It took two mediocre games, but in Game 3 the Spurs finally played well. Regarding the first half, 'well' is an understatement. In Game 1, the Spurs turned the ball over 22 times. In Game 2, they shot 44%, missed free throws and didn't close. In both games, the Spurs seemed out of sync and if the same thing had occurred in Game 3, I was ready to give the Heat full credit for being the reason the Spurs weren't playing well. However, the Spurs that blew out the Mavericks in Game 7, beat the Blazers in five games and got past OKC in six finally showed up.
Obviously, even though the Spurs did not play to their full potential in the first two games, they were in both and could have been up 2-0 heading into tonight. Just as easily though, the Spurs could have dropped both games. They were that close and thankfully, the ball bounced well enough for the Spurs to find themselves tied after two games. Regardless, not many Spurs fans were feeling extremely confident heading into Game 3 in Miami, where the Heat had yet to lose in the playoffs.
Gregg Popovich decided to make his first lineup change of the series tonight as he started Boris Diaw over Tiago Splitter. As we've stated over and over, the Spurs improve on offense with Boris but at the expense of their defense. I thought it was a great move because in enemy territory, I felt an early lead was vital. Playing in Miami is not easy and playing from behind in Miami tends to be a death sentence.
In beating the Heat, the Spurs became the Heat
Of all the weird stats from Game 3, here's the craziest: Matt Bonner shot two free throws in the first quarter of an NBA Finals.
Utilizing Diaw in the starting lineup gave the Spurs offense the potential to be potent and they did not disappoint. The Spurs began the game in a much more aggressive fashion than they had in the previous two contests. San Antonio attacked the basket mercilessly and seemed to catch the Heat off-guard. Early on, Kawhi had two successful drives and even Danny Green was getting into the paint. When I saw Danny Green attacking the rim instead of making his usual tentative, awkward moves, that's when I first thought something special might happen. The Spurs jumped out to a 18-10 early lead, and Erik Spoelstra stopped the action with a timeout.
The Spurs continued to play well with their starting lineup of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan and Pop finally began subbing with a 25-12 lead. From there, the Spurs bench checked in and continued to blitz the Heat. The team shot 87% from the field in the first quarter and only committed two turnovers. Obviously, everyone played well, but what Kawhi did was special.
After struggling in the first two games of the series, Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs in the first quarter by scoring 16 of their whopping 41 first quarter points. In my Game 2 Recap, I wrote that I thought Kawhi's foul trouble cost the Spurs the win more than anything else that happened. Travis Hale wrote an entire article about how the Spurs needed Kawhi to show up. I thought the Spurs needed Kawhi in order to play to their potential, but what happened in the first half of tonight's game was legendary.
The Spurs followed their 41 point, 87% shooting first quarter with a 30 point, 60% shooting second quarter. Their 75.8% field goal percentage in the first half is the highest percentage ever registered in a half of the Finals. They assisted on 15 of their 25 made field goals and only turned it over five times while throwing up 71 points on the vaunted Heat defense.
In the first half, Kawhi made six of his seven field goals for 18 points. Danny "Big" Green hit all six of his shots for 13 points. Tim scored 10 points on four shots. Tony had eight points and four assists with no turnovers. Basically, the Spurs attacked early and their confidence soared as the minutes passed and the Heat defense had no response. Offensively, it was as close to a flawless first half as you'll ever see. Pop even said, "I don't think we'll ever shoot 76% in a half ever again." (Nice reverse jinx, Pop.)
The Spurs moved the ball beautifully and the Heat couldn't catch up with it. They always seemed a step behind the Spurs and San Antonio just wasn't missing shots. Even the shots that Miami was able to contest, which weren't the majority by any means, were finding the bottom of the net. I think every other team in the NBA would have given up in the first half, but to the Heat's immense credit, they didn't just roll over.
