MIAMI – The Miami Heat own a tricked out golf cart/mini four wheeler. It's got a traditional body, but oversized, heavy tread tires and a custom paint job – "White Hot." It's a sweet ride. They use it to transport important people around the back hallways of American Airlines Arena.
Early Friday morning, long after the San Antonio Spurs had pulled a fourth-quarter surprise with trademark efficiency, poise and teamwork, long after they'd taken Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 92-88, LeBron James was the important person in need of a ride off to the players' entrance on the other side of the arena.
He climbed on the back of the cart with a Nike executive, but the thing was positioned all wrong in a hallway jammed with stadium workers punching their time cards and heading home. There was no easy route forward to turn around, forcing the driver to put it in reverse to back his way through the crowd.
It wasn't a grand exit for the King, the ensuing beeping noise providing a comic soundtrack.
Here it is, 2013, six years after San Antonio swept a young LeBron and his Cleveland Cavaliers, and James is still looking backward. He said the other day he's "20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals." He said that he was using that painfully lopsided Finals loss as both motivation and a measuring stick for his new level of greatness. In the end Thursday, none of it was enough.
James may, indeed, be 50 times better. San Antonio may be just as great though.
"The Spurs are the Spurs, man," James said.
LeBron is now 0-5 against San Antonio in the Finals, a convenient if easily dismissed statistic. The first four were against an undermanned Cavaliers team that James willed to the Finals a year or two before they were ready. These are the defending champion Heat.
Nothing is the same. Except maybe it is.
Across the seasons it's not just Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobli and those simple, low frills black and silver uniforms that are staring back at him. It's a game plan to take away his ability to drive the basketball. It's a team that is not in awe of his immense talent or a late-game deficit or a dwindling shot clock on the critical basket of the game. It's a group of players that can casually walk into the Finals and commit just four turnovers, while forcing the Heat into five in the fourth quarter alone.
They are four-time champions that know exactly what they want to do and how to do it.
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"They're not going to beat themselves," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "We have to beat them."
LeBron put up a triple-double Thursday: 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. In any other context that would be magnificent. Yet it was the Spurs who were patting themselves on the back for their defensive play.
He shot 7 of 16 from the floor, neither enough makes nor attempts. The Spurs worked relentlessly to make him take jumpers (just 1 of 5 from 3-point range) or pass the ball to teammates who aren't nearly as capable. Kawhi Leonard is the kind of athlete who can battle James on the perimeter – "[Kawhi] made him work," Popovich said – and the help defense was constant.
"They did a good job of putting two guys on the ball," James said. "When I got the ball, they kind of shrunk the floor and set a guy at the elbow and dared me to pass the ball."
"It's going to take the whole team," Parker said. "Obviously Kawhi is going to try to do his best. You're not going to stop him. He's the best player in the NBA, he's going to do his thing. You just try to contain him and try to make him take outside shots."
Popovich isn't going to let James beat the Spurs at the rim without earning it. He'd prefer the game be decided by Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or whomever else is hanging around. Anyone but No. 6 going toward the hoop with a head of steam.
It wasn't very different from what they did in 2007.
"I know my guys will be there to knock down those shots the next game," James said.
Maybe they will, maybe they won't. That's a deal San Antonio will take.
James didn't look panicked or stressed. His teammates didn't hold up their end of the bargain Thursday and still, this was a game the Heat could have easily won. And while Miami has kicked away home games across these playoffs and managed to return with vengeance, this isn't a patchwork Chicago team or a still-climbing Indiana club.
The Spurs are methodical, smart and well aware how important Sunday's Game 2 is, especially under the Finals format where the next three are in Texas.
And still, 0-5 is 0-5.
For all LeBron's growth over these six years, from 22-year-old phenom to four-time MVP and generational talent, the Spurs are back standing in his way. They're older. They're, perhaps, a bit slower. Duncan and Ginobli, in particular, aren't what they were. And yet they walked out into a rainy Miami night with another victory, with another example of how five can still beat one.
"We're here to win," Duncan said. "Old veterans, whatever you want to call us. We're in the mix now."
The golf cart kept beeping as it backed away down the hallway, the King's carriage. LeBron James must have thought he'd left San Antonio back in the past, yet here he was, after Game 1, after another loss, riding in reverse, looking backward, straight at the same old challenge in the Finals, straight at those same old Spurs, man.
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