If last year’s Miami Heat had an action-hero equivalent, it would most certainly be Indiana Jones: doomed to certain death before a last-ditch dive out of the room in some booby-trapped tomb.
For the San Antonio Spurs, the escape Miami made in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, punctuated by Ray Allen’s now pantheonic corner three, was that impossible.
Game 7, then, was the injury’s insult—Indy somehow managing to grab his dusty fedora just before the door finally shuts.
If the Spurs want to avoid a repeat of last season’s hellish heartbreak, they need to do what no one has done since 2012: Beat the Heat two consecutive times.
Even then, no team in modern history has seemed so capable of erasing a 3-1 series deficit. That’s how much Miami thrives on deficits and doubt.
Luckily, San Antonio couldn’t have asked for a more momentum-shifting salvo than its sublime performance in Game 3, which saw the Spurs break the NBA’s all-time playoff record for first-half shooting efficiency en route to a 111-92 win.
Those who witnessed it live won’t easily forget the futility forged about the faces of the homebound Heat—the product of San Antonio’s poetically precise pinball offense. Every shot, it seemed, was either comically uncontested or launched with a butterfly’s breadth between ball and some desperately outstretched Miami hand.
Like The Godfather or Guernica, it’s an opus that may never again be approached, let alone appropriated. Indeed, not even the tortured artist himself would dare deign as much.
Meanwhile, Grantland’s Zach Lowe—in typical excellent fashion—did his best to crystalize the technician’s tact with which the Spurs short-circuited Miami’s mainframe:
It’s the nature of the business to parcel out credit and blame: Who left Kawhi Leonard open for that corner 3? Whose fault is it that Tiago Splitter just lofted an easy layup over the front of the rim (because Splitter, even if he were 9 feet tall, would not dunk)?
But sometimes two great teams play against each other, and one team’s greatness forces the other into uncomfortable situations — tight places where even great teams make poor choices. The Heat were bad defensively for most of Game 3, especially in the first half, when San Antonio rained hellfire from everywhere, in a half-dozen languages.
But credit the Spurs for putting Miami under pressure — for creating a scientific state in which glitches happen.
Strange as it may sound, San Antonio’s most seemingly benign adjustment may have also resulted in its most flagrant assault to Miami’s hard-wiring: starting Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter.
The French forward would finish with just nine points and five rebounds—paltry when compared to some of his more accomplished cohorts. Then you notice Diaw’s team-high plus-20 and realize the method to Pop’s mild madness.
In Diaw, San Antonio boasts arguably the most versatile Finals participant this side of LeBron James—a forward with a floor general’s skills, albeit with somewhat diluted athleticism.
More importantly, Diaw’s combination of range and vision sends the Spurs attack into another gear altogether, while putting even more pressure on the Heat’s often overly opportunistic perimeter defenders.
What Diaw lacks in Splitter’s rebounding and defensive presence, he salvages in spades with a sneaky savvy that at least makes Miami aware of, if not exactly frightened by, his presence.
Popovich is sure to start the same first five Thursday night. How Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra responds—and if ever there were a grand Finals strategy that spans the decades, this is it—stands to be the single-most crucial move of Miami’s three-peat drive.
Might it mean the return of Shane Battier to the rotation? The veteran forward has been noticeably absent of late, but with Rashard Lewis proving little more than a one-dimensional threat in Game 3, it might be high time for Spoelstra to dust off his Old Reliable.
For the Spurs, seizing full control of the series hinges as much on their overall offensive brilliance as it does sustaining the cutthroat confidence of one player in particular: Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was sensational Tuesday night, knifing the Heat D with a beastly purpose unbecoming the third-year forward’s often deferential demeanor.
When Miami left him open from deep, Leonard made them pay. When they came out too aggressively, Leonard drove and created. When the Heat were out of answers, the 22-year-old sensation had a career-high 29 points and a million more believers in his corner.
As with their punishing performance in general, the Spurs would be wise not to rely on a repeat opus from their cornerstone in waiting.
Then again, after what happened on this stage on year ago—a basketball tragedy of almost Shakespearean conceit—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are not about to sit back and let the young bucks do their vengeful bidding.
Diaw and Leonard will figure heavily into San Antonio’s approach. No doubt about it. And doubtless they want to exorcise last season’s demons as much as anyone.
But for Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, those demons are dug in deeper. It’s the difference between going out on the most nauseous of career notes and not having been around long enough to understand why the sickness sticks.
Game 4 is merely the next step in San Antonio’s quest to kill the cancer wrought by last year’s lapses. Should they prevail, they’ll have this bit of basketball science on their side: Only eight teams in NBA history have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit.
Those odds, in a world where the Miami Heat still exist, are about the best odds one could ever hope to have.
It’ll only ever be when those odds are a hundred in hindsight, however, that the Spurs will feel truly safe.