So, my working theory is that the Spurs are just better.
Better than everyone really, and by the transitive property, that includes the celebrated, much-hyped Miami Heat.
Even if these teams had no history against one another, the Spurs would be the favored team, but when you add up all the additional factors the Spurs have going for them, from revenge to home court advantage to familiarity with Miami to the upgrades they made to their bench to the preparation of playing Oklahoma City's aliens the round before, well it all adds up.
I mentioned it before in when I made my series prediction, but the planets aligned perfectly for the Spurs as far as playoff opponents were concerned. Playing the Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki gave them the ideal guy to prep their defense for LaMarcus Aldridge in round two. Facing Aldridge and the speedy Damian Lillard and the long, athletic Blazers' starting lineup gave them a valuable scrimmage for Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Last year's playoff rampage through the Western Conference was fool's gold for the Spurs. The Lakers were a beat up bunch of slugs. The Warriors were a hot-shooting squad that made the Spurs sweat a bit, but once Gregg Popovich put Kawhi Leonard on Klay Thompson, it was a wrap. The fifth-seeded Grizzlies had size and defensive grit, but they couldn't shoot from outside of ten feet and they had zero athleticism on the wings. Those playoffs allowed the Spurs to get plenty of rest, but what they didn't do was sharpen the Spurs for Miami. They never faced the kind of serious trapping the Heat are known for and never had to guard anyone close to as freakish as James.
This time around, it's different. Compared to the Thunder, the Heat just look so s-l-o-o-o-o-w. Those traps which confounded Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker a year ago are navigated so much easier now. James is doing an excellent Durant impression (the regular season, MVP Durant I mean, not the playoff one), but the Heat are lacking anything remotely resembling a Westbrook.
And the rest of their team looks like a bunch of Kendrick Perkinses supplemented with Derek Fishers.
The pundits keep marveling at the Spurs' ball movement and execution. I guess I would too, if I hadn't seen it all year. I'm past the point of marveling. I just shake my head at it. I'm actually annoyed that none of the analysts can figure out what's going on.
The Spurs are destroying Miami because the Heat just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, with no Plan B whatsoever. It's as if they've never needed a Plan B defensively through the last two seasons, so now they're genuinely flummoxed.
It's always the same trap on the pick-and-roll, with the big man hedging hard, over and over and over again. For some silly reason, the Heat seem to think that Parker and Ginobili will attempt to hero-ball through it, either trying to dribble through two guys or pass it through them to the rolling big to ring up that oh-so-meaningful assist.
The Spurs' Hall-of-Fame guards are killing the Heat simply by sacrificing their box score stats. They're making the easy pass out of the trap over to the wing, and voila, an instant 4-on-3 power play is created every time. The wing gets it over to Boris Diaw on the high post for the 2-on-1 mismatch in the paint and he has the option of either feeding the other big right at the rim or the weakside shooter in the corner, depending on how the last Heat defender rotates. Either way, it's going to be a high-efficiency wide open shot.
Every. Single. Time.
When the Spurs get bored of that, they run the same weave play you've seen the Harlem Globetrotters run on the Washington Generals a million times, a perfectly choreographed figure-eight. One rotation and two and on the third it's Leonard, their most dynamic, athletic finisher, with a head of steam going right down the middle, with no one to stop him, the big occupied by a Duncan screen or some nonsense misdirection.
Sixteen of the Spurs' 25 assists were by their bigs. Diaw led the way with nine, and he was sensational throughout, but Tiago Splitter found shooters too, as did Duncan, Matt Bonner and even Jeff Ayres in garbage time. The Spurs also racked up 15 hockey assists and passed the ball 380 times in all, compared to 267 for the Heat. It's just ingrained in them at this point. If you can't pass the ball quickly and alertly, you can't play for the Spurs, no matter what your size is or other skills are.
Aside from a couple of hero-ball spells from Parker and one or two instances of old-man-legs from Ginobili, who clearly needs the two days off before Game 5, this was the cleanest game yet for the Spurs' offense, percentages aside. They got whatever they wanted all night long, simply by sacrificing the egos of their Hall-of-Famers-to-be. Miami's game plan was to make household names of Leonard, Diaw, Danny Green and Patty Mills and by gum, we're getting there.
By my estimation, there is only one real adjustment left for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to try, but it's so radical, so unconventional, that it's unrealistic in the extreme.
He has to completely junk their trapping defense and play the Spurs straight up, with heavy doses of zone. Clog the paint, quit trapping, and make the big three play like stars.
I know it sounds a bit nuts, teams don't just scrap systems overnight in the playoffs, particularly when it's been successful for years, but what other choice do they have? They're treating Parker -- and especially Ginobili -- like they're Michael Jordan and getting torn up as a consequence.
Maybe it won't make a lick of difference. They didn't trap Ginobili as hard in Game 1 after all and he sliced them up for 16 points and 11 assists. But you have to wonder if they're not better off just taking all the passing options away and just daring him to score, the way the Spurs are playing James.
Parker certainly doesn't need to be encouraged to shoot, and his shot goes wonky at times, so why not encourage him if you're the Heat? What else do you have to lose, besides the Finals?
What we do know is that what the Heat have been doing doesn't work against the Spurs anymore. Pop has solved this puzzle. And in Game 4, the percentages caught up to Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis and they regressed to the mean. Heck, even James missed a couple shots.
But the least-surprising aspect of the game was Wade's miserable outing. I mean, come on, you saw that coming a mile away, right? It was almost cruel what Leonard, 22, did to Wade late in the game on both ends of the court, stripping him easily on defense twice and then posting him up and shooing Wade away like a bothersome gnat. It was the cycle of an athlete's life, personified. One day you're the younger, faster, hungrier guy, embarrassing a broken down has-been and before you know it, you're on the other end of it, getting humiliated by some young pup whose arms seem to go forever. Your eyes see those arms reach and your brain tells your body to move out of their way, but the legs just won't listen.
There's a reason no racehorse has won the Triple Crown in the past 36 years. It's just too much to ask to win three straight races only five weeks apart, especially when the final one is against fresher horses who haven't raced the first two. Asking Wade to give you anything in his third game in five nights is just plain foolish. There's a reason Ginobili took four shots in 28 minutes. You want to trap me? At 36-years-old and playing for the third time in five nights in the Finals when I can barely move? Thanks! I'm more than happy to pass out of this double-team.
Wade's going to be better in Game 5 with two days off. He's not going to go down without a fight. But Ginobili and Duncan will be better too. The Spurs' offense will be a nuclear weapon at home and they'll be supercharged to close this puppy out in style.
I said before that this series could play out like the 1989 Finals between the Lakers and Pistons, but really it's looking like 2004, between those same two franchises, is more apropos. The underdog Pistons won in five, even though they didn't have a single All-Star on their team. The Lakers won Game 2 thanks to a fluky late shot from Kobe Bryant, but were otherwise old, creaky and overwhelmed by the Pistons' length, youthfulness and share-the-ball mentality.
That Kobe, at the height of his powers, was LeBron now. Wade is Shaq, nearing the end. Karl Malone and Gary Payton are Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier, guys just hanging on, doing more harm than good.
If it wasn't evident before, it should be by now. Forget all their bland non-answers on the podium. The Spurs took last year's Finals loss kinda personal. They showed the "fans" in Miami what they thought of games 6 and 7, in unmistakable, emphatic fashion.
All that remains is to finish the Heat off in front of their home crowd, let Miami get a taste of having to win an elimination game on the road.
Betcha the Spurs won't need a three-pointer with five seconds to go to save them neither.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tim Duncan (36 pts)
2. Boris Diaw (21 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (28 pts)