MIAMI — The passes kept flying, from one Spur to the next, one zone to the next, inside, then outside and inside again, chipping away at the Miami Heat's defense, chipping away at their sanity.
The ball kept moving Thursday night—a beautiful, brilliant display of selflessness and discipline. You could practically see the Heat's resolve crumbling under the pressure of all of those pretty passes: from Boris Diaw to Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard to Patty Mills, and Mills to Tiago Splitter.
The more San Antonio passed, the more Miami wilted, and soon the Spurs were cruising to another unfathomable rout, a 107-86 blowout that put them on the verge of a fifth championship.
The Spurs are heading home with a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, after taking two games by a combined 40 points on the Heat's home court.
This was the Spurs at their absolute best: precise, purposeful, fluid and, dare we say, dominant, although that last adjective admittedly isn't one we usually associate with this team of humble stars.
Perhaps we should.
The Spurs shredded the Heat despite getting modest production from Tim Duncan (10 points) and Manu Ginobili (seven). But they rode Tony Parker's hot hand for 19 points, got another big game from Leonard (20) and a fantastic shooting display from Mills (14), who went 4-of-6 from behind the arc.
Leonard and Mills outscored Miami's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh 34 to 22. The statistics were an emphatic testament to the Spurs' superior depth and balance, as well as the frailty of the Heat's Big Three.
The Spurs passed the ball 380 times in Game 4, an average of 4.6 times per possession, whipping it past, around and through whatever seam they found.
It was a sight to behold, the game in its purest form. Even Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, who has seen so many great moments from this team, left the arena sounding a bit awestruck—and a bit hoarse—late Thursday night.
"To know how these guys care for each other, and to see them enjoy the success of the group and play together like that, that's incredibly fun to be part of," Buford told Bleacher Report.
The SportVU box score also showed a massive discrepancy in ball movement, with the Heat making 267 passes, more than 100 fewer than the Spurs.
There was a simple artistry to the Spurs' offensive onslaught, and Diaw was the master painter. He passed the ball 78 times (second only to Parker's 83) and sliced up the Heat with nine assists, finding just the right player in the right spot, time and again.
Early in the second quarter, Diaw drew a double-team and then casually snapped a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass to Splitter for an easy layup. The fancy passing set Twitter ablaze and caught the attention of at least one notable NBA playmaker.
"That Boris Diaw pass..." tweeted Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio, who might be the NBA's most creative passer.
In the third quarter, Diaw caught the ball deep in the lane, then promptly wrapped it around Bosh to Duncan for an easy dunk. By the end of three quarters, Diaw had as many assists (seven) as the entire Heat roster and the Spurs had an 81-57 lead.
"I always try to read on the floor who is going to be open," Diaw said.
It's incredible to think that, just two years ago, Diaw was out of shape and seemingly washed up after being cut by the Charlotte Bobcats, then the worst team in the league. The Spurs remembered a different Diaw—a younger, more slender version who carved them up repeatedly as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
"He kicked our ass for a long time," Buford said. "We had some terrific series with Phoenix, when he was at his best."
It also helped that Diaw and Parker have been friends since they were teenagers in France. The Spurs promptly signed Diaw in March 2012. He has been in and out of coach Gregg Popovich's rotation over the last two years, but he seems to resurface at the right times.
"You have to be able to know [how] to use Boris," Buford said. "I think Pop has great appreciation for his skill set."
So effective was Diaw that James was moved to call him "another point guard on the floor"—high praise for a 6'8" power forward, and coming from James, an elite passer himself.
In this series, the Spurs needed a more versatile and mobile player alongside Duncan, to combat the Heat's smallish lineup. Diaw replaced Splitter in the starting lineup for Game 3, and suddenly the entire tenor of the series has changed after two intensely competitive games in San Antonio.
The Heat might have won Game 1, if not for LeBron James' untimely leg cramps and the air conditioning outage that caused them. Miami prevailed in a close Game 2.
Now the Heat look thoroughly befuddled, dizzied by the Spurs' game of half-court pinball.
"We all try to make good passes," Diaw said. "Everybody on our team is reading, including me. But we don't want to go for the home run pass. We try to make the right pass, and sometimes the easy pass is the right pass."
This, too, is a hallmark of this Spurs team, one that has gone overlooked in a league that is, as ever, ruled by electrifying one-on-one scorers and slick crossover artists.
The Spurs are built around a 38-year-old forward, a 36-year-old shooting guard and a still-spry, but undazzling 32-year-old point guard. There is no dominant scorer on this roster—no Kevin Durant, no LeBron James, no Carmelo Anthony—though Leonard might one day get there.
They pass to survive, to keep the elite defenses off balance, to create the open shots that otherwise wouldn't be there. They dutifully adhere to Popovich's mantra: to pass up good shots for great ones. And they do it better than anyone.
"This group is committed to it," Buford said.
No team has won the NBA title after trailing 3-1, and the Heat certainly look ready to fold.
By late Sunday, the Spurs could be hoisting another Larry O'Brien Trophy. One of them will be clutching the Bill Russell MVP Award. With this group, it seems impossible to pick any one player over the others. That might be the most Spurs thing of all.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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