The Heat shot 56% in the first half and trailed by 'just' 21 at intermission. When the Spurs are playing that flawless offensively, most teams fall apart and lose their composure. Miami kept competing. It was pretty amazing, really. After the Spurs pushed their lead to 25 in the second quarter, Rashard Lewis hit three 3-pointers to help Miami cut the lead to 15. The Spurs closed the half well to push it back to 21, but I don't think any Spurs fans felt comfortable at halftime.
After the record-crushing first half, the Spurs were bound to have a letdown, and I'm not sure the third quarter could have started worse. The Heat began it with a Wade three point play and followed that with a Chris Bosh 3-pointer to cut the lead to 15 in a flash. Pop immediately called a timeout and most of Spurs Nation spent the break in action terrified.
The rest of the third quarter was a brawl. The officials were terrible in general, and their inconsistency from the first half to the third quarter was jarring. Even though the Heat defense seemed to increase its physicality in the third quarter, the Spurs only shot two free throws. In the first half, they shot 17. But the officials were terrible for both teams, so even though the Spurs only scored 15 points, it was so mucked up by the officials that Miami was only able to put up 25 points.
Things became very tense in the third when the Heat cut the Spurs' lead to seven points, but Marco Belinelli responded with a huge 3-pointer and Diaw hit a shot to give San Antonio an 11 point lead heading into the final quarter, 86-75. Marco, who has been absolutely terrible in this series, hit a huge shot and should get a lot of credit for that. Pop thankfully only played Belinelli six minutes, but that 3-pointer was an important one.
In the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard took over the game. He scored six quick points and assisted on a Tony Parker layup. He was responsible for eight of the Spurs' first 10 points of the quarter and continued to be magnificent defensively. More than halfway through the quarter, the Spurs were sitting on a 14 point lead and time was running out for the Heat.
Playing from behind is not fun. In fact, it's exhausting. It takes so much energy to comeback and getting over the hump is always the toughest part of it all. Halfway through the fourth, James and Wade seemed spent. They valiantly kept their team in the game despite a San Antonio 71 point first half but finally ran out of gas in the fourth. Sensing this, Pop smartly gave Tony and Tim a rest at the 5:39 mark of the fourth. The Spurs cruised from there to a 111-92 victory on Miami's home floor. The Spurs now lead the series 2-1 and have recovered their home-court advantage.
- Kawhi Leonard's line: 29/4/2/2/2. The 29 points weren't just a playoff high, they were a career high. However, the most important stat for Kawhi was his four fouls. He was never in foul trouble and played 39 minutes. It allowed him to harass Lebron James all night long. In addition, Pop had his guys switching much more often than in previous games. It allowed the Spurs to always be in a good defensive position, and I think it helped them to avoid fouling Miami.
- Boris Diaw was a huge factor tonight. Pop moved him to the starting lineup and he helped get the Spurs off to a great start. He posted up often in this game and whenever Miami tried to make a push, he seemed to manufacture points for the Spurs. His game-high +/- of +20 is well deserved.
- Tim Duncan had a frustrating game, but I'm sure he's content with the win. In that third quarter when the officials inexplicably stopped calling fouls, Tim took the brunt of the punishment. He finished with 14 points and six rebounds, but turned it over four times. Not coincidentally, he was hit four times tonight.
- Tony Parker settled the team down and righted the ship in the second quarter. Miami was trying to cut the lead before halftime, and Parker took it upon himself to respond. He scored or assisted on the Spurs' final eight points of the quarter. Tony seems to be once again suffering from a variety of maladies. Thankfully, the rest of the team did the heavy lifting tonight and Pop only played him 33 minutes. Hopefully, he'll continue to be able to carry the Spurs in important moments.
- Obviously, this was a huge win. This was Miami's first home loss of the playoffs. A lot of that probably had to do with playing the Bobcats, Nets and Pacers, but their confidence at home was sky-high. With the pressure off of them, the Spurs can show up to Game 4 and play loose. This team understands that every game is important, but winning that game gives the Spurs a cushion. Expect the ball to skip once again and expect the Spurs to keep relentlessly attacking. It should be a fun one, and the Spurs will have the opportunity to take full control of the series.