The prominent players were different. The atmosphere was far less electric. And the level of intensity certainly did not rival the San Antonio Spurs' and Miami Heat's classic Game 6 and Game 7 NBA Finals contests in Miami.
Just don't tell that to LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Buoyed by 24 points from Bosh and a near triple-double from James, the Heat pulled away in the second half to turn one of the regular season's most hyped matchups into a 113-101 blowout of San Antonio on Sunday, Jan. 26.
In a battle of the NBA's second-most efficient offense and fourth-best defense (per NBA.com), Miami's whirring flurry of ball movement and open jumpers won out. The Heat shot 58.1 percent from the floor, highlighted by an excellent third quarter that reminded fans why there is no better team on the planet when they are motivated.
ESPN Stats & Info put the Heat's shooting performance into perspective:
Heat shot 58%, the best any team has shot vs Spurs this season pic.twitter.com/QKKWL3P82b— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 26, 2014
Ahead by eight at halftime, the Heat made 10 of their 16 shot attempts and knocked down 12 free throws to stretch their lead to 91-71 by the time the fourth started. Bosh, working both off the dribble and as a recipient of open shots in the mid range, led the way with 12 points. He and James combined to make seven of their eight shots, causing San Antonio to miss its perimeter shots as well.
The lead got so pronounced that coach Erik Spoelstra didn't point in James' direction after pulling the league MVP with 3:39 remaining in the third. The last image of him for the afternoon was him sprinting down the court in reaction to his fourth foul, which drew a technical.
James finished with 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists. ESPN's Colin Cowherd shared his thoughts on James' distributing ability:
Lebron passes better than 98 percent of point guards.— Colin Cowherd (@ESPN_Colin) January 26, 2014
While he'll likely be thankful to sit out the fourth quarter against an elite team like San Antonio, his streak of 10 games with 20 or more points ended. It will probably take a far closer contest for him to reach his goal of joining Carmelo Anthony in the 60-point club.
Bosh, averaging 24 points per game over his last six contests coming in, has now hit the 20-point barrier for the sixth time in seven games. It's been a key period for the oft-overlooked member of Miami's "Big Three." With Dwyane Wade struggling to cope with knee injuries, Bosh is finding his stroke from outside and arguably playing his best basketball since arriving from Toronto.
He went 9-of-10 from the field, adding five rebounds and three assists to go with his game-high 24 points. After the game, Spoelstra heaped praise on his All-Star big man, highlighting how his IQ makes things easier as a coach, per Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick:
Spoelstra on Bosh (9 of 10): "The thing about Chris is he has great emotional stability. You add that plus the IQ, plus the skill level."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 26, 2014
Although San Antonio stuck around in the first half, it rarely felt like the Spurs had any control of the outcome. Miami raced out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes and never trailed, with San Antonio only tying the game twice after the opening tip.
Tim Duncan was the only one of San Antonio's proverbial Big Three to show up, scoring 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting as the Spurs' struggles against elite competition continued. Tony Parker had just 11 points and seven assists, while Manu Ginobili added three points on 1-of-7 from the field.
Both teams came in dealing with injury issues, but the Spurs seemed especially affected. San Antonio was playing without Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard, three key rotational cogs from last June. Green and Leonard in particular were thorns in Miami's side during the Finals, the former red-hot from beyond the arc and the latter James' main antagonist on the defensive end.
The Heat were nearly at full strength, as Wade returned from a four-game absence to rest his ailing knees. He wasn't close to being 100 percent, though, coming off the bench for the first time in more than a half-decade and managing only eight points in 24 minutes. Though unorthodox, Spoelstra did not rule out this becoming more of a permanent thing, per Skolnick:
Spoelstra on Wade: "Whether we do that from here on out, I don't know."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 26, 2014
Miami was also able to show the defending Western Conference champs the new wrinkles in its core. Greg Oden suited up for the third straight game for the first time in a Heat uniform, entering in the second quarter and giving Miami an instant jolt of energy. Oden got to the line, blocked a Duncan shot and pulled down a defensive rebound in his first two possessions. He even dunked on the Spurs forward later in the quarter.
It was the second straight game where Oden played double-digit minutes, and Spoelstra even entered him late in garbage time to help him get more game action. We'll have to see if Oden sticks around come May and June, but it's clear he has supplanted Udonis Haslem, Miami's only inactive player on the open roster.
In all, it was a matchup of a team coalescing versus one in a holding pattern until key pieces return. The Heat will face a similar opponent on Wednesday, when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit Miami. Kevin Durant has arguably supplanted James as the MVP favorite while playing without Russell Westbrook, and this game will do nothing to change that.
But something tells me James will be just fine with Durant winning the MVP as long as the scoreboard looks similar to Sunday.
|Tim Duncan, PF||A|
|Boris Diaw, PF||B|
|Tony Parker, PG||C|
|Cory Joseph, PG||C-|
|Marco Belinelli, SG||C|
|Matt Bonner, PF||C|
|Jeff Ayres, C||C|
|Patty Mills, PG||C|
|Othyus Jeffers, SG||C|
|Manu Ginobili, SG||D|
|Aron Baynes, PF||C|
|Nando de Colo, PG||C|
|Shane Battier, SF||C|
|LeBron James, SF||A|
|Chris Bosh, C||A|
|Mario Chalmers, PG||B+|
|Ray Allen, SG||B-|
|Chris Andersen, PF||B-|
|Michael Beasley, SF||B-|
|Norris Cole, PG||B-|
|Dwyane Wade, SG||C+|
|Greg Oden, C||C+|
|Roger Mason Jr., SG||C|
|Rashard Lewis, PF||C|
Players of the Game: LeBron James (SF, Miami Heat), Tim Duncan (PF, San Antonio Spurs)
Perhaps no team outside Indiana knows how to defend James better than the Spurs. Gregg Popovich hung most of the responsibility on Boris Diaw's feet, a redux from the NBA Finals where Diaw was the most frequent non-Leonard defender. Diaw consistently handles himself better than his reputation would cause you to expect, but it's San Antonio's team defense, with crisp rotations and smart shades, that makes James' life difficult.
It was apparent in the first half especially, when James worked within the flow of the offense and worked to get his teammates involved early. Four of Bosh's 10 first-quarter points came as the result of James assists, and secondary assists were everywhere—as is typical in Miami's offense.
As for Duncan, well, isn't this just what we've come to expect from the Big Fundamental? Duncan had exactly one 20-point game in January coming into Sunday, and that came in an overtime affair against Memphis where he played a season-high 38 minutes.
He needed just 16 first-half minutes to get to 17 points. It took him only another two-and-a-half minutes to get over the 20-point barrier, demanding the ball in the post and going to work against Miami's smaller defenders. Spoelstra very likely gave Oden an extended look in the second quarter to see how the Heat rotations would work with a more stationary big man defending Duncan down low.
Bosh's latest solid outing goes at least somewhat on Duncan as his primary defender, but it's been awfully hard for anyone to stop him of late. Every once in a while, he turns back the clock and proves he can still have afternoons like this. Don't think it's a coincidence that they typically come against fellow championship contenders.
The Heat continue their stretch of games against Western Conference contenders Wednesday when they get a visit from Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. San Antonio is in action a day earlier against the Southwest Division rival Houston Rockets.
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