Heat’s Finals flop proves LeBron can’t do it alone

The talk all day Thursday was about whether there might be mutual interest between the Miami Heat and free agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony, and after a 107-86 drubbing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, maybe there’s a case to be made that the Heat could use ‘Melo’s help.

San Antonio took a 3-1 lead in a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals, but unlike last season, which saw the Spurs lose a 3-2 lead in heartbreaking fashion, San Antonio appears to be so firmly in control that a Miami comeback seems like little more than a pipe dream.

In order to claim its third straight championship, Miami would not only have to win three straight games over a team that won the past two by a combined 40 points — a number that certainly had the potential to be much higher — but also would have to win two in San Antonio.

That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen, but only eight teams in the history of the NBA playoffs have rallied to win a series after falling into a 3-1 hole, and it’s never happened in the Finals. So the Heat, at this point, either have to make history or make a hasty exit — and their recent play suggests the latter is far more likely.

THURSDAY’S RECAP:

SPURS 107, HEAT 86

Spurs lead 3-1

Takeaway: After Game 3, it was hard to fathom that things could get worse for the Heat, but if such a thing was possible, the Spurs helped make it a reality in Game 4. Less than midway through the first quarter, San Antonio had a nine-point lead and by the half, that lead sat at 19 after reaching as high as 22.

At that point, the Spurs were shooting 55.6 percent from the field, while Miami was hitting on just 35.3 percent, but unlike Game 3, which saw the Heat make a furious rally in the third quarter to briefly make a game of it, Game 4 featured no such fight from Miami, which defended its home floor about as poorly as possible.

It’s hard to say whether the past two games represent the start of the Heat’s championship window closing, or if it’s more a sign that the Spurs dynasty might have the legs to live on beyond this season. But it’s clear that Miami simply is being outclassed by a team that’s better in virtually every way, and you can’t help but wonder what, short of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio empire crumbling, would have to happen to make the Heat the class of the league again.

LeBron James is still the greatest player on earth, but Thursday’s game was proof that he can’t do it alone. Dwyane Wade isn’t getting any younger, and the rigors of a long season and postseason seem to finally be catching up to him. The same goes for Chris Bosh, who is looking more like a No. 2 with each passing game. It’s tough to say whether finagling the numbers to be able to sign Anthony is what Miami needs, but what the Heat have right now is a problem.

Star Review: If we’ve learned anything about the Spurs in these playoffs, it’s that you never know who might step up, and on Thursday, the unlikely star performance came from backup guard Patty Mills, who scored 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting (including four 3s on six attempts). Mills had hit just four 3s in the first three games of the series, but he was a consistent presence throughout Game 4.

The same could be said about the entire Spurs roster, as only Duncan (10 points, 4-of-10 shooting) shot worse than 50 percent from the floor, though Duncan made up for it on the glass, where his 11 rebounds helped San Antonio outrebound Miami 44-27. Also dominant on the boards was Kawhi Leonard, who had one of the most productive games of his career with 14, including five on the offensive glass. Add to that a team-high 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting — Tony Parker was a close second with 19 points — and it’s easy to see why Popovich keeps describing Leonard as the new face of the franchise.

As for Miami, LeBron was once again about the only player worth watching, and after a slow start, he used a near-perfect 19-point third quarter to at least pad his stats. Unfortunately, Wade (four points, 1-of-10 shooting through three quarters) and Bosh (eight points on 3-of-7 shooting through three quarters) took on the personalities of role players when the Heat needed them to be stars, and the little bit that they were able to accomplish in the fourth quarter had a minimal impact while the Heat’s title chances slipped further away.

Looking Ahead: Game 5 at San Antonio, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

What To Look For: For the most part, this series has been borderline unwatchable, and it would be easy to see Game 5 heading that direction, too, if the Heat can’t make a statement early on the road. Throughout the playoffs, this structured, sound San Antonio team has proven more often than not to be an incredibly difficult team to rally against, and so falling behind by double digits early probably would be a death knell for Miami.

To avoid another first- or second-quarter flop, the Heat have to look to LeBron, who has been about their only dependable player. Five first-quarter points, like he had in Game 4, just won’t cut it — nor will nine points at the half. He needs to unleash one of those 25-point quarters he’s become so renowned for, because it’s evident that hoping his teammates will pick up the slack just isn’t going to cut it, and as Thursday showed, a huge quarter doesn’t mean nearly as much when you’re already down big.

When a team looks as overmatched as the Heat have this week, it tends to turn to its leader for guidance, and LeBron can’t afford to shrink in the spotlight. More so than an untimely case of cramps in Game 1, James’ ability to revive his team from the brink of elimination — at least long enough for a return trip to Miami — could have a lasting effect on his legacy, and when it comes to LeBron, we know just how important that is.

If LeBron can lead Miami to a win with the performance of the playoffs in Game 5, then suddenly Game 6 looks a lot more manageable, if only because it would allow the Heat to say, “We’ve been here before; we can do this,” and mean it. That kind of belief in Miami’s abilities may be unwise, but if the Heat can’t show enough heart in San Antonio to at least put up a fight, then maybe they shouldn’t even bother taking the trip.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.