MIAMI -- The scenes from a crumbling dynasty are never pretty, and in fact they're hard to watch: Dwyane Wade, stumbling and sluggish and aging rapidly, getting dunked on and stripped in the open floor. Chris Bosh, invisible, ignored by his teammates, grumbling about his role. LeBron James, dragging along a more expensive version of the Cavaliers, two weeks away from free agency and perhaps wondering in the deepest corners of his mind, Do I really want to go through this?
It's something that's inevitable, something expected, something bound to happen at some point to a two-time champion built on star power. Nothing lasts forever. But this soon? In this series? Pushed to the edge by a second straight wipeout loss, at home no less, by the Spurs?
"This was probably the biggest surprise of the series," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "I think everybody came in expecting something dramatically different than this."
Maybe the Heat are saving their best for next in the NBA Finals. Perhaps the last two games will wind up a bizarre blip. It's possible Miami muster a mighty force and become the first team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 black hole and the basketball world will throw rose petals at their sneakers once again. Really? Really.
But seriously: Don't they look like burnt toast?
Game 4 was a continuation of Game 3, and in each case, nobody saw it coming. For the second straight game, the home team trailed by 20-plus points, wiped out and whipped by the second quarter, swallowed up by an old Spurs nucleus that's juiced by the non-All-Star likes of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills, a guy whose main function in last year's Finals was waving a towel on the bench. The fans inside American Airlines Arena looked and sounded like zombies, all glassy-eyed at the sad spectacle, begging and pleading for a turnaround that never came.
"They smashed us," said James. "It's just that simple."
Smashed? OK. Whatever. We get the point. The Heat are getting shredded by the Spurs, and the contrast is too vivid to ignore. The Spurs are using basic basketball to bludgeon the Big Three-inspired Heat, to the delight of basketball purists and Norman Dale. LeBron can't compete with the passing, cutting, pick-setting and three-point shooting Spurs, who are more balanced than an Olympic gymnast. The NBA Finals suddenly look like a contest between Team vs. Individuals, a comparison that puts the black hats squarely on three players who stacked the Heat for the purpose of using star power to win championships.
Well. How's that working out so far in this series?
We can play the what-if game, as in: What if Ray Allen hadn't hit that shot last year? What if Tim Duncan and Tony Parker hadn't bricked four straight free throws in the closing minutes of Game 2? Not only would the Spurs have two straight titles, they'd have finished off Miami in a sweep. With one title in four tries, then, would LeBron be so anxious to spend the next phase of his career, his middle-aged years, in Miami?
For sure, what happens next, starting Sunday in Game 5, could have far-reaching implications for the future of LeBron and the Heat. If the Heat go down in flames, and spectacularly so, doesn't LeBron begin to study the situation a bit closer and ask himself some tough questions in free agency? Is Wade really worth a rich, long-term contract at 32 and with his injury history, and if so, how does that handcuff the Heat's ability to stay a contender? Does Bosh bail, fattened by a pair of championship rings, and get enriched by a team he can call his own?
But first: They've got to figure out the Spurs and what's gone wrong.
"Well, I mean, the series is not over," said James. "We've got guys with too much pride to even start thinking about that. Our focus will be, how do we get better? One thing you can't control is what happened in the past."
LeBron has had a good series. Not a great one. He hasn't been the best player on the floor for all 16 quarters and actually found himself outplayed the last two games by Leonard for surprisingly healthy stretches. He was all Miami had in Game 4, scoring 28 points with 8 rebounds, but his production came after the fact and far too late to rescue the Heat.
He left Thursday's game to get a re-taping of his ankle and while he downplayed it afterward, he hinted the ankle "has bothered me" for an unspecified period and if LeBron isn't 100 percent, well, you know.
Wade suffered through a miserable night where little went right and where he'll invite lots of skepticism about his body and health. Wade looked 40 against Green and anyone else the Spurs threw his way, getting beaten to the ball and unable to blow past his man. Easily, it was his lowest moment of an otherwise encouraging post-season. At one point he was 1-for-10 shooting and the most celebrated athlete in South Florida history after Dan Marino heard boos.
"Law of averages, man," he said. "I'm usually a very accurate shooter. The ball just didn't go in."
Bosh hasn't hit an important basket in this series other than his three-pointer from the corner late in Game 2. Can you recall, at any point, where Bosh made a big play or changed the course of any game? He is blending in, rather than standing out, and this is magnified whenever Wade seems lost and nothing special is coming off the Heat bench.
As for Mario Chalmers: Look, we can dump on him for slogging through a miserable series, but when did the Heat start leaning on Chalmers for their championship hopes and health?
Simply put, the Heat haven't looked this lost since the 2011 series with the Mavericks when LeBron couldn't post up J.J. Barea. They're a step slow defensively trying to check the Spurs' shooters. They got destroyed on the glass in Game 4, losing the rebounding battle 44-27. Leonard is sprucing up his reputation at the Heat's expense, showing the kind of force -- often against LeBron -- that makes him the favorite for series MVP. Mills and Green are making Miami pay for leaving them open for jumpers.
"They're pretty much getting everything they want," said Bosh. "Right now we need to go home and do some soul-searching."
To be honest, other than Parker reaching the rim and occasionally sinking a 20-footer, the so-called Spurs Big Three has been transformed mainly into … role players.
"They're getting to their game a lot better than we are," said Wade. "They're doing what they want to do better than we are. So right now they're playing better than us, no question about it. We'll see at the end of the series."
It's hard to fathom that a team with LeBron, and Wade relatively healthy for once, and Bosh and Allen would be in jeopardy of going out in five. Not only that, they absorbed back-to-back poundings at home. That doesn't lend much hope for their chances, given a series deficit that has never been overcome in the Finals, given how the Spurs appear locked in their element and hell bent on getting revenge for losing to Miami last season and giving Duncan and Gregg Popovich their first title since 2007. Plus, Duncan has two days to rest up and Game 5 is in San Antonio.
Therefore: The Heat, winning the next three and making history? Isn't that a stretch, even in a best-case scenario?
"It's a game-to-game type of thing," Wade said. "Games change, individual performances change. We expect to go to San Antonio and put up a better effort."
There's more than one game and one championship series at stake. Losing to the Spurs could invite all sorts of off-season drama and make for some interesting and suspenseful few weeks in July, when the Heat and their three-man foundation make some decisions about the future.
Until then, the Heat will travel to San Antonio, where the air conditioning units are up and running. Still, it could get hot for the visitors, anyway.