Thursday night proved to be an eye-opening experience for those in attendance at Continental Airlines Arena in Miami. It was not so much for what the gathered masses actually saw, but rather what they didn’t see.
What they didn’t see was a response from their beloved Miami Heat. Instead, their two-time defending champions folded meekly into a basketball version of the fetal position in Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals. There was no push-back, no retaliation, seemingly no attempt whatsoever at a comeback. And without some measure of aggressive assertion on Sunday, no third consecutive title either.
The most distressing part? Miami never made it a real contest. Even as LeBron James scored an unbelievable 19 of his team’s 21 points in the third quarter, there was no electricity, no sense of urgency. Rather, the San Antonio Spurs made James and the Heat look, for lack of a better term, ordinary.
In the hours since the Spurs’ 107-86 beat-down of Miami, it has been suggested that James can’t do it on his own, which is hardly a revelation. No player in the history of the NBA, let alone James himself, has been able to do so.
The real question is whether we all ignored the warning signs of the Heat’s impending fall from grace. When they dropped Game 1s in the past, such as they did against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, everyone simply shrugged and assumed the Heat would bounce right back. Even James and company seemed rather blase about the loss, calmly explaining that they’d been down this road before. Of course, they went on to dismiss the Pacers in six games, setting up what many thought would be just another coronation for the reigning champs.
Then along comes the Spurs, the very same outfit Miami had eked past the previous year to claim their second title. One failed air-conditioning system later the Heat, again, found themselves with a Game 1 loss. And predictably, they assured everyone that they’d be back for Game 2 while almost giving the impression of it all being part of the larger plan.
We all bought in yet again as one brilliant performance from James helped the Heat even matters 1-1. Headed back to Miami for Games 3 and 4, we assumed the Heat were ready to drop the hammer on Tim Duncan and his plucky Spurs.
While the hammer indeed dropped in Game 3, it wasn’t because of the Heat but rather at their expense during a dominant 111-92 win by the Spurs. Suddenly, the Spurs didn’t look quite so plucky. Rather, they had the look of a budding juggernaut. Still, we all held to the belief that the Heat would come out strong and even the series in Game 4.
Actually, make that a double or even triple oops. The Heat appeared defeated from the start, a first for a core of players not used to being bullied. And in the aftermath even coach Erik Spoelstra, who never says die, looked utterly flummoxed. San Antonio had dominated in every phase of the contest and Spoelstra was at a loss. Why? Because he now knows his team not only looks out-manned — they appear ready to outright crumble.
The enduring question ahead of Game 5 therefore becomes: Have the Heat always been this fragile? It would be hard to reconcile any two-time, defending champion being such. What we saw on Thursday seems to indicate just that, however. Not only did the Heat look outclassed, but they looked mentally defeated and resigned to their fate.
As it stands, the Heat have another chance on Sunday. And it’s possible James and company will come through to force a Game 6 back in Miami. One thing is clear, however, and the Heat are a fragile bunch right now. Fragile physically, but more importantly, fragile mentally. And that’s got to change if what now looks inevitable is to be avoided.