Clinging to their championship identity with a false, sometimes arrogant bravado, the Miami Heat took to the court on Thursday night and in front of their fans all dressed in white- white as in we surrender- promptly melted like the snow that never falls in their city. They did everything they did in game 3 which is to say they did nothing worth writing about. They were outplayed, out executed, out classed, out rebounded, out hustled and at the end of it, this “Dream Team”, this “Big Three”, this dynasty in the making found themselves trailing in the NBA Finals 3-1. They were run out of their own building, beaten by 19, unable to score 90 points, unable to grab 30 rebounds and 15 assists, unable to stop the Spurs from shooting 57%.
The famous saying: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, is an anthem the Spurs embrace. They are better than last year. They are stronger than last year. Last year did not kill them. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green effortlessly had their shots go in. Paddy Mills kept weaving in and out of the lane. Tony Parker was Tony Parker. Tim Duncan was their anchor and glue. Boris Diaw kept driving and passing. The Spurs, confident they had discovered a style the Heat could not defend, continued with their quick pace and ball movement and cutters to the rim which put the Heat at a disadvantage when the Heat played small. They kept the Heat to one shot and crowded the paint making it uncomfortable. Only Chris Bosh had any kind of rhythm early or confidence. Dwayne Wade was a shell of himself, barely able to elevate when he got to the rim, unable to finish. Either he is not a healthy player or he can’t perform at this level anymore. Tough as always, Ray Allen added timely threes in the first half but the Spurs barely glanced his way. His threes hardly mattered. With three minutes left in the first half the Heat had 28 points. The Spurs had 46. Nothing much more to say. Except Lebron James took 7 shots in the first half and missed 4. And Dwayne Wade took 7 shots in the first half and missed 6.
Lebron James came out in the third quarter as expected, making shots, taking ownership of the offense and the game as he felt it slipping away. With Wade unable to be a finisher they used him at the top as the facilitator and he easily found James around the rim for easy buckets and post ups. But offense has not been the issue these past few games. Defense is the Heat’s Achilles Heel. As Jeff Van Gundy noted, the Heat do not “go hard.” They have a casualness as they move off of screens to get to shooters and really, playing in the Eastern Conference, they could get way with this “C” level defense. On the year the Heat finished out of the top 10 in defense. The last team who won a title and were not a top 10 defensive team were the 2001 Lakers who went 15-1 in the playoffs.
Before game 4, Michael Wilbon of ESPN downplayed the Spurs domination of the Heat in game 3. He said it didn’t matter in the long view of the series, that the Heat were used to bad losses, that they would bounce back. In the aftermath of game 4 it was obvious that Wilbon was wrong. The Heat’s psyche had been fractured. The first 10 minutes of game 4, even as it wasn’t the total annihilation of game 3, was evidence of how far apart the two teams were in terms of confidence and belief and chemistry.
And this too: all the chatter of Carmelo Anthony and a Big 4 seems ridiculous in light of what the Heat showed the world.. The Heat don’t have a Big Three, so how are they going to have a Big Four.
The Spurs earned everything that happened to them in four days in Miami. In Game 4 their rebound advantage was Goliath like. Eric Spoelstra likes to say rebounding is irrelevant for his team. They are a team that creates turnovers and transition points and that neutralizes rebounding. But the thing about the NBA and its trends and cycles is- as Malcolm X once noted- the chickens always come home to roost. The Heat’s style of play, Lebron James or no Lebron James, could not stand up to the depth of the Spurs, to their strong fundamentals, good coaching, excellent habits and will to revenge the worst lost of their careers.
And so here we are, game 5 on Sunday. The Heat and Lebron James may play their last game of the season. The Spurs and Tim Duncan may play their last game of the season. Duncan may play his last game of his career and walk off like Michael Jordan did in 1998 as the Finals MVP and a multiple champion.
In 2007, when the Spurs beat Lebron James in his first NBA Finals, after the Spurs swept the Cavs, Tim Duncan gave Lebron James a long embrace. He then said: this league is going to be yours one day. Duncan was right. It is. Seven years later, it is Lebron James league. That much is true. But the rest of it, the third straight championship, the club Kobe and club Jordan three-peater fraternity, the dynasty label, that door may be quietly coming to a close.