SAN ANTONIO -- Long after Dwyane Wade produced one of the greatest postseason stat lines of his career -- 32 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals -- he cut to the essence of why we care about the NBA playoffs so much. It's about the revelation. We see the core of people's character, the approach they take to their craft. It's never more so than when teams are pushed to the brink -- or at least, the brink of the brink, which was the plight of the Miami Heat after they fell behind the San Antonio Spurs 2-1 in the NBA Finals.
"So to respond, that's kind of what you're going to be judged by as a man," Wade said. "You are judged by how you respond. I thought my team responded well, and I thought I responded well."
It was a well-earned moment of satisfaction. And perhaps the best feeling one can get during the playoffs. A week earlier, Wade lamented that the pressure leaves no room for fun in the midst of the playoffs. They train in the offseason when no one's watching and endure the regular season just to reach this stage when their deeds are truly recorded, and then there's no opportunity to enjoy the ride.
The Heat's play over the past series and a half has demonstrated why. Each victory has caused them to let up just enough to allow the Pacers or Spurs to seize the next game. It's a flaw with this team, even if it's simply a matter of human nature. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has lamented the motivational challenges his own team faces after winning games. The challenge of the playoffs are every bit as internal as they are external.
That brings us to LeBron James, who had a breakout game of his own with 33 points and 11 rebounds, the type of numbers we'd been expecting from him since the start of the series.
"Before I even made a shot I came into the game confident," James explained afterward. "I knew what my mindset was going to be."
The natural question is where that mindset was in Games 1, 2 and 3. And James might have provided an answer: lack of NCAA tournament experience.
"I never went to college, so I never had to worry about if you lose the first one, then it's like I don't have another opportunity," James said. "And it's not saying I'm taking the game for granted, I just know there's a tomorrow."
That explains a lot, doesn't it? There's always been a tomorrow for James. Even before he signed his first multimillion-dollar contract he always had the luxury of time. Even now, with the prospect of losing a third NBA Finals in four tries, there isn't the sense of urgency that's explicitly cited by Tim Duncan and the Spurs. If the Heat lose, LeBron still won't turn 30 until two birthdays from now. He even has the option to leave Miami next year and find a more optimal situation.
It's surprising that James has escaped a superhero moniker this long. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were Batman and Robin, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard have battled over the rights to Superman, Wade is Flash (although his teammates' recent comments suggest that applied to previous versions of him more than the current, knee-damaged one). If anything, LeBron is the Hulk. His powers are activated only after he is angry. He needs to be incited to give his best performances. They're not organic.
The Spurs are the opposite of the Heat. The performances might vary, the demeanor doesn't.
"I think it's just a reflection of their personalities," Popovich said. "If anybody is crazy in the group, it's me."
Yes, during Spurs games you're far less likely to see emotional outbursts on the court than you are on the sidelines. And even when Popovich loses his cool it doesn't cause the players to come unhinged. He chewed out Duncan during a timeout in Game 4. Duncan's response: He calmly sat in his seat, processing, then decided he'd rather be elsewhere. So he walked down the sideline and parked himself on the scorer's table. No more words, not even a harsh glance.
"They pretty much have an even keel," Popovich said. "Timmy Duncan sets the tone, and he just competes. Whether he does well or whether he does poorly, game in, game out, year in, year out, he competes and people just follow that. Tony Parker is basically the same breed. Manu [Ginobili] is a little bit more emotional, as I am. He's been doing this so long that he understands the wins in some ways are a relief, and the losses are devastating, and you can't let either affect you. You just go on with your business.
"So after a game like last night, players, they're smart. They don't need to be told how many turnovers they had or this, that or the other or what we have to do. They feel it, and they'll respond in that regard, and they'll play well enough or they won't. But it won't be for lack of effort or anything like that. They'll just stay pretty consistent."
They have a consistent mental approach, but their bodies don't always allow for consistent performances. Parker had a bruised calf in the second round and now is dealing with strained hamstring. Ginobili might be afflicted by too much birthday cake, as a doctor once told my grandfather. At 35, Ginobili's legs just aren't there. Duncan, 37, can still do what he did before; it's that Popovich knows better than to ask him to do as much of it. Duncan's playing 30 minutes per game in the playoffs, about nine minutes less than he averaged in his first two championship runs.
Wade, James and Bosh, the most psychoanalyzed trio in sports the past three years, demonstrated they all have the physical capability remaining. It's their abilities, and the variances created by their own minds, against the even emotions of the Spurs.
"Our focus is trying to bring the same disposition on Sunday," James said. In this case, his lack of college education didn't betray him. "Disposition" was an excellent word choice. Game 4 featured different lineups and a different flow, yet the difference you heard emphasized by the guys at the podium was the different approach.
It's the mental battle. It's what the playoffs are about.