The whistle blew before a sprawling Shaun Livingston laid the ball off the backboard. After the Nets guard put it up against the rim again, Chris Bosh angrily slapped the carom into the crowd. It found its way back to the floor, where it bounced near LeBron James, who stomped to stop it from spinning.
This sequence, reasonably late in a 104-90 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, earned Miami a delay of game infraction, but that was actually the best result from all the times the Heat stopped the ball on Saturday night. That tendency on offense, and too much leniency on defense, caused the Heat to squander an opportunity to stomp out the Nets' second round hopes.
"This is a series," James said. "I've been part of a lot of series, and understand that a series is never won in two games or in three games. You move on to the next one, and you learn from the previous one."
Miami still leads 2-1 after losing for the first time this postseason, and still has enough advantages that it should feel confident about its chances to steal a game Monday and close out on Wednesday. But the Nets did show some fight, and the Heat did show some flaws, and Miami needs to suppress the first and address the latter before finding itself in more serious trouble.
Many will narrow the Heat's Saturday struggle down to the three-point defense, allowing the Nets to shoot 15-of-25 from beyond the arc. And yes, that has been a weakness at times, with Miami finishing 18th in the NBA in percentage allowed during the regular season and, on the worst nights, players sounded as they did Saturday, pointing to the team's trademark ultra-aggressive approach.
"Some of it came off our defensive schemes," James said. "Shrink the floor on their perimeter guys and close out on their shooters. A lot of the threes they made were contested, so you clap your hands and pat them on the back for the ones they made, because that's just our scheme."
Dwyane Wade said much the same, but he also acknowledged, "Some of it was not getting out to shooters." Ray Allen added that "we need to show more urgency on our rotations."
Certainly, the SportVU tracking showed that. For instance, while James called Joe Johnson an "unbelievable player" who "makes tough, contested shots," Johnson was actually 6-of-7 on uncontested jumpers, and 1-of-3 when contested. Four of Mirza Teletovic's seven three-point attempts were uncontested, and he made three of them.
"They're looking to shoot threes," Chris Bosh said. "We know that's what they want, they're hunting for them."
Erik Spoelstra pointed out, "they moved the ball extremely well" to get them, which has been one of the Nets' trademarks since the start of 2014.
"The way they rotate, the way they help on the ball, it's kind of what you get," Nets guard Deron Williams said. "You see when we drive the paint, you see a lot of bodies in there. If you see a lot of bodies, essentially you're going to get some open threes."
Bosh spoke of needing to do a better job of containing pick-and-rolls and getting back in transitions, so the looks don't come so easy. But, naturally, the odds are against the Nets, 11th in three-point accuracy during the regular season, staying as hot as they were Saturday. Further, the odds are in favor of Miami showing a bit more urgency on that end; as Bosh said, "tonight, we didn't have that desperation. It's tough to make up. But a loss will do that."
But it's not just about defense. Miami actually had 10 fast break points Saturday, which was one more than in the first two games combined. Still, to win this series, they'll need to execute in the halfcourt, and that means getting back to the sort of movement that it showed in the first two games and for much of the first half. One reason for the "awful third quarter," as Wade called it, was that he and James weren't getting the ball in the post, but James in particular was pounding it at the top.
The Heat had only 13 assists on 31 baskets.
More telling, they had only two secondary, or "hockey", assists according to SportVU—compared to 10 for the Nets in Game 3 and a total of 15 of their own in Games 1 and 2.
This was predictable, that James' strong start (16 points in the first quarter) wasn't accompanied by a corresponding one from the shooters. This happened repeatedly this season; trust on offense fades, the defense starts cracking, the offense stalls further, the game gets away.
"I always believe, from one end to the other, they always play off each other," Allen said. "Defensively, if you have no energy, then you go offensively, then you have the same growing the grass underneath your feet type of mentality. And then you take the offense, if you don't move the ball, and it compounds back to the defense."
Battier, who along with Bosh, Allen and Rashard Lewis combined to miss all seven of their three-point shots, noted that "a lot of our movements were east to west instead of north to south, and part of that is because the Nets flatten you out and we have to combat that. We didn't put the effort in to really get great shots. We settled for average shots, and we missed those."
Battier said when the Heat are clicking, they're "flying around on defense, creating turnovers, getting easy ones in the open court, and for whatever reason, the ball movement seems a lot quicker, a lot crisper. I think, when the inverse happens, we don't make that extra effort to get great shots. We revert to a lot of bad habits that get us in trouble."
To try to get back what you're giving up on the other end?
"Yeah, we've got all-world players here," he said. "Everyone feels 'I got this, I got this.'"
Instead, the Nets got stops and then kept getting threes.
They came in desperate early, making the Heat feel desperate late.
"It's a typical playoff game where a team down 0-2 comes and plays very inspired basketball, and a team that's down 2-0 does not match that effort," he said.
The Nets haven't matched the Heat in this series.
But, sure, the Nets did show life Saturday, never more evident than when Paul Pierce drilled a three and drew a foul, and then flexed his forearms while bouncing, strutting and yelling toward the crowd.
What did they show Miami?
"That we wasn't gonna panic," Pierce said. "We wanna show them, we're not scared of them."
It's up to the Heat to stomp on their spirit, before the series spins out of control.
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