MIAMI — As contextual reaches for millionaire basketball players go, this building was their Alamo. Oh, of course no one lost territory, life or limb. But in NBA parlance, American Airlines Arena is where the cruelest cut of the San Antonio Spurs’ careers took place, an incision so deep into Tim Duncan and his teammates that their coach made them watch film of their June 2013 meltdown when this season started, saying, flat-out, “Remember Game 6.”
Through 62 wins in the regular season and another Western Conference playoff gantlet, they never relinquished the memory of a championship lost. In every deed, word and possession.
And when the Spurs finally returned to the scene of their crime against the game here, inexplicably losing that five-point lead in the final 28 seconds — heck, losing Ray Allen behind that three-point line like a misplaced television remote — it wasn’t even a question of what would happen.
You will read a lot about what happened to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals on its home court today. You will hear about the imposter that locked the real Dwyane Wade in the training room and how the ancient man with the creeky gait who chipped orange paint off the rim could not have been the future Hall of Famer.
You will hear more about why Carmelo Anthony should take less money, join the dark side and make Pat Riley the emperor of a bona fide NBA Death Star, capable of destroying any team of inferior role players by 30 or more. Team Collusion II stories will be so absurd they will soon include Kobe Bryant coming to Miami as a sixth man and Chris Paul as the point guard, giving the Heat the first Sick Six lineup in league annals
Finally, you will be bombarded with how Erik Spoelstra got his lunch handed him to by Gregg Popovich — Thursday night, the Spurs rolled, 107-86 — and that no two-time champion coach should be allowed to have a team give up points like this.
And it will be all noise and drivel, camouflaging what really happened the past few days.
So often we look at what players or teams did wrong to get their doors blown off. This is about what a team did right.
This is about how Kawhi Leonard turned into the most spectacular player of the Finals two games in a row, upstaging LeBron with his ability to never bite on pump fakes and outplaying all the Heat stars on the offensive end.
Duncan was good, Tony Parker was indefatigable, Manu Ginobili was still throwing up unorthodox left-handed runners and making the gambling defender pay. But this was about every player on that roster. From Boris Diaw to Tiago Splitter, the Spurs have been the superior team in this series, repelling anything the team with the best player in the game threw at them.
“I mean, they smashed us,” LeBron 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.”
At the end of the rout, at what could very well be the beginning of the end to this suddenly lopsided series, the White Hot theme in this building turned bone-chilling cold. I mean, a smattering stuck around for the end, but they had the emotion siphoned from them early. A 19-point lead at halftime by the Spurs all but ended the proceedings soon after they began.
Of all the games in which LeBron and his team were expected to show up, of all the times this whole three-peat quest should have mattered, it was Thursday night in Miami.
You can’t figure on going down 3-1 in this back-to-the-80s, 2-2-1-1-1 format and plan on surviving. Because even if the Heat could somehow push the series back to Miami for Game 6 with a win in San Antonio on Sunday, it would still have to win a third time in San Antonio to complete a history-making comeback.
Nuh-uh. This was it. This was their chance. The Heat needed to knot the series at 2-2 to give itself a legitimate chance of becoming the first team since Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers won three in a row, and before that, Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
But after another 20-plus point demolition by the Spurs, who refused to take their success for granted, who handle prosperity much better than the Heat handles adversity, it’s almost certainly over.
“I mean, coming into the series we knew that’s what it was going to be about,” LeBron said of the Spurs’ offense, almost resigned to his fate. “They are a high-oil machine and they move the ball extremely well. They put you in so many difficult positions. If you’re not right on time, right on target, they’re going to make you pay for it.”
This is no longer about James’s legacy. This is and has always been about Duncan and the Spurs’ longevity, now on the cusp of their fifth championship in 15 years.
When Popovich was asked who would be his Finals MVP after the win, he replied, “Next question.” When told Duncan had set records for minutes, points, etc., in the championship series, Popovich replied, “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care.”
He wasn’t taking anything for granted. It’s not finished yet. But it’s so close the San Antonio Spurs can taste the champagne, taste what they should have tasted last season.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.