SAN ANTONIO — One star was thought to be a burned-out supernova, running on fumes and a creaky knee at 31 years old. Dwyane Wade wasn’t Tim Duncan-old, but he seemed to have 300,000 miles on his odometer, the wear and tear on his frame from all the pounding obvious each time he staggered up court like a woozy fighter.
The other star often looked like an overpaid, underperforming perimeter player, whose inability to put the ball on the floor instead of throwing up another left-handed brick was just infuriating to his coach and teammates. With Chris Bosh on hiatus at times, the Miami Heat were suddenly down to one transcendent player.
Until Game 4 of the NBA Finals, until the Lone Star State finally got a real introduction to the Big Three.
LeBron James, Wade and Bosh combined for 85points in a thorough dismantling of San Antonio on its home floor. The game was decided midway through the fourth quarter when all three players brought all their assets to bear against a Spurs’ defense that simply couldn’t do anything to stop the barrage of points, dunks and long three-pointers.
The game was decided for good in the last quarter, but the actual defining, bang-bang moment came with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. Manu Ginobili spun to the rim and, just as he was met by a throng of bodies, found Tim Duncan sliding along the right baseline with such a pretty pass that the throng stood and burst out into an enrapturing, “Ohhhhhhh!”
The old warrior went up for a menacing two-handed dunk, a bucket that wouldn’t just bring the Spurs to within six points but send the AT&T Center crowd into a state of prolonged delirium.
But then a blur of black nylon and muscle emerged from nowhere, coming from the opposite side. LeBron met Duncan in mid-air, his hand cupping the ball as he blocked the 37-year-old Spur’s attempt.
All ball, all even.
On a night when Wade was really sensational, recapturing magic in his shot and his legs from his mid-20s, and LeBron made good on his pregame promise to be much better, the Heat also knotted the NBA Finals at two games each and sent the series back home for at least a Game 6 because of an unheralded star who never truly gets its due among this glittering constellation:
Defense — in-your-mug, face-up, forearm-to-the-abdomen defense, the kind that would make Pat Riley’s old Knicks and Heat proud.
Miami forced 19 Spurs turnovers, which accounted for 23 of the Heat’s points. San Antonio was so good in Game 1, turning the ball over just four times in 48 minutes.
But on Thursday night the Spurs met the swarming, rotating masses of Miami, which kept pressuring the ball and clogging the passing lanes.
The Heat outrebounded, outplayed and outmuscled the Spurs all evening, perhaps knowing if their players didn’t they would have to become the only team in league history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit to win the title.
And Wade, well, what more can be said about the most complete and clutch playoff game of his since maybe the 2006 Finals. He made 14 of 25 shots, grabbed six rebounds and contributed four assists. Ray Allen chipped in 14. After that, just three other Heat players scored a total of 10 points.
This show belonged to Miami’s tremendous trio, who scored more than twice as many points as the 40 from Duncan, Parker and Ginobili and served notice that the championship would be decided on Miami’s home court next Tuesday or Thursday.
Parker was supposed to be gimpy and there was a question as to whether he would play after suffering a hamstring strain in Game 3. He never looked slow or labored, finishing with 15 points and nine assists.
But he was no match for the precision in which Miami moved the ball on offense and moved its feet on defense. There was a desperation the Heat came with in the second half that the Spurs could simply not match.
At one juncture after a Miami run, Gregg Popovich lit into Duncan, just grilling him during a timeout as the big man walked dejectedly back toward his bench.
But even the Spurs coach who pushed so many of the right buttons to get his team here could not summon enough desire to stem Miami’s momentum.
LeBron was off in the open court, Wade was becoming flammable from outside again and dunking himself on the break. Bosh looked like he actually cared. And then there was that block, the second big one in the series that silenced the arena after it was dislodged from Duncan’s hands.
All ball, all even.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.