SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs can’t get back those fateful 28 seconds and that five-point lead from a year ago, when a championship was so close to being in their grasp that the NBA had already surrounded the court with yellow rope in anticipation of a trophy presentation. The Spurs have spent the past 12 months healing, waiting, preparing and focusing on one more chance to claim what the Miami Heat was unwilling to surrender in that thrilling Game 6 and LeBron James snatched altogether in Game 7 .
The pain still lingers, no matter how much the Spurs have tried to dismiss it. And it is now one of the reasons the Spurs are hardly comfortable holding a three-games-to-one lead over the two-time defending champion Heat going into Sunday’s Game 5 at AT&T Center.
“We feel that we have it in the bag and it slips out of our fingers,” said Tim Duncan in recalling the 2013 Finals. “So I think we learn from that, and we draw on that, and we say, hey, ‘It’s not over till it’s over.’ Our goal right now is to just win one more game. We’d love to do it in one game. But luckily we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we have a couple opportunities and we’re going to take whatever it takes.”
San Antonio has three opportunities at redemption, including two at home because of the 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format. But the Spurs want to get it done right away, lest they turn the rest of the series into a drawn-out, miserable replay of the worst half-minute in franchise history — in which Game 5 becomes the equivalent of those missed free throws by Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, Game 6 becomes Chris Bosh’s offensive rebound and Game 7 becomes Ray Allen’s tying three-pointer from the right corner.
The Heat has proven over its past two championship runs that it doesn’t need much, that the slightest mistake will be enough to break through. This series could already be over if not for Tony Parker and Duncan missing four straight free throws midway in the fourth quarter of Game 2. James used that opening to quickly drill a three-pointer that turned what could’ve been a six-point deficit into a one-point lead as Miami went on to even the series.
The Spurs didn’t leave anything to chance in Miami, where they inflicted a two-game beatdown that was so meticulous and merciless that a perturbed James buried his face in his hands on the bench. San Antonio won Games 3 and 4 by a combined 40 points, trailed for just 93 seconds and led by double digits for roughly 77 of the 96 minutes.
“We just have to think about that being the last opportunity,” Ginobili said of Game 5. “That’s a Game 7 for us.”
Duncan’s surprisingly brash comments entering the series in which he expressed confidence in the Spurs’ ability to “get it done this time” have been backed up through the first four games of this series.
The Spurs’ three victories have all been decided by at least 15 points and they have proven to be a better team than last June, when Ginobili was a turnover machine fighting through injuries, Parker’s hamstring kept flaring up and Leonard was still trying to match the confidence in his abilities that his coach, Gregg Popovich, already possessed.
Popovich could join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley as the only coaches with five championships and Duncan could match Kobe Bryant with the most titles since Michael Jordan retired from Chicago. The Spurs are positioned to win a championship seven years after their last title, this time against a much better James.
But the Heat is also not nearly as good as previous Finals runs. James is authoring one of the best individual shooting performances in the Finals – 27.5 points on 60 percent field goal shooting and 61.1 percent shooting from three-point range – but Wade and Bosh have scored at least 15 points in the same game only once — and that was in a Game 1 loss.
Wade's knees are wearing down and his age is beginning to show. The flaws of a defense that was prone to mediocre stretches during the regular season have been exposed.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra was so desperate for point guard production in Game 4 that he went with seldom-used backup Toney Douglas over the struggling duo of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
Miami is the 32nd team to lose three of the first four games in the Finals; was able to come back and win the title. James, Wade and Bosh have never confronted such a deficit in any playoff series together.
“Why not us? Why not us?” James asked. “History is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great. That would be a great story line, right?”
Despite coming up short last season, the Spurs never felt the need to abandon a system that worked or to chase a superstar to counter the Heat. Marco Belinelli replaced Gary Neal but the primary core of rotation players remained intact as they brought back Ginobili and Tiago Splitter in free agency.
“We’ve been on our last run for the last five or six years from how everyone wants to put it. We show up every year, and we try to put together the best teams and the best runs possible because what people say doesn’t matter to us,” Duncan said. “With the front office putting the teams together that we’ve had and us playing smaller roles and our roles changing over the years, and us happy to accept the roles that we’re in, I feel we can do it until we feel we don’t want to do it anymore.”