The Miami Heat's Game 3 showing of the NBA Finals was so awful it could serve as a 48-minute guide of how not to play basketball. Lazy closeouts? Check. The Spurs made a franchise Finals' record 16 three-pointers. Poor effort on the glass? Check. The Spurs out-rebounded the Heat 52-36. A starting five who didn't show up? Check. Danny Green and Gary Neal combined for 51 points, yet all five Heat starters combined for 43.
San Antonio's 113-77 trouncing of the defending champs wasn't so much an off night for Miami, but rather a complete lack of effort, a sheer arrogance and an unfathomable lack of urgency in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. LeBron James, for the third consecutive game and just the eighth game all season long, was held to 18 points or fewer. Perhaps more shocking though, is that he missed 14 of his 21 field goal attempts. And get this -- he failed to register a single free throw attempt. This, by the way, hasn't happened since December ... of 2009. If it were as simple as letting James -- who is shooting less than 40 percent for the series -- merely shoot perimeter jump shots, every team in the league would do so. The beauty of Gregg Popovich's defensive game plan though, is far more extensive and impressive.
By playing Kawhi Leonard at the four, he can go small while maintaining tremendous toughness both on the perimeter and in the paint. The Heat, the only team in the league to consistently run small-on-small ball screens, is faced with Popovich's strict instructions to go under the screen and force both James and Dwyane Wade to shoot semi-open, but rhythmless jumpers. If ancillary players like Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers go off -- even if Chris Bosh goes off -- so be it, but neither Wade nor James (who have combined to make a putrid 28 percent of their shots that are not layups, per The New York Times), are going to have a free path into the paint. But how? How are the Spurs able to accomplish what no other team in the NBA can?
The reality is a combination of precision and perfection. Both the Spurs' small and big lineups are versatile enough to guard screen-and-roll, either traditional with big-on-small or guard-to-guard. A key component to that is Leonard, who is as physical as he is aggressive. Then there is the matter of cheating help side. Unlike Indiana, which almost never rotates and plays everything straight-up, the Spurs rely on ultra-fast rotations and consistently sink their off-ball wing defenders to have at least a foot in the paint both when James tries to isolate and when the ball screen comes. As a result, during the split-second when he has to decide whether to attack the lane, he sees nothing but three or even four Spurs patiently waiting his arrival. He can either pull up or swing the ball to an open shooter, but more often then not, he's being thwarted away from the hoop. In fact, James' Game 3 plus-minus was a woeful -32, a number so bad that you almost have to check a second box score for verification.
"It's not just us stopping him," Green said after the win. "He's kind of stopping himself out there, and we're getting a little lucky."
Lucky or not, the postseason is about adjustments, particularly from game to game, and Erik Spoelstra has to figure a way to free up LeBron. But right now, Miami's issues extend further. Even in its Game 2 win at home, it hardly played a great overall game. The 33-5 spurt fueled a much needed win, but Tuesday night in Texas was yet another poor performance by the Big 3, and more importantly, another example of a team that simply isn't playing that hard. The Spurs have won the rebounding battle by 15 thus far while dominating in transition as well.
And fixing a lack of effort -- especially in the NBA Finals -- is far more complicated than merely making tactical adjustments.
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