MIAMI -- Over the past four seasons the Miami Heat have endured a lifetime of playoff experiences. Nearly every situation they encounter offers a frame of reference -- a moment when they held similar feelings, or faced the same challenges.
In a morbid case in point, Norris Cole was stunned earlier this week when a personal employee died unexpectedly in a shooting. It was tragic, yet even that stunning incident was something the Heat had coped with in the past. Two years ago this week, one of Chris Bosh's employees passed away suddenly at his home.
The Heat had suffered serious mid-series injuries, faced elimination games on the road, navigated dangerous squabbles between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and overcome home-court disadvantage. Last season they trailed three different times during the NBA Finals and still won. They have done it all under a level of scrutiny that no modern sports team has ever sustained. Through it all, they have created an exoskeleton that can withstand any scenario with a "-gate" suffix.
So here the Heat were in the midst of getting run off their court for a second time in three nights Thursday, losing Game 4 of the Finals 107-86 to the San Antonio Spurs. Pushed to the brink of elimination, something unprecedented and profound surfaced for the Heat.
It wasn't just that they'd lost back-to-back games for the first time in the past eight playoff series. Or that they'd fallen behind two games or lost two consecutive home playoff games.These were just factoids.
As the Spurs whipped the ball through Miami's defense and executed a beautiful strategy with a mix of expertise and grace, the Heat seemed to have a collective and halting revelation: They were playing a better team.
"We've seen our fair share of adversity. This is adversity in all caps," Bosh said. "Being in this hole is different for us, it's different. It's a hard pill to swallow."
No matter what has happened over the past four years, the Heat always, always, always believed they had the better team. They believed it when they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals in 2011. They believed it when they trailed the Boston Celtics 3-2 in 2012. They believed it when they were down 3-2 to the Spurs and behind five points with less than 30 seconds left in Game 6 last year.
The Heat famously lull their opposition into false security only to shrug it off, throw back their shoulders, summon up the energy and administer a whipping. Losing Game 1 of a series is merely an invitation to win the next four. A home loss can be made up on the road. A lousy first quarter can be compensated in the fourth. This has happened so many times that it's just expected.
After a blowout loss in Game 3, it was widely assumed the Heat would bounce right back in Game 4, James would put up something like 28 points, eight rebounds and shoot 60 percent. In the process, the Heat would hit some 3-pointers, score 20 or so points off turnovers and they'd send this puppy back to San Antonio at 2-2.
Not now, not against perhaps the best Spurs team in history. And no, that is not a throwaway sentence. In case you had forgotten, the Spurs had the best record in the most competitive Western Conference race in memory and they survived that bracket looking better each round.
In this series, the Heat have gone to their trusty whip and have eaten only more dirt. The Spurs haven't just been beating the Heat, they've humbled them -- with their game plans, their depth and their merciless execution.
"They just -- they just, they just played great," stammered Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "I can honestly say I don't think any of us were expecting this type of performance."
The "performance" he's talking about was from the Spurs.
In Game 3, the Heat cut a 25-point lead to seven points and it was labeled a comeback attempt. In Game 4, players talked about how they cut a 25-point lead down to 13 in the second half but "couldn't get over the hump." Here's the hump: The biggest halftime lead the Spurs have blown this season is seven points.
The Heat got booed by their own fans and Spoelstra was so desperate with his point guard situation that he rolled out Toney Douglas, who has played about five meaningful minutes all season. The emerging storyline is that the Heat are exhausted after playing so many minutes over the past four seasons or that Wade's knee must be acting up because he couldn't get a shot off in the paint.
It seems rather unlikely that the workload of the past four years or the past four weeks would hit the Heat like a sledgehammer in the middle of this series. No, the Heat have led for only a handful of minutes in the four games. Their entire defense is aimed at pressuring the ball but it's impossible for them to do so if the ball stays in one place for only one second at a time.
Kawhi Leonard, far and away the youngest and most energetic player in the series, is cementing his forthcoming maximum contract on his way to a series MVP. Boris Diaw and Tony Parker are playing as though it's the European Championships and they're the best duo on the continent. Every play Gregg Popovich draws up in the huddles works, which is killing Heat rallies.
The better team is winning and the championship flotilla is being planned for the Riverwalk sometime next week.
This is a monster the Heat have not seen before. There's no one specific to blame. There's no "lackluster defense," though they haven't been great. It's not a matter of effort. It's not the coach's decisions, though Spoelstra surely will be implementing some changes that could start with the benching of Mario Chalmers.
The Spurs have simply been better. Instinct tells the Heat they shouldn't give up, that they'll come back because they always have before.
This, finally, isn't before. They've haven't just met their match after four years, they've met a wall.
"Our group has been through everything you possibly can be through except for this circumstance," Spoelstra said. "So why not? Why not test ourselves right now collectively?"
It's more than a test, it's a humbling new experience.