Heat-Spurs: Finals Hub
SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Spurs would seem to have the Miami Heat right where they want them heading into Game 5 of the 2013 Finals.
Fresh off a resounding Heat victory in Game 4.
Can’t stand success? Fat and happy after the briefest tastes of triumph? Flat-out adversity junkies? It sure looks like it lately.
A team that went nearly two months without losing even once – Miami’s 27-game winning streak from Feb. 2-March 27 ranks as the second longest in NBA history – and six months without losing two in a row now, oddly can’t back up a victory with another victory. The Heat have become the masters of the … one-game winning streak?
Over their last 10 games in these playoffs, they are 5-5. Working backwards from the end of the regular season, it had taken them 47 games to drop five. The NBA’s most unbeatable team in 2012-13 – only Oklahoma City at 60-22 got closer than eight games to the Heat’s 66-16 mark – has become beatable on a fairly regular basis.
To the point that it’s not just starting to soil their legacy a little, it’s throwing the whole mission out of whack. Winning two in a row now isn’t merely a more impressive way to repeat as champions. It’s the only way. If Miami keeps flip-flopping outcomes with the Spurs beginning Sunday night at the AT&T Center, it will lose what has become a best-of-three mini-Finals.
No wonder the intimidating, talent-laden machine that had some folks in early May wondering, Moses Malone-style, if it might go “Fo’, fo’, fo’, fo’ ” through the playoffs has a few scratching their heads and wondering, “What the eff?”
“We would love to put a great string together, consistent games together,” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said after the 109-93 victory Thursday in Game 4. It came four days after an even more impressive 103-84 smackdown of the Spurs in Game 2 at AmericanAirlines Arena in south Florida.
In between, though, was that 113-77 embarrassment Tuesday that had Heat coach Erik Spoelstra fuming about the inattention on defense and his guys’ general lack of effort.
What had been an express locomotive has become a local, with repeated stops along the way. Miami opened the playoffs on a 9-1 run – a sweep of Milwaukee, a five-gamer against Chicago in which the opening loss probably was due to a nine-day layoff and a glimpse of the Bulls’ undermanned roster, and finally the 103-102 overtime thriller in Game 1 against Indiana.
Since then, it’s been L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W. Certainly, the quality of competition has been dialed up. In the Eastern Conference finals, Indiana’s Paul George was the second-best player on the floor and Pacers center Roy Hibbert gave the Heat fits with his 7-foot-2 rim- and paint-protection. The Spurs, with some future Hall of Famers, championship pedigree and the league’s best head coach, represent yet another step up in formidability.
Spoelstra cited that as the “most significant factor” in his club’s series of one-game winning streaks. But on a conference call with reporters Friday, his irritability after three weeks of middlin’ results was apparent.
“There has to be a point where enough is enough,” Spoelstra said. “And we have to try to fight for a breakthrough.”
Already, the up-down pattern might be affecting how they’re viewed, in terms of dominant champions. The Wall Street Journal suggested in its Thursday edition’s that the Heat’s “likelihood of becoming an all-time great team seems to be slipping away.” Measured by overall postseason winning percentage of the nine teams since 1980 that have made it to three consecutive Finals – an elite group to begin with, admittedly – Miami currently ranks seventh. It is 44-20 in the three postseason runs of the “Big Three” era, a .688 winning percentage.
Even if it were to win Games 5 and 6 this weekend, a 46-20 mark would bump the Heat only to .697, still only good for seventh. The 1991-’93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-’98 Bulls and the 2000-’02 Los Angeles Lakers are tied atop that list at 45-13, .776.
The Journal also noted the Michael Jordan-era Bulls’ feat of facing only two elimination games in six years’ worth of three-peats. Miami has dealt with four in less than three full postseasons and has trailed in a series eight times in 12 series.
A half-full view suggests a resiliency, a knack for bouncing back and impressively so – in the next game after their six playoff losses this spring, Miami has won by 37, 18, 11, 23, 19 and 16 points. If Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the rest of them somehow need to feel threatened to respond, it does tend to bring out the best in them.
“Every team is different,” Bosh said. “With us, we’ve always kind of been under that microscope. … Ever since we’ve gotten together, since the first game, we’ve had to respond to adversity. That’s something that we pride ourselves on. And we really concentrate.
“When things get rough and they’re not going like you want them to go, that’s when we pull together even more.”
It’s more survival mode than killer instinct, odd for a team with three All-Stars and the NBA’s four-time Most Valuable Player. Great success also can breed complacency, and even the Spurs – the NBA’s supposed model of workmanlike consistency – has experienced it.
“The thing that drives me crazy,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said, “is where you win a game and, if you were coaching the team, you would say the same things: We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t be too satisfied with this. Hey, we haven’t accomplished anything yet. All these sort of typical trade slogans. And you still go out and you lose the game, like we did [in Game 4].”
Sometimes, the priciest, most powerful performance cars cruise along in touring mode and never get driven in top gear.
“The only thing I can tell myself after all these years,” Popovich said, “is you’re dealing with people, with emotions, and not robots. They come out and they all play hard, but there’s that little intangible, that little spark of intensity or back against the wall or a little bit of fear that just seems to kick in when you’ve lost the previous game.
“And when you find teams that can get over that, those are the championship teams.”
That’s what Miami is searching for. Again.
“We can’t wait until our back is against the wall every time to respond,” James said. “We have to build some momentum. We still got to get better. There was some stretches [in Game 4] where we didn’t play well. And if we understand and if we own it, we’ll come in with a mindset on Sunday that we are desperate once again.”
Desperate not to have to play desperate, anyway.