'The same,' but different: How the Spurs got back within 1 win of the NBA title by staying the course
MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra was surprised. Boris Diaw wasn't.
"I can honestly say I don't think any of us were expecting this type of performance," the dejected head coach said after his Miami Heat finished laying their second consecutive egg, a 107-86 Game 4 loss that dropped the Heat into a 3-1 deficit from which no team in NBA Finals history has ever emerged to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"... This was probably the biggest surprise of the series. I think everybody came in expecting something dramatically different than this, and that's what competition does. It's an unknowable event."
Spoelstra's far from the only one stunned by the Heat's second straight listless, rhythm-less outing. But Diaw — the inimitable big man who has helped turn the San Antonio Spurs into a two-way matchup nightmare and unsolvable offensive machine in these 2014 NBA Finals — sounded anything but shocked at the way Game 4 unfolded, with San Antonio once again carving up the Heat's defense, building a big early lead and never looking back.
"Well, not really, because it was pretty much the same game as the last game," Diaw said after another fantastic all-court performance, chipping in eight points, nine rebounds, nine assists and a steal in 35 1/2 minutes in his second straight start."We were expecting a reaction from them, but we were ready for it. So we just did the same thing."
It's what San Antonio has done all year, really; what the rest of us, even opposing big man Chris Bosh, have termed "beautiful basketball," point guard Tony Parker calls "just Spurs basketball." It's a philosophy of substantive style, or maybe stylistic substance — a dedication to sharing both burdens and basketballs, a commitment to the principles of total team offense and five-men-on-a-string defense.
It's the philosophy that got them within seconds of the 2013 championship, and after that opportunity slipped through their fingers, the Spurs didn't abandon it. They doubled down on it. Now, once again just one win away from an NBA championship, we see the fruits of that commitment. For these Spurs, "the same thing" is a very, very good thing.
"The same thing" means constantly moving the ball, shifting Miami's defense from side to side and ruthlessly exploiting the openings all that motion creates. San Antonio made 40 shots on Thursday night, with 25 coming off direct assists and 15 resulting from a secondary, or "hockey," assist, according to the NBA's SportVU optical tracking data, gaudy distribution numbers that produce beautiful possessions like this second-quarter Diaw throwdown:
... and this third-quarter Tim Duncan smash:
... and plenty of others.
"The same thing" means the continued ascent of Kawhi Leonard, who followed a star-making turn in Game 3 with another scintillating performance, scoring 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds (five on the offensive glass) to go with three assists, three blocks and three steals (including this utter undressing of a worse-for-wear Dwyane Wade) in just under 39 minutes.
It's the not-yet-23-year-old small forward confidently taking the ball to the basket time and again, not only hammering put-back dunks, but even having the temerity to challenge illustrious/illustrated shot-blocker Chris Andersen at the rim late in the third quarter. He didn't convert, but the message was unmistakable — "We're looking to end this series, and perhaps your world, as soon as humanly possible."
"The same thing" means constantly running out lineups chock full of shooters and playmakers in the eternal pursuit of the highest-percentage shot, the "good-to-great" gospel Gregg Popovich has preached for years, and one that has utterly dismantled Miami's defense. Through four games, the Spurs are scoring an average of 119.2 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculous clip that's so far above the Los Angeles Clippers' league-leading regular-season mark (109.4-per-100) as to be, essentially, an imaginary number.
"They put you in positions that no other team in this league does," said Heat star LeBron James, who scored a game-high 28 points, including 19 in the third quarter alone, to pace Miami in defeat. "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 the ball from outside, they can also penetrate. So our defense is geared toward running guys off the 3-point line, but at the same time, those guys are getting full-steam ahead and getting to the rim, too.
"I mean, they smashed us," James said. "...They came in and were much better than us in these two games. It's just that simple."
Because of that — because of how simply devastating the Spurs were here in South Florida, because of how dominant they've shown themselves to be on both sides of the ball, just by doing "the same thing" — the Spurs once again find themselves one win away from the fifth NBA championship of the Popovich/Duncan era. They remember all too well just how close "one win away" seemed last year, and how sometimes all it takes is an offensive rebound and a corner 3 to put miles between what could've been and what comes to pass.
The finish to last year's Finals "will definitely come up. It will definitely come up," said Duncan, who set all-time records for postseason minutes played and playoff double-doubles on Thursday. "As I said, we know the caliber [of] team they are, and we have a lot of respect for what they're able to do. They're able to throw it into another gear, and they're going to do just that. They don't want this to be done. They feel they can — they already won on our home court, so they feel they can do it again, and we don't want to give them any life. So we're going to use these two days to really get rested up, come out on Sunday and lay it on the line."
Unlike last year, when San Antonio needed one win in two tries in Miami to be crowned champions, this year's Spurs will have three chances to win one game, with two of them coming in the friendly confines of the AT&T Center. This year, they've got the better, deeper, more dangerous team, and home-court advantage to boot. This year, the odds are heavily in their favor.
This year ... well, as Parker said, this year isn't last year.
"Every time you go to the NBA Finals and you don't win, it's tough," Parker said. "It was a great motivation, but at the same time, each year is different. We just have to stay focused, and we'll be ready.
"We just have to think about last year. We don't need more motivation than that."
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!
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