MIAMI – The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs have played 10 June games against each other in a little more than a year. They’re 5-5 so far. In fact, San Antonio has outscored Miami 1,001-964, an average of 3.7 ppg. But the Heat players, coaches and front-office staff have all the rings based on last year’s Game 6 turnaround and Game 7 Finals clincher.
Game 4 tips off Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
The Heat get a second chance to do the home-court thing right, after suffering their first home loss of the postseason. They’re 8-1 after falling two victories short of the NBA record for most consecutive home triumphs in a single postseason.
Thanks to the revived 2-2-1-1-1 format, a pre-1985 configuration, Miami only has this one additional shot at home before the series shifts back to Texas, perhaps never to return. Then again, the Heat have history on their side, as in, they’re tenacious about not losing two in a row come playoff time. They have backed up their last 13 postseason defeats with a victory, in a streak that stretches back 48 games; you need to go back to the 2012 East finals, when Miami lost Games 3, 4 and 5 before pulling that series out in seven.
The Spurs weren’t happy with their Game 2 performance, specifically down the stretch when they spoke afterwards about the basketball “sticking” in their offense, resulting in too many one- or two-pass possessions. That allowed Miami’s defense to zero in on the man with the ball, which is like Rottweilers zeroing in on a T-bone steak. So coach Gregg Popovich fixed that in a big way to start Game 3 — a big, big way that resulted in San Antonio scoring 41 points in the first quarter, 71 in the first half, and setting a Finals record for the hottest shooting first quarter ever (86.7 percent, 13 of 15). The Spurs led by 25 early and were able to manage that to their 111-94 victory.
Just like that, they grabbed back home-court advantage. But the Spurs know this series has merely followed the pattern established last June, when they enjoyed a blowout victory in Game 3 only to get thumped again in Game 4. Miami eventually would be fine if the script to this sequel hews closely to the original. Remember, Game 4 was the one last year when LeBron James caught fire, scoring 33, 25, 32 and 37 points the rest of the way. James had a familiar sort of intensity and resolve when he spoke to the media Wednesday.
Big 3 vs. Big 3? Not so fast. San Antonio got its biggest offensive boosts from non-traditional sources. Kawhi Leonard set a career high – regular season or playoffs – with 29 points, attacking Miami every which way (perimeter, drives, 3-pointers, dunks) and shooting 10-of-13 overall. Danny Green, meanwhile, surprised the Heat by putting the ball on the floor more than they’d seen and getting inside the Heat defense. In 21:19, Green hit 7 of his 8 shots, scored 15 points and only hoisted two 3-pointers (hitting one). Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker? They totaled 40 points, fewer than James and Dwyane Wade (44).
Chris Bosh had played so well. He was hushing up his critics and asserting himself again in the Heat’s pecking order, and then … nine points. Bosh got just four field-goal attempts, getting neglected in Miami’s scramble to whittle down the deficit. The Heat got as close as seven points, but might have been too frantic about it because Bosh made every shot he took and the offense didn’t find him. If it’s not James going strong from the get-go, expect to see Miami serving its lanky power forward/center with early offense.
X’s and O’s:
James’ tendency of letting a game come to him, allowing it to breathe so he can assess the situation and summon the particular skills needed on any given night, experienced a rare backfire because Game 3 got out of hand so quickly. There was only one mode for James and the other Miami players to play in: catch-up mode. He would do well to impose his will and his powers on Game 4 from tipoff, and 22 points won’t be nearly enough against a hot Spurs team that can capitalize on mistakes.
What sort of mistakes? The Heat turned over the ball 20 times, leading to 23 of San Antonio’s 111 points. The Spurs had a 17-point edge in points off turnovers, in fact, and won the game by 19, so those things matter.
Popovich made a starting lineup change in the most recent game, using Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter. Diaw’s deft passing skills and vision lubricated the San Antonio attack by, specifically, getting the basketball moving from one side of the floor to the other. That ball movement and the spread in the Spurs’ spacing created maximum room for them to attack, using the Heat players’ aggressive close-out attempts against them by occasionally putting the ball on the floor as a Miami guy rushed by.
Wrong question in Game 3, at least for San Antonio, at least in the first half. Better and simpler to have asked Who’s Not? When a team hits 19 of its first 21 shots, there’s nothing but hot hands in the rotation. Those who have sustained it the best, though, are Duncan (64.5 percent in the series so far), Green (63.6), Splitter (66.7) and Leonard (59.3).
Prior to this spring, James’ most accurate postseason came in 2009, when he sank 51 percent of his shots. But he’s at 57.0 percent in the 2014 postseason and 60.4 through the first three Finals games. He wasn’t wild about his seven turnovers in Game 3, though, or the 15 he’s had so far in this series.
Whatever happened to …
Mario Chalmers’ confidence has been dropping faster than South Beach revelers’ sobriety and standards after midnight. Always a pest, Chalmers has been reduced merely to that through the first three games. He has scored only 10 points, missed several open looks and invariably made the wrong decisions time and again. His backup Norris Cole hasn’t been much better, especially compared to his contributions in the East finals against Indiana. Then there is Shane Battier, who in this new Heat order has logged only 15 minutes through the three games.
Splitter’s contributions might be sliced if Diaw continues to start in his spot for the Spurs. Keep an eye on Marco Belinelli, a deep threat who has hit half of his eight 3-point attempts but is 0-for-3 inside the arc.
Some of us in the media, while wishing no ill on the Heat and their three-peat ambitions, are awfully curious to see how they would respond to a two-game deficit in a best-of-seven. It’s been so long, y’know? Would their championship pedigree emerge in full and save them? Would the predicament be too dire for a team that might not be as good as the ones that grabbed rings in 2013 and 2012? It’s more of a gawker’s wish, eager for a different sort of drama than we’ve seen out of Erik Spoelstra and his crew lately.
But the truth is, Miami’s championship pedigree is the very thing that has enabled it to avoid two-game deficits in the playoffs since its loss to Dallas, four games to two, in 2011. Not getting burned doesn’t mean you don’t know how to work the stove – it actually means the opposite, and that’s how the Heat have rolled through the past three postseasons. The odds and the experts favor them to keep that going in Game 4.