The San Antonio Spurs did what they set out to do thus far in the 2013 NBA Finals. They rolled into AmericanAirlines Arena, split the first two games of the series, and stole home-court advantage from the defending champion Miami Heat.
Think they're satisfied with their position? Think again.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn't easily pleased, but even the most optimistic coach would have a hard time spinning San Antonio's 103-84 loss in Game 2 in a positive way.
Of course, that lopsided final margin wasn't exactly indicative of Sunday's proceedings. Both teams traded blows for the first two quarters before an incredible 33-5 run by the Heat broke the game wide open.
The fact that Miami was able to erupt on a game-changing spurt surprised no one; the Heat have been weathering body blows throughout the season and often found a way to battle back on the strength of their unstoppable surges.
But the key figures sparking that 33-5 push surely raised a few eyebrows. Miami delivered the first blowout of the series despite subpar shooting nights from LeBron James (7-of-17) and Dwyane Wade (5-of-13), building that insurmountable lead with a balanced attack that saw seven different players score at least nine points.
Will the Spurs regain control of this series (and the basketball...but more on that later) Tuesday night, or will an awakened Heat team be ready to take another step toward fulfilling its championship destiny?
Time: Tuesday, June 11, 9 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio
Series: Tied 1-1
Game 3 Key Storyline: Focus and Composure
After Miami trudged through the loss in the series opener, one that included a particularly brutal 16-point fourth quarter, fatigue was cited as one of the biggest reasons behind their decline.
It's not that the Heat don't have a reason to be tired; a seven-game slugfest with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals challenged every bit of their physical and mental stamina.
But this is what the Heat have been gearing up for throughout the season, and ever since James and Chris Bosh first arrived in 2010. Bumps and bruises are going to happen along the way, but what could have possibly pushed them to the point of exhaustion for a 12-minute span in Game 1 of the NBA Finals?
Complacency seems a much more likely culprit behind their lackadaisical effort. It's not that the Heat are satisfied with just one championship, but rather that they know they are the most talented team in the league. They've been hearing that for three years now.
San Antonio pushed in Game 1, and Miami waited until Game 2 to provide a resounding answer. The real challenge for Erik Spoelstra isn't one of strategy; rather, it will be his ability to convey to his players that Sunday's second half was simply a mirage and hardly justification for easing up on the gas pedal.
For Popovich, though, this absolutely comes down to fine-tuning the X's and O's.
He masterfully managed the series opener, and his team waltzed to a nearly flawless offensive performance, with just four turnovers in 48 minutes. They quadrupled that number in Game 2, as Tony Parker saw his turnovers (five) match his number of made field goals. The significance of ball control can be seen in the two final scores.
San Antonio hasn't shot well in the finals (41.4 percent), and has a minus-one rebounding differential overall.
The Spurs don't have to play a perfect offensive game to beat the Heat, but they can't afford to give the ball away. No team transforms turnovers into points more quickly than Miami, and San Antonio's defense in transition obviously does not present the same challenges as the defensive puzzles of their half-court sets.
Series Star So Far: LeBron James
How does a player scoring 10 points below his career average (17.5 vs. 27.6) and shooting more than 14 percent below his regular-season field-goal percentage (42.4 vs. 56.5) qualify as a star?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. For starters, no player has yet to step up and fill the vacancy.
Tony Parker was brilliant in the opener (21 points, six assists, no turnovers), then mediocre three nights later (13 points, five assists, five turnovers). Tim Duncan has rebounded well so far (12.5 per game), but has struggled mightily with his shot (11-of-32). And Dwyane Wade (13.5 PPG) and Chris Bosh (12.5) have compromised their placement in Miami's Big Three.
And James has never been a player defined solely by his scoring. Outside of his relative shooting struggles, it's hard to ignore his impact on this series.
His 26 rebounds lead all glass hounds through two games. Same goes for his 17 assists—a number that's impressive and still well short of capturing the number of open looks his presence on the floor has created for teammates.
San Antonio, of course, has made him the focal point of its defensive game plan. James has rarely touched the basketball without five sets of Spurs eyes on him.
Analysts have been calling for a more aggressive offensive approach from the league MVP, but it's been hard to argue with his decision-making. James has the court vision to spot open teammates from any angle and the strength to rip passes through lanes unavailable to other players.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Miami: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh
San Antonio: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter
Heat Will Win If...
...They can maintain a perimeter presence.
Miami only connected on two more triples (10) in Game 2 than it had in Game 1, but its three-point success rate jumped more than 20 percent (52.6 up from 32.0) thanks to good shot selection and even better shooter selection.
James, Bosh and Shane Battier accounted for nearly half of Miami's long-range looks in Game 1 (12-of-25) despite connecting on just one of those attempts. James fired up just three on Sunday night, Bosh didn't attempt any, and Battier didn't have the chance to start shooting until the game was well in hand.
With Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers behind nearly all of Miami's meaningful three-point attempts, San Antonio couldn't hound James with so many defenders. When the Spurs over-committed to the King, he ripped them apart with darts landing directly in the bull's eye of Miami's best snipers.
If Miami's shooters are locked and loaded again on Tuesday night, James and Wade have more room to penetrate and Bosh should have more than enough space to draw up efficient shots from the elbow.
Spurs Will Win If...
...Parker can find some breathing room and Duncan can find his shooting form.
No matter how talented James is as an individual defender (the next good reason I hear why he's yet to win a Defensive Player of the Year award will be the first), Parker's not a player that can be knocked out of his rhythm by a single stopper.
So Spoelstra listened to the overtures of pleas crying for more James-on-Parker matchups, then unleashed a team-driven defense on Parker similar to what San Antonio has thrown at James.
It didn't help Parker's case that Manu Ginobili was mired in one of the worst outings of his career in Game 2 (2-of-6 from the field, one assist against three turnovers). But Parker has evolved into the type of offensive weapon that should wreak havoc no matter how his teammates are playing.
Part of the process in reestablishing Parker as an efficient playmaker rests on his teammates and their ability to knock down shots. But part of it lies on him being able to more effectively pick his spots. Those five turnovers matched the second-most giveaways he's had in nearly two months.
As for Duncan, it's a little more challenging to pinpoint the reason behind his woeful shooting numbers.
Miami doesn't have the kind of interior presence to handle the future first-ballot Hall of Famer near the basket. And that fact has presented itself time and time again, with the Big Fundamental consistently getting high-quality looks at the basket.
Yet for just the second time since April 3, Duncan failed to reach double figures in Game 2.
Luckily for him, the hoops world was too concerned with James' shooting issues to pay any attention to Duncan's. Call it karma from the basketball gods, I guess; people slept on many of Duncan's best moments, so why should they take note now?
It figures to be a matter of time before those shots start falling for Duncan. But now that Miami appears to have awakened, San Antonio might not have a lot of time left to wait for Duncan.
After Game 1, analysts said there was no way San Antonio could put together another four-turnover performance; Miami's defense was too good to let that happen.
After Game 2, many said that those 16 turnovers were also an anomaly, that Popovich won't let his team step on the floor with that same level of recklessness.
Both sides were right. That's what makes this series so tough to predict, because there's no clear sign of which statistics will prove sustainable.
With that said, it's impossible for me to bet against the Heat this point. They've arguably looked like the better team for seven of the eight quarters so far, and now that they've been challenged, they may never come down from that cloud that carried them on that momentum-shifting run.
This series will find its way back to South Beach. But I see Miami with a chance to close out the series when it does.
Heat 97, Spurs 93
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