SAN ANTONIO -- The best defense is often the one that's least expected.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich waded deep into the Sea of Counterintuitiveness during San Antonio's 113-77 dismantling of Miami in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, regularly instructing his players to leave the best player in the world, LeBron James, wide open on the perimeter, free to assess, think, dribble and shoot to his heart's content. It's hard to remember a time, even early in James' career -- when he shot 32 percent or worse from three-point range in three of his first five seasons -- where neglect was so regularly employed as a means to defeat him.
Dare him to pull up from deep? Sure. But purposefully and repeatedly give James, the best all-around offensive force since Michael Jordan, a cushion of two, or three, or even four full steps to operate? That's a different story.
No single strategic defensive move against James is perfect or necessarily sustainable, but this was a brilliant gambit that, for a night, played out exactly as Popovich surely hoped it would. James finished with just 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting and didn't attempt a free throw for just the second time in his playoff career.
"We haven't stopped anybody," Popovich said afterward, surely knowing James is too talented and intelligent not to respond as the series continues.
Make no mistake, the full sag-off on James wasn't the Spurs' only defensive look, but it was the most unusual and it was incredibly successful. "Daring James to shoot" doesn't accurately capture the thought process at play here. James isn't Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who consistently finds himself unattended on offense as teams dare him to shoot from the perimeter, where he was just a 28 percent three-point shooter this year. In fact, James had the best shooting season of his career, hitting 56.5 percent overall and 40.6 percent from three-point range during the regular season, putting him among the league leaders in both categories.
So when the Spurs fall back on James, they do so knowing the math at play is risky, way riskier than employing a similar strategy against Rondo or a high-volume, low-efficiency chucker like Bucks guard Monta Ellis. This isn't "daring James to shoot"; it's more along the lines of a "lesser-of-two-evils" strategy. San Antonio apparently decided, at least for Game 3 and for a few possessions in Game 2, that when James is operating on the perimeter with the ball, he is a less deadly offensive weapon when kept on an island by himself than when he is defended straight up.
Why? A number of reasons.
1) Guarding James on the perimeter requires a body that he is often able to elude with relative ease. Once he beats his first man, he puts the defense in a 5-on-4 situation. These often end badly for the defense: James can end up on the free-throw line after drawing a foul from a help defender who is late arriving or intending to stop easy plays at the rim; he can collapse a team defense and rifle a pass to one of Miami's many shooters; or he can get all the way to the rim, where he finishes at an extraordinarily high clip.
2) James is far and away Miami's best playmaker, especially with Dwyane Wade playing inconsistently while nursing a knee injury. Miami has been one of the league's best three-point-shooting teams all season, and James' ability to throw laser, pinpoint passes across court and from every angle allows players such as Mike Miller and Ray Allen to camp in their hot spots, ready to deliver. Hanging off of James allows the Spurs' other perimeter defenders to concentrate on their own responsibilities and it kept the passing lanes crowded.
3) The more James thinks in half-court situations, the less the ball moves and the slower the pace is for the Heat. The overwhelming attack that Miami displayed in Game 2 never materialized in Game 3, in part because of turnover problems and off nights from a number of key role players, but also because James did a lot of ground-pounding as he surveyed a scene not to his liking. The Spurs love to play fast and free offensively, but the more time James spends thinking, the less time he spends making the type of instinctive, aggressive attacks he managed during a third-quarter flourish in which he managed nine points on 4-of-9 shooting.
4) The back-off strategy also runs perfectly counter to one of Miami's clearest goals: getting Wade, Chris Bosh and other offensive forces going early. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has long force-fed both Wade and Bosh early in hopes of establishing them on offense and shifting a defensive's attention away from James. But if the defense starts by conceding to James while also remaining in a position that encourages isolation offense from Wade and Bosh, the Heat must rely on those two, who have both been inconsistent in the playoffs, to create their own shots. San Antonio will gladly live with that over the alternative world in which James slices and dices, helping to find easy hoops for Wade and Bosh.
5) So far, we've covered everything from spacing, to three-point defense, to pace, to prioritization of threats. We'd be remiss if we skipped over the mind-game aspect. It doesn't seem fair or accurate to suggest that the Spurs are simply trying to mess with James' head by backing so far off of him, but they must be enjoying his lack of comfort when it happens. James shot just 2-for-14 outside the paint and 1-for-5 on three-pointers in Game 3, and he often looked like he was attempting not to settle before ultimately deciding that it was the right basketball play to shoot. No one is more calculating than James when it comes to finding the best look, and he's simply not used to having the best look right there under his nose anytime he wants it. That must be disorienting and confusing, even for a player of his ability.
Running down that checklist of explanations finds that the results were, in sum, magnificent from San Antonio's perspective.
First, James didn't get to the free-throw line, which is almost unheard of. Having defenders back, ready and well-positioned for his drives while also encouraging him to settle played a huge role there.
Second, no other Heat players picked up the playmaking slack. Wade tried, registering five assists, but Miami managed just 77 points, tying its season low. The one player San Antonio defended poorly was Miller, who went 5-for-5 from three-point range in 22 minutes. The rest of the Heat players shot just 3-for-13 from deep and San Antonio's Finals-record 16 threes turned Miller's night into a forgotten footnote.
Third, Miami really struggled with its rhythm and flow, losing all four quarters and getting blown out of the gates early in the third quarter. By the time James briefly entered attack mode in the third, it was too little, too late, as the Spurs' own offensive confidence was already sky-high.
Fourth, Wade and Bosh combined for 28 points on 25 shots and took just eight free throws. By comparison, Danny Green had 27 points on 15 shots by himself.
Fifth, James looked and sounded fairly bewildered. "I just have to play better," he said. "I can't have a performance like tonight and expect to win. I've got to shoot the ball better, make better decisions and I will get into the film and see ways that I can do that. I'm not putting the blame on anybody. I'm owning everything that I did tonight. ... I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders and I have to be better."
Upon reviewing the film, James will likely decide he needs to attack the softer coverage by looking to score first and ask questions later. Getting to the rim and the line are priorities that can't be compromised on this stage. He'll probably give himself a little mental reminder that a hesitant jumper is a jumper that isn't worth taking. Spoelstra may decide to put James into the post, where San Antonio doesn't have the luxury of sagging off of him, or get him on the move in half-court sets to prevent some of the stagnation that was evident in Game 3. The coach will also preach defense, defense, defense, of course, as the Heat are always at their best flying out in the open court after a turnover, finishing alley-oops or locating wide-open threes in transition.
San Antonio has found success defensively in many ways this series, despite a blowout loss in Game 2. Kawhi Leonard and Green are skilled individual defenders and incredible competitors who are not backing down in the slightest. The Spurs have handily won the rebounding battle in two of the three games. Popovich has mixed up his looks on James, occasionally throwing double- and triple-teams at him when he gets into the post. Those things considered, backing off James was just one of the many tricks in the Spurs' bag. This was a particularly delicious one, though, because it truly was an absurd turn of genius. Really, who would have guessed that the best way to stop the modern game's most magnetic force, on and off the court, would be to ignore him?