Spurs firestorm blasts champs out of the building
Game 2 in Miami was a blowout we’re accustomed to seeing from the Heat, inspiring the narrative of the “extra gear” the defending champs possess that no one else does. The hell-raising, fast-break monster that is Miami exploded on Sunday night. But on Tuesday at the AT&T Center, the Spurs took the Heat’s ignition switch and raised it a 113-77 firestorm. On this night, they showed their extra gear.
Since the NBA Finals went to a 2-3-2 format in 1985, the winner of Game 3 went on to win the series 11 of the 12 times it was tied 1-1. Now, San Antonio is two games away from a fifth title after hitting 16 threes, a Finals record.
Danny Green — who shot his way out of the rotation just one year ago in the Western Conference Finals — splashed seven 3-pointers on his way to 27 points, setting a Spurs NBA Finals record with 16 threes thus far in the series. And it’s only three games old.
Green went berserk on this night. His confidence has skyrocketed since bottoming out last season before San Antonio’s playoff elimination at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. There is no hitch or hesitation anymore, and he has a green light from anywhere on the floor. He’s become as good a shooter as there is in the league, and right now he’s launching with no conscience.
The leading scorer in the series isn’t LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. That title doesn’t belong to Tony Parker, Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili, either. Through three games it’s Green who boasts a Finals-best 18.7 points-per-game average, and on top of it, he’s hitting threes at a rate of 70 percent. Those numbers are gaudy, especially for a player who’s only recorded three 2-point baskets in the series.
“I never thought (I’d be the leading scorer in the Finals). Luckily, I’ve been open, I’ve hit some shots … my teammates have done a great job of finding me and encouraging me to shoot every time when I’m open,” Green said. “The biggest thing is to stay active defensively for me in order to stay in a rhythm offensively; helping each other get hands on passes, loose balls and then giving ourselves a chance to run.
“When I’m active defensively, it helps stay in a rhythm offensively and Tony’s penetrating and finding guys, especially when we’re knocking down shots, it makes us pretty dangerous.”
And then there’s Gary Neal. The streaky, shoot-first combo guard has endured the frustration of many Spurs fans this season with ill-timed shots and defensive mental lapses, but with 24 points and six 3-pointers, the 28-year-old basketball journeyman shined under the spotlight of the world’s biggest stage. And for one night, his harshest critics were his biggest fans.
Neal hasn’t had a great season by his standards, though. He had his worst year as a pro, statistically, despite playing the style he always had: a free-wheeling, scoring style the Spurs need to generate offense off the bench with Ginobili’s currently erratic shooting. Tonight he had perhaps the greatest game of his life, and if the phrase “contract game” didn’t exist before, maybe it does now.
With the matchup billed as a Big 3 vs. Big 3 showdown, it was the trio of Green, Neal and Kawhi Leonard that scorched the earth. Miami’s Big 3: 44 points. San Antonio’s Hall-of-Fame triumvirate: 25 points. Green and Neal: 51 points. But while Duncan, Manu and Parker were far from extraordinary, the contributions they made were vital to the success of their teammates.
Duncan had 12 points and 14 boards, manning the middle and cleaning the glass as he always has. Parker nicked his hamstring and will undergo an MRI today, but his eight assists in 27 minutes helped get the onslaught rolling along. Ginobili once again struggled from distance, but he attacked the rim and dished out six assists of his own, pitching in on the 29 assists the Spurs had as a team.
Oh, and Leonard was once again one of the best players on the court. Not only did his 14 points, 12 rebounds and four steals stand out, but his defense on James was exquisite, as it has been the last three games. Leonard is a problem for almost any offensive player, and even against the world’s best player can hold his own, especially given the kind of help he’s getting behind him.
“It’s just an individual thing. Some guys are affected by the lights, some guys aren’t. We haven’t done anything to make him the way he is, he already was like that,” Gregg Popovich said. “He’s quiet, he’s humble, he wants to be a great player. And he worked before and after practice every day, so what we’re seeing out there is just a part of his personality. He just comes to play.”
San Antonio’s defense looked more like Miami’s on this night, and Leonard and Green led the disruptive perimeter charge. The two combined for six of the team’s 10 steals, and Green chipped in two blocks in key moments of the game. They were jumping passing lanes, poking at the ball-handlers and giving James nothing inside, along with Duncan’s help.
As for the Heat, it was a startling change from the highs of their Game 2 blowout. After defeating the Spurs by 19 points on Sunday night, last night’s 36-point massacre was the third-largest point margin in NBA Finals history.
It was written all over their faces and evident in their body language. There was an aura of disbelief on the Miami bench, one that evoked a level of frustration that seemed insurmountable. And can you blame them? Watching 3-pointer after 3-pointer shake the net is a helpless, demoralizing feeling, especially when you’re on the road. Especially when the crowd grows louder with each splashdown until a fever pitch is reached.
But when Miami’s MVP isn’t doing his job, sometimes there’s not much that team can do on the road in the playoffs.
“I can’t have a performance like that tonight and expect for us to win. I gotta shoot the ball better, I gotta make better decisions, and I’ll get in to the film and see ways I can do that,” James said. “I’m not putting the blame on nobody.”
When he does go back and watch tape, the answer will be obvious. In fact, he probably knows already. The Spurs gave him acres of space defensively, inviting James to shoot the basketball. San Antonio defenders would fight under screens in the middle of the paint while LeBron pounded the dribble around the perimeter and hesitating still when he decided to fire away. His confidence seemed shot, his mack-truck physical frame not being put to use.
“I think we’ve done a great job helping each other — team defense. Obviously, we know what kind of a player LeBron is, and we know he’s not at his best right now. He missed a lot of shots that he normally makes,” Green said. “It’s not just us stopping him, but he’s kind of stopping himself out there and we’re getting a little lucky.
“Obviously, we’re making it tough for him. But you guys have seen him all year at his best and how he can perform. And obviously he’s not doing that right now,” he continued. “I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping that it doesn’t come out, but so far we’ve done a decent job on him defensively.”
James didn’t get to the free-throw line one time, the first time that’s happened in his postseason career and the only time it’s happened this season. “The King” is now 5-for-6 from the stripe through three games of the series, and he’s playing right into the hands of the Spurs. He scored 18 points in Game 1, 17 in Game 2 and 15 last night. The MVP of the NBA is struggling mightily to score, but it was the defense that was ripped apart tonight.
When the Heat commit so intensely to playing highly aggressive, hair-on-fire defense, they run the risk of killing their stamina when turnovers aren’t created and the Spurs are able to sling the ball around the court at will. On Tuesday, Miami paid dearly. In fact, as Erik Spoelstra said five different times at his post-game press conference, that game was a result of something more than just bad offense. The Heat allowed the Spurs to shoot 48.9 percent from the floor, including 50 percent from the arc.
As Miami’s head coach said, the defense was not good enough.
“We got what we deserved tonight,” he said.