France is to champagne as Shakespeare is to poetry as the Miami Heat is to defense.
Or, at least those were standard associations until the NBA Finals threw the basketball one out the window.
Defense is the foundation of the Heat’s success. It is the team’s alpha and omega.
But Miami did not look anything like the two-time defending champion Thursday in a 107-86 loss to San Antonio in Game 4 at AmericanAirlines Arena. In fact, judging by the disgusted look on Pat Riley’s face, the Heat was an offending defending champion.
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Unless the Heat can unlock its DNA on D, this final round and any fading hope of a three-peat will be snuffed in Texas on Sunday.
For the second game in a row, the Heat helped the Spurs see the hoop as a magnified target — as wide as Biscayne Bay. After yielding a 59.4 percent shooting percentage in the Game 3 loss, Miami again failed to clamp down, allowing the Spurs to capitalize on 57.1 percent accuracy to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Spurs got not just open looks but grand vistas. There was ample time for Danny Green and Patty Mills to pause and line up their sights on three-pointers.
San Antonio found not just unimpeded passing lanes but Autobahns. Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw were among the Spurs dishing to teammates with telepathic clarity.
The Spurs zipped the ball from man to man three, four, six times per possession, across the lane, around the perimeter, under the basket and back out again.
At times, it resembled a game of keepaway, and the Heat’s feet appeared glued to the floor. The beautiful ball movement would conclude with a Tim Duncan dunk, a Parker layup, a Green three-pointer. Their lead grew to 24.
At first it was strange and then downright befuddling that the Heat did not react with any obvious sense of urgency after what Chris Bosh called “probably the worst game we’ve ever played together” — the 111-92 rout here on Tuesday.
LeBron James, realizing he had no choice but to put the game on his shoulders, cut the gap to 13 midway through the third quarter.
But James, like his teammates, looked a little weary. Dwyane Wade lacked his usual lift. Ray Allen couldn’t summon his typical snap. Bosh never found his groove. The Heat’s bench and point guards again could not catalyze.
After Duncan fed a diagonal pass to Leonard for a three-pointer, the scoreboard said 73-49 and the home crowd turned on the home team and booed.
It was the Spurs, in black, who were white hot.
It was the Spurs, seeking their own dynastic designation, demonstrating the true meaning of team.
The Heat, looking out of character and out of sync, waited around for James to take over.
Was this really the same team renowned for its bounce-back powers, the same team that after 13 previous playoff losses in the Big 3 era had recovered with 13 victories? The same team that came back after a one-sided Game 3 loss last year?
The Heat could not even muster a run to keep the game suspenseful. It wasn’t a collapse so much as it was a surreal surrender. Two embarrassing blowouts — at home?
Defense is the Heat’s trademark. For all the attention paid to his “Showtime” years with the Lakers, Heat president and architect Riley staked his coaching career on defense. He and protégé Erik Spoelstra speak of Miami’s “defensive principals” as if they are as immutable as Newton’s laws.
For all the graceful shots of the Big 3 and the gaudy scoring statistics of James, defense is the trigger. Defense is the base that gives the Heat pyramid its peak.
But the Heat was upstaged by San Antonio’s defense on Thursday. On one sequence, Manu Ginobili contorted his body to block a shot by James, then Duncan rebuffed Bosh, then Leonard corralled the rebound, leading to a three-pointer by Mills and a 20-point lead.
That should have been a vintage Heat play — defense generating offense.
Instead we saw Parker juking and jiving past Mario Chalmers, who got no help. Diaw using his passes like a scalpel. Leonard swooping in from the foul line to dunk a ball that had bounced off the front of the rim.
It should have been the Spurs fighting complacency. Instead, it was the Heat with another awful defensive performance all around the court. San Antonio shot 58.8 percent in Game 1 and is on the verge of a Finals record. Miami allowed San Antonio to make 43 percent of its three-pointers Thursday after allowing 47.9 through the first three games — on the verge of another Finals record.
That’s not Miami Heat defense. That’s not Miami Heat basketball. That’s not going to stop the Spurs from winning the championship.
Spoelstra plans to “look under the hood, take a step back, exhale” and regroup. There was no hint of panic in his postgame tone.
“It’s not fatigue. We just have to figure it out. We have 48 hours, and I have to do a better job for my team. We’ve made adjustments, but they’ve still been able to stay in a flow,” he said. “When we’re right, we can beat anybody, anywhere.”
It’s time to get right before time runs out.