MIAMI -- One game after setting shooting records, the San Antonio Spurs were somehow even better in Game 4. If the previous contest was built on an insane run of unsustainable, almost fluky shooting this was simply pure domination on both ends of the floor. It was a Popovichian masterpiece: a master class on ball movement, spacing and defensive execution.
That it came against the two-time defending champions on their home floor, and on a night when LeBron James delivered an exceptional performance of his own, made the whole thing vaguely surreal. You can travel far and wide and not see anything like this ever again in back-to-back road games in the Finals against a team like Miami.
Only four Spurs scored in double figures In their 107-86 victory, but only one player shot less than 50 percent and that guy was Tim Duncan, who merely had 10 points and 11 boards. The Spurs shot 57 percent, had assists on 25 of 40 field goals and crushed Miami on the boards, where they grabbed 36 percent of the available offensive rebounds.
"Yeah, they just ... they played great," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said with a note of resignation in his voice. "And I can honestly say I don't think any of us were expecting this type of performance."
No one was, really. Once again the Spurs ran a clinic featuring unparalleled ball movement, precision passing and unselfish play. It was beautiful basketball, the kind that should be preserved for all eternity in hoops Valhalla.
For once, this wasn't about what the Heat did wrong, but about what the Spurs simply did better. Throughout the series they have been deeper, more athletic and sharper than the Heat. If Gregg Popovich had a complaint after Game 3 it was his team's "mediocre" defense.
Afterward, in classic big win postgame Pop speak, he said they did a better job.
"I'm pleased that they performed as well as they have while we've been in Miami, and that's about as far as it goes," he said. "Now we've got to go back home and play as well or better."
The Heat seemed, if not defeated, than resigned to the reality that they were thoroughly outplayed in a game they fully expected to win.
"It's jarring. Hell, I didn't expect it," Chris Bosh said. "I didn't expect this at all. I expected to win."
How bad was it for Miami? Spoelstra dusted off Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and even Toney Douglas. When you're reaching for Toney Douglas, brother, you're reaching deep. He has few answers left anymore, working with a depleted bench and a fading Dwyane Wade, who missed 10 of his 13 shots and couldn't finish around the rim.
"Yeah, I just missed them," Wade said. "I'm not used to missing around the basket. But law of averages, man. The ball just didn't go in. I'll take those opportunities next game, for sure."
Look, only a fool would dismiss Miami's chances of pulling off the first Finals comeback from down 3-1. Wade could go off. Bosh could get hot and that's still LeBron, who is eminently capable of winning a game or two all by himself, which he basically did in Game 2. Problem is, the 2-2-1-1-1 format was supposed to prolong series but now they'll have to get a game in San Antonio if they hope to make this competitive.
Right now, Miami is looking like a team that's spent. Like the Lakers in 2004 when they were overrun by the Pistons or any other in the long lineage of historic teams, when it inevitably goes, it goes fast. One minute, you can't fathom them losing and the next, you're left wondering where it all went wrong.
The signs have been evident for a while. Their defense has slipped this season and their depth has been nonexistent. They've been relying on LeBron's brilliance coupled with their trademark runs and fourth quarter execution to carry them through to this point.
James has been brilliant, but the runs haven't happened, mainly because the Spurs never seem to miss and they've taken better care of the ball. Execution down the stretch is a meaningless concept when you're down by huge margins in the final minutes. Take away LeBron's production and subtract James Jones scoring 11 points in garbage time and the Heat managed just 47 points on 36 percent shooting.
We'll have plenty of time to write their obituary when the time comes, but for now, an appreciation of the Spurs in order. For the first three games they used Tony Parker as a facilitator. In this one, he led the team in shot attempts. Kawhi Leonard was a beast again, this time dropping 20 and 14 and Boris Diaw was barely shy of a triple-double with eight points, nine boards and nine assists.
There was a lot of scattered talk about identifying their MVP, which misses the point of the whole operation. They can beat you any way you want and in the last two games, they've taken Miami apart so thoroughly that identifying one player as the reason is a fun, but ultimately futile exercise. (Popovich, naturally and correctly, dismissed the very thought out of hand.)
Parker has been so steady that his contributions have flown under the radar. They haven't needed Duncan or Manu Ginobili to ride to the rescue. Leonard has been spectacular in half the games and Diaw has been sublime throughout. You can make a case for any of them, but trying to elevate one over the other is simply inviting an argument with no definitive answer.
This is their genius and it's brought them to the brink of another championship seven years after we thought we'd seen the last one. This is a special team, one that every team in the league would like to emulate. But the fact that they've never been duplicated is a testament to the unique nature of their organization. They are as good as it gets right now and maybe as good as they've ever been.