- Michael Wallace, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Tim Duncan isn't particularly known for being a man of many words.
Apparently, that's just the San Antonio Spurs way. But the statements made by arguably the greatest power forward in NBA history during the Spurs' second straight trip to the Finals are proving to be profound and prophetic.
Two weeks ago, after putting away the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, Duncan created a bit of a media stir in a postgame interview when he said the Spurs have targeted the Miami Heat for 12 months since losing in last year's NBA Finals and would get the job done this time.
Now, with the Spurs holding a 3-1 series lead over the two-time defending champions heading into a closeout opportunity in Game 5 Sunday in San Antonio, Duncan insisted he and his teammates would take a moment to remember what it felt like the last time they were in this situation.
No team knows just how fleeting prosperity can be against the Heat than these Spurs.
This time a year ago, Duncan's team was 28 seconds away from winning its fifth NBA title when everything unraveled in Game 6 in Miami. Duncan hardly needed to be reminded of the details. But just as the gold ropes were being stretched around the court in preparation for a postgame trophy presentation, Miami's Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer to send it to overtime. The Heat rallied for the win to tie the series and then won Game 7 in a contest that saw the Spurs squander more opportunities.
That meltdown has motivated the Spurs to the point that their seek-and-destroy mission against Miami this time around has battered the Heat onto the brink of elimination. And with two full days off between San Antonio's second consecutive annihilation of the Heat in Game 4 and the potential series clincher on Sunday, at least one strategy session will include a discussion of the painful past of last June.
"It will definitely come up," Duncan said of last year's Game 6. "We know the caliber team they are. We have a lot of respect for what they're able to do. They're able to throw it into another gear, and they're going to do just that. They don't want this to be [over] ... and we don't want to give them any life."
The Spurs have executed so flawlessly -- and mercilessly -- that the Heat barely maintain a pulse at this point in the series. In crushing Miami at AmericanAirlines Arena by a combined 40 points the past two games, the Spurs handed the Heat consecutive playoff losses for the first time in 48 games. Miami faces its first two-game postseason deficit since a series-clinching Game 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals.
LeBron James has battled everything from cramps to a sore ankle and has been plagued by wildly inconsistent stretches at the start of recent games. Dwyane Wade has been turnover-prone, out of step defensively and has largely regressed from those promising performances against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Chris Bosh has been consumed by his lack of touches and role on offense while collecting seven rebounds and zero blocks amid a disappearing act on defense the past two games.
Beyond that, Miami's supporting cast -- Mario Chalmers, Allen, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen -- have been thoroughly outperformed by San Antonio's role players. Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have yet to deliver a true breakout performance, and the Spurs have still exploded out to 20-point leads in the first half of the two games in Miami.
No team in NBA Finals history has overcome a 3-1 series deficit. The overwhelming challenge ahead, combined with the mind-boggling meltdown on their home court, left James and the Heat plotting incremental stages of retreating, regrouping and recovering in hopes of extending the series.
Heat players had the day off Friday, which was the retreat stage. James and Wade both said their time would be spent getting their minds and bodies as far away from the game as possible. The team had a practice scheduled for Saturday in Miami to regroup before an afternoon flight to San Antonio.
It remains to be seen if the Heat have enough in them to recover against the Spurs on Sunday.
"This series is not over," said James, who is averaging 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and shooting 60 percent from the field through four games. "We've got guys with too much pride to even start thinking about [it being over]. At the end of the day, our focus will be, 'How do we get better than we did in Game 3 and Game 4 at home?' We're going with that bunker mentality in Game 5."
Not even that may be enough to hold off a Spurs team that rolled through Miami like a tank.
Since combining to miss four consecutive free throws during a critical stretch in the fourth quarter of a 98-96 Game 2 loss in San Antonio, Duncan and Parker have masterfully motivated and guided a unit that's been determined to avoid giving Miami any openings to exploit.
The Spurs entered the playoffs with the best road record in the league (30-11) and were also one of the NBA's top shooting teams. They've raised their performance level to historic heights in the Finals, with two unprecedented blowout wins in Miami and a shooting clip that has them at 54.2 percent overall, 46.7 from 3-point range and 73.7 from the free throw line in the series.
No team in Finals history has shot better than 52.7 percent for the duration of a series. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of San Antonio's dominance so far is its 102-62 edge in assists.
"They're getting to their game a lot better than we are -- they're doing what they want to do better than we are," said Wade, who has combined with James to commit 33 turnovers in four games.
"They whipped our butt, and you've got to give them credit for coming out, getting to their game for 48 minutes. If we want to get back into the series, we have to be better. If not, then it will be over."
The Heat have a track record of coming back from situations that seem futile.
It happened in 2012, when they were down 3-2 in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics and won Game 6 on the road to stave off elimination. The Heat won Game 7 at home and advanced to beat Oklahoma City in five games in the Finals. Last season, Miami prevailed in Game 7 at home in the conference finals against the Pacers to set up the first meeting with the Spurs in the Finals.
"Now, we're put in a different situation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Our group has been through everything you possibly can go through, except for this circumstance, so why not? Why not test ourselves right now, collectively? Our championship resolve that we've proven time and time again -- we'll have to do it in a different way. When we're right mentally, emotionally, collectively, there is a real strong spirit to us. We feel we can win anywhere, and that's what we'll work on."
But the Spurs will be working, too.
They have a second chance to finish off the Heat and avoid another epic collapse.
Last October, during his team's first visit back to Miami since last year's Finals, coach Gregg Popovich talked about how much he was haunted throughout the offseason by Game 6 against the Heat. The Spurs watched film of those squandered moments in Miami at the start of training camp this season.
They've pressed all season to get back into this position.
Now, it's all about history.
The Heat are desperate to stay alive and hope to make some.
The Spurs are determined to prevent it from repeating itself.
Leading the Heat 3-1, the Spurs are ready to overcome the heartbreak of last season's Finals collapse, writes Michael Wallace.