MIAMI—Something happened with 5:05 remaining in Tuesday's first quarter, something that didn't seem at the time as if it were something that Heat fans needed to savor.
Manu Ginobili dribbled up the court, saw Chris Andersen join Ray Allen to pressure him and fired the ball over their heads to Tim Duncan. Duncan caught the pass as Mario Chalmers flew by, laid it up with his right hand...
And left it short.
LeBron James rose for the rebound, knocked it out of Duncan's reach and started a fast break. As it turned out, the Heat should have stopped the action right there to commemorate the occasion.
For the next 10 minutes and 20 seconds, Spurs misses on the arena's court were rarer than a wrinkle in its audience. During that stretch, the Spurs put on one of the most dazzling, dumbfounding displays in modern NBA Finals history, with seven different players combining to convert all 11 of their field goals, plus seven of their 10 free throws.
Nor were they done. After a few misfires, they resumed their torrid pace from all parts of the floor, from Duncan turnarounds to Parker floaters to Boris Diaw corner three-pointers to Kawhi Leonard pull-up jumpers, the latter aided by a James-flattening Tiago Splitter screen.
The Spurs kept bodies and ball in motion, five players on a string, the ball falling through twine. They did this, again and again, with poise and precision, until they had stormed to a large enough lead that the desperate Heat comeback would be doomed.
Spurs 111, Heat 92.
Spurs 2-1 in the series.
San Antonio conducted a clinic. The Heat, meanwhile, looked like they needed to visit one. Their defense was sickly in a way it hadn't been since the sloggiest days of the regular season.
Late on rotations. Lazy in the paint.
"We did it to ourselves," Chris Bosh said. "With all due respect to them, it's nothing that they did."
"They came out at a different gear than what we were playing at," Erik Spoelstra said.
"We were too casual," Ray Allen said.
"They had us on our heels from the beginning," James said.
So, now the Heat are on their heels in this series, squandering the home-court advantage they earned in Game 2, and back in the same spot they were last season. Yes, they lost Game 3 by 36 last June to this same squad and still recovered to win in seven. And as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dryly noted, "I don't think we'll ever shoot 76 percent in a half ever again," a point that was quickly proven when they shot only 41.9 percent in the second half on Tuesday.
But this was a little scary for the Heat side, if only because it shows how vulnerable they can be when they don't commit, and how lethal the Spurs are when allowed to get comfortable. What started as unimpeded runs to the rim and uncontested jumpers turned into one-legged fallaways after San Antonio got in an unbreakable rhythm.
"We know they're going to run around like crazy like we do, moving the ball from side to side," Bosh said. "Our rotations—we didn't make them. They got everything they wanted. We didn't have correct coverages on the ball, and when we did, they still got to the paint. Our one-on-one defense was really bad. Our containments on the closeouts were bad. Help was bad. Everything was bad."
Including their own offense, even if they shot 51.6 percent from the floor, including 10-of-21 on three-pointers. Some of this was attributable to the scrambling necessary to get back in the game, but it still was troubling to see James and Dwyane Wade combine for the same number of turnovers (12) as Chris Bosh had touches, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Bosh had three times as many in each of the first two games, in which he was extremely aggressive and effective. Tuesday, he was virtually ignored, even while making all four of his shots, and he had to remind himself not to force the action when he got a rare opportunity.
"No matter what happens, up 10, down 10, we have to play our game," Bosh said. "We played much better on both ends on the road. I don't understand that. I guess we just let our guard down. We didn't do what got us the win. And we paid for it."
They paid for it even though James, Wade, Bosh and Rashard Lewis combined to make 26 of 37 shots, numbers that were emptier than the arena with four minutes left, especially since Wade wasn't engaged enough early on defense and James (22 points, seven assists, five steals) cooled considerably on offense in the second half.
His seven turnovers were his career NBA Finals high.
"Some of them were trying to make some plays for my teammates, and some of them were just overdribbling at times," James said. "So I've got to do a better job of that for sure."
Especially because, if the Heat's point guard problems continue, he'll be handling the ball even more.
Tuesday, Norris Cole was better than Mario Chalmers, but only in the way that hiccups are preferable to hacking. Cole brought some energy but missed six of his nine shots, often dribbling into traffic and bruising his bumper.
Well, it's been about a month now that he hasn't been himself, and no amount or type of advice has seemed to help him regain his groove. His father has tried. His teammates have tried, though now they are at the stage where they want him to meet them halfway. His coach, Spoelstra, has tried, by repeatedly putting him on the floor, even in the closing minutes. But, save for one solid sequence—a drive for two free throws and drawing a charge—it was another struggle Tuesday: five missed shots, three turnovers, four fouls.
"I think everybody else is doing their job and I'm being that guy that's not helping out," Chalmers said. "I don't want to be that guy."
He can take solace in this, at least: Tuesday, he wasn't alone.
Jobs were left undone by just about everyone.
"It's not easy to win a championship, and they say each one is harder to get," Bosh said, before heading out the door and into a day of deliberation and preparation prior to Game 4. "I didn't understand, but now it makes sense. I'm going to go throw up and pray."
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