SAN ANTONIO // At their best in the NBA finals, Miami Heat have forced turnover after turnover, finding a gear San Antonio Spurs just cannot reach.
Play in Game 5 as they have during their two easy victories in the series, and LeBron James's defending champions will head home just one win away from another title.
But Miami's best has not been carrying over from game to game, not just in this series but for a while now. So it is anybody's guess what happens Monday in a finals that is dead even, though the games have not been.
"I think Game 5 should be the best game of the series," Miami's Dwyane Wade said. "Both teams should come out knowing each other, knowing what each other want to do, and it should be a very good game."
Not the way this series has been going.
Game 1 was a thriller, neither team able to build a double-digit lead over four back-and-forth quarters before Tony Parker's clinching basket helped the Spurs pull out a 92-88 victory.
The teams have not delivered a classic since. The Heat won by 19, lost by 36 and cruised by 16. The last few minutes of each have looked more like an October exhibition than a mid-June championship clash.
"You lose a game like we did in Game 2 and we come back and beat them in Game 3 and look like they looked last night, that's what drives me crazy, because as coaches you try to prevent that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said on Friday during a conference call.
"You like to be on a little bit more of an even keel and perform the same way each night, and the only thing I can tell myself after all these years is, you're dealing with people, with emotions and not robots.
"They come out and they all play hard, but there's that little intangible, that little spark of intensity or back against the wall, or a little bit of fear that just seems to kick in when you've lost the previous game.
"And when you find teams that can get over that, those are the championship teams."
It is the most uneven stretch of the NBA finals since 2005, according to STATS, when San Antonio and Detroit Pistons swapped four straight games decided by 15 or more points to open the series.
Back then, the Spurs could depend on Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to get them right. But now Parker has a shaky hamstring, Ginobili's shot and confidence are even shakier, and San Antonio might need a throwback performance from Duncan in what could be his last home game in a storied finals career.
"If they don't get more from Tim Duncan, Sunday is the Spurs' last stand," Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said on NBA TV's post-game show.
Duncan knows that what the Spurs really need is to take better care of the basketball. Their 17 turnovers led to 19 Miami points in Game 2, and they gave the Heat 23 points with their 19 turnovers in Game 4.
"That's a big problem," Duncan said. "When we lose, that's the big deal right there."
A Miami team that sustained their excellence for 27 straight victories during the regular season has not even been able to do it for consecutive games lately.
Double-digit victories in Games 3 and 5 of the Eastern Conference finals were followed by losses, as was their first victory in this series.
"Well, Game 5 is going to be a big game," Chris Bosh said. "I think we just have to stay in the place that we're in."
As usual, that may depend on James. After taking unusually long to get going in Games 2 and 3, he was out quick on Thursday, making it clear the game was not going to be played on the Spurs' terms.
"I gave it everything I had," James said. "I was just playing as hard as I could until the tank was empty and that's how it's going to have to be for the rest of this series."
Of the previous 27 times the finals were tied at 2-2, the Game 5 winner went on to take the series 20 times. The Heat lost in this situation two years ago in Dallas, and the Mavericks finished them off in Game 6 in Miami.
Wade has never gone the distance in his three previous NBA finals, but kept mentioning Thursday that there were three games left, as if expecting this series to reach a Game 7.
The Heat could make that less likely with a victory today.
"It's going to be hard, the hardest thing we're going to do as a group is to try to repeat," Wade said. "And this team over here is not going to quit, no matter what. So we have to prepare for their best effort."
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