After 48 hours without basketball led to our latest existential crisis about legacies, past heroes and unfounded medical opinions in the aftermath of the super creatively titled "Cramp-gate," we finally got back to real, live NBA basketball Sunday night at the AT&T Center.
And it was glorious.
The Spurs and Heat turned in 12 rounds of a heavyweight slugfest, hearkening memories of last year's Finals and temporarily assuaging worries that the sequel would not live up to the original. Tim Duncan turned back the clock for another double-double and a couple thunderous slams. Chris Bosh reminded everyone he's still pretty good at basketball, too, turning in two highlight-reel dunks of his own and hitting a clutch three in the fourth quarter.
In the end, it was the brilliance of LeBron James that won out.
James scored 35 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and at times single-handedly propelled the Heat to a 98-96 win to even the series. Just hours after answering questions—again—about the debilitating cramps that kept him out most of the fourth quarter in Game 1's loss to San Antonio, James—again—showed why he's the best player on the planet.
He hit mid-range jumpers and threes over the outstretched hand of Kawhi Leonard, barreled into the paint to score near the rim and found Bosh in the corner for that fateful jumper.
Miami's win evens the series headed back to AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night. The Heat will hope the trend of repetition will end there. Last year, after tying the series at 1-1, James and Co. came home for Game 3 and laid an egg, falling in a 113-77 drubbing. The Spurs hit an NBA Finals-record 16 threes in that contest, including seven from Danny Green.
Given the razor-thin margin between the two teams, it'd be a shock for either side to win a blowout. But stranger things have happened. Let's take a quick look back at the first two games and see what we can learn heading into Tuesday.
Spurs vs. Heat Game 3 Preview
When: Tuesday, June 10 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami
LeBron James Killed the Spurs in Game 2, but Can They Live with It?
The Heat have no chance to win the championship without LeBron turning in a dominant series. They died down the stretch in Game 1 after his injury and were minus-nine with him off the floor in Game 2. In the 70 minutes LeBron has played, Miami has outscored San Antonio by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 26 minutes he's sat, San Antonio has flipped the script for a 12-point advantage.
There is certainly noise in those numbers. James being off the floor for the Spurs' Game 1 run alone is enough to swing the margins. Individual plus-minus stats are noisy by their very nature, even over a large sample.
But the eye test passes the numerical sample in this case.
Without James, the Heat offense devolves into a series of questionable Dwyane Wade floaters, contested long twos from Bosh and the occasional wild heave from Mario Chalmers. The Heat are dependent on James not just because he's an unbelievable talent; they're dependent on him because of the gravitational pull he has on a defense.
The Spurs have been the second-best defense in the playoffs from a numbers standpoint. Look at how many eyes were on LeBron as he was passing to Bosh for the shot that put Miami up for good:
No other player on the planet commands that much attention. Duncan was so fearful of James getting to the rim that he totally abandoned Bosh, who has hit 14 of 24 corner threes in these playoffs.
"I caught Tim Duncan kind of peeking at me a little bit and found CB in the corner," James told reporters. "His favorite spot."
Duncan was cheating for a reason: James had killed the Spurs getting near the rim. In the first half, all six of James' made field goals were inside the restricted area. In the second, San Antonio adjusted, defenders taking a step back and daring James to defeat them with his jumper. He did just that, knocking down all three of his three-point attempts and five mid-range shots. Zero of his 22 second-half points came in the paint, and he attempted only four free throws the entire contest.
In the first half, James' shot attempts looked like this:
In the second half, a completely different picture:
LeBron beat the Spurs in every conceivable fashion. When they played him tight, he went darting to the rim. When they took a step back, he coolly knocked down high-pressure looks like they were at morning shootaround. The entire game was a 48-minute testament to LeBron's development.
Throw some truth serum in Gregg Popovich, though, and he'd say he's satisfied with those second-half looks. In most cases, San Antonio's shell defense worked enough to force exactly what it wanted—a contested jumper late in the shot clock. Over the course of a long series, the Spurs are going to win the defensive battle if James is settling for long twos and contested threes.
Will the Spurs' 3-Point Shooting Travel to Miami?
The Spurs are shooting 40.3 percent from three-point range during the playoffs. That's right in line with their league-leading average during the regular season and better than any other postseason participant. Gregg Popovich may despise the three-pointer, but it's integral to his team's success.
