It’s the old football adage: the best defense is a good offense.
Or at least a better offense.
That’s the message that coach Gregg Popovich is delivering to the Spurs as they head into Game 3 of The Finals tonight.
The truth is there’s not much that anybody can do when the runaway locomotive that is LeBron James starts pulling up way out on the tracks to fire in long jumpers, too.
The most natural reaction is to stand there in awe. Or simply try to outscore the Heat.
Popovich is not necessarily saying his Spurs have to turn the best of The Finals into the kind of wide open track meets that regularly rang up 117 points against the Thunder in the previous round. But the Spurs must be more efficient and more effective when they have the ball.
Tony Parker, who usually echoes his coach’s post-game speech to the Spurs when he addresses the media, talked about San Antonio’s need to take care of the ball, move it around better and find the open man.
Popovich himself did not linger on defensive breakdown that left Chris Bosh with a wide-open 3-pointer at the end of Game 2. He talked repeatedly about the ball getting “stuck.”
“LeBron did a great job at his end,” Popovich said, “and we have to be really pretty perfect at the other end and we weren’t. We didn’t take advantage of things. We made bad decisions.”
The Spurs are at their best when they slash and cut and treat the basketball as if it were a live hand grenade. When anyone holds onto it for too long, it can blow up in their faces.
San Antonio built an 11-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 2 and then became careless. Though the Spurs reduced their turnovers from 23 in the opener to just 11, they coughed up three of them that immediately allowed the Heat right back into the game. Parker lost the ball, Tiago Splitter made a bad and then Tim Duncan coughed it up and the advantage was quickly gone. So too was any real offensive rhythm.
The result was that when James went on his shooting tear in the third quarter — hitting six straight jumpers — on his way to 35 the Spurs had no answer.
It is unreasonable to ask Kawhi Leonard — or anyone else in the NBA — to put the clamps on James when he’s found his groove from the outside. Two of those jumpers were out behind the 3-point line. The Heat are 15-1 in postseason play when James scores at least 30 and also grabs 10 rebounds.
However the Spurs, with all their dysfunction, were ahead 93-92 when Parker drained a 3-pointer of his own with 2:27 left in the game.
But on the next possession, Parker got trapped on the baseline, James stripped away the ball. That led to an out-of-bounds play with just 0.8 on the shot-clock and a Manu Ginobili missed 3-pointer. After Bosh’s go-ahead bucket, Ginobili’s pass to Duncan was too hard and went out of bounds. Last, with 30 seconds left, Ginobili missed from 19 feet.
“We didn’t look like ourselves out there,” said Danny Green.
“We kind of played into their hands by not moving the ball like we have been,” Duncan said. “You’ve got to make them move.”
The Heat have a similar floor-spacing and ball-movement philosophy. But they have the big difference-maker in James, who can cover up for errors and breakdowns by taking over.
The Spurs don’t have that luxury. That’s why the best defense is their own offense.