Both the Eastern and Western conference finals are knotted at 2-2, with the home team having taken all eight games in the third round, in a turnout that is either not surprising in the least (that Oklahoma City/San Antonio matchup), and a little surprising considering the matchups heading in (Boston/Miami). All outfits are expected to make all manner of changes heading into what we're legally required to refer to as the "pivotal" Game 5, with potential rotation overhauls, philosophy changes, and even the return of an All-Star (Miami's Chris Bosh) in the offing.
Those adjustments would be fair, and needed moves. But they don't take away from what San Antonio and Miami — losers of two straight, an eternity in early June — need to do most. Namely, play better. Play much better, especially defensively, and not just because switches in personnel or defensive ideals will do the work for them heading into Game 5 and beyond.
No, both teams can blame failing to take a 3-1 stranglehold in their respective series on actual failures in execution, shocking for two teams that seemed to have the NBA by the scruff of its neck just one week ago.
(This particular portion in a sportswriter's column always introduces the caveat you're about to read, and though it still ranks as a cliché, it's appropriate here.)
Let's not discredit what Boston and Oklahoma City are doing to make these series' so competitive, so even, and so damn exciting. Though Miami and San Antonio — playing twice at home over the next week with three potential third round games left to play — are still the favorites, a Celtic/Thunder NBA Finals could very well be foisted on our happy laps if OKC and Boston somehow replicate the sort of play they came through with at home while on the road in Game 5. Considering the makeup of either squad, we wouldn't put that past them.
The onus, though, is always on the team that lost last. Or, lost twice in a row. And in watching Miami fail to close out properly or chase Celtics off of their initial offensive options in Game 4, we're certain that this Heat group's issues have more to do with focus and early-game drive than they do having to play without an orthodox center or even orthodox power forward at times. Sure, that rim is ripe for Boston's taking, but that hasn't stopped Miami from shutting down Boston in the past from the perimeter. Or, just in the term of this Eastern conference final, in the second and third quarters in Game 4 or fourth quarter in Game 3 as Miami attempted its comeback.
No, the lack of big men patrolling the paint for Miami has nothing to do with LeBron James giving up on a play after an offensive rebound, and letting his man (Paul Pierce) squeak off to the corner for an open three-pointer right in front of Boston's bench. All while James guards absolutely nobody under the rim, a place he stayed for a good five seconds (in NBA ages, again, that's an eternity). James wasn't even in place for the weak side rebound, and yet complained and moaned to his teammates after Pierce swished the trey.
A lack of a big man has nothing to do with Dwyane Wade failing to attempt to work through Kevin Garnett's actually-legal screen in that 61-47 Boston-led first half as Ray Allen hits a trey, or Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem (two of the biggest defensive brains this game has ever known) failing to communicate as to who would take the NBA's all-time leading three-point maker as he curls for another made bomb. Or Mike Miller failing in one possession to either really help as the Heat fronted Kevin Garnett, or closing out on Keyon Dooling in the corner — the only shot he wants to take these days.
Miami has been playing without much of an interior presence all year, and we understand that the team is pretty hamstrung when LeBron James (working with Shane Battier and Joel Anthony, two terrible rebounders that combined for just three boards in 57 minutes of play on Sunday) can't go out and grab double-figure rebounds. We don't care. You've been working with this limited supporting cast all season, LeBron, and you kind of have to go out and get those double-figure rebounds. That's what happens when you commit to a top-heavy team.
The Heat eventually evened things out in Game 4, turning up the defense, evening up the rebounding battle and taking things to overtime in a game they could have won, but it's the initial deficits that are killing Miami's chances. In a terribly-officiated game, referees will overreact to contact and frantic play, and frantic play is the only way to come back in a game that asks you to outscore a team by 17 points in just 33 minutes just to tie a team like Boston heading into overtime.
San Antonio's defense is just as onerous, and they'll likely have plenty to look at heading into Monday's Game 5, especially the way the Thunder were able to flatten the floor and essentially trade Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant's positions (turning Durant into a stretch 4 while Ibaka roamed the baseline like a wing player) late in Oklahoma City's Game 4 win. The Spurs have not been a great defensive team this year, and the last couple of contests have been particularly awful on that end.
There's only so much, with that team's personnel, that they can do. What they can do is re-discover the offensive movement and spark that made them so damned dangerous as they won 30 out of 32 games between mid-March and last week.
Instead, we've seen endless amounts of isolation ball from San Antonio as Oklahoma City (to that team's credit) has taken them away from their initial offensive options. The patience is gone, and as a result the spacing, the movement, and the threats are gone. Sometimes the attitude means as much as the players on the floor. And San Antonio's attitude, and its insistence on weathering the storm and using an opponent's aggression against itself, changed in Oklahoma City.
This, in a way, is to be expected. The Spurs did their work towards the end of a miserable regular season. They dispatched a borderline lottery-esque Utah Jazz squad and a Los Angeles Clippers team that was limping through significant injuries to its two best players. Then, after months of winning, they dropped two in a row on the road in the third round, like they're supposed to do.
That's the problem, though. The Spurs aren't supposed to be just any other team. Everybody picked this series to go six or seven games, and though Durant's Game 4 performance was a classic in every sense, you still get the feeling that the Spurs could do more. Defense, yeah, it stinks. Offense? No excuse for peeling back. No excuse for letting those punk kids dictate how those games were going to be played.
We fully submit that there is only so much San Antonio can do. When the Spurs goes to the two-man game, Tim Duncan's struggles from the perimeter (as if we're now expecting Tim to turn into Bob McAdoo out there) are allowing the Thunder to make up defensive schemes on the fly, but that should just be one facet of an offense that should be spiraling until it finds itself with a shot you didn't want it to take. Credit the Thunder. Love the Thunder. The Spurs can do better.
They will do better. They're the Spurs.
The Heat? Perhaps we're dubious because we're reeling from their time in Boston, after having expected them to win that typical Game 4 heartbreaker. Then again, Miami was a point away (in regulation) from winning that heartbreaker. And an inch or two away, with LeBron James having fouled out and Dwyane Wade tossing up a three-pointer that nearly went in, from winning in overtime. Yes, Boston blew Miami out of the water for five quarters in Boston in Games 3 and 4, but Miami blew Boston out for three quarters, and played them to a two-point deficit in overtime. All without Chris Bosh.
(Who won't help what Miami needs most, we should point out.)
Boston was pretty awful, offensively, this season. Pretty terrible in the playoffs, as well. And yet, for significant stretches in four different games, the Boston Celtics have been tilting these contests with offense, not with the team's superior defense. Muddle the game and adjust all you want, but at some point this has to fall on the players. The players that know that Miami's depth is just about nonexistent, and that the only reason the Heat made it this far with this strange a roster is because the effort was all out, from players (both legendary, and obscure) that were well aware of their station.
That commitment to role — be it from a player putting up Jordan-esque numbers, or a non-star changing the game with a four minute stretch that doesn't even show up in the box score — has been lacking in its consistency for the Heat. Not only in Boston, but throughout this series. It hasn't disappeared entirely, but it hasn't been there enough to feel as if Miami has a stranglehold on this series.
San Antonio and Miami are still in control, in ways that go well beyond the fact that both sides still own home court advantage in a three-game term that is tightening ever so quickly for their opponents. And Game 5 blowout wins for the home team, in series' like this, are often the norm.
There has to be a re-commitment, though. To the things, on either side of the ball, that made San Antonio and Miami so scary in the first place.