With their dominant win in Miami, the Spurs are in the driver's seat. They bounced back and regained home court advantage, which is huge. A loss would have made game 4 an absolute must win. Instead, Miami will have to win three of the next four to beat San Antonio, while the Spurs only need to win their home games to prevail. Finishing with the best record in the league truly could be the difference this year, compared to last.
But as every Spurs player said, game 3 was just one game. It's impossible to escape the similarities with 2013, even if the two series are far from identical. The Spurs got the split in Miami after taking game 1, then after a two-day rest, the Heat responded in style. Game 3 was in San Antonio and it was a blowout. But the Heat stole the next one. In fact, no team would win two in a row until Miami took games 6 and 7 at home. They were just too evenly matched and, as a result, the resolution was incredibly dramatic.
It seems the same is true this year. All three games were close, despite the Spurs getting some separation at the end of their two victories. At one point in game 3, that sublime first quarter everyone will remember for years was almost wiped out entirely by the Heat's fantastic third quarter. The fact that the Spurs could hang onto that lead doesn't mean they will be able to survive the inevitable runs that an explosive team like the Heat is capable of consistently creating in the following games.
Despite that seemingly inescapable reality, I think most Spurs fans feel good about the team's prospects going into game 4. Even if this ends up being a long series, the Spurs will have the pivotal game 5 and a potential game 7 at home. Gregg Popovich has made his move by starting Boris Diaw and a quick scan of the Heat's bench doesn't reveal a great potential counter. Shane Battier has been a shadow of his former self this season and Mike Miller is not there. One could say Spoelstra made his move too early by starting Lewis, while Pop bided his time for two games before countering with BoBo. There are definitely reasons for optimism if you are a Spurs fan.
But the ways in which the Spurs have won seem a bit random. The Spurs scoring 71 points on 76% shooting in a half was impossible to predict. Of course, to a lesser degree, so was LeBron going bananas from outside on game 2. We know the Spurs can score and we know LeBron is the best player in the league. But such dominant performances are simply too rare to be anticipated. Paul Flannery said it best when he wrote after game 3 that "nobody knows what's going to happen in the NBA finals." The ways these teams are winning are just unexpected. And yet in that same article, Flannery says "we're probably going seven games." And he's not the only one who seems to think this will be a long series.
On twitter and on blogs, the assumption is that the swings are almost predetermined, that these two teams are destined to not necessarily repeat the outcome of last year's finals, but at least to follow the outline. One team dominates, the other responds. The ways they get their Ws are impossible to foresee, but the result aren't. It's going to be a long series. It frankly sounds reasonable. If someone puts a gun to my head and asks me who wins game 4, I'd say Miami. And I'd by fine with it.
The Spurs will have game 5 at home and if they win that one - and going by the pattern, they should - they will have two games to close the series, but this time one of those will be at home. I'm assuming Heat fans are similarly content because they remember how last season's series played out. The team without home court advantage was extremely close to winning the whole thing. The resolution seems to not be even close at this point. The must-win games are yet to come.
And yet I can't shake the feeling that game 4 could define this series in favor of the Spurs.
It goes without saying that I have no idea what the players or Pop are thinking (and anyone who thinks they can deduct anything from the Spurs purposefully boring and guarded interviews is kidding themselves). But I really, really hope they see that the only way to truly, decisively get control of this series is winning two in a row in Miami. Home court is great and all, but trading punches with LeBron and friends might not be the best idea. The Spurs need that cushion or the series is up for grabs.
Obviously the other team also plays. "They came in with a desperation we just didn't match," said LeBron after last game. So we can expect the Heat to come out swinging. And if they do, they could take game 4. Because as dominant as the Spurs looked in that first half, there was an element of luck involved. Even the best shooters miss open shots and the Spurs were hitting everything. They haven't figured out the Heat, which I guess makes the hope of a consecutive win seem overly ambitious.
But it's because they haven't mastered the matchup that game 4 is so important. The longer the series goes, the closer it will be. Kawhi Leonard won't play like he did in game 3 often. Mario Chalmers won't continue to be an abject disaster, or at the very least will lose minutes to Norris Cole. And the Heat still have one bullet in the chamber, one adjustment that can change things: starting Ray Allen in Rashard Lewis' place, forcing the Spurs to go small to match or to have Diaw on Wade or Allen.
Once again, it's impossible for me to know whether the players are content with getting the split in Florida. And even if they lose, it will be hard to figure out if a lack of urgency was responsible for it or just superior play from the Heat. But the mere thought of San Antonio believing they have the series right where they want it even after a loss because they are going back home for two of the next three scares me to death.
Almost forgotten in the middle of the endless praise for the Spurs' offense after game 3 seems to be the fact that San Antonio has a unique chance to get a likely determinant win on Thursday. Going up 3-1 doesn't seal the series and might not be all that realistic, if you believe the trends. But it would signify the first time one of these teams has actually had a serious, tangible advantage over the other. And while a Spurs win might not be likely, it's definitely not out of the question.
For one night, I'm hoping the trends will reverse. The result could be surprising while the process is predictable. The Spurs could execute like they always do and come away with a huge win. I'll let objective observers daydream about seven competitive games. I'm over that. I'm sure Pop and the gang are ready to go the distance and I know I should be patient. But I can't. I want the Spurs to do what seemingly no one is expecting and take game 4.