After the hot shooting by the Spurs in the second half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it's fitting that a defensive play took center stage in Game 2. LeBron James' ferocious swat on a Tiago Splitter dunk attempt epitomized a game in which Miami refused to accept defeat.
The Heat couldn't afford another one.
As the series shifts to San Antonio for Games 3-5, here's what Sunday night's 103-84 tells us about the best-of-five series going forward:
As long as LeBron remains the catalyst, the Heat don't need him to be Superman.
As the upcoming Man of Steel prepares to soar into theaters this Thursday, it was comforting (for Miami players, coaches and supporters) to find that even when LeBron has an off night, his supporting cast can still score baskets.
LeBron shot 7-17 from the field Sunday night, after starting 2-11 and scoring just four points in the first half. Fortunately, the Heat's role players picked up some of the slack after LeBron's failure to reach 20 points for the second straight game.
Miami's dominating 33-5 run, which extended from the late third quarter midway through the final period, was punctuated by several big threes from the great Ray Allen and the mercurial Mike Miller, who made all three of the three-pointers he took in this game.
Other than Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana, this was the only time that Miller made more than one shot from long range during the 2013 Playoffs.
Extended minutes can often spell trouble for the injury-prone Miller, who has lost more than a step since the days when he started for Memphis and won Rookie of the Year. At his best, though, Miller is a more-than-capable shooter from long range, which allows the Heat to spread the floor when opposing defenses collapse on James or Dwyane Wade as they drive into the paint.
Miller's hot streak during the second half called to mind his series-clinching performance against Oklahoma City in the Finals last year, when he went 7-8 from long-range to take away any hopes of the Thunder of prolonging the series.
The roles of Miller, Allen and Norris Cole have become especially important in this series, given the recent offensive struggles of Shane Battier (2-16 from the field in the seven-game series against Indiana), who nonetheless has still been able to provide stellar defense in spurts off the bench.
An engaged, aggressive D-Wade could spell trouble for the Spurs.
Small forward Kawhi Leonard has done an exceptional job covering James throughout these first two games. He has limited the scoring of the four-time NBA MVP and forcing the rest of Miami's role players to make plays.
In Game 2, the "hobbled" Dwyane Wade snapped back into action. Playing nearly 30 minutes, Wade scored 10 points and had six assists. Wade's fleeting return to form forced the Spurs to focus on him, leaving the Heat's squad of shooters open.
There was also more room along the baseline for Miami's X-factor, Chris "Birdman" Andersen. Like his omni-present neck tattoo suggests, additional attention given to Wade means a "Free Bird" in the paint for the Heat. Wade's slash-and-cut antics in games throughout the past two rounds has also provided more open shots for:
Chris Bosh, whose success in Game 2 could create more opportunities for James and Wade moving forward.
After a Game 6 performance in the Eastern Conference Finals that was so bad that he was left apologizing to the rest of his teammates, Bosh was again the focus of scorn after missing an open jumper in the final minute of Miami's 92-88 loss in Game 1.
Erik Spoelstra would later say in a postgame press conference, "[Maybe] there's a reason he was open". That statement could be applied to Bosh throughout the majority of Miami's playoff run, but similar quotes from Spoelstra and James have seemed to motivate the big man in the ensuing games.
This time around, Bosh took advantage of his opportunities, shooting 6-of-10 from the field, adding 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. After Game 1, Bosh told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst that he and Wade hung out together and talked about mostly non-basketball ephemera.
"Basketball is all around us right now," Bosh stated. "But sometimes, to just be able to get away from it and hang out with your friend is a good medicine." He went on to say that his struggles in the playoffs have been a challenge, but that "[that's] what overcoming things are about."
After a high-percentage shooting performance such as last night's, it may now be San Antonio who is faced with a challenge.
The "other" Big 3 (Parker/Duncan/Ginobili) need to play better to have any chance of winning, and they will.
