VIDEO: Spurs dominate Heat
SAN ANTONIO — Maybe it was the mask that is supposed to be protecting his broken nose. LeBron James ripped it off early in the first quarter and tossed it disdainfully toward the Miami bench.
Originally, it was a black mask that made him look like Batman with more hang time. That is, until commissioner Adam Silver decided to also become the fashion police. James had said before the game that he didn’t think the clear replacement was going to be around much longer and perhaps a couple of missed 16-footers moved up the schedule.
“I got a message from my wife at halftime,” he said. “She told me to put the mask back on, so I guess I’m gonna be in trouble when I get home.”
Maybe it was the tight-fitting short sleeve jersey that he and all the rest of the players had to wear as part of the NBA Noche Latina celebration.
“I’m not making excuses,” James said, “but I’m not a big fan of the jerseys. Not a big fan of them. So I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear the short-sleeved jerseys. Every time I shoot it feels like it’s pulling up right underneath my arm. I don’t have much room for error on my jump shot anyways, so it’s definitely not a good thing.”
Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.
Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.
“He’s a good young player,” James said.
Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.
Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.
These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.
The Spurs are at last healthy and whole, their full contingent available now for just the past three games and yet they looked like a thresher going through a wheat field. They owned the first quarter, played keep away for the rest of the game and with a 111-87 stamp handed the Heat their biggest loss of the season and their worst thumping since a 36-point smack down right here in Game 3 of The Finals.
Of course, for all the celebratory din that happily bounced off the walls of the arena, it came about nine months and 24 seconds too late.
That’s the thing, timing does matter. There will be much made in the two off days before Miami steps back onto the court in Chicago on Sunday afternoon of the first back-to-back, wire-to-wire losses in the Big Three Era of the Heat. But remember it was just earlier this week when James dropped in 61 points on the Bobcats and the “three-peat” parade floats were starting to warm up their engines.
“The league is fragile, things can change very quickly,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
In the two games since the 61-point bomb, James has shot just 15-for-36 from the field, 0-for-6 from behind the arc and scored a total of just 41 points. He looked flat worn-out and exhausted in Houston, but exasperated over an inability to get himself out of the reach and the clutches of Leonard, who tosses around words as if they were manhole covers.
“I’m just playing, man,” he said.
This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.
“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”
Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.
“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”
The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.
A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.