The Finals in 3-D: How Heat, Spurs are defending all-important trey
This story appears in the June 16, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine here and purchase the digital edition, go here.
The Lakers captured the 1983 Western Conference crown in San Antonio on May 20 and flew directly to Philadelphia the next morning. They had only a day to prepare for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and coach Pat Riley put his players through a cram session at the Spectrum. Riley reviewed the Lakers' plan for the 76ers: They would defend Moses Malone one-on-one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; they would pick up Julius Erving at half-court to limit his transition opportunities; and they would close out on shooters Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones to 17 feet. There was one aspect of the Philly attack, however, that Riley never addressed. "The three-pointer," remembers former Los Angeles power forward Bob McAdoo, "was something we didn't worry about at all."
The 76ers swept the Lakers, making 172 field goals in the four games, and not one of them was a three. The Sixers, according to basketball-reference.com, fired only three shots from beyond the arc, missing all. "There was no Manu Ginóbili, no Danny Green, no Ray Allen," says McAdoo, who is now a Heat assistant coach, in constant search of ways to stifle the very shot Riley could ignore. In 1982-83, four seasons after the arc was introduced, NBA teams put up 2.3 three-pointers per game; this season they launched 21.5, chucking an alltime high for the second year in a row.
The Knicks' J.R. Smith hoisted a record 22 -three-pointers in a game. The Hawks unleashed a record 44 in a playoff game. The Warriors' Stephen Curry became the first player to sink more than 250 in consecutive seasons. The seven-month aerial assault followed the 2013 Finals, in which Miami set the series record with 64 converted threes and San Antonio the single-game record with 16. The Spurs' Green shattered the individual mark of 22 before the Heat's Allen upstaged him with his own unforgettable deep ball. The rematch tipped off last week in San Antonio with 45 more threes in the first two games. The Spurs won the opener, thanks partly to three treys by Green in a span of 21⁄2 minutes of the fourth quarter. Miami responded Sunday behind 35 points and three triples from LeBron James. But the Heat still trailed by one with 80 seconds left, when James drove and kicked to the right corner, where Chris Bosh was waiting. His three put Miami up for good.
Players offer plenty of reasons for the long-range revolution -- the desire to space the floor, the lure of the extra point, the outgrowth of the shot doctor -- but not many solutions to stop the onslaught. "That's something we're all still working on," says San Antonio point guard Patty Mills. Today's NBA is full of breakneck ballhandlers who disintegrate defenses and snipers who singe them. Whether it's off a drive-and-kick or a pick-and-roll, the result frequently seems to be another uncontested moonbeam. Three-point defense, 3-D for short, has never been more exasperating or more essential. Given the preponderance of marksmen in these Finals, the club that runs off the most threes is likely the one that will get the cleanest look at the trophy.
The NBA average from three-point range this season was 36.0%, compared with 23.8% in 1982-83, and the equivalent of 54.0% on two-point field goals, leaving head coaches to wonder if a hand in the face is even enough anymore. "You have to try to take the shot away entirely," one says. The Spurs allowed the fewest attempts this year, 18.3 per game, the sixth time they've led the league in that category since they drafted Tim Duncan in '97. In 57 games they made more threes than their opponent, winning 50. "Three-point defense starts on offense," says an NBA assistant coach. "You want to keep the floor balanced and make the other team take the ball out of the basket so your guys can get set and don't get caught in transition."
The Spurs typically station two big men near the hoop and three perimeter players just inside the arc, close enough that they can rush out to a shooter but not so close they surrender a blow-by. "They don't want anyone getting in the paint, drawing the extra defender, kicking out and creating a four-on-three situation," says another assistant. While the Spurs reduce chaos with a relatively conservative system, the Heat promote it, trapping ballhandlers and leaving gaps on the weak side. They practice a drill in which four defenders have to guard three ballhandlers for 10 seconds, but the ballhandlers are only allowed to pass and shoot, never dribble. "Our guys have to rotate constantly, and the rotations have to be fast, or we'll leave an open man," says a Miami assistant. The Heat ranked 26th this season in three-point attempts allowed and haven't finished higher than 21st since James arrived in 2010, willing to trade treys for turnovers.
