- Series Hub: Spurs-Heat
SAN ANTONIO – This is the equivalent of Hump Day in The Finals. Another Spurs victory puts them up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, a gap that no trailing team ever has overcome in Finals history. But a bounce-back performance from the Heat evens the series at 2-2, extends it to at least six games and boosts the chances for only the fourth Finals Game 7 in the past 25 years.
Game 4 tips off Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
With each team winning once by blowout so far — Miami with its 103-84 victory Sunday, followed by San Antonio’s 113-77 rout two days later — there’s hope that things will settle back into single-digit margin basketball. Each of the two previous Finals teams that won games by at least 36 points — Chicago in 1998, Boston in 2008 — won the championship.
Miami is no stranger to trailing in playoff series, having done so twice already this postseason and three times last year, including 1-0 in The Finals vs. Oklahoma City. The Heat leans heavily on its resiliency, its confidence buoyed from going five months without suffering even a two-game losing streak. Besides, it’s not as if Miami hasn’t won in San Antonio before. It has — three times in 26 tries through the years.
LeBron James has vowed to play better. Nervous Heat fans might say to that, “How can he not?” The reigning Most Valuable Player has yet to score 20 points in the three games (he’s averaging 16.7) and he’s shooting 38.9 percent after hitting 56.5 percent in the regular season. Even more unexpectedly, after averaging one free throw attempt every 5.4 minutes on the court, James is at 1-per-20.2 minutes in this series. He has been going with his noble instincts of making the right basketball play, despite his teammates’ inability to step up consistently. Miami at this point needs Take-Over LeBron more than Share-The-Ball LeBron, even though coach Erik Spoelstra rightly says, “It’s not all on him, it’s all of us.”
San Antonio has its own concern: Tony Parker‘s right hamstring. An MRI exam Wednesday diagnosed his Game 3 injury as a Grade 1 strain. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Thursday’s shootaround that Parker will play in Game 4, which alleviates one big concern for San Antonio. But if the All-Star point guard is at all limited or not as effective, reserve Cory Joseph will be pressed into a bigger role at the position, while Parker’s offensive impact will shift to backcourt mate Manu Ginobili. The Spurs’ 11-5 record this season when playing without Parker? Don’t look to that much, because none of those games was played against the defending champions at full strength.
Joseph averaged only 13.9 minutes during regular season and he’s down to 10.6 mpg in the postseason. But he built his confidence with an NBA D-League stint and by subbing for Parker as San Antonio won six of eight games. But who’s kidding whom? It’s unfathomable that Miami would lose two more times to a Spurs club missing Parker. Parker’s ability to not just suit up, but also keep playing well, remains key for San Antonio.
Then again, it’s equally unfathomable that three games into The Finals, the Heat would have people wondering what sort of effort this team might bring. Miami players let their offensive struggles in Game 3 dampen their defensive enthusiasm, concentration and hustle in ways not normally associated with reigning champions. Hopefully someone has done the math and shown them that they could not-lose-two-in-a-row their way right out of this series (if San Antonio keeps winning the odd-numbered games).
Xs and Os:
LeBron in the low post. LeBron attacking the lane and the rim. LeBron launching and hitting shots from 3 feet away and 30 feet, too. LeBron in “go” mode. That’s what San Antonio surely expects after 48 hours of James’ pledge to play better. We’ve got to figure on Spurs coach Gregg Popovich putting some jiu-jitsu princples to use, using James’ conscious aggressiveness against him somehow. Not that he’d share much Wednesday. “Our team defense is not just LeBron,” Popovich said. “Team defense is exactly what it says, it’s for everyone.”
Getting James into the low post the way Miami did against Indiana in Game 3 of the East finals could have ancillary benefits for offensive rebounding position — San Antonio has a 40-27 edge so far — and ignite James’ interior passing with Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Rebounding overall (where the Spurs’ edge is 133-118) is vital to the Heat’s ability to run, too, for mayhem and avoiding San Antonio’s half-court defense.
The Spurs probably will keep going under Miami pick-and-rolls until one or more Heat players prove they can hit the shots that result. At the other end, Miami’s defense got stretched thin by San Antonio’s smaller lineup, making it more difficult to contest the 3-point salvos of Danny Green and Gary Neal. Slowing or stopping the Spurs’ ball movement is key. But the Heat had better attend to Tim Duncan, too, because the big guy isn’t happy with his shooting so far (16 of 43, just 37.2 percent) and is determined to do better.
Green (14 of 23) and Neal (9 of 18) have combined to hit 60.1 percent of their 3-pointers. Green, three seasons after being an afterthough on James’ final Cleveland team, is outscoring the MVP by two points per game in The Finals. Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan have 13 offensive rebounds each, compared to the entire Miami team’s 27.
Reserve shooter Mike Miller is the Heat player giving San Antonio the most fits, hitting nine of his 10 3-point attempts. Ray Allen isn’t far behind at 6-of-9.
Whatever happened to …?:
The Big Three. The idea behind rounding up James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the same team was that, most nights, most of Miami’s first 70 points or so would be accounted for. But through three games, they’re at 43.3 points on 42.1 percent shooting. Bosh hurt himself loitering in 3-point land in Game 1, Wade’s sore knee seems to prevent him from putting together four quarters and, by his own standards, James is playing like [bleep]. It’s no way to defend a Larry O’Brien trophy.