By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — The Miami Heat played their two best games of the NBA Finals on the Spurs’ home floor. If not for LeBron James exiting the final minutes of Game 1 with cramps, they might have headed home up 2-0. So much has changed since then. The Spurs embarrassed Miami, not once, but twice, to push the Heat to the brink. Miami’s only hope is to regain their form the last time they were here.
Game 5 tips off Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
Prior to this year’s format change, the Heat would be playing this Game 5 on their home floor, but considering how lousy they played at the American Airlines Arena, they might feel more at home with their backs against the wall on the road.
They have little to fall back on now. Their 13-game streak of winning after losing is history. The last time they lost three in a row came back in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, the team that raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Big Three’s first season together. Could a Spurs victory end that era?
It certainly sounded on Saturday as if a Spurs victory will extend that Big Three’s era at least another season. Tim Duncan, potentially headed for a fifth championship and a Finals MVP at age 38, as well as 36-year-old Manu Ginobili, playing so well this entire postseason, gave no indication on Saturday that they plan to call it a career, in fact just the opposite. Adding to that, coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, said he has no plan to walk into the sunset just yet. However, there’s still the matter or wrapping up a fourth championship with Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker.
The best player in the world is getting clobbered by criticism and the best team in the NBA the last two seasons is suddenly being downgraded as a group of individuals that don’t play within a team concept. Both accounts are nonsense. Yes, the Heat was built on the backs of superstar talent, but they have always played as a team. James is one of the most unselfish players in the game, often criticized for passing to an open teammate instead of shooting in the final moments. It can’t go both ways.
The fact is the Heat are being beaten by a playing better than they are, by the best passing, most efficient offense the league has seen likely since the 1980s with Magic Johnson‘s Lakers and Larry Bird‘s Celtics. The true weakness at the moment for Miami is that it’s not getting as many solid performances from up and down the roster as are the Spurs. Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade have struggled in recent games and Miami’s role players aren’t delivering with the juice of Spurs players such as Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills.
Bobbing on the surface is the question Heat fans fret: Will LeBron pack it up and move on if the Heat don’t win the series? There’s theories everywhere about what he might or might not do. It is difficult to see him, win or lose, bidding farewell to Heat president Pat Riley and moving his family from a home they seemingly have come to love. But the fact remains James can opt out of his contract and become a free agent, and he’s given no indication as to his plans. If Miami loses, get ready San Antonio. The media’s attention span on your parade will quickly be overrun by the King’s future.
Then there’s the case of Wade’s health. He assured the masses Saturday that he isn’t being limited physically by the knee that’s given him so much trouble the last few seasons and forced him to sit out games this season as precaution. He says he’s fine — “Way better than I’ve been in a long time,” Wade said — although the eye test seems to suggest a different take at times. He said his 3-for-13 performance in Game 5 had nothing to do with his knee or any other ailing body part. As coach Erik Spoelstra suggested Saturday, Wade always seems to find that extra gear when it’s needed most.
The X’s and O’s:
Coaches often say you can talk X’s and O’s, but games come down players performing. That’s what we have here. The Heat have to bring maximum effort on both ends. They have been shredded defensively in the last two games and offensively they have yet to crack 100 points in any game this series. They’re coming off their worst offensive output of just 86 points in Game 4.
Then they just have to hope that the Spurs cool off. In Games 3 and 4, San Antonio shot a combined 58.2 percent from the floor (78-for-134) and 43.9 percent from beyond the arc (43.9). At some point, these remarkable numbers will regress to more normal levels. For the Heat, in better be in Game 5.
James wouldn’t know because he said he hasn’t looked at his numbers in this series, but the fact is he’s averaging 27.5 ppg and shooting 60 percent overall and 61 percent from the floor — even with Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard doing a pretty decent job defensively. It’s just that the Spurs as a team shot close to 60 percent from the floor in their blowout wins at Miami.
The Spurs’ individual shooting is mind-blowing for an NBA Finals. Consider that Ginobili is shooting 48.6 percent overall (and 38.9 percent on 3s) yet falls behind Green (63 percent overall, 52.9 percent on 3s), Leonard (59 percent overall, 53.3 percent on 3s), Duncan (58.5 percent) and Parker (50.9 percent, 45.5 percent on 3s).
Whatever happened to:
Udonis Haslem as a contributing member of the Heat? Haslem hasn’t been much of a factor all season and he’s certainly not been heard from much in the postseason, and especially in this series. On Saturday, Spoelstra said that the wily veteran power forward is on his mind: “These are the type of games where he’s proven himself, and you need somebody to rely on that’s been there and has proven that those tough things, when your back is against the wall, but we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
The Spurs, obviously, are going to be highly motivated to end this series tonight. They don’t want another Game 6 on the Heat’s home floor and they’d love to allow their fans to celebrate on their home floor — something that hasn’t happened since 2005. And, of course, no team has lost a 3-1 lead in the history of the NBA Finals.
On Saturday James said that having two titles in his back pocket make getting over the losses a little bit easier. But if he hopes to keep pace with Michael Jordan, he needs to seize his third title this season before he turns 30. If Miami losses, James will fall to 2-3 in The Finals and the critics will howl all over again.