"Slayer," Jeff Steitzer's iconic voice sounds off from your television screen. Your objective is on the screen: "Kill the enemy." Your Spartan's HUD displays his status -- full health, full ammo, and the radar is at work, alerting you of any movement within a certain radius. The scoreboard displays no points yet; the game has just begun.
You apply pressure on the controller, and the Spartan moves accordingly -- more pressure, more speed. You stay alert for any enemies, thirsting for the first kill of the game. Every nook and cranny of the map's strategically placed walls do not pass your attention. However, like countless other games, you are not the only competitive player.
In beating the Heat, the Spurs became the Heat
Of all the weird stats from Game 3, here's the craziest: Matt Bonner shot two free throws in the first quarter of an NBA Finals.
Shots are fired. Your thumbs scramble around, responding to what your eyes and ears perceive; it is an attempt to create synergy with your senses. Your controller rumbles. The screen bleeds red. Your health bar decreases. Still, your thumbs do not stop, and your pointer finger is ready to crush the trigger. But the health bar is all but depleted, and beeps signal that your shield is down. You're down to one shot.
And you die.
The camera shifts. The screen shows your corpse. It's as if your soul is fleeting, and as you drift away, some higher power hands you the last few moments with your body.
But five seconds later, you're back in another body -- another Spartan, another chance.
* * *
The premise for every first-person shooter is to accomplish the mission at hand, whether that be get the most kills, capture the flag, or plant a bomb in the other team's base. But if you get killed, you respawn; the game wouldn't be much fun with one try. You get a new start every time you die -- your health bar is refilled, your ammo is replenished, and a fresh new body awaits. When you respawn, you have the chance to repeat what you failed. That premise reflects the 2014 NBA Finals. The Spurs have respawned back into the same mission: beat the Heat.
In the 2013 NBA Finals, the Spurs came into the series a better, deeper team. You remember Tim Duncan's staggering performances, Tony Parker's clutch shots, and Danny Green's bombardment from deep. Kawhi Leonard showed his potential as a prototypical two-way player at his best, affecting the game on both sides -- the dynamic way his defense led to his offense brought images of Scottie Pippen. But you also remember Manu Ginobili's struggles to capture a rhythm, Gary Neal's ineptitude on defense, and Danny Green's disintegration.
The Heat were led by LeBron James. You remember Dwyane Wade, battered and bruised, attempting to put himself together, the 36-point demolition, and their desperation heading into Game Six. But you also remember Dwyane Wade finding life in the latter part of the series, the missed opportunities at the line, and the misfortune that culminated in Ray Allen's shot. You remember Tim Duncan's frustration as he slapped the wood on the court, and the despondence that came after.
In the current series, Tim Duncan has led the team with performances that defy Father Time. Tony Parker is still the active engine of The System. Manu Ginobili is a far cry from last year -- his confidence is high. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard seemed to be absent for the first two games, but they both had big contributions in Game Three.
The Heat continue to rely on the excellent play of LeBron James (the Heat are 24.4 points per 100 possessions worse with James off the court during The Finals). James left Game One with cramps, and the Spurs took advantage, riding their tidal wave of a fourth quarter. In Game Two, LeBron bounced back and put up 35 points, giving the Spurs a deflating loss. Dwyane Wade looks much better in this series in terms of health and ability.
Like the last series of games, there is one common thread that binds each game together: the runs that each team constructs. It is said that basketball is a game of runs -- this is why Gregg Popovich hates large early leads, and why Eric Spoelstra understands that the game is not decided by a twenty-point play. These two teams epitomize the statement.
There are times when the Spurs' offense clicks. The System runs to perfection; the players' unselfishness culminates in the ultimate form of team basketball. It is so overwhelming that the Spurs seem to be puppeteers: the defense moves just like the team wants it to. Defensive principles are made foolish by the options that the Spurs open up. This results in the fourth quarter of Game One, and the entire first half of Game Three.
But there are also times when the Heat click. The talent the team possesses becomes too much, headed by LeBron James. Their defense creates opportunities through chaos -- a scrambling defense that traps and ensnares indecisive ballhandlers. This opens up the transition game. There is no stopping LeBron James (or Dwyane Wade, for that matter) in the open court. The attention James demands is even more fatal: this is what led to Chris Bosh's wide open three in Game Two -- he sucked the entire defense into the paint. It opens up their shooters, and allows for their own runs.
The runs differ in origin, but they are runs all the same.
That is just one of the similarities between the two series and the two teams.
In last season’s Finals, Tiago Splitter was rendered incapable of playing alongside Tim Duncan against the Heat. His skill set was not a good match for the Heat's floor spacing. Popovich tried to fit him in the rotation for the first few games, but he knew that he couldn't let this mismatch be exploited: playing Duncan and Splitter together made for a front line that didn't have the foot speed to close out on jumpers.
The same situation occurred in this series. Gregg Popovich tried to get Tiago in the lineup with Duncan in Game One, but it just didn’t work. By Game Three, Boris Diaw was in the starting lineup. One of the players who attacks the Heat’s size disadvantage is now just a time filler while Tim Duncan rests.
Last season the Heat and Spurs traded wins all the way until Game Seven. The Spurs, with the Game Six loss fresh in their minds, fought valiantly. But sadly, the NBA does not give the Larry O'Brien trophy for a good try. The Heat broke the trend, and they won two games in a row.
That is where this series is no different. They are going to swap wins until LeBron flaunts his talent, resulting in two wins in a row, or until the entire Spurs’ roster plays great for two straight games. Nobody on the Spurs has the power to single-handedly take over a game, and that is concerning when these two teams are so close and swapping blows. The team depends on all players that take the court to be in sync. Meanwhile, the Heat only have to rely on one player. Each approach is a double-edged sword: in the Spurs' approach, the whole team might not have to play well, but most of all the team has to make the right reads; in the Heat's approach, the talent of one man can make or break them.
I know what people will say: "The Spurs have won the two games by 15 and 19 points, and the Heat’s only win was by two points."
That cannot be disputed, but that plays into another parallel. Game Three of last year’s series was an absolute blowout win: The final score was 113 to 77 in favor of the Spurs. Danny Green had 27 points and Kawhi Leonard had 14, and it appeared the Spurs had complete control. This year, Game Three displayed Kawhi Leonard’s career high of 29 points and Danny Green had 15 points. For those keeping score at home, Leonard and Green essentially swapped roles in this game.
Whether you look at this series as the next life of a Spartan destined to die, or as the next life of a Spartan destined to win the game, just don't be alarmed when the Heat and the Spurs find themselves tied 2-2 heading back to San Antonio.