MIAMI – Miami Heat president Pat Riley has trademarked at least four different versions of the term “three-peat” but has been unable to witness his own team cash in during the 25 years since he first registered the phrase. In that time, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won three straight championships two different times in the 1990s and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers won three titles in a row in the 2000s.
Jordan retired after both of his three-peats in 1993 and 1998. The San Antonio Spurs won their first title in the lockout shortened season in 1999. O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had their championship run ended by the Spurs in the second round in 2003, when San Antonio won its second championship.
Riley’s Heat entered this postseason with a chance to win to finally win three in a row, but the team standing in the way is once again the Spurs, who have a three-games-to-one lead in the NBA Finals after a stunning 107-86 demolition in Game 4 on Thursday. The crushing win came two days after another dismantling in which the Spurs exposed nearly all of the flaws of the two-time defending champion — an overreliance on LeBron James, a lack of depth, an aging roster and a faltering defense.
Two home blowout losses by a combined 40 points now have the Heat heading to San Antonio for Sunday’s Game 5 in a position that no team has overcome in the Finals. The previous 31 teams that have gone down 1-3 in the Finals have all lost.
“I don’t care about odds,” Chris Bosh said. “Odds are for people that can’t do it.”
Bosh and the Heat might not be worried about the odds, but they should be weary of the revenge-fueled Spurs. San Antonio blew two chances to close out the Heat last season and used those devastating losses last year at American Airlines Arena as motivation throughout an entire season in which it sought to not only win a fifth title in franchise history but also to beat Miami. That kind of anger and incredible mental toughness is one of the reasons the Spurs have set a single postseason record with 11 wins by 15 or more – including three in this series.
The Spurs weren’t satisfied with simply getting one win in Miami, they wanted to level the Heat twice. How devastating were the wins? The Heat led for a total of 93 seconds — 4-2 in Game 3 and 2-0 in Game 4. San Antonio led by double digits for roughly 77 of the 96 minutes.
“I mean, they smashed us,” James said. “Two straight home games, got off to awful starts. They came in and were much better than us in these two games. It’s just that simple.”
Miami had won 13 consecutive postseason games after a loss since James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade walked off the floor after Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals and a nine-year-old kid named Jack Meyer shouted, “Good job, good effort.” The stretch of 48 consecutive games played without losing two in a row was the third-longest in NBA history behind Boston, which went 54 straight games from 1962 to 1966, and Chicago, which went 52 straight games from 1990-1993.
The Spurs led by double digits for the final 30 minutes of Game 4, leaving the embarrassed Heat struggling for an explanation. Miami maintained the white hot theme at American Airlines Arena by waving the white flag in what could possibly be the final home game for the Big Three.
“Probably, this was the biggest surprise of the series, this game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Everything else is competition. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you’re going to get the better of the other team, sometimes it’s vice versa. Sometimes, it’s close games, sometimes it gets out of hand like the other night. But you always have a chance to make up for it. We didn’t.”
The Heat stacked the results in a weak Eastern Conference in its favor four years ago, when James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. With no rivals and little competition, Miami became the first team in 27 years to reach the NBA Finals four straight years. Boston reached the Finals from 1984-87 but only won twice. The Lakers went from 1982-85 but only won twice.
Miami has won twice but there has been a cost to the success.
Playing its 86th playoff game in the past four years, Miami looked tired and spent. Wade had never looked worse, as he missed runners in the lane, pump faked without getting the Spurs to bite and even got dunked on by the pudgy Boris Diaw. The Heat tried to save Wade for the postseason by utilizing a maintenance program that minimized his availability for back-to-back games but that also put too much weight on James to carry the Heat in a manner that he carried Cleveland before bailing in the need of a better supporting cast.
James was a one-man show in Game 4, scoring 28 points on 10 of 17 shooting while the rest of his teammates were 22 of 54 (40.7). The Heat’s roster is aging each season as Riley puts together patchwork veteran rosters. Miami managed to win back-to-back titles because it was always able to get a few surprise performances from Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen or Mike Miller and some tenacity from Udonis Haslem to complement the three stars.
This time around, Chalmers has been deficient, Battier looks as if he has already retired, Allen hasn’t done much since a flashback performance in Game 1, Miller was waived last summer via the amnesty clause and Haslem has declined so much that he has to hope for garbage time minutes. The lack of options forced Spoelstra to trot out Rashard Lewis, whose career appeared to be over during a forgettable stint in Washington, as a starter.
Before Game 4, reports surfaced that the Heat could possibly form a Big Four by luring Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. James reportedly wants to play with Anthony but he deflected questions before the game about a possible arrangement for next season. “I’m just now hearing about it, so it doesn’t bother me at all,” James said. “Obviously, Melo has his own decision to make and honestly that’s not even crossed my mind at this point in the season.”
James also refused to consider that his team is incapable of becoming the first to win the next three games to complete the rare three-peat.
“This series is not over. We’ve got too much pride to even start thinking about that,” James said. “We put ourselves in position where it is about making history. But all we can do is worry about Game 5. It’s never been done before, but we’re still a confident bunch, even though our heads are lowered right now.”