Paging Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
The San Antonio Spurs have long been more than their Big Three. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are stars and future Hall of Famers, but the Spurs don't put themselves in position to win championships again and again without the success of complementary players.
This is true now more than ever, with two-thirds of the Big Three on the wrong side of 35. And it was obvious more than ever in San Antonio's 98-96 Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat Sunday night.
Leonard and Green, two of the Spurs' most important pieces outside Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, have been disturbingly quiet during these Finals. They have played but struggled to leave lasting imprints.
That has to change.
Kawhi Leonard's Passiveness
There isn't anyone outside the Big Three more important than Leonard.
Three years into his NBA career, he's still often talked about in the future tense, as a flowering prospect who will bridge the gap between the Big Three's partition and San Antonio's return to—or sustained—dominance.
Yet the Spurs need him now, not later.
For them to win, Leonard has to be a consistent contributor on the offensive end, an active seeker of opportunities. Through the first two games, he's been more of a complicit bystander than rolling participant.
Leonard has been—for the most part—just fine defensively. Though he fouled out for the first time in his career Sunday night, the effort and execution was there.
Fifteen of LeBron James' 22 shots were contested, according to NBA.com. He made nine of them. Thirteen of his attempts came outside the paint. He buried eight of them.
It was the type of performance the Spurs will live with. James took what they wanted him to, and Leonard was a big part of coaxing him into jumpers and contested shot attempts.
Only one of the six fouls he committed can be classified as boneheaded. He plowed right through Chris Andersen in the second half, presumably to showcase how unbelievably strong he is. His lone offensive foul was also beyond questionable. James appeared to exaggerate the contact.
Dwyane Wade must have been proud.
Everything else was James-inflicted. The Spurs weren't sending help when Leonard was guarding him. Four of his fouls came while trying to defend on the block or off the dribble, a harrowing task for anyone, including Leonard and his massively sized hands.
The energy and fouls expended there—merely watching Leonard battle for position against James off missed shots was exhausting—clearly contributed to his offensive passivity. He elected to play the Danny Green role on most possessions, occasionally journeying East and West while hovering behind the three-point line and rarely attacking on his own accord.
Such hesitation isn't atypical of Leonard. He has been known to disappear. That's the risk of playing alongside three superstars. Establishing offensive balance is difficult.
Vanishing acts haven't been a staple of Leonard's game, though. The Spurs are accustomed to him being more aggressive. His 9.8 field-goal attempts per game in the regular season and 10.2 shot attempts during these playoffs are career highs. It was him who helped carry the Spurs offensively in Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder while Parker was sidelined.
But Leonard has hoisted only 14 shots through Games 1 and 2. During Game 1, he was especially quiet, jacking up just five shots in an apathetic offensive performance the Spurs cannot afford for him to have.
Small sample sizes are never gospel, which is kind of the point. There's no guarantee the Spurs can win with Leonard playing like this, because they're not used to him playing like this.
Foul trouble, again, was the villain in Game 2, as Pounding The Rock's Fred Silva explained:
In Game 2, there were simply too many obstacles for the Spurs to overcome. Kawhi Leonard spent most of the second half in foul trouble. That absolutely killed the Spurs. Tentative Kawhi doesn't force turnovers and doesn't drive as often, because he's afraid of drawing the charge call. For the Spurs to defend well, they need an aggressive Kawhi.
All things considered, Leonard's nine shot attempts were right in line with his career average when battling foul woes. He's committed at least four fouls 25 times in the regular season and playoffs combined since entering the league. On those occasions, he's averaging just 9.5 shot attempts.
Step one, then, is obvious: Stay out of foul trouble—easier said than done when defending James, but necessary all the same. Step two is slightly more complicated.
Shot selection has been Leonard's main defect thus far. Only one of his nine shot attempts came inside the paint during Game 2. He's taken just two shots in the paint all series.
The Spurs need him to be more assertive, to attack, to drive, so they're not solely banking on perimeter swings to break down Miami's defense.
Settling for jumpers and playing decoy won't get it done consistently. The Spurs are 30-9 on the year—playoffs included—when he takes at least 10 shots. They need that Leonard, the one who frequently reminds us the future in San Antonio can be now.
Danny Green's Finals Recession
Right off the bat, it looked like fans would be treated to a trademark NBA Finals explosion from Green in Game 2.
Less than 35 seconds into the game, Green caught the ball beyond the rainbow, pump-faked, eluded a sprinting Wade, took one dribble, pulled up and swished home a two-pointer.
He wouldn't attempt another shot until two minutes into the third quarter.
Green didn't have what you would call a bad game. Five shots in 18 minutes isn't nothing. But the Spurs need more.
Although his Finals performances have become novelties, his sweet shooting is indispensable to San Antonio. To that end, the Spurs must play Green more. And find him more.
Open looks are going to be there. The Heat lean toward overaggressive on defense. They send double teams, collapse on ball-handlers and usually try to safeguard the rim at all costs. That includes leaving players like Green wide open.
"It's true," Eye On Basketball's Zach Harper wrote. "They leave guys open, even when it comes to fantastic outside shooters because they're trying to anticipate a mistake in getting the ball to the open player or another offensive guy on the floor."
Some of this changed in Game 2. All five of Green's shots were contested. The Heat did a better job of sticking to him and chasing him off the three-point line.
Still, there were missed opportunities. Much of Miami's perimeter prevention is predicated on speed and close-outs. Green can exploit those. He doesn't need a ton of room to get a shot off.
Even in Game 1, the Spurs failed to get him involved early. Four of his nine attempts came in the fourth quarter. That's far too late.
Creating spot-up opportunities for Green from the jump helps keep the Heat's defense honest. They won't be able to collapse as freely or double-team others as frequently.
Getting Green more looks will be twofold. The Spurs—Parker specifically—must look for Green off dribble-drives early on, and he himself must be encouraged to shoot.
Only then, upon ensuring he remains an integral part of the offense, will San Antonio enjoy the full benefits of its most lethal postseason assassin the way it did in that Game 1 victory-clinching fourth quarter.
More Than Just the Big Three
The Spurs aren't going to unseat the Heat like this, without Green and Leonard supplying what has become requisite production.
If not for "Crampgate" in Game 1, the Spurs could find themselves in a 2-0 series hole, heading back to Miami with only a sliver of hope. More to the point, Leonard and Green's struggles, their absences, would be a bigger story.
This team saw how damaging their demise can be last year. After torching the Heat's defense for the first five games of the 2013 NBA Finals, Green scored eight points on 2-of-19 shooting in the last two clashes, both of which San Antonio lost. Leonard was more of a force in those contests, but his erratic three-point shooting didn't help things.
Point being, Green and Leonard aren't ancillary devices. The Spurs aren't a superstar-driven juggernaut who rely on the accolades of one, two or even three players. They are a team.
"We didn’t do it as a group," Gregg Popovich said after Game 2, per Project Spurs' Quixem Ramirez. "We tried to do it individually and we aren’t good enough to do that."
Collective success, from top to bottom, is the only way these Spurs win. There is no such thing as auxiliary pieces to them. Secondary options are of primary importance. Leonard and Green rival the relevance Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
That won't change, so their present inability to leave positive, lasting offensive imprints must.