Which should be awfully scary for Pop heading into Game 3.
San Antonio is making less than a third of its threes on the road during the postseason, down from better than 45 percent at home. The Spurs are averaging 10.7 points less and allowing six more points per 100 possessions on the road. They assist on fewer baskets, their effective field-goal percentage drops by seven points, and their assist-to-turnover ratio dips.
Statistically, it's the difference between being the best team in the history of basketball and being this year's Brooklyn Nets.
San Antonio has made 25 of its 51 threes through the first two games, leading to a critical 15-point swing over the equally three-happy Heat. Its 110.5 points per 100 possessions would have led the league during the regular season. Miami has scored above the mean, but that's to be expected. The shots are only going to start falling more for guys other than James at home; the Heat are roughly nine points better at home during these playoffs.
The question now is whether San Antonio can keep up. The Spurs do a better job than any team on the planet finding the open shooter. Their entire system is dependent on movement, both on the ball and off, where they can free a ball-handler for a shot near the rim or draw the defense into the paint to open a kick-out jumper.
On this set, Boris Diaw runs a quick side pick-and-roll with Manu Ginobili, who jumps up and finds him wide open darting to the paint. Diaw then grabs the ball, recognizes the collapse and takes one dribble before firing to a wide-open Patty Mills in the corner:
The Spurs take advantage of every breakdown. In the second still, it's Norris Cole's job to be in better close-out position on Mills when he recognizes the help. Instead, he watches the ball and has to wildly scramble to contest an easy corner three.
These aren't new or unique actions. The Spurs ran their classic hammer action before the Ginobili-Diaw pick-and-roll. It's probably the oldest play in Popovich's playbook besides an isolation Duncan post-up, and these two teams know each other to the point there aren't any surprises. Bosh told reporters that he could practice with the Spurs and run every one of their sets.
It's a matter of execution and knocking down the open looks. The Spurs haven't done that nearly as well on the road as at home. Danny Green is hitting 57.6 percent of his threes at home and 31.3 percent on the road. Leonard is a 47.1 percent long-range shooter in the friendly confines; he makes 28 percent elsewhere.
The splits weren't as glaring during the regular season. Over a large sample, they'd even themselves out. Unfortunately, there is no large sample in the playoffs.
Which Secondary Figure Will Come Up Huge?
In Game 1, Tiago Splitter had his first double-digit scoring game in almost a month. In Game 2, Rashard Lewis scored 14 points and even blocked a shot—his latest surprise performance in what's been an inspired run the last couple of weeks.
Last year, it was Green and Gary Neal and Shane Battier and Mike Miller. Miller's shoeless three-pointer in Game 6 is sadly overlooked because Ray Allen hit the most clutch shot in NBA history later that same quarter.
In an evenly matched series between two teams that know one another the way Miami and San Antonio do, it's often the tertiary figures who swing the series. Ray Allen's resume makes it difficult to call him a role player, yet it's an accurate representation. Allen is a shaky 4-of-11 from beyond the arc during the first two games but already has seven steals and has been downright frisky handling the ball.
Battier has been nonexistent, playing 14 ineffective minutes in Game 1 and riding the pine the entirety of Sunday night. His and Udonis Haslem's playing time have been shifted almost entirely over to Lewis, who has played 25 minutes or more in five straight games.
Cole has scored two points in 40 total minutes, and Erik Spoelstra may be forced into parking him if he doesn't start hitting shots. The Spurs are basically ignoring him on the perimeter when he's not handling the ball.
Diaw is undoubtedly the Spurs' most vital bench asset. He's a fantastic passer and rebounder, and despite his oft-mocked frame, he can still adequately defend 3s on the perimeter. No San Antonio player other than Leonard can significantly bother James; Diaw comes the closest. As strange as this sounds, Diaw might be the quintessential Spur.
I am roughly 86 percent sure Mills does not have a conscience. Or, at the very least, he is in touch with his emotions enough to shut it off once the whistle blows. Having him and Ginobili on the floor at the same time is exhilarating and terrifying.
One of these players will swing this series. Maybe more than one. Starting with Game 3 on Tuesday, we'll begin to get a good idea of whose name will join Green and Neal and Battier and Miller in NBA Finals folklore.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise cited.
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