There's something to be said for peaking at just the right time.
As the Spurs and Heat head into the first elimination game of the 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio appears to be at that high water mark, cresting into a wave that's beautiful to anyone not directly in its path. Meanwhile the Miami Heat, two-time defending champs and the villains of last season, find themselves lacking any momentum just when they need it the most.
Aside from Travis Hale's seemingly prophetic article (seriously, the guy pretty much nailed it), few people were making the case for San Antonio to overwhelm Miami the way they have through the first four games. LeBron's transcendent greatness, Wade's improved play through the postseason, and fresh memories of the 2013 Finals had most of us seeing this as another close series, and not one to be decided by wins of 25, 19, and 21 points (plus a two-point loss).
But that's where we are as we look ahead to Game 5 in San Antonio. And though the Heat faced elimination against San Antonio last year, this series has quickly shown it is a competition between two very different teams.
The Spurs are a question to which the Heat simply have not shown that they have an answer. It's visible in their effort, body language, and in the befuddlement of a defense that has given up one open look after another. It was one thing to be defeated under Game 3's record-breaking shooting barrage, but for the Spurs to be as equally superhuman in Game 4 -- that's something the Heat and the national media weren't prepared for. The white T-shirts worn by Miami fans, poised to watch their team take control of the series during a pivotal home stand, quickly doubled as white flags to be carried off during a pair of all-too-familiar late-game exoduses. Despite recent ESPN reports, Melo's not walking through that door, and it might not even make a difference if he did.
The San Antonio offense has carved Miami up in ways only fully appreciated on Phantom Cam. The passing and off-the-ball movement have been spell binding, and everyone on the team is getting involved. In Game 4, it was Boris Diaw who embodied it best, continually finding teammates on cuts for easy buckets. He finished the game with nine assists, including a nifty behind-the-back feed to Tiago Splitter.
Defensively, San Antonio has been happy to live with great performances from LeBron James who, to his credit, can't be blamed much for the hole his team finds itself in. Cramping and bathroom jokes aside, James has made numerous jaw-dropping plays in this series and stretched his game comfortably beyond the three-point line. His numbers, which include a 28-8 line (4 of 8 on threes) in Game 4, should absolve him of at least some of the criticism that will rain down if the Heat fail to come back.
For them to do so, Dwyane Wade, atrocious in Game 4, will have to be at his best both in supporting James and taking over when he's off the floor -- that is if Erik Spoelstra plans to rest him at all.
At this point, a bit of experimentation is to be expected from the Heat coach, who has gone with the same starting lineup since Game 1. Games haven't been lost in the first quarter (well, maybe in Game 3), but the Heat have been outplayed in every single opening period, and have gone into the second quarter down by an average of 9 points. As Game 4 came to a close, Spoelstra gave a few garbage-time reps to Toney Douglas, Udonis Haslem, James Jones and even Greg Oden. Part of that was to rest his starters, but it might have some bearing on what he does in Game 5.
That could mean the long-overdue benching of Mario Chalmers, or Haslem/Battier replacing Rashard Lewis in the starting lineup. Or it could mean turning to someone else early off the bench. The Miami supporting cast which, predictably, has been outplayed by San Antonio's, is due for a shakeup.
Miami will want to look at what went right in Game 2 -- their only victory of the series -- in lead-up to Game 5. That win, aided by late misses from the free-throw line by San Antonio, still took a top performance from James (35 and 10), foul trouble for Leonard, and an out-of-sync Spurs offense.
It's not entirely out of the question to see something similar on Sunday -- not for this Heat team -- but the Spurs seem too determined and balanced to allow it to happen.
It's hard to say who the team's Finals MVP would be through the first four games. Kawhi Leonard has put up two monster, tone-setting performances after being mired by foul trouble in Games 1 and 2. Boris Diaw has played big minutes, exhibited incredible versatility, and been the team's best distributor. Tony Parker has been reliable as ever on the offensive end (18.5 PPG), providing floaters and jumpers to quell many a Heat run. Meanwhile Tim Duncan has averaged 16, 10 and 2, while passing a few historical milestones along the way.
And perhaps that is the point: this is a team that is now too deep to tactically prepare for.
This time last year, the Spurs needed a series-redeeming Game 5 performance from Manu Ginobili to pull off the home win. This year, the grit Manu exhibited could come from anywhere. It could be Danny Green being equal parts sharpshooter and penetrator, or Patty Mills outplaying every guy in the Heat backcourt.
Throughout the season, the message has always been the same, both for Spurs players and us as fans: focus on the finish line. It has dictated the way games have been played (or not played, in the case of selective DNPs from Pop), and defined how we look at winning streaks and individual accolades.
Game 5 is the team's first glimpse of the finish line up close -- not as a seductive refraction shimmering in the horizon, but as something they can reach out and finally seize. The team will have three cracks at it, but I see no reason why it won't happen tonight.
Go Spurs go.
Matchup to watch:
Nothing new here. Where these two teams truly clash head-on is in the matchup between LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, and the Game 5 confrontation is interesting for so many reasons. LeBron will play like a man possessed, legacy in mind and ready to leave his fingerprints all over the place, while Kawhi will be reluctantly handling more media attention than ever as a star on the rise. You might not find two players more philosophically different deciding a series. Let's hope Whi can stay out of foul trouble.
|Game 5, 2014 NBA Finals
|June 15, 2014
|AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
|7:00 pm CST
|TV: ABC - Radio: 1200 WOAI
Game Prediction: Spurs by 10.
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