MIAMI — Tony Parker darted into the lane and whipped the ball out to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard drove and knocked down Dwyane Wade before passing the ball off to Boris Diaw near the basket. Diaw flipped an underhand pass to Tim Duncan. By the time Chris Bosh turned around, Duncan already was throwing down a one-handed jam.
Four players touched the ball, two dribbled and one dunked. It was a typical offensive possession for the San Antonio Spurs, who are always looking for a great shot over a good shot, an open teammate over a hero. The relentless Spurs attack simply wore down the aging Miami Heat, which lacked the legs and the energy to keep chasing the ball possession after possession.
After making the two-time defending champions go weary for the 48 minutes, the Spurs claimed a 107-86 victory at American Airlines Arena to take a commanding 3-1 lead and move within one victory of a fifth championship. San Antonio felt like it should’ve already claimed another trophy after a series of unfortunate events in Miami last year had the Spurs spending 12 months seeking revenge.
“We’re playing Spurs basketball,” Parker said. “We like to do good to great, the extra pass. We preach that. Right now, we’re clicking.”
After Duncan dunked to give the Spurs a 21-point lead in the third quarter, he swung on the rim and showed a rare sign of emotion — gleefully pumping his fist — before running back on defense. Before the series began, Duncan riled up the Heat by saying the Spurs would “do it this time.”
And with the series shifting to San Antonio for Game 5 under the new Finals format, the Spurs now can take care of business — and possibly give Duncan his fifth ring in 15 years — at home.
“We’re going to use these two days to really get rested up, come out on Sunday and lay it on the line,” said Duncan, who broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for playoff minutes (8,868) and Magic Johnson’s record for playoff double-doubles (158) after finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes.
The performance Thursday was stunningly more dominant than a 111-92 victory two nights earlier, when the Spurs set Finals records for field goal percentage in the first quarter and the first half. In that game, Miami was able to cut a 25-point deficit to seven before the Spurs regrouped. In Game 4, the Spurs built a 22-point in the first half, and the Heat never got closer than 13.
LeBron James has been eliminated in a playoff series in fewer than six games just once in his career — when the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. Three years later, James formed an all-star trio with Wade and Bosh with the purpose of winning multiple championships. The Heat is in the Finals for the fourth straight year, but James probably felt as if he were back in Cleveland for much of the night. He scored a game-high 28 points, all in the first three quarters, when his teammates were only able to contribute 29.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. “I can honestly say I don’t think any of us were expecting this type of performance,” said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, whose postgame comments came off as a concession. “They were great. You do have to give them credit for that.”
Leonard followed up a career night in Game 3 by leading the Spurs with 20 points, but San Antonio got contributions from all over as all 13 players scored. Parker had 19 points, Patty Mills had 14 and Duncan had just 10 for a well-balanced, well-oiled machine.
The Spurs shot 57.1 percent after shooting 59.4 percent two nights earlier.
Diaw, whose insertion to the starting lineup Tuesday changed the tenor of this series, had eight points but added a game-high nine assists, including a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Tiago Splitter for a dunk.
The Heat hadn’t lost consecutive games in the playoffs since the Boston Celtics won three in a row to put the team on the brink of elimination in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. James responded by having one of the best playoff games of his career, scoring 45 points with a stone cold glare as Miami won the next two games and went on to beat Oklahoma City in the Finals.
Miami had responded to its past 13 playoff defeats with a win and a big performance from James, who averaged 30.2 points in the bounce-back game. The other constant in those wins is that James also was able to get some help, be it from Wade or Bosh or both. But too often Thursday night, James was forced to beat the Spurs by himself.
Despite his sublime talents, James was unable to overcome the Spurs with Wade missing nine of his first 10 shots and scoring just 10 points and Bosh having just 12.
San Antonio got scoring from eight different players in the first quarter, but it was also just as lethal on the defensive end. Miami shot just 35.3 in the first half and was discombobulated.
“I mean, they smashed us,” James said.
Late in the second period, James powered his way to the basket and still decided to shoot despite the crowd of black jerseys surrounding him. The decision was understandable when the alternative was passing to one of his off-target teammates, but the result was predictable as Danny Green slapped away the ball. Bosh picked up the loose ball, but Duncan swatted the shot, which led to a fast break that ended when Ginobili found Mills in the left corner for a three-pointer that put the Spurs up 53-33.
On their next possession, the Spurs again found Mills wide open in the corner. Mills missed, but Leonard noticed James wasn’t paying him any attention and sprinted directly to the basket. Using an opening created by Duncan and Ginobili boxing out their men, Leonard came soaring for an emphatic slam dunk. James responded with a three-pointer on the other end, but it was a difficult, contested shot after Leonard pushed him out of post.
“I’m pleased that they perfo rmed as well as they did while we’ve been in Miami, and that’s about as far as it goes,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “Now we’ve got to go back home and play as well or better.”