Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals will be remembered chiefly for the San Antonio Spurs' evisceration of the Miami Heat's defense, and rightfully so. The Spurs' first half, in which they scored 71 points on a Finals-record 75.8 percent shooting from the field, was one for the history books.
But San Antonio's 111-92 annihilation of the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena was the product of a brilliant two-way effort, one in which a pair of tactical adjustments by head coach Gregg Popovich paid enormous dividends for the visitors.
The more obvious of the two was announced before tip-off. Boris Diaw would start alongside Tim Duncan in San Antonio's frontcourt, thereby relegating Tiago Splitter to the bench. As the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman noted:
Smaller-ball remains the trend, with Popovich opting to start Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter. Clearly it worked, based on the Spurs' start. Fewer and fewer teams are still playing two bigs in their power rotation.
Indeed, Diaw was a boon to the Spurs' offensive outburst. Of his 76 touches, 66 ended with Diaw dishing the rock. Several others saw Diaw pound the ball in the low post for brilliant scores, be it against Rashard Lewis or Chris Bosh.
All told, Diaw didn't exactly stuff the stat sheet with his nine points, five rebounds and three assists. But his size and skill were just as important to the Spurs' effort to frustrate the Heat's scoring machine, if not more so. He was particularly effective in bodying up Bosh, who was perfect from the field but only got up four shots.
Sure, the ball stuck, but Diaw and the Spurs had a big hand in that. His physicality played a big part in Bosh touching the ball just 30 times on Tuesday—a steep drop from the 50 he totaled in Game 2 and an even steeper one from his 58 in Game 1, both of which featured Splitter in San Antonio's starting five.
Truth be told, Diaw's hands-on approach was but one outgrowth of a shakeup in philosophy among the Spurs' defensive roots. In the last nine Finals games between these two elites, San Antonio was more-or-less content to let the Heat toss up jumpers from inside the arc and above the break, so long as Miami couldn't get to the free-throw line or create clean looks in the corners and at the rim.
That approach didn't work so well for the Spurs to end last year's series or to start this year's. According to NBA.com, the Heat shot 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) on their long threes between Games 1 and 2 while still converting 35 of 52 (67.3 percent) at the rim.
James, in particular, took advantage of the Spurs' "long twos" approach on Sunday. He scored 22 points on 11 second-half field-goal attempts, all of which were jumpers from an average distance of nearly 20 feet, per FiveThirtyEight.com's Ian Levy.
Apparently, the Spurs learned their lesson. This time around, the Western Conference champs were proactive in their approach to defending James—and Wade, for that matter.
Not that those two had any trouble scoring, per se. They combined to shoot 17-of-26 from the floor for 44 points.
But that's the point, isn't it? The Heat's two best players only managed 26 attempts between them, to go along with 11 free throws.
This, after combining for 35 shots in Game 1 and 31 in Game 2.
Lo and behold, it was San Antonio's own starting wings (i.e. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) who made life difficult for two-thirds of the Heat's Big 3.
Leonard was all over James from the get-go. Rather than affording James the requisite space to shoot or even move, Leonard smothered him with his massive mitts, his pterodactyl-esque wingspan and his quick feet, making it tough for James to catch the ball, much less do anything productive with it. Instead of scoring and dishing, James spent much of his energy trying merely to maintain possession. His seven turnovers on the evening, many of which were induced by Leonard's pressure, were his most in a playoff game since the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics.
Of course, James' life wasn't made any easier by Leonard's star-making night on the other end. Leonard led all scorers with 29 points, well outproducing his total of 18 from the first two tilts.
Elsewhere on the wing, Green was busy making misery out of Wade's evening. He picked Wade's pocket on three separate occasions, each of which ended with a fast-break bucket for San Antonio. Green's five steals on the night fell two short of the Finals record, just as Wade's five turnovers put him two behind James' total in that dubious category.
To be sure, the job done on James and Wade was an effort of partnership between Leonard and Green. Leonard flustered Wade for a theft in the second quarter. Green did the same to James in the fourth while drawing a pair of fouls on the four-time MVP.
In reality, though, slowing down a trio as talented as Miami's is the charge not solely of any specific defenders, but rather of an entire team. To that end, the Spurs may have found a more palatable solution to the problems posed by the Heat's Big Three—for now, anyway.
Don't just keep them out of the paint. Don't just encourage them to take low-percentage looks inside the arc. Don't just keep them off the stripe.
Above all else, don't let them get the ball at all. Make Miami's paltry point-guard tandem of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole beat them. Make the 38-year-old Ray Allen and the resurgent Rashard Lewis beat them.
And if the ball should wind up in the hands of the Heat's Big 3, do anything and everything to make their every move thereafter a Herculean struggle.
History may not remember that not-so-subtle shift in strategy on Pop's part. But heading into Game 4 on Thursday, with the Spurs up 2-1—just as they were in the 2013 Finals—you can bet these two teams will.
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