MIAMI—The supportive serenade started late in this blowout, after a brief "Go Spurs Go!" chant faded out, after many spectators filed out, and while late entrant James Jones was shooting the lights out. It built slowly, before echoing around AmericanAirlines Arena.
"Let's go Heat! Let's go Heat!"
It had the sound of finality, at least for this season.
Ever since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh first appeared as a trio on this floor, there's been an unshakable belief in their superiority. Even when the Heat fell short against the determined, deep but not especially daunting Dallas Mavericks in 2011, there was still a sense in South Florida that the Heat weren't beaten by the better team—just by one that benefited from James' untimely, inexplicable shrinkage.
And in the two-plus postseasons that followed, as the Heat won 13 straight times following a defeat, as a mentally stronger James kept digging his teammates out of the deepest, darkest holes, indignation developed—a feeling of invincibility, so long as the Heat got to their game.
It was about them.
So that's why this is different.
That's why there's so much doubt that the Heat can win one more game, let alone three.
It's not just that the Spurs won two games by 40 points combined on the Heat's home floor—including Thursday's 107-86 mauling—with those margins not even reflective of their complete domination.
"Smoked," Bosh said.
"Smashed," James said.
"Whipped," Wade said.
It's that the truth became undeniably evident: This is no longer about the Heat playing better. It's about the Spurs being better.
There's simply no rational way to dispute that reality at this stage, not with the Spurs leading 3-1 in the series and in every significant statistical category—they're scoring at the rapid-fire rate of 119.2 points per 100 possessions. There's no shame in saying that Gregg Popovich's squad has taken the game to a higher plane, stretching the halfcourt to spread Miami out, speeding the tempo with quick, pinpoint passes, and screening, cutting and shooting at a level that would have caused John Wooden to applaud. They hold the ball for less time than Popovich takes to answer a silly question.
And that says nothing of what they're doing on defense, baiting the Heat into their worst isolation tendencies.
This is the Spurs' masterpiece, their Mona Lisa, and the Heat can't seem to stop staring.
So, in the aftermath of Thursday's obliteration, it wasn't defiance that came out of the Heat side, so much as reverence. Sure, Bosh spoke of getting back "to our primal instinct" and how the Heat "feel we can do better." But he also acknowledged that the Spurs are playing "beautiful basketball" and are "taking us out of everything we're doing."
Sure, the Heat have a higher upside than they've shown, with their starting backcourt now in shambles—Thursday, Wade was actually the weaker partner, clearly missing his lift while missing nine of his first 10 shots, the first nine of those attempts from inside eight feet.
"I'm not used to missing around the basket," Wade said. "But law of averages, man. The ball just didn't go in. But I'll take some of those same opportunities for sure."
Not the 10th one, though. That attempt came from 16 feet, and yet it was the perfect capsulation of how the Spurs have discombobulated the Heat's stars.
The Heat, down 19, had an early offense opportunity, but as Wade curled toward, and then drove along, the baseline, Kawhi Leonard stuck with him step-for-step with Tim Duncan shading to help. Wade fired a pass back out to James, who dribbled nine times in eight seconds as he sized up Boris Diaw, all while his four teammates stood in place. Finally, James sent it back to Wade in the left corner, but Wade was quickly covered again by Leonard, who didn't bite on a dribble or a pump fake, forcing Wade to hoist a shot so short that it barely grazed the rim before the shot clock buzzer.
Wade, the most efficient guard in the league this season, missed 10 of 13 attempts in all. But he wasn't alone. At one stage, James was 9-of-14 and the rest of the team was 10-of-35; at the end of three quarters, James had scored 28 and his teammates just 29.
So, sure, that could change some on Sunday.
And sure, Erik Spoelstra can attempt some additional adjustments, adjustments that some of his players would clearly welcome. All season, it was clear that the Spurs would be the most difficult Finals opponent for Miami, because their system has the capability to use Miami's primary defensive strength—aggressiveness—against it. That has proven so, even with the Heat not blitzing pick-and-rolls quite as maniacally as they sometimes have.
After the game, I asked James whether the counter to the Spurs' blistering ball movement was to "do things harder" or if there were "tactical adjustments that need to be made."
"That sounds like a set-up question," James replied.
It wasn't intended as one, though it was understandable that he could hear it that way—no player wants to be viewed as criticizing a coach from the podium.
Still, his expansive answer was revealing in its own right.
"Man, they move the ball extremely well," James said. "They put you in positions that no other team in this league does, and it's tough because you have to cover the ball first, but also those guys on the weak side can do multiple things. They can shoot from the outside; they can also penetrate. So our defense is geared towards running guys off the three-point line, but at the same time those guys are getting full steam ahead and getting to the rim, too."
He continued without interruption.
"The challenge is as well, with them, implementing Diaw into the lineup has given them another point guard on the floor," he said. "So Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Diaw and Patty Mills on the floor at once, they've got four point guards basically on the floor at once. So all of them are live and they can all make plays. So it's a challenge for us all."
They have never shied from one.
But they've always felt that, in the end, they'd prove to be better.
Are the Spurs?
"Well, I think they're getting to their game a lot better than we are," Wade said. "They're doing what they want to do better than we are. So right now, they're playing better than us, no question about it. We'll see at the end of the series."
A series that may now be a couple days from finished.
"They came in and were much better than us in these two games," James said. "It's just that simple."
It may be simpler than that.
It might not have been about just two games.
The Spurs just might be too much.