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Three-Pointers: Spurs handle Heat with surprising ease to square season series

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images) The Spurs didn't back down from LeBron James (right) and the Heat on Thursday. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

The Spurs rode a 37-point first quarter to claim an easy 111-87 home victory over the Heat in San Antonio on Thursday night. San Antonio's fifth straight victory improved their record to 45-16 and it evened their season series with Miami at one game apiece. The Heat's second straight loss dropped their record to 43-16.

• San Antonio romps. Tony Parker's nifty shot in Game 1, Ray Allen's Game 6 miracle and the ensuing overtime period and an ultra-tense Game 7 will ensure that the 2013 Finals goes into the history books as one of the greatest and most competitive playoff series in NBA history. Throw in all the Hall of Famers that took part, plus the impact on LeBron James' quest for "Greatest Of All Time" status, and Heat/Spurs is guaranteed to have an aura that lasts and lasts and lasts.

Even less than one year later, it's easy to forget that four straight games in that series ended with double-digit margins of victory, including a 19-point Miami victory in Game 2 and a 36-point San Antonio victory in Game 3. So while the 2013 Finals reminded us that basketball is never better than when the league's two best teams go head-to-head with A+ efforts, it also showed how quickly a one-sided affair can unfold if one of the participants isn't capable of mustering the requisite energy and precise execution.

That was the story of the Spurs' solid home win on Thursday: San Antonio was comically efficient in the first quarter -- shooting 15-for-19 (78.9 percent) from the field while registering 11 assists on their way to 37 points -- and they proved unwilling to wait for Miami catch up. Tim Duncan led the way with 23 points (on 9-for-13 shooting) and 11 rebounds, and he picked up where he left off last June when it came to presenting issues for the Heat's interior defense, shooting 6-for-8 in the paint on the evening.

Duncan was the base but coach Gregg Popovich enjoyed auxiliary contributions from virtually all sides. San Antonio's ball movement was turned to the "soul-crushing" setting, as the Spurs registered 30-plus assists for the second straight game. The final damage: 51 percent shooting, 39 percent three-point shooting and a 38-23 bench scoring advantage. It would have taken a signature effort from James to match the Spurs' all-around efficiency, and the back-to-back MVP finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and his 6-for-18 shooting marked his worst night from the field in nearly a month (since he went 4-for-13 in a Feb. 8 loss to the Jazz).

Add that up, and this was San Antonio's night from start to finish.

• LeBron James ditches his mask. In the five games that James has played since suffering a broken nose against the Thunder on Feb. 20, he has donned both a black mask and a clear mask, to much fanfare. He began Thursday's action wearing the clear mask, thereby complying with a request from the NBA, but decided to take off the mask midway through the first quarter. He would stay mask-free from there on out.

Important (read: useless) information: In the four full games that James wore a mask, Miami went 3-1, including three double-digit victories, and James averaged 33.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds, while shooting 63.4 percent from the floor. Those numbers were propped up, of course, by his career-high 61-point effort against the Bobcats.

Removing the mask, which James said was uncomfortable last week, didn't prove to be a panacea. In addition to his shooting woes, James committed five turnovers and looked unusually out-of-sync down the stretch, scoring just two points in the fourth quarter as Kawhi Leonard did well to make him work.

James and the Heat are now off until Sunday, when we'll get to see if he decides to bring back the mask for a little extra protection against the always physical Bulls in Chicago.

• Spurs, Heat rock sleeves for "Latin Nights" game. The NBA and Adidas unveiled their latest sleeved jerseys over the weekend, designs that are being worn by six teams during the league's annual "Latin Nights" series of games. In addition to the sleeves, the jerseys bear a Spanish version of the team's name on the chest to "celebrate the growing support" of fans across Latin America and in Hispanic communities.

Miami wore a black version with "El Heat" across the chest, as modeled by Dwyane Wade below.

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images) Dwyane Wade wears Miami's "Latin Nights" sleeved jersey. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

San Antonio, meanwhile, donned white "Los Spurs" jerseys, as seen on Duncan below.

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images) Tim Duncan wears San Antonio's "Latin Nights" sleeved jersey. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

We appear to have hit the "diminishing returns" stage of the backlash to the short-sleeve looks. Although the sleeves still have plenty of critics, and James wasn't pleased with the fit of his jersey, the outrage directed at the jerseys by fans and viewers on Thursday seemed less intense than the reactions to sleeved looks worn on Christmas and at All-Star Weekend. Are the anti-sleeved forces coming to terms with the idea that the sleeves are here to stay, or did the simpler, less outrageous designs of the "Latin Nights" jerseys help quell some of the concerns? These are life's great mysteries.

The Lakers, Bulls, Knicks and Suns will join the Spurs and Heat in wearing "Latin Nights" sleeved jerseys during March.

Video via YouTube user VevoNBA
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