Expect the unexpected.
Despite having three games of evidence to pore over, that's the only constant trend the 2013 NBA Finals has yielded so far.
The Miami Heat were supposed to be in rhythm from the outset of the series in Game 1—to have their sights locked in on their second Larry O'Brien Trophy in as many seasons. The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, were supposed to be rusty, with nothing but film study and practice sessions to hold them over during a nine-day layoff.
But San Antonio needed just three quarters to find its stride and rode a 23-16 fourth-quarter advantage to a 92-88 win.
What has transpired over the eight quarters of play since simply defies explanation.
The Heat sprinted to a game-changing 33-5 run in the second half of Game 2, a surge that included all of 90-plus seconds of action for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and evened up the series with a 103-84 victory. In Game 3, it was the Spurs who were the beneficiaries of some unlikely contributions, as Danny Green and Gary Neal combined for 51 points and 13 of San Antonio's record-setting 16 threes.
So what's next for the best two teams in the league?
Miami might not be ready to call Game 4 a must-win, but history says that's exactly what it is. No team has climbed out of a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals, and San Antonio hasn't given any indication that it would be the first team to give away that kind of an advantage.
Can the Heat find a way to make this a three-game series in Game 4, or are the Spurs on the verge of wrapping up the franchise's fifth title?
Time: Thursday, June 13, 9 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio
Series: Spurs lead 2-1
Game 4 Key Storyline: Hall of Fame Arrivals
In a declaration free from any public-relations spin, NBA commissioner David Stern hailed this matchup as perhaps "the most anticipated Finals in, who knows, 30 years," during his pre-finals press conference, via The Washington Post. With a highly decorated, supremely talented trio on each roster, this sure looked like it would be a superstar clash for the ages.
For the most part, though, it's been anything but. There have been a few glimpses of the Hall of Fame skill sets at play in this series (Tony Parker's miraculous dagger in Game 1, LeBron James' third career finals triple-double on the same night), but for the most part, these first three games have been defined by the strength of the supporting casts.
Miami doesn't have a leg to stand on at this point without the 41 combined points from Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen in Game 2. The Spurs dealt the Heat the third-worst finals defeat in league history in Game 3, despite Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili shooting a combined 10-of-23 from the field.
At some point, that trend will start to give way to talent.
Maybe James finally decides he can no longer afford to keep deferring to his teammates. Maybe he'll decide that rather than reacting to San Antonio's defensive pressure, he'll force it to adjust to his own aggression.
San Antonio has seen a greater return from its Big Three, but whether or not that continues to be the case may hinge on Parker's health going forward. He strained his right hamstring during Game 3 and is officially listed as day-to-day.
The Spurs have built their decade-plus dynasty on the strength of their depth, but Parker is the one responsible for making all of the different pieces fit. He punished Miami for a game-high 21 points in the series opener, and the mere threat of his penetrations have freed up San Antonio's shooters to fire at will ever since.
Assuming Gary Neal doesn't have another 24-point outburst in him (not exactly a stretch considering his previous playoff-high was 14), Parker's absence could be enough to even up the series.
Series Star So Far: Danny Green
The fact that a former Cleveland Cavalier has emerged as the best player of this series surprises no one. But not even Danny Green himself imagined he'd be that player.
It's not just the fact that less than three years ago his NBA future was very much in jeopardy after he was waived by Cleveland. But it's the way that a one-trick pony has separated himself from a pack of versatile stars.
Green's a spacer in every sense of the word, raining down threes when needed but typically providing his greatest value by pulling defensive attention away from his teammates.
With a scorching three-point stroke (69.6 percent in the series), he just keeps taking on more offensive responsibility. And he's absolutely maximizing on those increased chances, leading the Spurs in scoring in both Games 2 (17 points) and 3 (27).
Throw in some stellar defensive play (1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals per game so far), including spot duty on James, and a commitment to San Antonio's teamwide approach on the glass (3.3 rebounds per game) from Green, and it's not hard to argue that he's been the most impactful player through the finals thus far.
Projected Starting Lineups
Miami: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh
San Antonio: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter
Heat Will Win If...
...They wake up and realize exactly what's at stake here.
Miami cited fatigue as a factor in its late-game collapse in Game 1 and looked sluggish in Game 3 long before San Antonio's marksmen had the chance to frustrate Erik Spoelstra's team. The Heat were manhandled on the glass (52-36 overall, 19-9 on the offensive glass), nearly doubled up in transition points (20-11), and far too often settled for the first available shot rather than putting in the effort to find a more efficient look.
The Heat's ability to bounce back from a loss has been well documented (Miami hasn't lost consecutive games since Jan. 8-10), but it's far too late in the season for Spoelstra to be seeing a lack of focus and attention to detail, as he said he did after reviewing the Game 3 film.
Miami doesn't just need James to play like the best player on the planet, it needs him to be the most selfish one, too. Dwyane Wade's clearly not 100 percent, and Chris Bosh looks outmatched and outclassed on the interior.
The Spurs are daring James to beat them with the jumper, and he's playing right into their hands by either forcing up those inefficient shots or too often deferring to his teammates.
His driving lanes are tighter now than they've been all season (San Antonio's effectively walling off the paint), but he's unmatched athletically in this series and could at least find some free throws at the back end of those penetrations. He never got to the line in Game 3 and has attempted just six free throws in the entire series, more than 2.5 below than his career single-game average (8.6).
This isn't just the lasting legacy of their 27-game winning streak at stake here; this could spell the beginning of the end for Miami's Big Three if they don't play with more fire.
Spurs Will Win If...
...They can control the interior.
Even if Parker is available for Game 4 (never a given with a cautious Gregg Popovich team), there's no telling what kind of impact he will be able to make. So it's crucial that the Spurs bigs find decisive wins in the battle of the paint at both ends of the floor.
San Antonio's offense will lose a step if Parker's not at the wheel, so it can ill afford to concede too many easy baskets when points may come at a premium at the other end.
But if Tim Duncan and/or Tiago Splitter can efficiently attack the heart of Miami's defense, then the Spurs can once again expose Miami's high-risk, high-reward style.
The Heat love to swarm opposing ball-handlers, but that constant movement has often led to missed assignments and bad reads that have resulted in open looks for the Spurs snipers. If Duncan can rediscover his stroke (he's shooting just 37.2 percent for the series), he can draw defenders away from their assignments like Parker has with his dribble drives.
And when San Antonio's shooters have space, well, we've all seen just what can happen.
That mind-boggling statistic about Miami's ability to recover after a loss has garnered plenty of discussion in this postseason, and for good reason—five months without back-to-back losses is quite the accomplishment.
But what that number fails to capture is how mediocre the Heat have looked of late. Miami is just 5-5 in its last 10 games and has now gone nearly a month without back-to-back victories (May 13-15).
San Antonio hasn't dropped consecutive games this postseason, and Tuesday's rout ran its playoff record to 14-3. The Spurs are clearly peaking at the right time and now need just two wins in four games to be crowned champions for the fifth time since 1999.
It's always tough to bet against the King, particularly when he's coming off a disappointing loss, but I'm not convinced that his teammates can do enough even if he erupts for another one of his dominant performances.
So, even with Parker's status up in the air (can't imagine him not playing by the way), I think San Antonio just might be getting ever closer to putting this series to rest.
Spurs 97, Heat 90