The first half of last night’s Game 3 was the closest thing to basketball perfection that most people will ever to see. The game was over four minutes into the second quarter. Sure, the Heat scrapped and clawed the 25 point deficit down to just seven points, but the outcome was hardly in question. The Spurs shot 25-33 from the floor in the first half, good for a Finals field goal percentage record. At one point in the second half, the Heat were shooting over 60% from the field, and still trailing by double digits. If this had happened when you were playing the computer in NBA 2k14, you would’ve quit because it was too unrealistic.
In the post-game press conference, LeBron claimed the Spurs’ hot start had nothing to do with a lack of urgency from the Heat. The Spurs, LeBron said, and Spoelstra earlier shared the same sentiment, simply played with a level of aggression higher than the Heat had expected or been accustomed to. In other words, the Spurs played at a level that the Heat could not match. And if the Spurs continue to play at even a comparable level, the Heat are in trouble. That much should be obvious. If the Spurs are shooting anywhere over 60% from the field, there’s almost no way of beating them. The Heat turned the ball over 20 times, way too frequently to beat a time like the Spurs, especially when the Spurs play to the level that they did last night. But other than the turnovers, the Heat didn’t play that badly. Forget about the turnovers for a second, and a team that shoots 52% from the field and 48% from the perimeter will win more often than not.
A couple of things help account for what happened last night. First, and most importantly, Kawhi Leonard played like he did last year in the Finals. This is the Kawhi Leonard everyone wanted to see. The one that Popovich referred to as the Spurs’ future. Leonard had not cracked double digits in each of the first two games, putting up nine points in both outings. Last night though, Leonard looked like a future superstar, leading the way with 29 points off 10-13 shooting. LeBron was having a difficult time going toe-to-toe with Leonard in the first quarter, and Leonard ended up winning the duel by the end of the game. Many commentators and so-called experts have marveled at how Leonard progressed from a downright bad shooter in college, not just to being a mediocre shooter, but to being a lethal guy if left open. Leonard is one of the only Spurs players who can teeter between being a virtual go-to-guy and role player from game to game. It’s not reasonable, at this at least stage of his career, to expect Leonard to consistently do what he did in Game 3. But there’s no way he should be struggling to score in double digits as in the opening two games of the series. Part of the problem is that Leonard is the Spurs’ best perimeter defender, so he ends up guarding the opposing team’s best player. In the Western Conference Finals he guarded Durant, and now he’s guarding LeBron. That expends a lot of energy, and also leaves Leonard in foul trouble sometimes. In Games 1 and 2, Leonard was stuck in foul trouble and unable to stay on the floor or get in any rhythm.
The second difference last night was Chris Bosh’s level of involvement in Miami’s offense. In Games 1 and 2, Bosh shot 7-11 and 6-11 from the field respectively, finishing both games with 18 points. Bosh takes a lot of criticism, not all of it fair, but his involvement is integral to Miami’s success. Last night, for some reason he only TOUCHED THE BALL 12 times. We’re not talking about shot attempts–just touching the ball. Even with the 20 Miami turnovers, Bosh still needs to be getting more touches, even if they don’t result in shot attempts. And he was shooting 4-4 from the field too, in his limited touches. The Bosh haters will point to his meager rebounding totals, just 3 last night, but that is not the point. He has struggled on the boards in this series, averaging only 5 per game, but whether he’s hitting the glass hard or not, he should still take over 10 shots a game.
Lastly, Mario Chalmers was awful. He’s often the whipping-boy of the big 3, but tonight he really does deserve a lot of blame. Actually, for the entire series, Chalmers deserves significant blame. It’s not as if the Heat go as Chalmers go. But it’s hard for the Heat to go anywhere when their starting point guard, through three games, has 10 total points, 9 total assists, and 9 total turnovers. Chalmers isn’t stretching the defense like he’s supposed to. He’s only hit one 3 so far in the series. And he’s not really initiating the offense successfully, his job according to LeBron last night in the post-game press conference. It’s not easy to just bench Chalmers though, when Norris Cole has only 10 points, 7 assists, and 5 turnovers in the series so far. The Heat don’t need much from their point guard play, but right now Chalmers is a virtual negative. They would be better playing LeBron at point guard and putting another perimeter shooter on the court than leave Chalmers out there.
The Heat are usually very good at bouncing back from losses. In Game 4, as is custom for a Heat bounce-back game, LeBron will probably take things into his own hands and be more aggressive early on. Game 4 may have to be one of those games where the Big 3 for the Heat combine for almost 70 points. Game 4 is basically an elimination game in the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the Finals, and the Heat are usually best when their back is against the wall. Those are the types of games that bring out the best in LeBron. Watch out.