SAN ANTONIO -- The Miami Heat have respectful things to say about the San Antonio Spurs, at least on the surface. Before the series, LeBron James praised the Spurs' willingness to move the ball, while Dwyane Wade cited their "basketball IQ" and Erik Spoelstra paid homage to the organizational culture in San Antonio.
But between the lines in these Finals, the Heat have been dismissive of the Spurs -- and it's been baffling. Miami often treats San Antonio like an opponent that doesn't warrant its full attention or concentration. The Heat stagger their energy, drift through possessions on both ends of the floor and ignore essential assignments and tasks.
If they fall behind enough, as they did in the second quarter in Game 5 Sunday night, the Heat will launch some smart surgical attacks on the Spurs' interior defense. But there are long stretches when the Heat play as if they can subsist on a steady diet of run-outs, hero-ball and early jumpers.
Defensively in the losses (and at times in their two wins), the Heat have been the worst version of themselves -- a unit that believes it can ignore fundamental laws of team defense because it can always find a workaround. A perfect example from Sunday night:
Having trimmed the Spurs' lead to a single point late in the third quarter, the Heat had an opportunity, with a defensive stop in the half court, to take their first lead of the night. They never got that chance. And it wasn't because the Spurs executed an advanced display of choreography or conjured up any of their dark witchcraft. It was nothing like that.
Only seven seconds into the shot clock, Boris Diaw simply handed the ball off to Danny Green. Where was Wade, who was responsible for guarding the guy who just moments earlier had set the record for the most 3-pointers in an NBA Finals series? Wade was casually drifting below the foul line on the right side of the floor. All it took was a quick flip from Diaw to Green, who rose, launched and drained his fifth bomb of the night beyond the arc.
Surprised that Wade would be playing 10 feet off the hottest shooter on the planet, especially given that neither Diaw nor Green are especially lethal off the dribble? Tony Parker was. After Game 5, he expressed a sentiment that was more amusement than shock.
"I can't believe he's still open at this moment of this series," Parker said in the postgame news conference. "If you are going to leave Danny wide open, he's going to make 3s."
The weight of Parker's understatement was matched only by the Heat's disrespect for what the Spurs can do against that kind of defensive negligence. A few minutes after Parker departed, Wade answered for it -- sort of.
"I mean, this is the kind of team that I feel capitalizes on any mistake you make," Wade said. "So if you're half a second late, they capitalize on it."
The sight of Wade or another Heat perimeter defender cheating off a Spurs sharpshooter with the giddy hope of shooting the gap and forcing a skirmish is the enduring image of this series so far. The controlled chaos that comes from forcing turnovers has always been a vital element of the Heat's formula, but to pursue that strategy with such unthinking carelessness, without necessary calculation and consideration for the opponent, is just plain smug.
To escape the most dire consequences of their self-regard, the Heat now will have to summon a quality that doesn't come naturally to them: discipline. Because pyrotechnics, individual heroics and an extra gear aren't enough to knock off the Spurs. That's always been the case, and if the Heat or anyone else needed a reminder, the past 10 days have provided further evidence.
Discipline doesn't mean abandoning early offense or improvisation. In fact, the Heat haven't been committed enough to attacking before the Spurs' defense can get fully set. Discipline doesn't mean stodginess, slowing down the game or replicating the exactitude of the Spurs' system. It means weighing the risk and reward of each decision, something the Heat have the capacity to do as well as anyone. James is the most intuitive player in the world and it will be his charge to put his imprint on the smarter, more diligent brand of basketball the Heat will have to play to rally for the title.
This is doable for Miami, but not if it continues to underestimate the power of the Spurs' precision and pride. As Wade said, the Spurs can exploit an opponent's tactical mistakes -- and most of all, arrogance.