SAN ANTONIO — It was the compelling story of the NBA regular season, the Miami Heat making their run at the league-record mark of 33 consecutive victories.
They fell six games short.
These days, the Heat are looking for another streak. The most modest of all possible winning streaks, actually. And if they fall short again, their time as NBA champions is a few days away from coming to an end.
Miami has alternated wins and losses in each of its last 11 games, and if that trend continues, the Heat won't beat the San Antonio Spurs in these NBA Finals. Somewhere along the way, the Heat will have to win two in a row to keep their crown, and get a crack at pulling off that common-yet-crucial feat on Sunday night when the Spurs host Game 5 of a title series that's knotted at two games apiece.
"If we don't do two, we won't win a championship. I wasn't that smart in school, but I do know that," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said Saturday. "The numbers don't add up. We have to find a way to put a string together. And hopefully our mentality and our play in Game 4 can take over to the next game or into the game after that. I think this team, we've always responded to a challenge, and right now this is our challenge."
The Heat won Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, lost Game 2 of that series and the win-one, lose-one trend has continued for 11 games. Miami won Game 4 at San Antonio on Thursday night, meaning if this form keeps holding, it'll be the Spurs' turn to prevail Sunday.
At some point, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, the cycle has to be broken.
"Enough is enough," Spoelstra said.
A couple months ago, the mere notion of the Heat having trouble stringing even two straight wins together would have seemed ludicrous. They won 27 straight games during the regular season. They won 12 straight in April. They had a pair of stand-alone six-game winning streaks in November and December, and a five-game run earlier in these playoffs.
But the Pacers took them to the limit in the East finals, and the Spurs struck first by taking Game 1 of the championship series. The last time Miami won consecutive games in the same playoff series was a month ago, the final two games of the second-round matchup against Chicago.
"It's not as if we have never won two in a row. So our guys understand what's at hand and what's at stake right now," Spoelstra said Saturday. "Look, there's been so much talk about it, but you do have to give credit to the competition both ways. When you get to this level, it's tough to win two games in a row against an equal opponent. We want to make sure that we're continuing to get better, and hopefully tomorrow we can have our best game of the series."
Worst-case scenario for Miami in Game 5: Lose, and head back to South Florida trailing in the series but with home-court advantage.
Such is the quirk of the 2-3-2 hosting format in the NBA Finals, as opposed to the 2-2-1-1-1 system employed in all other rounds of the playoffs. If the Heat win every game in Miami for the remainder of the season, then a second straight title is there.
It's a luxury that the Heat didn't want to exactly think much about on Saturday.
"We're not worried about that," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "One game at a time. We're not thinking about Miami. We're thinking about the next game in San Antonio and that's all we're focused on."
Haslem will likely come off the bench for the second straight game, with Miami expected to use its same opening lineup from Game 4, with Mike Miller starting to give the Heat an extra shooter who can help create more space for everyone else. That move by Spoelstra led to some mildly comical defensive assignments by the Spurs, like having center Tiago Splitter open the game guarding Wade, a short-lived experiment.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked Saturday if he may adjust his lineup to address Miami's move.
"I'd hate to be trite and say anything is possible," Popovich said. "Your question demands my triteness."
There is a certain symmetry in the to-do list for the Heat: Win two games in a row, and winning two titles in a row would figure to follow. Then again, just because they're coming off a double-digit win on San Antonio's floor in Game 4, that doesn't mean Sunday will be anything but a huge test.
The last time the Spurs lost two straight at home was March 28 and 31, 2011. And one has to go even farther back than that to find the last time Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all played in consecutive Spurs home losses – those came on May 7 and 9, 2010, in the playoffs against Phoenix.
LeBron James thinks Miami is poised for the breakthrough.
"I think it's time," said James, the Heat star and four-time MVP. "I think we're well overdue when it's time for us to win consecutive games. I think we're at 11 or 12 straight, consecutive win-loss, win-loss, win-loss. I think it's time. Enough is enough for our team. I'm not saying it's going to result in us having a win, but we need to play with the same sense of urgency as if we were down 2-1 or whatever the case may be tomorrow night. And we can't wait around."