Heat is on: Miami must take Game 4 to avoid Finals flameout
JUN 11, 2014 12:44a ET
It’s not often that a team shoots 55.9 percent from the floor in the first half of a basketball game and trails by 21 going into the break, nor is it common for a conference champion to shoot 51.6 percent for the game in the NBA Finals and still lose by 19. (In fact, only one team since 1987 has shot that well in a playoff game of any kind and lost by 19 or more.)
But the Miami Heat earned each of those rare distinctions against San Antonio in Game 3 on Tuesday, and after a 111-92 loss at home, the two-time defending champs will have to beat the odds against the Spurs once again — and beat the Spurs at least one more time in San Antonio — to become the first team to 3-peat since the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers.
Historically speaking, Game 3 in an NBA Finals tied at 1-1 is a good indicator of how the rest of the series will play out, as 30 of the 36 Game 3 winners in such Finals have gone on to win the championship that year.
Heat fans, however, will be eager to remind doubters that one of those six instances of a team winning the Finals after losing Game 3 of a tied series came just last season — after a 36-point Spurs win, no less — and so it’s with that and Miami’s resurgent third quarter Tuesday in mind that no one should count LeBron & Co. out just yet, even if the fans had flooded for the exits well before the end of Game 3.
Spurs lead 2-1
Takeaway: Had Miami’s Game 3 loss been an instance of the Heat simply playing poorly and costing themselves a chance to go up 2-1 — as they did last year, when they shot 36.8 percent in the second half of Game 3 while the Spurs initiated a 30-point swing — there would be plenty of reason to panic. But beyond a few pretty standard, unavoidable mistakes that any team is bound to make over the course of a game, there’s really very little to dislike about the way Miami approached Tuesday night, even if the end result left something to be desired.
After watching San Antonio play a virtually perfect first half, in which it shot 86.7 percent in the first quarter and a Finals-record 75.8 percent overall, it would have been easy for Miami to curl up into a ball and wait for Game 4 — and if we’ve learned anything about Gregg Popovich in the Spurs’ few blowout losses this postseason, he likely would have done exactly that, by design, had the roles been reversed. Instead, however, the Heat emerged from the locker room with an exceptional level of intensity on defense, and held San Antonio to 6-of-19 shooting in the third quarter, cutting the Spurs advantage to as little as seven on a Norris Cole layup with 1:59 left in the period.
Alas, the Heat couldn’t battle all the way back, and in the fourth quarter, San Antonio regained some of its swagger, shooting 7 of 12 from the field and drawing all kinds of contact from Heat defenders, leading to 13 free-throw attempts. But sometimes you’re just going to run into a great team playing a great game, and when it happens, there’s little that can be done to stop it. Make no mistake; if San Antonio can take the floor Thursday and operate its offense like it did on Tuesday, then the Heat will be lucky to see this series even return to Miami for a Game 6, particularly if they can’t shore up their penchant for turnovers. (They had 20 in Game 3.)
But there has to be some faith that the Spurs will regress to the mean — or should there be? — and that, combined with a Miami offensive performance similar to Tuesday’s might be enough to knot the series back up at 2-2.
Star Review: After playing a relatively low-key pair of games in San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard wasted no time getting to work in Game 3. In the first quarter alone, Leonard made all five of his shot attempts, including three 3s, and by the early part of the second quarter, Leonard had 18 points, matching his scoring total from Games 1 and 2 combined. Leonard, who finished with a game- and career-playoff-high 29 points, was joined in his early perfection by Danny Green, who had his best performance since early in the Western Conference Finals in the win. In the first half, Green had 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting and finished the game with 15 points and five steals on defense.
There was one point in the fourth quarter when ABC showed a “mic’d up” conversation between Popovich and Tony Parker in which Pop commended Parker for his play in the win, despite his unremarkable stat line — and indeed, Parker played much better than his 4-of-10 shooting performance would suggest, his command of the floor playing much more of a role than his 15 points. In addition, the Spurs also got 14 points from Tim Duncan and 11 from Manu Ginobili (including a ridiculous 3 at the first-quarter buzzer), showing the old guys have still got it.
On Miami’s side, LeBron James played another well-rounded game, with 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, five rebounds, seven assists and five steals, but his seven turnovers — the most he’s had in a playoff game this year — put a damper on his performance. Dwyane Wade, too, added 22 points in Game 3, with 16 points coming on 6-of-8 shooting in the second half, but Chris Bosh (nine points) needed to be more involved for Miami to hang with the Spurs, especially when he’s shooting the ball as well as he did Tuesday (4 of 4 from the floor). Bosh took just one shot in the entire second half, while Norris Cole (eight points, 3-of-9 shooting) was 1 of 5 in the third and fourth quarters.
Looking Ahead: Game 4 at Miami, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
What To Look For: The Heat now need another unlikely rally to knock off the Spurs for the second Finals in a row, but if they can’t emerge from Game 4 with a victory, they can probably rid their minds of any thoughts they might have of a series comeback — a potential flameout that may even put the Big 3’s future as a unit in jeopardy, depending on just how bad it gets. Thursday’s will be the very definition of a must-win game for the Heat, and if they’re going to knot the series up, there are a few places they must improve.
First, the Heat need to take much better care of the ball. No team ever wants to turn the ball over, but against the Spurs, such follies can be especially detrimental. Miami turned the ball over 20 times on Tuesday, leading to 23 points on the other end, while scoring just six points off of San Antonio’s turnovers. That 17-point discrepancy plus the Spurs’ eight-point edge at the foul line were really the story in a game that wasn’t as one-sided as it appeared. It would also behoove the Heat — who aren’t an especially outstanding rebounding team to begin with — to make a more concerted effort on the glass. Granted, neither team missed many shots on Tuesday, but Miami will need more than four second-chance points to beat San Antonio, especially when the Spurs’ shots are falling.
Additionally, Miami needs to get much better play out of its point guards. The position has always been a sore spot for the Heat, and no one is necessarily expecting Cole or Mario Chalmers to take over a Finals game. But the pair can’t be out there combining to shoot just 3 of 14 with a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio like we saw in Game 3. Naturally, you can expect Popovich to try to exploit that weakness even more going forward, perhaps putting an extra emphasis on Parker’s production in Game 4, and if the Heat can’t find an answer — maybe it’s just going without a point guard at all for even more time than they already do — they may not have an answer for San Antonio at all.
As for the Spurs, there’s really very little that needs to be done in the way of making adjustments, as they’ve played the series virtually perfectly so far. This is a team that has been all about maintaining the status quo for the better part of two decades now, and if they can even approach the kind of offensive showing they put on Tuesday, it should be smooth sailing from here on out. It’s obvious that last year’s collapse against Miami galvanized a Spurs team that seemingly couldn’t get tighter, and if they somehow manage to initiate system failure again, it’ll most likely be because Miami does something exceedingly right, not because they shot themselves in the foot.