In the end, it turned out that neither the San Antonio Spurs nor the Miami Heat were destined to sweep their way into the conference finals, but after Monday’s Game 4 action, both of the participants from last year’s NBA Finals still find themselves in the enviable position of owning a 3-1 lead going into Wednesday’s Game 5s at home.
For the Heat, the reality check came on Saturday, of course, during a flat loss to the Nets at Barclays Center. But on Monday, Miami regrouped and escaped Brooklyn with a victory behind a 49-point performance from LeBron James. The Spurs, meanwhile, looked poised to sweep the Blazers after three straight blowout wins, but showed a little vulnerability in a Game 4 loss at a raucous Rose Garden. (Sorry, I’m still not calling it the Moda Center.)
Neither team has shown a particular weakness that should give fans cause for excessive concern, and the results of their respective series still feel like a formality despite both teams’ shortcomings in recent days. But both fan bases still would prefer their teams put a ribbon on things in Game 5, lest they find themselves in a pivotal game on the road for Game 6 on Friday.
Takeaway: After the Heat stepped over the Nets like they were doormats in Games 1 and 2, Brooklyn needed something to go right at home to give itself a chance going forward, and it got it in Game 3, hitting 15 3-pointers to pull the series to 2-1. But as quickly as the Nets got in a groove on Saturday, the series went south on Monday, and now they’re facing the challenge of winning three straight from the two-time defending champs to advance, including two in Miami — where the Heat are 34-7 in playoff games since the Big 3 formed. The 3’s Brooklyn hit in Game 3 stopped falling in Game 4, with just 5 of 22 attempts finding the net, and they had no answers for James, who put the Heat on his back with 49 points, which tied a playoff career high. There were some flashes for the Nets that had you believing that maybe they were primed to put the Heat on the ropes, and Brooklyn dominated on the offensive glass, keeping itself in the game with 23 second-chance points to Miami’s 10. But with the game on the line, Joe Johnson couldn’t live up to his "Iso Joe" nickname against LeBron, and while Miami didn’t romp like it did in the first two games, it did enough to give itself a lead that likely will prove insurmountable.
Star Review: It was almost a shame that LeBron wasn’t able to get to 50 for the first time in his playoff career, splitting a pair of free throws after a pointless Deron Williams foul with just a second to play. But other than that gaffe, James was just about perfect for the Heat, hitting 16 of 24 shots. The knock on Miami for most of the game was that no one else was doing their share while LeBron dominated, but interestingly enough, it was the other two-thirds of the Big 3 that came up huge for the Heat with the game on the line. It began with Chris Bosh (12 points, 5 rebounds) who, after a 1-of-5 start from 3, hit a huge 3-pointer from the corner to give Miami a 97-94 lead with 57 seconds left to play. Then on the next offensive possession for the Heat, it was Wade (15 points, 4 rebounds) who came up with a critical offensive board after a James miss, forcing the Nets to send Miami to the line to make it a two-possession game with 17 seconds left. At the other end of the court, Johnson cooled down after going bonkers from 3 in Game 3, and came up empty going 1-on-1 with LeBron on two consecutive possessions at the wire. A missed 3 by Johnson on the Nets’ final possession was, fittingly, the final nail in the coffin for Brooklyn, which saw decent efforts from Paul Pierce (16 points, 7 rebounds) and Kevin Garnett (8 points, 7 rebounds).
Looking Ahead: Game 5 at Miami, Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET
What To Look For: It has become clear that Brooklyn won’t have a chance at the unlikeliest of comebacks unless long-distance shots are falling, so the Nets have to start there. Mirza Teletovic entered Game 4 having hit 11 of 19 3’s in the series, including all six of his attempts from the corners, but he went 0 for 3 from deep Monday — perhaps because he took two of them from the one spot on the floor where he had been struggling with his touch. Brooklyn would be wise to try to get Teletovic the ball in the corners again starting Wednesday. More importantly, though, the Nets need to get all they can out of their own Big 3 with the season at stake. I don’t really know how much Pierce and Garnett have left in their tanks — and certainly they’re not about to admit it if their age is catching up to them — but they both will have to bring maximum effort in Game 4, even if it’s not what it used to be. Additionally, D-Will has to stop disappearing for huge chunks of the game, as he did in the second half Monday, when he scored just five points on 2-of-9 shooting (including an 0-for-3 effort in the final 10 minutes of the fourth). Long story short, everything has to go right for the Nets against a Heat team that certainly smells blood, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be another long offseason for owner Mikhail Prokhorov.
Takeaway: No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, and no sane person thinks that the Portland Trail Blazers are destined to become the first over the course of the next several days. But on Monday, the Blazers at least were able to take the first step toward that goal in what was by far the team’s best performance of the series. After Game 2, I wrote that Portland, in order to have any hope, would have to avoid digging early holes against the Spurs. The Blazers missed the mark in Game 3, allowing San Antonio to surpass 60 points in the first half for the third consecutive game while falling behind by as many as 23, but in Game 4 played a much better first half, and took a two-point lead into the break. That minor victory then seemed to spark something special in Portland, which played its best quarter of the series in the third and took a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter — during which Gregg Popovich rested stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, seemingly content to wrap things up at home instead.
Star Review: While we still haven’t seen the LaMarcus Aldridge who had his way with the Houston Rockets in the first round, Aldridge did play his most efficient offensive game in a hot minute in the victory, scoring 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting in the win. But the real star of the game for Portland was Nicolas Batum, who approached triple-double territory with 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists that officially put his disastrous Game 1 behind him. Factor in Damian Lillard’s best game of the series (25 points on 11-of-21 shooting) and you’ve got a Blazers team that is at least coming within spitting distance of its potential. One has to assume that Duncan (12 points, 9 rebounds), Parker (14 points) and Ginobili (2 points, 1-of-6 shooting) won’t all be so pedestrian in Game 4 on Wednesday, but at this point, Portland gladly will take what it can get. The Blazers can’t be too thrilled with Boris Diaw’s 6-of-8 shooting performance off the bench, but after being taken to the woodshed for three straight games, they’ll gladly settle for that being their biggest letdown of the night.
Looking Ahead: Game 5 at San Antonio, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: Prepare to hear plenty over the next couple of days about how the 2003 Blazers were the last team to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 — and then convince yourself to forget anything that makes you believe that somehow it’s Portland’s fate to finish the job this time around. Monday’s win may have saved Terry Stotts’ team the embarrassment of a sweep, but it’ll take a heck of a performance on Wednesday to follow it up with another elimination-staving victory. Paced by Will Barton (17 points), the Blazers bench finally hung with San Antonio’s in Game 4 and was the key to victory. But it’s hard to see Barton — he of 21 total points and four DNP-CDs in the Blazers’ other nine playoff games — playing the role of hero again. So if Portland is to produce another stay of execution, it’ll come on the efforts of their stars. Aldridge took better shots on Monday and made some strides, but he’s going to have to be the guy who scored 89 points in Games 1 and 2 in Houston in order for his team to return to Portland on Friday. It’s just hard to see that happening against a San Antonio team that is not only an overwhelming favorite, but also well-rested (no starter played more than 27:15 in Game 4) and maybe a little angry after Monday’s flop.