The San Antonio Spurs didn’t head to South Beach for a vacation. Given their dominant performances against the Miami Heat in Games 3 and 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals, though, they may have felt like were on a relaxing team retreat.
Despite entering the season’s final series with a 3-5 road record throughout the 2014 playoffs, San Antonio crushed Miami by a combined 40 points in the past two games.
The offense was firing on all cylinders—even setting Finals records for field-goal percentage in the first quarter and first half of Game 3. The defense didn’t slack either, allowing the Spurs to distance themselves from Miami and stave off comeback attempts in both games.
Now, the two-time defending champion Heat have their backs pressed firmly against a wall.
In order to win a third consecutive championship, LeBron James and Co. will have to make history by becoming the first NBA Finals team to climb back from a 3-1 deficit. They’ll have to win two games in San Antonio to make it happen.
The Heat aren’t dead to rights just yet, but they’re pretty darn close. They still have the best player in the series (James), but his supporting cast will have to carry a significantly bigger load.
That starts with pulling out a road victory in Game 5, as Miami did in Game 2.
Will San Antonio close out the series on its home floor or will the Heat live to fight another day?
Seeds: Miami Heat No. 2; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Series: Spurs lead 3-1
Schedule for Series: Game 5, Sunday, June 15, 8 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 6*, Tuesday, June 17, 9 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 7*, Friday, June 20, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)
Key Storyline for Miami Heat
Will the Big Three show up to set the tone for head coach Erik Spoelstra?
That’s truly what it all comes down to for Miami. It didn’t receive big performances from anyone other than James at home, which crushed the team's chances at pulling ahead or evening the series.
Chris Bosh drained every shot he attempted during Game 3, but that only included four field goals.
As noted by ESPN's John Buccigross, his touches dropped off dramatically after he posted 18 points per game in the first two contests. He was involved early and often during Game 4, but another culprit stepped forward to hinder Miami’s shot at winning.
Frankly, Dwyane Wade looked like a complete and utter shell of himself on Thursday.
Despite getting into favorable positions near the basket, Wade missed nearly every attempt. He had no lift on his jump shot, missed four of eight free throws and looked like the guy at the YMCA who’s just weeks away from knee replacement surgery.
His lethargic effort on defense and poor shooting on offense doomed the Heat. He finished 3-of-13 from the field for 10 points.
Miami’s supporting cast simply isn’t good enough to prop up lackluster performances from Wade and Bosh. Spoelstra even substituted Toney Douglas into the second quarter of Game 4 out of desperation. He’s frantically trying to find a spark.
“They smashed us,” James told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) after the game. “Two straight home games got off to awful starts. They came in and were much better than us in these last two games. It’s just that simple.”
“They played great, and I can honestly say I don’t think any of us were expecting this type of performance,” Spoelstra said.
The Heat better start expecting San Antonio’s best effort or they’ll be sent home without rings for the first time since 2011.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
Can Gregg Popovich’s crew keep this unstoppable train chugging along?
The main storyline after Games 1 and 2 was the play of Kawhi Leonard. Although he’s been given the unenviable task of defending James, Leonard needed to provide the Spurs with more offensive firepower to ignite their dominance.
Some pundits were critical of the 22-year-old. Would his shining moment happen too late for the Spurs to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them?
Well, he couldn’t have silenced the doubters any more emphatically than he did in Miami.
|Kawhi Leonard's Turnaround|
|Span||FGA per game||FG%||PPG||RPG||APG||SPG||BPG|
|Games 1 and 2||7.0||42.9%||9.0||2.0||1.5||1.0||0.0|
|Games 3 and 4||12.5||68%||24.5||9.0||2.5||2.5||2.5|
After two so-so performances, the San Diego State product imposed his will on both ends of the floor. He’s continued to play phenomenal defense on James—despite the four-time MVP’s continued brilliance—but his offense has been the catalyst in the team's turnaround.
When Leonard is aggressively and actively looking to score, the Spurs are nearly unbeatable.
His confidence deserves to be at an all-time high. San Antonio will close out this series if he and teammate Danny Green continue to produce at a high level.
Although the term “X-factor” tends to imply an unsung hero whose efforts complement those of the team’s stars, Miami’s new wild card is D-Wade.
It’s unfortunate that that’s the state of affairs for Coach Spo, but Wade is battling Father Time as well as San Antonio.
The mileage on his knees is stacking up, and while fatigue is an excuse, it’s not a valid one. The Spurs also played an 82-game regular season and faced better competition in the playoffs.
It’s gut-check time for Wade at this point. Does he still have something left in the tank to contribute?
USA Today’s Sam Amick certainly didn’t sound confident when writing the following:
Dwyane Wade, who has what appears to be a genuine brotherhood with James and who made such a graceful adjustment to his sidekick role in these past few seasons, just simply doesn’t look capable of playing the part right now.
His strong Eastern Conference finals showing against the Indiana Pacers is a distant memory at this point. It has been replaced by a horrifically timed disappearing act that will surely be on James’ mind when he considers all the bountiful options before next month.
That’s harsh, but describing Wade’s play as a “horrifically timed disappearing act” isn’t unjust.
The Spurs’ X-factor, meanwhile, will continue to be Boris Diaw.
The 32-year-old veteran has dominated the Finals with throwback performances reminiscent of his days in a Phoenix Suns uniform. Pop’s major adjustment following the Game 2 loss was inserting Diaw into the starting lineup. The Spurs haven’t looked back.
In Game 4, the Frenchman compiled eight points, nine rebounds and nine assists—including the following beauty of a dime for a Tiago Splitter flush:
Diaw is causing all sorts of matchup problems for Miami. Honestly, the Heat don’t have a viable solution to stifle his effectiveness.
Key Matchup: Dwyane Wade/Ray Allen vs. Danny Green/Manu Ginobili
San Antonio’s two-pronged attack at the shooting guard spot just keeps on clicking.
Wade, meanwhile, looked like he was running through humus during Game 4. Ray Allen, who will be seven years older than Wade in July, has been far more efficient from a shooting standpoint.
The consistency from Ginobili/Green has outweighed that from Wade/Allen to this point. Unless Miami’s two 2-guards can tip the scales in the Heat’s favor, they won’t be headed back to South Beach for Game 6.
Wade needs to be Spoelstra’s No. 2 option beside James for Miami to be successful. With a distinct lack of depth off the bench, Allen must be the instant-offense sixth man.
Given Green’s sharpshooting from deep and Ginobili’s youthful resurgence, though, it will tough for Miami to win the position battle.
D-Wade has to step up.
The Spurs were absolutely unstoppable in Games 3 and 4. Popovich slotted Diaw into the starting five, inspired Leonard to look for his offense and watched arguably the most dominant two-game stretch of Finals basketball ever.
Can the Heat dust themselves off following back-to-back drubbings at home? After getting booed by their home fans, no less?
James has continued to play at an MVP-caliber level, but his performances have been silenced by San Antonio’s surgical offense. It also doesn’t help that LBJ had more turnovers (10) than assists (nine) in Miami.
At this point, it feels as if the Spurs are out for blood. They’re looking to avenge the gut-wrenching Finals loss from a year ago, and there’s no better way to do that than by closing things out in front of their home fans.
I expect Leonard to continue playing at an elite level. Diaw will also be the catalyst for success as San Antonio’s Swiss Army knife.
More critical than anything, though, will be the performance of the Spurs’ second unit. If guys like Ginobili, Splitter, Patty Mills and even Matt Bonner continue to execute, depth will override Miami’s stars.
Prediction: Spurs defeat Heat 102-93