The San Antonio Spurs regrouped after a disappointing Game 2 loss, blowing out the Miami Heat in South Beach for a 111-92 Game 3 win. The Spurs put together an all-time great half of offensive basketball. They scored 71 points in the first half, on 75.8 per cent shooting—an NBA record. Miami, thanks to a furious third quarter, were able to close San Antonio’s lead to just seven points, but the Spurs absorbed LeBron and company’s best shot and pulled away in the fourth.
For San Antonio it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. Heading into Tuesday night’s Game 3, Kawhi Leonard—the Spurs’ best two-way player, and a big X-factor in this series—had dramatically underperformed. Quiet in Game 1 and hampered by foul trouble in Game 2, Leonard scored just 18 points in the series before taking the trip to Miami. But last night Leonard had 29 points (a career high) on 10 of 13 shooting. He was, without exaggeration, simply sensational.
Leonard was aggressive from the get-go, shooting the jumper without hesitation, and frequently taking his defender off the dribble and getting to the rim. He had 16 points in the first quarter—a first quarter in which the Spurs put up 41 points. Forty-one points! Leonard’s defence was just as impressive. He was a defensive terror on Tuesday night—blocks, strips and harrowing on-ball defence. Leonard’s defensive effort kept LeBron under reasonable control—the Spurs player did not stop James, but he did contain him. Leonard didn’t give him a moment’s rest and did a fantastic job of staying in front of the four-time MVP on drives to the basket and contesting his jump shots without fouling.
In fact, the Spurs followed Leonard’s cue when it came to aggression. They simply didn’t give the Heat time to get into their devastating defensive half-court sets. Throughout the first half the Spurs made quick, decisive decisions with the ball—they shot, drove, or passed the basketball without stalling. The ball did not stick.
The media has waxed lyrical about the Spurs’ ball movement all season, but in the first quarter particularly it was breathtakingly beautiful. San Antonio shot 86 per cent from the field in the opening 12 minutes, and between the five-minute mark of the first quarter and the six-minute mark of the second, they did not miss a single shot.
On a night when the Spurs’ own Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were relatively quiet (just forty points between the three of them), Leonard’s partner-in-crime on the wing, Danny Green, played his best game of the series. Green had 15 points, on seven of eight shooting, and just three of those points came from beyond the arc. In last year’s NBA Finals, the Heat nullified Green in Games 6 and 7 by chasing him off the three-point line. But last night Green showcased a much-improved off-the-dribble game, putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket with surprising frequency.
The Heat themselves weren’t awful offensively. They shot over 50 per cent from the field for the game, and were scorching-hot from three-point range. But an inability to slow down the Spurs’ purring offence in the first half, not to mention twenty turnovers, led to their demise. LeBron James was great in flashes, but he had five turnovers to go with his 22 points. Dwyane Wade kept his team in the game during their third quarter run (he also had 22 points) but the Heat were unable to get any big contributions from their supporting cast, particularly from Chris Bosh.
It’s a credit to the Heat’s reputation for big comebacks (a reputation that has been justifiably earned) that even though the Spurs led by double-digits for much of the game, the threat of a huge Miami run made sure the game remained tense up until about halfway through the fourth quarter.
The Spurs led by as many as 25—up 55-30 in the second after a Leonard three-pointer—but the Heat went on a big 10-0 run in the third, led by Wade, to cut the score to 81-74. After scoring 71 points in the first half, the Heat held the Spurs to just 15 points in the third. Crucially, Miami’s run made the Spurs bend, but not break. A massive Marco Belinelli three-pointer at the end of the third and a Boris Diaw fade-away (Diaw was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 3) created some breathing room for the Spurs.
The Heat simply left themselves with too much to do in the fourth quarter. Turnovers and the fact that San Antonio were able to get into the penalty with over six minutes remaining in the game helped Gregg Popovich’s team stretch their lead out as the quarter wore on. By the time Leonard had bullied Chris Bosh in the post for his 27th and 28th points of the game, the contest was over.
Heading into Game 4 this Thursday night, the Spurs have the upper hand—the Heat have played solid defence in phases, but overall they haven’t been able to solve the offensive puzzle the Spurs present, at least not in these Finals. But while solving that puzzle is herculean task, Heat fans will comfort themselves knowing that it would take some effort for the Spurs to replicate their Game 3 shooting efforts in Game 4. It’s also worth remembering that in last year’s Finals, the Spurs blew out the Heat in Game 3 only for Miami to strike back and win two nights later to tie up the series.
The Spurs were terrifyingly good in Game 3, but no team is more dangerous coming off a loss than the Miami Heat.