No one is eliminating the three, but here are five ways to limit it. 1) Stay in front: "The less you get beat off the dribble, the less you need help, the less everybody behind you has to scramble to cover the shooters," says Spurs forward Matt Bonner. 2) Crowd the lanes: "If you put your hands up, you can turn those straight-line passes into lobs, and that gives everybody time to get back where they need to be," advises Allen. 3) Heed the scouting report: "You have to know if it's Kyle Korver out there or a 25% shooter," says Heat forward Shane Battier, "because you have to know how far you can sag off to help on the ballhandler but still recover." 4) Hope for rim protection: "You can get closer to your guy and risk him going past you if you've got a 7-footer or two waiting at the basket," adds Heat forward James Jones. 5) Close out quickly but under control: Before Game 1 of the Finals former Spurs defensive ace and current ESPN analyst Bruce Bowen demonstrated a textbook contest on the court at AT&T Center: chest-to-chest, one hand straight up, leaving no more than a millimeter of airspace. He doesn't leap. He doesn't lunge. He won't elevate until his man does. If he can't block your shot, he will shield your eyes.
At week's end there were 76 three-point shooting fouls in the playoffs, according to the NBA, nearly double last year's total of 41. The omnipresent threat of three is making defenders lose their minds. "This is how Bruce and I were taught," says Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton, overhearing the tutorial. "You run straight at your man. You shuffle your feet -- choppy, choppy, choppy -- and you get that hand up. But you stay on balance. You don't go for all these pump fakes. You're not scared. Let him shoot that crap."
3-D is a collective enterprise that requires individuals as geared to it as Payton and Bowen. "The kind of player you're looking for," says one of the assistant coaches, "is long, fast and extremely disciplined." Where you might find him is on a football field, in the secondary.
Kawhi Leonard was a safety first, deciphering plays and jumping routes at Canyon Springs High in Moreno Valley, Calif. "You have to read the quarterback's eyes," Leonard says, "and get in the passing lanes." In ninth grade Leonard did not even try out for basketball, believing football suited him better. He is earnest and taciturn, a rule follower, not a freestyler. "He was always, 'Yes sir, no sir, whatever you want me to do,' " recalls Luis Alva, who coached Leonard on the gridiron.
After Leonard's freshman year he joined a Canyon Springs summer basketball team, which entered a tournament at Martin Luther King High in Riverside. "I was the referee," says Marvin Lea, a former Pepperdine standout, "and I noticed this strong kid with a long body and big hands who just wanted to defend. He was such a football player." Lea started an AAU program, called Team Eleate, and landed Leonard. "People pray for a body like yours," Lea told him. "God gave it to you for a reason. Use it." Leonard quit football to concentrate on basketball. He transferred to vaunted King High in 2007 and started watching YouTube videos of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He studied offensive moves, to mimic, but also to shadow.
"I'd go to AAU games, and he wouldn't let anyone catch the ball," says San Diego State assistant Justin Hutson, who recruited Leonard. "That doesn't happen." In two years at SDSU, Leonard guarded virtually every position and grew to 6' 7" with a 7' 3" wingspan and 11-inch hands. "His length is critical on defense," says Aztecs associate head coach Brian Dutcher. "He can play a step off a guy and still contest every shot."
Leonard does more than lock down, but the Spurs were struck by his polished defensive habits. They acquired him from the Pacers on the night of the 2011 draft, when Leonard was picked 15th, even though they'd never worked him out. Spurs officials did interview Leonard at the Chicago predraft camp, which revealed little, except his aversion to attention. "He's kind of a hermit," Lea says. Leonard, 22, lives in San Antonio with his mother. He owns a Porsche and a Chevrolet Malibu, but he usually drives the Malibu. He details the vehicles himself, a tribute to his father, Mark Leonard. When Kawhi was a junior at King, Mark was shot and killed outside the car wash he owned in Compton, an unsolved murder.
