They smashed us," James said, following a 21-point loss that followed a 19-point loss. "They're a [well-oiled] machine and they move the ball extremely well. They put you in so many difficult positions. If you're not right on time, right on target, they make you pay for it."

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Midway through the third quarter, James had as many field goals (10) as all of his teammates combined; in the third quarter, he scored 19 of Miami's 21 points. Wade, playing for the third time in five days, lacked the rise to finish in traffic and missed eight of his first nine shots; Chris Bosh was a bystander; Rashard Lewis, once an X-factor, was an afterthought; Mario Chalmers was again a net negative; and Ray Allen, who was moved into the second-half starting lineup, isn't equipped at this point of his illustrious career to become a No. 2 option.

The response that everyone assumed would be there after Game 3 -- a proud, focused, take-no-prisoners effort -- never materialized, and the Heat were run over as a result. The beatdown was so thorough that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was left openly marveling during his postgame press conference.

"They played great," Spoelstra said. "I can honestly say I don't think any of us were expecting this type of performance. ... They've been able to get into their game, their rhythm and flow regardless of what scheme we've been able to put out there. You do have to credit them for that."

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It wasn't quite a concession speech, but the extended praise was a bit unusual for the Heat, who have been so focused during their title runs on how they play and what they can control. It seemed, maybe, that this second home loss, same as the first, left them facing the realization that perhaps the Spurs' brilliance is beyond their control.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's decision to insert Boris Diaw into the starting lineup for Game 3 is shaping up to be the fatal blow. The pudgy, talented Frenchman has invigorated San Antonio's offense, helping to ensure that the ball doesn't stick and forcing Miami's pressure defense to run itself ragged. Diaw nearly posted a triple-double -- eight points, eight rebounds and nine assists -- in Game 4 and his behind-the-back pass to Tiago Splitter was proof that the Spurs can be aesthetically pleasing while ripping apart a foe at the seams.

Diaw's promotion has had ripple effects, including opening up new opportunities for Kawhi Leonard, who left a major impact for the second straight game. The third-year forward finished with a team-high 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks. As his line suggested, Leonard was everywhere, throwing down putback dunks, tearing off in the open court, and bottling up Wade, depending on what the occasion required.

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It's self-evident at this point that basketball is never about the single star for San Antonio, which managed -- with the help of garbage time -- to get points from all 13 players on its active roster. Brazil opened World Cup play on Thursday, and yet no team played a more beautiful game than the Spurs, who registered 25 assists on 40 field goals and compiled countless more hockey assists.

"They're got four point guards basically on the floor at once," James remarked, sounding almost jealous as he described San Antonio's spread lineups that include Diaw. "All of them are live and they all can make plays. It's a challenge for us all."

Minutes after Spoelstra copped to surprise at the game's outcome, Diaw shrugged his shoulders when asked the same question.

"Not really, because it was pretty much the same game as the last game," he said. "We were expecting a reaction from them, but we were ready for it. We just did the same thing."

Diaw wasn't being rude, and he certainly wasn't gloating, but his even-keel -- which has been shared by his coach and his teammates throughout this playoff run -- said it all. The only thing that can match San Antonio's dominance -- it set an NBA record by winning its 11th game of these playoffs by 15-plus points -- is how unimpressed the Spurs are by their own results.

"I'm pleased that they performed as well as they did while we've been in Miami, and that's about as far it goes," Popovich said. "Now we've got to go back home and play as well or better."

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Teams holding 3-1 leads are 31-0 in Finals history, and San Antonio will get two shots, if necessary, to close things out at home. Losing to the Heat last year, caving as they did, was painful, without question. The Spurs have spoken openly about how that defeat has fueled them, and here -- on the brink of the fifth title of the Popovich/Tim Duncan era --is where those memories will matter the most. The focus only seems to be tightening as the goal approaches.

"That's a Game 7 for us," Manu Ginobili said of Game 5 on Sunday. "There's no reason to celebrate yet."

One win away, the Spurs opted not to ride high, instead setting new challenges for themselves, inflating an opponent they have thrashed twice so as to protect against complacency.

"We know the caliber of team [the Heat] are, we have a lot of respect for what they can do," Duncan said. "They're able to throw it into another gear and they're going to do just that. They don't want this to be done."

Unlike James and Spoelstra, who were stuck thinking about the series in their opponent's context, Duncan confidently finished his thought on San Antonio's own terms.

"We don't want to give them any life," he said, completing the sensation that the Heat are no longer in control of their own destiny.

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