SAN ANTONIO – The avalanche started the way they often do, with a groaning and a rumbling and a sense of foreboding from somewhere deep within.
Then comes the time to outrun it and that rarely works.
When the Spurs were finished rolling down the mountainside, it would have taken an emergency beacon to find the Heat after a 113-77 thumping that gives San Antonio a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Well, the consensus opinion was that the Spurs would need their Big Three to show up in order to regain their equilibrium.
Gary Neal hit six 3-pointers and finished with 24 points in the Spurs’ Game 3 rout.
What they got instead were big 3s, 16 of them, in fact, which set a new Finals record.
Rather than get carried by the veteran strength and experience of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, they rode a wave of 3-pointers by Danny Green and Gary Neal.
This is the way the Spurs play these days, no longer the pound-it-down-low to Duncan team that throttled a younger LeBron James in their last trip to The Finals in 2007. It’s been a total transformation, like waking up one day to find a Kardashian studying quantum physics.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combined for 25 points. Green hit 7-for-9 from behind the arc for 27 points and Neal popped in 6 of 10 deep for 24.
When the Spurs are at their best, they move the ball like it’s ticking, searching, seeking, finding the open man. They were the fourth-best team in the league this season in shooting 3s, connecting on 37.6 percent.
“It makes the game a lot easier for us,” Green said. “When we’re moving the ball like that, trusting each other to knock down shots, make plays, it makes the defense work. It makes them move, rotate. The more you make a defense move, the more they’re liable to make mistakes. So we just continue to move it and trust each other.”
That the trust in a critical Game 3 with a championship on the line was placed in the hands of Green and Neal is typical of the Spurs’ organizational philosophy: You’re wearing the uniform, so we expect you to be able to play.
The barrage started out in the second quarter when Neal, undrafted and playing in Europe when the Spurs asked him to re-schedule his honeymoon in order to take part in a summer tryout in 2010, hit Miami with three treys in the quarter, including one that just beat the halftime horn.
“Honestly, I was comfortable with the financial situation in Italy,” Neal said. “With me getting married and wanting to start a family, I kind of wanted to be in the States. I never had a crack at the NBA. I never played summer league, never did a mini-camp or anything.
“So when the opportunity came knocking, I said, you know, I’ll try.”
Green had been cut twice by the Spurs before finally sticking the third time after an offseason double-teaming by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and his old college coach Roy Williams of North Carolina.
“(Confidence) was the missing piece the last couple of years,” Popovich said. “Believing that he belonged. Not getting down if things didn’t go well, to continue to push and work.”
The Spurs pushed the ball quickly all around the court all night to stay ahead of Miami’s defensive rotations. For the first time in the series, the San Antonio offense was as relentless as lava flow and had the Heat chasing. After compiling just 16 assists in the first two games, combined, the Spurs dished out 29 in Game 3.
So much for the talk of momentum shifts after Miami used a 33-5 second-half tsunami to whip the Spurs in Game 2. So much for the talk that after picking his way carefully against the San Antonio defense to open the series that James would be ready to bust out and assert himself.
Now the talk will be about a hamstring injury suffered by Parker that will undergo an MRI on Wednesday and has him listed as uncertain for Game 4.
The Heat have an off-day to figure out the uncertainty of James’ game. He started out a horrid 2-for-12 shooting, finished a miserable 7-for-21 and seems to be treating the paint as if it were infested by alligators.
James took the responsibility and put the burden on himself, while Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his team reaped precisely what it had sown in allowing the Spurs to convert 16 of 32 from long range. It’s one thing to make them. It’s another to make so many uncontested and the Heat’s perimeter defense has been lacking since the series began.
“I mean, they’re great shooters,” Spoelstra said. “We have great shooters. If you’re not doing your job and doing it early with great discipline, guys get open. And that’s what happened.
“They got all the easy ones they wanted first…When you get easy ones, the basket starts to look bigger and bigger. And they got them in every single way they needed to — little drives, offensive rebounds, transition. We got what we deserved tonight.”
Buried beneath an avalanche of 3s.