MIAMI -- Four games into this NBA Finals rematch, it's pretty clear the Spurs are the dominant team.
And while some saw this coming before it all started, the why at the time didn't hold much weight.
"The Spurs had a tougher path to the Finals than the Heat."
Of course the Western Conference was the much deeper, more difficult playoff pool, but when it comes to predicting how the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs would match up, it offers very little insight or actual basketball reasoning.
"The Spurs are better this year and the Heat aren't as good as last year."
Well, that was debatable entering the series, in large part because of the uncertain health of Tony Parker. Also, we'd seen a healthier Dwyane Wade in the opening three rounds of the postseason, which theoretically would've made Miami better than last year.
"The Spurs are hungry for revenge against Miami."
Also true. But also impossible to quantify.
So now that the Spurs are up 3-1, including a pair of blowouts in Miami, there are actual basketball reasons that we should have seen this coming. Maybe not to the degree in Games 3 and 4, but certainly enough to predict that the Spurs were the clear favorites.
The Spurs' defensive strategy has changed
A lot of the conversation coming into the Finals was how LeBron James would be more comfortable against the Spurs' strategy of playing off him and encouraging him to shoot. We saw last year that it took LeBron three games to finally shake free of the hypnotic state all that extra space left him in, and the idea was, Hey, it nearly worked last year, so why not go back to it?
Well, because Gregg Popovich doesn't nearly want to win another title; he wants to actually win another title. Why would he turn to a strategy that didn't work last year, especially when his most vivid memory of the strategy was watching LeBron and Wade hit pull-up after pull-up in Game 7 to win the Heat the title.
This year, there has been more of an effort to crowd LeBron, force him to see bodies and feel hands -- lots of hands -- to the point where his drives are more like obstacle courses. And if he gets through all that and finds an open teammate, that's not the worst thing in the world.
The Heat were better equipped to make the Spurs pay for harassing LeBron. Mike Miller was a serious threat. Mario Chalmers was playing like a legitimate NBA point guard. Shane Battier was getting the minutes and knocking down shots in the most critical of times. And Wade was there just often enough to make his presence felt, most notably in his 32-point performance in Game 4.
Here's a shocking number: The Heat have not made a shot off a James drive-and-kick in six opportunities this series (the Chris Bosh 3 at the end of Game 2 was technically not a drive-and-kick play).
Bosh did his part in Games 1 and 2 to make the Spurs pay, but his role was largely diminished in two games in Miami.
The one time the Spurs did back off LeBron for a significant stretch, Game 2 in San Antonio, James caught fire and saved Miami with 35 points. That won't likely happen again. At least not via open jumpers.
The Spurs' depth is having a much larger impact than Miami's
This one was actually fairly obvious coming into the series, hence the defensive switch from San Antonio.
But what's surprising is how much better the Spurs' supporting cast would be. Looking at it now, it shouldn't have been.
Start with Patty Mills. The Australian point guard dropped his body fat in half during the offseason, allowing him to not just keep up with the Spurs' rapid pace, but often set the tone, particularly with his defensive pressure. In fact, according to SportVU tracking technology, no player plays at an average speed higher than Mills (4.9 mph).
This series, Mills has pressured Heat point guards Chalmers and Norris Cole so effectively that it disrupts Miami's offense. Combine that with his dead-eye shooting (53.3 percent from 3-point range in the Finals), and it's easy to say no Heat bench player can compare with the impact Mills has had.
Coming in, you'd think Andersen would have the edge, given his enormous impact on the Heat during the regular season and Splitter's memorably embarrassing moments during last year's Finals. But if you'd watched Andersen heading into the Finals, you would've seen a different player. His legs are hurting, his vertical leap isn't what it used to be, and you almost forget he was something of a nonfactor for much of last year's Finals, to the point where Erik Spoelstra left him on the bench for two games in San Antonio.
Splitter, meanwhile, is just as much a passing weapon as he is a scoring weapon in these Finals, which has kept the Heat on their heals even when the ball is in his hands.
Boris Diaw versus Rashard Lewis? This one should've been evident from the start as well. Lewis' impact offensively is entirely dependent on having his teammates create for him. Diaw is just one of the many options to which the Spurs can turn to create shots.
Normally, if Diaw is taking a 3-pointer, or shooting a fadeaway 15-footer, the way he did over Wade in Game 4, then you've done your job defensively. Not this year. Diaw is shooting 40 percent from 3 and confidently taking three more shots per game than last season.
Basically, the Heat don't have a single player outside the Big Three and Ray Allen who can impact the game at the level that most of the Spurs' supporting cast can. That's what's turning a seemingly close matchup into a giant mismatch.
The Heat have to win this series with offense
Watching the Heat all season, you could tell the defense wasn't where it had been in years past, and the numbers reflect as much.
Even James, whom Spoelstra dubs "1 through 5" because of his ability to defend any position, was noticeably less effective on the defensive end, to the point that his all-defense second-team selection had more to do with reputation than anything. Most blamed that on fatigue and boredom, but it probably had more to do with age (LeBron is now pushing 30, with 11 years in the league already).
The Heat still showed the ability to go into frantic mode when necessary, but against teams like the Nets and Pacers, who don't have the same ball movement or offensive weapons as the Spurs, in Rounds 2 and 3, that was good enough.
It's not in this series. The Heat's poor defense, which has the third-worst effective field goal percentage allowed of any playoff team (53.9 percent), is finally catching up with them.
That means the Heat would have to outplay these Spurs on the offensive end. And that just wasn't going to happen.
The fan reaction
Perhaps the most obvious thing we should've seen coming was the way the Heat and LeBron would be viewed if the Spurs won, or in this case are on their way to winning.
"The Heat got lucky last year and should've been 1-3 in the Finals in the Big Three era!"
"LeBron can't be one of the best ever if he can't carry his team to the title when needed!"
"If the Heat were in the West, they wouldn't have one title!"
Anything to discredit the accomplishments of a team that was largely hated from the moment it was built.
That's nonsense. Yes, last year's Game 6 was one for the ages, and the numbers say that finish was a very rare occurrence. But if that finish happens in Games 1-5 -- basically any game where there were no yellow ropes involved -- then the idea that the Heat "lucked" into a second straight title wouldn't be a prominent conversation topic among fans. Just as there's no real sentiment that the Heat got "lucky" to reach last year's Finals, because they barely won Game 1 against the Pacers in that seven-game series.
The Heat still had to win three other games in those Finals last year, and the Spurs, frankly, weren't as good as they are this year.
Ginobili didn't just have a devastating Game 6 and an inconsistent Finals last postseason. His entire season was very un-Manu-like.
The Spurs winning these NBA Finals, which history (and our eyes) tells us they will, does absolutely nothing to discredit the Heat's title last year, or the run they've been on since LeBron's arrival.
The Spurs just happen to be the real Super Team this year. And that's something we all should've seen coming.