Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals has haunted the San Antonio Spurs since just about this time last year. Back in September, with the new season around the corner, head coach Gregg Popovich confessed to reporters: "I think about Game 6 every day. Without exception. I think about every play."
More recently, before the 2014 NBA Finals were set to commence, Tim Duncan suggested to media that not much had changed in all this time: "We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
So if you're wondering how it is that these Spurs have the defending champion Miami Heat on the ropes thanks to three sizable wins, perhaps we should look no further than the powerful effect of human motivation.
It may sound like a quaint rationale. Sports psychology receives far less press these days than Xs and Os breakdowns or advanced metrics. The heartiest of fans are more drawn to the science of the game than human interest stories.
And that's fine.
But we'd be remiss to ignore the human dimension of what the Spurs are accomplishing and what they're about to accomplish.
Unless Miami does something that no team has ever done in the NBA Finals—recover from a 3-1 deficit—these Spurs will be champions for the fifth time since 1999. That may not qualify as a dynasty to the Phil Jacksons of the world, but it seems like something pretty special to most of us.
Indeed, these Spurs are a rarity, now or ever.
The 54.2 percent they've shot through the first four games of this series is the second-best mark in Finals history, bested only by the 1984 Los Angeles Lakers, who shot 54.6 percent. If that's not Showtime enough for you, remember that San Antonio set records in Game 3 for the most efficient shooting quarter and half in Finals history.
There's a reason ESPN's Stephen A. Smith declared the series "over" after Thursday night's Game 4.
How will the NBA Finals conclude?
The Spurs aren't just motivated. And they aren't just good.
They're historically good.
Not even LeBron James' Miami Heat have an answer to that. Of course, James is historically good in his own right. His legacy will only continue to grow along with his resume and all-around dominance of the game.
But James is only one man. He may be the greatest force multiplier in the game on account of his ability to distribute and make plays for others, but he still hasn't found a way to make the notion of a team itself obsolete.
The Spurs are doing things collectively that transcend the average fan's obsession with one-on-one hero-ball. They're doing things that one of the best Big Threes in league history can't do. They're making it virtually impossible not to bet against LeBron—something students of the game are loath to do.
San Antonio finds itself in this position because this team has actually improved quite a bit from a season ago. The extra motivation didn't hurt.
Our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year. They showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude. If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss — especially the Game 6 — and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position. That's fortitude.
It's no secret that failure fuels growth, so we shouldn't be especially surprised that monumental failure has engendered monumental growth. Where does that leave this particular series at this particular moment?
By most accounts, it means the Spurs now have a virtually insurmountable edge. This isn't the same team that choked away Game 6 in 2013. Losing three straight games wouldn't seem to be in its vocabulary, not given how it's winning these games. A couple of contributing factors deserve some extra focus.
The Next Man Up
There's simply no way for the Heat to zero in on a specific offensive threat. Keep Tony Parker at bay, and the shooters surrounding him will pick up the slack. Run those shooters off the three-point line, and they'll beat you with penetration.
There's no sense in doubling any one of the Spurs. Ensemble efforts don't lend themselves to those kinds of defensive adjustments.
It's fair to say by now that Miami is out of answers defensively.
"They put you in positions that no other team in this league does," James told reporters after Game 4.
Every team tries to move the ball. But few have ever done it as well as these Spurs. Few have demonstrated the discipline, the trust, the unyielding commitment to selflessness. And few have seen the same kind of results.
Tim Duncan had just 10 points in Game 4. Manu Ginobili was held to just seven.
But in true Spurs fashion, others stepped up—this time Kawhi Leonard with 20, Parker with 19 and Patty Mills with 14. Someone always steps up. It's the hydra that is San Antonio's relentless scoring attack, the synergistic multiplication of threats that keeps opponents off balance.
Miami has attempted to counteract San Antonio's assault at the point of attack, swarming ball-handlers and making it difficult to get off a strong initial pass. But more often than not, the Spurs have adjusted—avoiding turnovers and getting the ball moving come hell or high water. In turn, Miami's swarming turns into scrambling.
The Heat have rotated pretty well defensively, but San Antonio's insistence on making extra pass after extra pass raises the bar to unprecedented levels. At some point, they always seem to find an open look. That script probably won't be flipped for three straight games.
One or two of the Spurs could certainly have an off-game, but it won't matter. It hasn't mattered.
The next guy always steps up.
Defending the Defending Champs
Perhaps the most significant revelation from Game 4 is that San Antonio's defense is alive and well. That hasn't been the case in every contest this postseason. It's certainly been the Spurs' offense that's kept them alive this long.
But it could be their defense that closes out this series.
Leonard has set the tone, both with his individual defense on James and with his penchant for finding the ball and single-handedly creating stops. He had three blocks and three steals in Game 4.
Collectively, the Spurs were quicker to loose balls and more energetic. They out-rebounded the Heat by a 44-27 margin on Thursday night. Leonard had 14 of those boards. Duncan had 11 as he passed Magic Johnson for most double-doubles in postseason history.
Ultimately, it was San Antonio's team defense that made the difference. Quick rotations shut down Miami's dangerous baseline drives. Swarms of defenders crowded the paint, contributing in part to Dwyane Wade's 3-of-13 shooting performance from the field.
When it was all said and done, Miami made just 45.1 percent of its field-goal attempts.
It wasn't just a case of an untimely collective cold spell. The Spurs contested everything, even making would-be layups more difficult than they should be.
James scored an efficient 28 points, but he never took the game over despite a strong stretch in the third quarter. Without Wade firing on all cylinders, the onus fell on the three-point shooters who've helped carry Miami throughout the postseason. They were nowhere to be found this time, though—and it showed. James finished with just two assists.
Rashard Lewis was 1-of-4 from the field. Ray Allen finished with just eight points. Mario Chalmers remained cold, striking on two of six field goals and going 0-for-2 from beyond the arc. Credit San Antonio's quick closeouts and superior energy. They made life difficult for shooters and didn't allow for much space on all those attempts.
This isn't the first time San Antonio has defended its way to victory in these playoffs. The Spurs held the Oklahoma City Thunder to 77 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. They allowed just 89 points in Game 5. And that was against OKC, an offensive powerhouse in its own right.
The high-octane Portland Trail Blazers surpassed 100 points just twice in five attempts during the semifinals.
When this team is at its best, though, it dominates on both ends of the floor. That's the real sign of trouble for Miami. Even if the Heat somehow find a way to slow San Antonio's hot shooting, they still have to find a way to score points of their own.
That may prove as difficult as finding a way back into this series.
The Spurs have learned their lessons. They've had that bad taste in their mouths for a long time now. Consider what happens next to be a championship-sized dose of mouthwash.