Game 5 of the NBA Finals started out with a bang and ended with a whimper.
The first possessions played out like a dream for Miami: James blitzed the Spurs early, attacking the rim, hitting the long-ball and leading the Heat to a 22 to 6 advantage with five minutes left in the first quarter.
At that point, the anticipation was palpable: Could the Heat really do it -- could they win this game then go on to smash the record books and complete the three-peat? Was last years unforgettable NBA Finals only a prologue to the greatest comeback in the history of professional basketball?
Reality soon set in: Pop replaced a struggling Danny Green with Ginobili, Kawhi -- the only Spur to make a field goal in the opening quarter -- woke up and the two worked together to stop the bleeding in the final minutes of the first.
By the end of the period, Lebron had done all he could, finishing the quarter with 17 points (5-for-7 FG, 2-of-3 3FG, and 5-of-5 FT), six rebounds, an assist and no turnovers, but the Heat took only a seven point lead into the second period.
If Kawhi, Ginobili, Duncan and Parker are all part of the engine that make the Spurs go, as Pop said in his post-game interview, then James is the Heat's entire car (and he's dragging a giant camper full of all his teammates).
And in the second quarter, the car stalled: James posted only 3 points (1-for-5 FG, 0-of-2 3FG, 1-of-2 FT), grabbed two rebounds and turned the ball over once without tallying an assist; the Heat scored only 11 points in the second.
James had to be superhuman if the Heat were to have any chance of even playing the Spurs close. In the first quarter, with James impacting every facet of the game and the Spurs shooting their worst percentage of the series -- 6-for-21 from the field, 28.6 percent -- the Heat were only up by seven.
The Heat had thrown their knockout punch and the Spurs staggered, but were still standing. After the Spurs countered with a few momentum swinging plays of their own -- including this turn-back-the-clock dunk from Ginobili -- the Heat fell behind by seven at the half. Considering how well the Spurs have kept leads in this series, the game felt like it was already over -- and it turned out that it was.
Lebron has had a few moments of brilliance in the last three games: his start to Game 3, his third quarter of Game 4 and his first quarter in Game 5. But for whatever reason, James has consistently followed up these stretches of great play with equally long stretches of mediocrity.
Maybe James didn't have anything left in the tank after carrying the Heat during those prolonged periods without any help from his supporting cast. Perhaps Leonard's one-on-one defense slowed the King down; or, to that end, the Spurs pack-the-paint scheme which forced James to pass to the Heat's worst shooters (Chalmers and Lewis specifically) made James look pedestrian because after his teammates bricked the uncontested shots he created for them, the Spurs doubled down on the tactic, focusing solely on James, crowding his space and playing even farther off of his struggling teammates, further limiting his game.
Even though James had a significant drop off in productivity after the first quarter, he isn't the reason why the Heat lost. The Heat lost, first and foremost, because the Spurs were deeper at every position and had a roster full of players capable and willing to move the ball.
The Spurs were a true team reminiscent of a bygone era in basketball, a squad that valued the group over the individual and only cared about winning. Each player devoutly adhered to Pop's "good-to-great" philosophy and by moving the ball so selflessly, San Antonio undermined Miami's defensive scheme which looked to run shooters off of the three-point line and force non-playmaking types to create a shot off the dribble.
The problem with using that tactic against the Spurs is that the entire team (save Tiago and Duncan who wouldn't be beyond the arc anyways) can make a play for a teammate off the bounce. As Shane Battier put it: "They used our aggressiveness against us."
As the saying goes, the ball moves faster than the defense, so when the Heat made the Spurs put the ball on the deck, that played right into San Antonio's drive-and-kick style of offense and the Heat were constantly trying to rotate their help defense and catch up. They never could and that led to an inordinately high number of wide open looks (and that led to the Spurs having the highest shooting percentage in NBA Finals history, 52.8 percent, narrowly eclipsing the '91 Bulls).
In the end, the better team won. San Antonio's outscored Miami by +70 points over the five games, giving them an average margin of victory of 14.5 -- the largest margin in NBA Finals history. The Spurs set all kinds of records for scoring and offensive efficiency in the series. Top to bottom, they were better.
Kawhi matured into a multi-faceted offensive threat: he shot 61.2 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from downtown on the biggest stage with the best player in the world often defending him -- that's unreal. Scarier yet -- he still has so much potential to still realize.
Timmy did just enough on both ends and even at 38 years old, no one on the Heat could stop him on the low block. Parker ran downhill at the rim all series and made the defense pay when he got there. Manu redeemed his performance in last year's Finals: he hit a number of big threes and proved that his near-Sixth-Man-Award winning play this season was not a fluke. Diaw was perhaps the biggest difference-maker: his scoring and passing on the low block and stretching the defense on the outside changed the series.
Then the other guys: Danny Green hit his threes as he's wont to do, Tiago banged around inside and threw some great cross-court passes to open shooters and Patty Mills was the Australian, athletic-redux of Steve Kerr from the 2003 Spurs Championship squad. Side note on Mills: he outscored the Heat's two point guards in the series, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, 55 to a combined 38 points. The Heat never had a chance.
San Antonio forced Lebron to do it all by himself and even if he had played perfectly, the Heat still would have lost because San Antonio had so many more weapons and play-makers. The Spurs were better because they were a team -- a group of players that truly came together to achieve a common goal. They deserved to win.