The switch that the Miami Heat have flipped so effortlessly throughout the Big Three era apparently has its limits.
The San Antonio Spurs treated the first half of their 111-92 Game 3 win as a layup line, with the Miami Heat playing the role of those nonexistent defenders. San Antonio poured in 71 first-half points on an NBA Finals record 75.8 percent shooting, all but burying the comeback hopes of the two-time defending champs.
The Heat eventually trimmed the deficit to single digits, but the scorching Spurs wouldn't allow them to come any closer.
Kawhi Leonard, who scored just 18 points over the first two games of this series, led all scorers with a career-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Danny Green and Tony Parker each chipped in with 15 points as the Spurs shot a blistering 59.4 percent from the field.
The Heat nearly had their own shooting night to remember, connecting on 51.6 percent of their shots from the field and 47.6 percent of their long-range looks. But their lackadaisical defense and careless ball control (20 turnovers, including seven by LeBron James) ultimately sealed their fate.
With the win, the Spurs reclaimed the home-court advantage they had given up in the previous contest. They also bolstered their title hopes with some staggering historical percentages. According to WhoWins.com, NBA Finalists with home-court advantage and a 2-1 series lead have gone on to win 87.2 percent of the time (34-5).
Needless to say, those numbers will shift even further in San Antonio's favor if Miami fails to deliver a victory in front of its home fans Thursday night. It will take more than a flip of the switch for the Heat to breathe some life back into their three-peat hopes.
Seeds: San Antonio Spurs, No. 1; Miami Heat, No. 2
Series: Spurs 2, Heat 1
Schedule: Game 4, Thursday, June 12, 9 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 5, Sunday, June 15, 8 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 6*, Tuesday, June 17, 9 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 7*, Friday, June 20, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
Video game numbers are identified as such for their sheer absurdity. In other words, the Spurs shouldn't bank on another record-setting shooting performance when these teams reconvene for Game 4 Thursday night.
Luckily, that's a lesson it doesn't sound like the Spurs will need to learn.
"That will never happen again," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, via Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "I mean, that's crazy."
Still, as crazy as they were, there was a certain realistic feel behind them. When this offensive machine clicks on all cylinders (11 different players scored in Game 3), it's capable of producing mind-boggling statistics.
The Spurs' success in this series has always hinged on that, their "Others." Tuesday night, the support staff passed its exam with flying colors.
For San Antonio, the challenge is to keep getting enough quantity to offset Miami's edge in quality. The Heat may have the best trio in the business, but the Spurs can overwhelm with the size of their offensive attack.
Boris Diaw's insertion into the starting five gave San Antonio a versatile offensive weapon and underrated defender. Patty Mills has hit 44.4 percent of his three-point tries in the series, and Marco Belinelli added a timely triple to help stymie the Heat's comeback bid.
The Spurs might not have another shooting display quite like this in them. The brilliance of balance in their box score is something they can certainly replicate, though.
It's an act they have almost perfected over the last decade-plus.
Key Storyline for Miami Heat
Game 3 was the extreme example, but sluggish starts have plagued the Heat throughout their postseason run.
Miami's minus-8.0 first-quarter net rating, via NBA.com (subscription required), is the fourth-worst of all 16 playoff teams. During the championship round, the Heat have been outscored by 29 points in the opening frame.
Offensively, Miami had its best first quarter of the series in Game 3. At the opposite end, though, the Heat showed nothing that resembled championship-level defense.
"The one-on-one defense was bad, the closeouts were bad, our help was bad. Everything was bad," Chris Bosh said, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. "We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re gonna win a championship with that kind of effort."
The Heat have to open the contest with much better energy. Stumbling out of the gate might not have been a death sentence in the Eastern Conference, but it's a deal-breaker against a team with as much firepower as the Spurs have.
There are offensive hurdles to clear—Bosh took just four shots in 34 minutes, Mario Chalmers has yet to show well in this series—but the Heat have to get back to their defensive roots.
And that means unleashing their suffocating, swarming defensive effort from the opening tip. When the Heat are turning good shots into great ones for the Spurs, San Antonio will pounce on the opportunities afforded to it.
Miami's top gear might be more than San Antonio's motor can handle. The Heat cannot rely on those short sprints alone to get back into this series.
They must find a sustainable pace, one they can maintain for the full 48 minutes.
Behind the strength of their Big Four (Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan), the Spurs have the tools to stay in any series.
What potentially pushes them over the top, though, is their impressive power in numbers. San Antonio can punish opponents from all angles of the floor and from anywhere on its roster.
The Spurs need their stars to play as such, but their depth is what helped secure their return trip to the championship stage. They have an almost unfair amount of shooters, but the supporting cast is more than three-point specialists.
Diaw is a do-it-all weapon whose best nights leave imprints all across the box score. While this isn't the best matchup for Tiago Splitter, he showed Tuesday night that he can still be effective in spurts (six points, four boards in 16 minutes).
San Antonio should win the battle of the bench mobs, but it's the margin of that victory which could prove most telling about the night's outcome.
Miami's X-Factors don't really look the part. It's hard to place that label on a pair of perennial All-Stars.
Yet, Bosh and Dwyane Wade hold that same type of importance for Miami's title hopes.
The Spurs have yet to find an answer for Bosh, he's shooting 65.4 percent for the series, but the big man might need to start hunting more shots. Wade has been solid over these first three games (18.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting), but solid might not be enough given the struggles of Miami's point guards and the inconsistencies of the second team.
When Miami's talented trio is rolling, it doesn't need a ton of production out of the supporting cast. As the Heat's two losses have proved, though, the bar for the Big Three is awfully high.
Key Matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James
Leonard is not supposed to win this matchup. James has more MVP awards (four) than Leonard has seasons under his belt (three).
The Spurs don't need to claim a victory here, though. They just need Leonard to make the margin between he and James respectable.
Leonard must only be a nuisance for James, a role the former thrived in Tuesday night.
"When James drove hard, Leonard moved his feet and contested," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted. "When James posted up, Leonard bodied him right back."
Faulty air conditioners aside, there is no real way to stop James. Leonard stayed glued to his hip in Game 3, and James still managed to find 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting.
But James felt Leonard's presence throughout the contest. The two-time champion scored only eight points over the final 39 minutes of Game 3 while coughing up more turnovers than he'd given away in more than three months.
Hoping for a repeat performance from Leonard might be asking a bit much. The last time James committed at least seven turnovers (he had eight on February 20), he gave away just one while scoring 31 points on 68.4 percent shooting his next time out.
Still, Popovich doesn't think his young swingman set the bar too high:
Pop might simply be propping up his player, but Leonard has the physical tools needed to harass James.
For James, his challenge is to keep that harassment from appearing on the stat sheet. Scoring a decisive victory over Leonard might not be enough to secure a win for the Heat, but failing to do so would leave Miami fighting a steep uphill battle.
History says the Heat somehow have the Spurs right where they want them.
Not only has Miami rattled off 13 consecutive playoff victories following a loss, it also faced almost this exact same scenario last season. The Spurs grabbed a 2-1 series lead with a blowout Game 3 victory in the 2013 NBA Finals, then the Heat regrouped and took three of the final four games.
The script is different this time around—Miami had home-court advantage for that series—and the outcome could certainly change from here.
Still, even with Thursday's contest holding must-win implications for Miami, the Heat could be 48 minutes away from evening the score.
"We hate the performance we put on tonight," James said, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "But it's 2-1, not 4-1."
The Heat know both where they stand and what is needed going forward. That knowledge, combined with elite personnel and the support of their home fans, should be enough for Miami to turn this into a three-game series.
Prediction: Heat defeat Spurs, 98-92