Four straight missed free throws.
The San Antonio Spurs had a chance to go up by six points in the fourth quarter, but for those four straight missed free throws—two from Tony Parker and then two more from Tim Duncan.
It was a missed opportunity in a game characterized by missed opportunities. The Spurs had their chances. And then it started to resemble 2013 all over again.
After a 35-point third quarter, San Antonio posted just 18 in the fourth, ultimately succumbing to LeBron James' monster night (35 points, 10 rebounds) and losing by a final score of 98-96.
The reasons are varied, but they stem from a common origin. The Spurs' system broke down. Flustered by Miami's swarming defense and James' size guarding Parker, the seamless ball movement that so often typifies San Antonio's offense was nowhere to be found.
Head coach Gregg Popovich noticed as much in his postgame comments to the media.
And that's the difference between Popovich's club and the Heat. Miami is good enough to win with one-on-one ball.
Miami took advantage of the Spurs' stagnation, with James dominating the ball throughout the second half, scoring throughout the third quarter and making a dagger of a pass to Chris Bosh late in the fourth, putting the Heat in front for good.
While Miami's late-game execution accomplished what it needed to, the Heat only scored 21 points in the final frame. This wasn't about Erik Spoelstra's offense.
It was about San Antonio's lack thereof.
Manu Ginobili echoed Popovich's diagnosis of what went wrong:
If you're starting to notice a common theme here, there's a reason for that. Parker over-dribbled. And while there were still passes to be found, a lack of player movement rendered many of those passes meaningless. There was a lot of standing around.
There's little doubt Popovich and Co. will work to correct those mechanics. In the meantime, they'll have to live with results that largely speak for themselves.
On paper, those results weren't all bad. San Antonio had 26 assists and just 11 turnovers, reversing a problematic trend from Game 1 in which the Spurs turned the ball over 22 times. Three-point shooting was again on the mark, this time with a 46.2 percent success rate.
Not everything was broken, thanks in large part to a third quarter that kept pace with the Heat's own hot shooting.
But there were signs something was awry nonetheless.
After tallying 14 points in Game 1, Tiago Splitter had just two Sunday night. When the big man isn't getting touches around the basket, that's the first sign ball movement wasn't what it should be. The center typically benefits from the club's robust pick-and-roll attack, but he took just three field-goal attempts.
Despite making two of his three three-point attempts, Danny Green took just five shots overall. A shortage of open looks certainly has something to do with what Miami did defensively, but it also has to do with the ball sticking.
The numbers won't indicate an especially widespread breakdown.
This wasn't a blowout.
The real problem was that 18-point fourth quarter. Though the Spurs' usually effective clutch execution is well-documented, it was nowhere to be found in this particular period.
Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer breaks down what went wrong:
There’s little wrong with continually posting up a future Hall of Famer like Tim Duncan or letting Tony Parker forays to the hoop define your evening, but San Antonio needs rhythm to its bounce and it thrives on attacking a defense with five players at a time.
Miami is to be credited for sussing out San Antonio’s initial options offensively; denying baseline drives and screens away from the ball, but the Spurs are not going to enjoy watching tape of Game 2 in the hours between Sunday evening and Tuesday’s Game 3 in Miami.
The movement and timing that marked Game 1’s somewhat convincing win was absent down the stretch of Sunday’s back and forth, with those untimely free throw misses and turnovers giving James just enough space to help his team pull away.
The missed free throws didn't just rob San Antonio of a six-point lead. They halted any momentum that otherwise may have been built. The Spurs' subsequent offense was sluggish and one-dimensional. The pace that often feeds crisp ball movement was missing.
The Heat won the tempo battle in that fourth quarter, and it helped them win the game.
This wasn't entirely about the fourth quarter or missed free throws or lackluster ball movement.
It was also about the failure to stop James, who single-handedly kept Miami neck and neck with the Spurs throughout the third quarter. With Kawhi Leonard again battling foul trouble throughout the game, San Antonio turned to Boris Diaw as the Plan B for defending LeBron.
The problem is that the rest of the team didn't do much to help.
Popovich is reluctant to double-team James on account of his ability to make plays for others, but the willingness to let the four-time MVP beat them from the mid-range isn't going to get it done. It's the philosophy that allowed James to go off in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
And it's the philosophy that could very well haunt this team once again.
An insistence on letting LeBron beat you by himself is a self-fulfilling prophecy. LeBron will proceed to beat you by himself. He's done it before, and he'll do it again. Popovich should know this by now, but he's committed to the process—committed to the notion that consistently doing things the right way will pay off in time.
Time will tell if he's correct in this particular instance.
Notwithstanding the wisdom of daring the planet's best player to beat his Spurs, Popovich will no doubt consider other adjustments that could have swung the game. Bad as the fourth quarter was for San Antonio, the second quarter wasn't much better.
After jumping out to a seven-point lead by the end of the first period, San Antonio was itself outscored by seven in the second. The Spurs quickly forfeited a double-digit lead that they could have built upon. Despite a quick timeout after a Ray Allen three-pointer cut the lead to single digits, Popovich was unable to stop the bleeding.
James repeatedly took the ball to the basket, and the Spurs looked powerless to stop him.
It was the first missed opportunity in a contest that concluded on a similar note. Even after those missed free throws—even after a botched fourth quarter—the Spurs still held a one-point lead with under two minutes remaining.
Against a team like the Heat, that's probably not good enough. Against a team like the Heat, nothing short of perfection will be good enough.
And the Spurs were anything but perfect on this Sunday night.
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