Leonard is fiercely loyal to those who show faith in him -- "He may not talk to you," Lea says, "but he'll run through a wall for you" -- and in San Antonio he slithers around every screen, chasing James and Kevin Durant through the playoffs as if on a hamster wheel. Leonard is a versatile defender who looms especially large in 3-D. The Spurs lack prototypical close-out artists, rangy and athletic, so he works overtime. Leonard is the one who can slide over for the last rotation, drop back to help on a ballhandler and then scoot from the key to the perimeter in one blinding step. He throws up a hand the size of a broom head, which in fact is what the Heat use during practice to simulate high contests.
Leonard has prompted the Spurs to reevaluate their defensive philosophy and let him gamble for steals more than his teammates do, but he's still a safety at heart -- adhering to assignments and picking spots for interceptions. Three-point defense doesn't leave much room for creative flourish, which is fine by Leonard, who makes Duncan look flamboyant. In off-seasons Leonard tags along with friends to pickup games at Moreno Valley Rec Center. "If they're playing for real, he'll go all day," Lea says. "But if people are just running up and down the court, he says, 'This isn't basketball, let's go.' "
Shooters are claustrophobic by nature. "I don't like anybody in my personal space," says Green. "I don't like anybody behind me," says Bonner. "I don't like when I have to worry about landing on someone's feet," says James Jones. To Battier, the explanation is partly sociological. While slashers spend their lives at the rim, finishing around assorted giants, shooters act in isolation. "We've spent most of our waking hours practicing uncontested threes, from our driveways to these courts," Battier says. "Ninety-eight percent of the time no one is in your face." Put someone there and everything changes. According to SportVU, players shot 30.1% on contested threes this season, far lower than the league average but still too lofty for many coaches.
"There are some players in this series where you're O.K. with a contest," says one assistant in the Finals. "But most of them I'd rather run off [the three-point line] completely and make them do something else." The Heat use another drill with a defender stationed in the middle of the court and three shooters scattered around the perimeter. The defender takes turns sprinting at each one, drawing so near that the shooter has no choice but to dribble. The defender tries to angle his body slightly toward the strong side, funneling the dribbler baseline. The run-off comes with negative consequences -- the defender can momentarily fall out of the play, leading to a five-on-four -- but the Heat will gladly accept that scenario over another Green missile.
"Get him off the line," Battier says. "Because the moment a shooter takes that first dribble, he loses on average 15% and some guys 30% of their efficiency. That's the importance of one dribble." Again, shooters are sensitive creatures, and the change in momentum can rattle them. While a dribble brings them toward the basket, it also brings them toward the next wave of defenders. Green's effective field-goal percentage in catch-and-shoot situations this season was 58.2, per NBA.com, and 49.2 when forced to put the ball on the floor.
James attached himself to Green for much of the first three quarters in Game 1 and didn't let him make a shot. But James, who has been susceptible to cramps in hot gyms since high school, suffered a severe case midway through the fourth quarter. The air-conditioning at AT&T Center, which broke shortly before tip-off and left arena temperatures over 90°, set the ultimate screen for Green's barrage. Two days later James was still recounting each rainbow in detail: "One was off a drive and kick ... one was a baseline drive-and-kick ... the last was off an out-of-bounds play. He set a cross screen for [Boris] Diaw and Tim Duncan pinned down on him, and he was able to get a three with no contest."
He sounded as if he had deconstructed every dagger, and the next night he found himself in position to hurl one of his own. But as he drove on Leonard late in the fourth, he noticed Duncan cheating over to cut him off, leaving Bosh in the corner. "I saw it develop the whole time," James said. The kick-out pass and the go-ahead shot, over Leonard's outstretched mitt, unfolding in 3-D.