The San Antonio Spurs got revenge on the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, answering the champs' Game 2 blowout win with one of their own in Game 3. With San Antonio up 2-1 and two straight games in the Alamo City, Game 4 could prove to be the turning (or breaking) point.
Game 4 is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night, with the biggest storyline in the series so far being the team-first play of the Spurs handicapping the Heat in their two wins.
Gary Neal and Danny Green shared player-of-the-night honors on Tuesday, combining for 51 points and 13 three-pointers en route to a 113-77 San Antonio win. Each "Big Three" has largely been a non-factor so far, with Tony Parker's leaning shot in Game 1 now dwarfed by Miami's bench play in Game 2 and his own role-playing teammates in Game 3.
As Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel puts it, this series is simply impossible to predict:
Cycle of series is amazing: Heat need to win Game 2. Spurs done after blowout. Heat need to win Game 4. Can't wait to see what Thurs brings— Shandel Richardson(@ShandelRich) June 12, 2013
This is still anyone's Finals. With Game 4 on the horizon and both of these teams desperate for a win, here's a blueprint for both teams when it comes to coming out on top in Game 4.
When: Thursday, June 13, at 9 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center; San Antonio, Texas
Series Count: 2-1, Spurs
Officials: Scott Foster, Mike Callahan, Bill Kennedy (via NBA.com)
Biggest Keys for Miami Heat
Find Scoring Chances Down Low
Box scores don't lie—Miami totaled 46 points in the paint in its lone victory in the series but was held under 40 in its two losses. While thesize of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter down low is nothing to take lightly, the Heat have to get back to attacking the paint.
And this all starts with their best player.
LeBron James was a meager 7-of-21 from the field on Tuesday night. He struggled to force the issue with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green guarding him, instead settling for jump shots when defenders sagged off him.
James also didn't get to the free-throw line for the first time in his Heat career (via ESPN's Stats & Info):
Last night was the 1st time LeBron James had 0 free-throw attempts in a game since December 2, 2009 (as a member of the Cavaliers).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 12, 2013
The Heat have the athleticism and talent to attack the basket and force the issue, especially when James is being guarded by a smaller player like Green. No disrespect to Green, who's done a great job so far, but when you're able to criticize the best player in the world (via Yahoo! Sports) for beating himself and actually have a case, something's off.
Whether it's James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or anyone else, the Heat have to find a way to get easy baskets in Game 4. At the very least, they must find a way to get to the free-throw line more than the 10 times they did in Game 3.
Once again, LeBron is going to have the pressure of the entire league on his shoulders—and rightly so—coming off what was easily his worst performance of the postseason so far.
Recapture Urgency from Game 2
History and the 2012-13 season side with the Heat for Game 4.
Since Jan. 10, the Heat have not lost back-to-back games. That includes the 27-game winning streak and the entirety of the 2013 postseason, in which Miami has dropped a game against Chicago, three against Indiana and now two against San Antonio.
Can the Heat recapture the same emotion and intensity it's going to take to beat the juggernaut that is the Spurs? Can they do it away from the friendly confines of AmericanAirlines Arena?
In the course of their no-two-loss streak, the Heat have pummeled opponents, winning by an average of nearly 13 points per game. They continued that trend with the 19-point win in Game 2.
The defense, the shooting and the cohesiveness all favored the Heat in that contest, with the home team playing the kind of ball that San Antonio has been known for over the past decade. Only, the Heat did it more explosively because of the athletes on their roster.
As Miami prepares for Game 4, expect the word "urgency" to be tossed around a lot in the pregame rituals and festivities. Urgency drives ordinary men to do extraordinary things, and Miami won't take the series back home without it.
Biggest Keys for San Antonio Spurs
Have Backup Plan for Tony Parker
The performances of Gary Neal and Danny Green in Game 3 almost made Tony Parker's hamstring strain seem like a secondary storyline after the impressive Spurs win.
This issue should not be overlooked heading into Game 4.
Although Parker had just six points and eight assists against the Heat on Tuesday night, him being held to a minutes restriction (the Spurs confirmed that he will play) would really put San Antonio's reserves under the microscope in Game 4.
Although Green and Neal stepped up big time on Tuesday, Parker has been there all playoffs to direct traffic on the offensive end. When the Spurs have needed a basket or an open look, Parker has delivered.
What happens if that consistency and leadership is at half-strength Thursday?
Although the Spurs are the one franchise that employs the "next man up" strategy better than any other team in the league, it would be foolish to suggest that a hobbled Parker wouldn't affect the Spurs in a big way.
The Spurs will have to cover their bases and have Cory Joseph, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Neal ready to share ball-handling duties if Parker is truly affected by his injury.
How those players respond could tip the scales in either direction.
Continue to Play With Confidence
Kawhi Leonard, Green and Neal have been little-known names outside of San Antonio for the past two seasons, but the trio hit national headlines on Tuesday after combining for 65 of the team's 113 points.
They did so by being unafraid of the responsibility of carrying the load while Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili continue to post pedestrian numbers under the bright lights of the NBA Finals.
That kind of confidence is rare. It also produces champions.
The Spurs were visibly energized by their fanbase and the atmosphere at AT&T Center on Tuesday, and that confidence oozed onto the court in the latter stages of the third and on into the fourth quarter.
San Antonio pulled away, playing with the kind of moxie and poise of a veteran title contender. Confidence has been key for both sides in this series, but San Antonio's unproven group of talent behind its Big Three has been huge so far.
The Spurs need this confidence way more than the Heat, who are in the NBA Finals for the third straight year.
Key for Both Teams: Avoid the Big Run
If there's one thing we've gleaned from the last two games, it's that the mantra of being scared of quicksand is not just made for the movies.
Miami used the uncharacteristically sloppy play of Parker and the San Antonio offense to mount a 33-5 run in Game 2, but the Spurs responded with a run of their own in Game 3, unleashing a three-point barrage that didn't stop until the final buzzer.
The Heat outscored San Antonio by 14 points in the third and fourth quarter in Game 2, and the Spurs returned the favor by outscoring Miami by 30 in the same time frame in Game 3.
Neither team has been able to survive the opposing onslaught in the last two games, and although those numbers likely won't be representative of the entire series moving forward, both San Antonio and Miami tend to score points in bunches.
They do so in different ways, but the idea is the same: Baskets start piling up, confidence follows suit, and before you know it, the advantage has ballooned to 20-plus with 10 minutes still on the clock.
As John Schuhmann of NBA.com also reported on Wednesday, the Spurs used a quick spurt at the end of the half (back-to-back Parker and Neal threes) to jump their winning-probability percentage up over 20 percent in a 30-second span.
As they say in basketball, it's a game of runs. How you respond can define the outcome. How both teams respond to these five keys should determine whether the series is tied at two or if San Antonio is holding a 3-1 series at game's end.
Follow Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.