The Spurs' three best players shot a combined 10-for-33 from the field in Game 2, and coach Gregg Popovich stated unequivocally those numbers simply will not get the job done going forward.
"Missing shots and not shooting it well and turning it over is a bad combination," said Pops in a quote befitting his rigid, terse nature with the media. After no turnovers in a remarkable Game 1 performance, Tony Parker was forced into five in Game 2. Duncan, meanwhile, shot 3-for-13 from the floor, while Ginobili took just six shots all game, managing only five points.
Spurs fans have seen consistent play from their team's three stars over the past decade to realize that this performance is not that common.
As ESPN's J.A. Adande points out, the Spurs have not lost consecutive games since mid-December. This is largely thanks to the play of Duncan, who has slid gracefully into the role of second option of offense for the more perimeter-oriented Spurs. Parker has been perhaps the best player not named LeBron during these playoffs, scoring over 22 points per game so far in the playoffs while averaging seven assists. Duncan, meanwhile, has gotten off to slow starts in both Finals games, a trend which will likely not continue.
The Big Fundamental has proven time and time again that he can withstand slow starts, as evidence by his 20-point, 14-rebound output in Game 1. NBA TV pointed out that Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players ever to put up at least 20 points and 14 rebounds in a playoff game after turning 35 (that's right, not even Bill Russell or Michael Jordan did that).
In addition to the play of these three stars, the Spurs chances hinge on the continued defensive play of Leonard against James and how much trust they put in the emerging swingman Danny Green. Although exciting, Green's 5-for-5 shooting from three-point range on Sunday was not wholly unexpected. Green was, after all, seventh in the league this year in three-point percentage, making almost 43 percent of his attempts.
That's what made it all the more puzzling when, after Green's hot shooting had kept them in the game at that point, Popovich benched Green late in the third quarter as the Heat began their huge run. Unless the Spurs plan to put the full offensive load on their three aging mainstays, the Spurs will have to trust the hot hand of Green in crunch-time situations.
Defense, not offense, will win this series.
The league has undoubtedly swung in the past couple years from a "defense wins championships" mentality to a "superstars win championships" ethos.
Teams wishing to become contenders (Heat, Knicks, Lakers, Nets and 2007-08 Celtics, among others) are willing to go out and spend big money on free agents to come in and provide wins. Although he himself was a big-name free agent just a few years ago himself, LeBron's block on Tiago Splitter perfectly epitomized what this series will eventually come down to: big defensive stops.
Their focus on defense (as well as their need for size under the basket) is the main reason the Heat pursued Andersen in the first place. Their risk is paying big dividends, as "Birdman" continues to not only score at a high percentage, but limit the Spurs' desire to pound the ball inside for easy buckets.
As the Eastern Conference Finals indicated, a big, skilled center down low (such as the Pacers' Roy Hibbert or Duncan for the Spurs) is able to push Bosh around (mostly because he is a power forward who has no business playing center in the first place). And even at his 37 years of age, Duncan's footwork in the paint is light years ahead of the Heat's Udonis Haslem. The defensive play down low of Haslem, Andersen and Joel Anthony will determine how much the Spurs are able to play through their big man.
On the other hand, it is clear for last game that, although James is obviously the main target, the Heat have had too many opportunities to kill the Spurs with the long ball, and if left wide open. Players such as Allen and Miller need to seize those opportunities.
The Heat shot 52.% from three-point range in Game 2, and the scary thing is that they can do even better if left completely unattended. Perimeter players like Green and Gary Neal will need to keep these sharpshooters in check by forcing them to create their own shots. Not giving them enough time or opportunity to spot up are square themselves to the basket in the first place should pay dividends as well.
If the Spurs can limit the wide open shots given to players with long-range capabilities (including Mario Chalmers, who led the Heat with 20 points last night and has proven he can make big shots in the postseason throughout his basketball-playing career), the Spurs have a good shot of taking at least two games on their home court. If not, we may soon see a second championship banner being hoisted in South Beach.