MIAMI — When you consider that the San Antonio Spurs literally didn’t miss many shots through the first two quarters of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, perhaps it’s not surprising that they came away with a 111-92 win. But in some ways, that nearly 20-point margin is a bit deceiving — during the third quarter the Heat clawed back into the game, and with 1:59 remaining in the third, the Heat were down just 7 points.
But on this night, the Spurs just had too much. Of everything. Particularly of note, they got a star-making performance from Kawhi Leonard, the kind of breakout, big stage game that Spurs fans suspected lurked inside the quiet third-year pro.
Meanwhile, the Heat withstood San Antonio’s flurry of body blows and knockout punches and mounted that second half return, but they just seemed to run out of gas down the stretch.
Here’s a look at what went right and wrong in Game 3:
Right: Leonard was simply brilliant, on both ends. Offensively, he started quickly, with 10 of San Antonio’s first 18 points. Defensively, he hounded LeBron James all night, and even though the Heat iso’d James repeatedly, Leonard managed to stay out of foul trouble and seemed to relish the challenge of facing James. Coming off of a Game 2 performance where Leonard fouled out and finished with just 9 points, it was exactly the sort of game the Spurs needed from Leonard. “That’s how he’s played all year long,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s got to be one of our better players on the court or we’re not good enough. That’s just the way it is.” Some things will never change.
Wrong: With Leonard getting after him and the Spurs defense keying on his every move, James finished with 22 points and 5 rebounds, a fine performance for most players but a noticeable drop-off from the 35/10 he posted in Game 2. James also set a Finals record with 7 turnovers, including 5 in the second half. As James surmised after the game, with a rueful smile, “It’s not surprising that I have a Finals record for something I don’t want to have, you know, so there we go. It’s a new storyline for LeBron.”
Right: In Game 2, no Spurs player other than Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili managed to break double digits in the scoring column. In Game 3, not only did Leonard go off for 29 points, but Danny Green found his stroke to the tune of 15 points with 5 steals to go with that. The Spurs know they’ll get steady production from their big three, but they also need to rely on their complementary players to be able to win this Finals.
Wrong: Simply put, the point guard play from the Heat in Game 3 was a disaster. Starter Mario Chalmers finished with 2 points (and no field goals), 4 assists, 3 turnovers and 4 fouls in 22 minutes. His backup, Norris Cole, was only marginally better, going 3-for-9 from the floor. While they aren’t often asked to perform as traditional point guards — James spent most of Game 3 initiating the Heat’s offense — defensively neither Cole nor Chalmers made much of an impact, either. “One thing you can’t control in the game of basketball if a shot goes in or not, but you can control how you defend,” James said. “You can control how much energy you bring to the game, how much effort you bring to the game. If our two point guards do that, we can be okay with that. I know our two point guards, they’re very passionate. They’ve got a lot of pride. And I know they’re looking forward to learning from what they did tonight, and trying to be much better in Game 4.”
Right: Popovich juggled San Antonio’s starting lineup, sitting Tiago Splitter and moving Boris Diaw into the five spot. While Diaw doesn’t provide the same traditional interior presence as Splitter, he makes the Spurs a much more fluid offensive team. He finished Game 3 with 9 points, 5 boards and 3 assists. “Boris has been great all playoffs, in the entire playoffs,” Duncan said. “His ability to attack off the dribble, his passing ability. When they collapsed, he made some great passes, made some great plays, and his ability to finish at the basket as well. So just gave us another attack guy out there. Tiago’s been playing great. He’s finishing at the basket and making plays. But to have someone like Boris who can stretch your floor and make plays like a point guard in there and make decisions and punish them for their rotation, it was big for us.”
Wrong: Considering they were playing their first home game of the 2014 Finals, with a chance to sustain the home court advantage they stole with their Game 2 win, the Heat came out curiously flat. You can’t completely fault them defensively — yes the Spurs got a lot of open looks, but still, shooting 76 percent in the first half is unprecedented. Still, Miami never seemed to equal or overshadow San Antonio’s energy or effort until the second half, and by then they reached a point where they just couldn’t sustain the energy needed to complete the comeback. “What it feels like is The Finals, and you have to deal with all the emotions that happen in The Finals, frustration, anger, pain, elation, all of it, and it can swing back and forth,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “It’s a long series. We have to be able to manage this, and it starts with tomorrow owning it. That will be the process that we all have to go through together, not individually. We have to go through that together and somehow collectively come out with a much better response on Thursday.”