The Heat pound the rock when it counts

LeBron JamesAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

It may not be pretty, but Miami has put opponents away in the fourth quarter by grinding them down.

MIAMI -- The San Antonio Spurs may be long gone from this postseason, but if it is any solace, the Miami Heat are honoring their spirit with what is developing into a dominating playoff run.

For the last decade or so, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has preached to his team the philosophy of “pounding the rock,” a reference to a poem by Jacob Riis about a stonecutter. It goes like this: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing. Yet at the 101st blow it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

That quote hangs on the Spurs' locker room walls in the native language of every player on the team. It's the guiding principle of the franchise.

This is exactly what the Heat have been doing in these playoffs. They have developed a reliable formula for victory after victory that isn’t visually impressive but has become devastatingly effective. And it’s right in the classic Spurs ethos -- the Heat have been pounding away on opponents and watching them break in the end.

The architect of the Heat, team president Pat Riley, is known for many of his own philosophies and sayings and probably wouldn’t say the Heat are relying on the wisdom of another basketball soothsayer. The Heat prefer to use the term “grind,” for example. But there’s a reason the Spurs won four titles in nine years under Popovich, and the Heat are showing that the model continues to work.

Since Game 4 of the East semifinal series with the Boston Celtics -- the overtime victory on the road that seemed to energize the Heat in this current run during which they've won seven of their past eight games -- all of Miami’s victories have started to look very much the same.

These games usually begin as ugly defensive struggles that stay close for three quarters … until the stone, and the opponent, breaks. It’s happened over and over again, generally in the last 10 minutes of the game. Three teams have now fallen victim to the style, the latest being the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Finals when their eight-point lead in the second half vanished as the Heat overcame and pulled away yet again in the stretch run.

“Part of our game is to continue to grind and try to wear on teams,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And hope that there’s a breakthrough at some point in the fourth quarter.”

Call it a breakthrough or the cracking of the stone or any other metaphor, but that’s what the Heat have been doing. During the past eight games, the Heat have outscored their opponents by 49 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Almost all of these have been pure playoff affairs, each possession turning into a docudrama.

But it’s working, because the Heat are pounding or grinding -- take your pick -- their opponents to pieces. During that span, they’re surrendering only 19.7 points in the fourth quarter and the two overtime games they’ve won. They’re allowing just 36 percent shooting in those spans.

Five times in those seven victories, the Heat have trailed going into the fourth and come out with a victory in the end. It's usually a surprisingly easy victory as they’ve won going away. In late-round playoff games, when the opponents are often led by veterans and an All-Star or two, this is a remarkable streak.

It doesn’t get the attention of the individual accolades of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James or Chris Bosh. It doesn’t fit into the nice argument of which player is acting as the designated “closer” for these games. Sometimes it is accompanied by timely shooting, gritty rebounding and an opponent's careless mistakes. But eventually the games have started to all look the same.

This cumulating effect is very much the signature of the Heat’s postseason run.

“We’re very confident in our fourth-quarter defense,” Wade said. “But at the same time, it’s the habits we built throughout the game that allow us to be that confident going into the fourth.”

Pounding the rock by another name.

During Tuesday’s Game 1, the breakthrough didn’t come neatly in the fourth quarter. The Mavericks -- facing the Heat’s particular brand of defense for the first time since December, when Miami was still in the incubator -- were broken midway through the third quarter. After building their biggest lead, the Mavs saw it melt away, and the Heat slowly but surely passed them by.

Over the game’s last 18 minutes, the Mavericks went 8-of-28 from the field and were outscored by 13 points. No, that doesn’t seem like an overwhelming reversal, but it was enough to get beaten soundly. The Celtics and Bulls can certainly relate to the sensation.

“We got into playing their game,” Mavericks forward Shawn Marion said. “You see exactly what they focus on and how they guard in certain situations. They made sure they did a very good job out of it and took us out a lot of things we normally do.”

It took the Heat awhile to get here. As was heavily critiqued when they struggled during the regular season, the Heat often came apart during the fourth quarter. If there was an overriding trait about how they crafted a game, it was that they had anything but a reliable style.

But like with their injury problems, which eased at just the right time, the Heat have put the pieces in place at the exact right moment. It’s been the difference in game after game over the last three weeks and may just be the ticket to that rare air the Spurs have enjoyed so many times. That of a champion.

“We had to go through a lot of struggles,” Spoelstra said. “Our team embraced the challenge of playing better in these close games and we’re finding ways to win.”