- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- Before each of the past three games of the NBA Finals, LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat's players stood side by side across the court for the national anthem under dimmed lights at AT&T Center.
As the singing ends, James briefly looks skyward, perhaps for divine guidance and motivation. Along those sight lines, hanging from the top of the arena rafters and facing the Heat's team, are San Antonio's four championship banners.
Standing directly across from Miami's line in a line are the Spurs, including an experienced, veteran, proud championship core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich. Those four are largely responsible for that section of interior decorating that displays San Antonio's success over the past two decades.
That scene, that coach and those players should serve as a reminder to anyone who had the audacity to expect James and the defending champion Heat to just steamroll through San Antonio without hitting as much as a speed bump on their way to a second consecutive championship.
Despite the league-best 66 regular-season victories, the remarkable 27-game winning streak, a fourth MVP trophy for James and the best overall season in franchise history, this was never going to be a coronation for Miami.
This was always going to be a struggle of a series.
The Spurs left no doubt about that after Sunday's 114-104 victory in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead that put the Heat on the brink of elimination, now headed back home needing two wins on their home court to successfully defend their title.
If there's one thing about this Heat team that drives their fans and coaches absolutely crazy, it's their preference for adversity over prosperity. The only comfort James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh believe they can truly appreciate and enjoy comes when their backs are propped firmly against the proverbial wall. They force you to doubt them before they flip the we're-ready-to-play-now switch and deliver.
Well, if those are the conditions that define the Heat's legacy, they seem to have this series, these Spurs and those stakes right where they want them. There's no margin for error. It's either two wins to a title, or one loss from a bust.
"We've been here before," James said after he shot just 8-for-22 from the field but finished with 25 points, eight assists, six rebounds and four steals in 44 minutes Sunday. "We've been on both sides of the fences. It doesn't matter if you're up [3-2] and you need one more win, or you need one more win [otherwise] you're out. You can't sleep. Especially at this point. We've got an opportunity to do something special. So we look forward to the challenge."
Looking forward to Game 6 on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena is all the Heat can do now. It makes little sense to look back for answers or guidance. This series has played out to the extremes from the outset.
And that pattern continued again Sunday night with the Heat and Spurs countering the other team's adjustments to alternate double-digit victories each of the past four games.
In Game 4, Popovich watched the Heat's Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh combine for 85 points in their best collective game of the postseason after Miami tweaked its lineup to go with a small-ball approach. For three days, the narrative was about what's wrong with the Spurs.
On Sunday, the Spurs returned serve -- with Manu Ginobili in Game 5 answering Wade's breakthrough performance in Game 4 -- as San Antonio's Big Three accounted for 67 points, 16 assists and 15 rebounds in vintage fashion.
Now, the lazy storyline will shift to pondering what's wrong with the Heat. The answer is simple. Nothing is wrong with either of these teams. This is the ebb-and-flow that occurs when two Hall of Fame cores cross, when two solid supporting casts square off, when two dynamic coaching staffs spar and when a four-time MVP in James matches mettle with a four-time NBA champion in Duncan.
"Experience plays a role," Duncan said Sunday when asked to explain how determination, pride, resilience and confidence factor at this stage. "We've been in situations like this. We've been together for a long time. So that definitely plays a role. We're just trying to do all we can to will it to happen. Every one of us wants this very badly, from the top on down. We're trying to play that way."
I've said and written since November that of all teams in the league, the Spurs are the ones capable of giving the Heat the biggest fits. They have the four necessary intangibles.
They've got an efficient attacking point guard in Parker, who even on a gimpy hamstring is exposing the Heat's position of greatest inconsistency. They've got an aggressive and smart big man in Duncan, who commands a double team and creates issues for a smallish front line. Add a bevy of capable 3-point shooters, with dynamo Danny Green smashing a Finals record for makes beyond the arc.
And last, but certainly not least, the Spurs possess the combination of championship experiences and leadership from Popovich, who is as brilliant in and between games as he is a pain to deal with in the media before and after them.
These aren't the Oklahoma City Thunder, with young superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook admitting two games into last year's Finals against Miami that they were a bit overwhelmed by the bright lights and big stage.
And these aren't even the Dallas Mavericks, who basically caught the Heat early enough before James, Wade and Bosh figured out how to play together and coach Erik Spoelstra had a better grasp of what playoff adjustments were about. To this day, the Heat consider the 2011 loss to Dallas in the Finals as a series they let slip away with immaturity, more so than one in which they lost to a much superior team.
But this challenge is far different for Miami. The Heat can play a relatively strong game as they did Sunday -- and still lose to these battle-tested and ultra-proud Spurs. James, Wade and Bosh combined for 66 points, 19 assists, 16 rebounds and six steals on 25-of-55 shooting from the field. They got 21 points off the bench from Ray Allen. They forced 19 turnovers that led to 20 points. They dominated the Spurs in second-chance points. And they made run after run after run in the second half to stay in striking distance.
And it wasn't enough.
That's as difficult to explain as Boris Diaw effectively defending James, or Green making shots all over the court.
"This is the kind of team that I feel capitalizes on any mistake you make," Wade said. "So if you're a half-second too late, they capitalize on it. They're a great team. We're a great team as well. I like our chances, just like they like their chances, in this series and in Game 6. We'll see which team, which style, is going to prevail."
It's a see-saw series that comes down to one or two final swings. History suggests the Spurs don't usually fail in these situations to close out the show. They've never trailed in the series during any of their five trips to the Finals. As Parker pointed out after Sunday's game, San Antonio also has taken advantage of its initial closeout opportunities.
"We understand Miami is going to come out with a lot of energy and they're going to play better at home," Parker said. "They're going to shoot the ball better. Their crowd is going to be behind them. For us, we need to finish as soon as you can. We did that against the Lakers and Golden State and Memphis. So hopefully, we can do the same thing."
Meanwhile, the Heat are 6-0 this postseason when coming off a loss. They also haven't lost a playoff series since Dallas closed them out in Game 6 in Miami two years ago.
Something's going to give in this series.
The Heat have learned to thrive in these moments.
Their foremost focus now is to survive.
"That's the position we're in," James said. "The most important game is Game 6. We can't worry about Game 7."
3hMichael C. Wright