It was sometime during the 2nd quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals that the national fever finally broke. Perhaps it was Boris Diaw's behind the back pass to Tiago Splitter for an easy slam, but it was more likely immediately following this:
With this incredibly athletic (and based on this camera view, easier than it should have been) put-back by Kawhi Leonard the story being told by those with the loudest voices deftly pivoted. This week the curtain was pulled back and the true identity of the wizard was revealed. It was a shock to many, to say the least.
The Miami Heat are a team that compliments the best player in the NBA with several competent, if aging, backups. As this series has advanced, that fact has become glaringly obvious to a country blinded by bling and reputation. For as much flash and glamour that the boys from South Beach brought to this series, the Spurs have been the team in control. It's the Spurs who have dominated when they play well and, if not for four missed free-throws late in Game 2, this series might well be over.
But Game 4 was a surprise even for those who feel strongly that the Spurs are the overwhelming favorites. It was as if the teams were playing in completely different conditions as the Heat slogged through mud while the Spurs wafted through the clouds. The Heat looked overwhelmed and exhausted early in the 2nd quarter and never recovered to make the game competitive. Afterward, LeBron James summed up their week at home in three words: "We got smashed."
Because lost in the talk of the Heat having their backs to the wall (and how well they respond to adversity, and how well they've performed in these situations in the past...) is the fact that the Spurs had a powerful say in how these two games would play out. And while Game 4 was crucial for the Heat, it was also a chance for the Spurs to make a bold statement and cast aside the demons that have haunted them for the better part of a year.
And while many Spurs fans would've been happy with a split in Miami, the Spurs themselves knew that Game 4 was a prime opportunity to change the narrative and flip the basketball world on its collective head. So, they did just that. Now instead of this being a back and forth series, the Spurs have convincingly proclaimed that this season is no repeat of 2013.
Also suddenly obvious now, is that the Spurs are simply the better team. Their approach is to come at you in waves with a dizzying display of precision passing and hockey-like line changes that leaves their opponent confused and gasping for air. That philosophy has been criticized in the past, because while it may pay dividends in the regular season, it's rarely been successful in the playoffs.
That is, until now.
In the playoffs, teams shorten their rotation to seven or eight players getting significant minutes, and usually the teams with the brightest stars are most successful. But Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have never taken that approach, preferring instead to assemble a squad of utility players to complement their big three.
That vision and flexibility in lineups was never more evident than during Game 4. "They're got four point guards basically on the floor at once," said James after the game. "All of them are live and they all can make plays. It's a challenge for us all."
Buford said earlier this week that the Spurs' decision to trade George Hill and draft Kawhi Leonard three years ago wasn't a move made with the Miami Heat and LeBron James in mind. And while that may be the case, the combination of Leonard's length and athleticism coupled with wave after wave of speed and quickness that Popovich has at his disposal has left one lasting impression of these Finals so far: The Miami Heat, proud champions, bent over with hands on knees, desperately trying to catch their breath.
It's "Pounding the Rock" in visual form. The Spurs' long-time motto and approach is playing out in this series. The only picture that hangs in their locker room is coming to life.
So now the series returns to San Antonio for Game 5 where the Spurs will have a chance to win their 5th NBA title. And no matter how things looked during Game 4, it won't be easy for the Spurs. The Heat are the two-time defending champs and are a very proud organization. They will put up a valiant fight and will rely on the fact that they've had an extra day of rest to help them handle the coming onslaught.
But the Spurs will be there waiting. Tim Duncan innocuously, yet firmly, proclaimed that his Spurs had four more games to win and they'd do it this time. The required number of wins is now down to one and the Spurs seem poised and determined to complete the task left unfinished last June.