Spurs turn court into stage with Game 3 mastery

Wednesday June 11th, 2014

Kawhi Leonard (28 points) helped the Spurs shoot a Finals-best 75.8 percent in the first half.
John W. McDonough/SI

MIAMI -- Before the game was the recital. It spanned 17 minutes and 15 seconds, the most outrageous stretch of offensive basketball in the history of the Finals, an exhibition of passing, cutting and shot-making so choreographed it should have been set in a theater and put to music. The performance started when a bank shot by Tim Duncan slipped through the net and ended when a three-pointer by Tony Parker clanged off the rim. The notion that a San Antonio player could actually misfire clearly startled the Heat because they failed to corral the rebound.

Forgive them. The Spurs appeared to anyone witnessing the first quarter-and-a-half of Game 3 like they would sink every shot they took. In that unforgettable 17:15, which might as well comprise instructional videos for offensive execution, the Spurs scored a mind-numbing 56 points on 21 field goal attempts. They drained 19. They missed two. You don't need a SportVU account to figure out they were shooting 90.5 percent, a figure that's hard to match alone in the backyard on an eight-foot Nerf hoop, never mind at American Airlines Arena against the two-time champis famous for their trapping defense. "That will never happen again," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "That was crazy."

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It was Michael Jordan's shoulder-shrug writ large, shared by seven players on the same team, but LeBron James was the only one left shrugging. Of the 19 baskets, just one came from Duncan and none from Parker, a testament to the Spurs' disarming depth. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green poured in six buckets each, Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter two each, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw another apiece. They exploited Miami's squishy middle, driving inside and making eight field goals from point blank range, but they also rained six threes. They nailed 10 straight shots and went nearly 11 minutes without a miss. They set Finals records for highest shooting percentage in a quarter and also a half. Their heat map looked like a giant fireball.

"Some possessions we played extremely well and they hit shots," James said. "Some possessions we weren't quite there and they hit shots as well." Popovich, who criticized the Spurs for their lack of ball movement at the end of Game 2, watched his team assist on 11 of the 19 baskets to open Game 3. There was nothing even Popovich could complain about. The Spurs shot 86.7 percent in the first quarter, then really found their stroke, and walked off the court at halftime with 71 points. They might have preferred to skip intermission entirely and head straight into the third quarter, for fear of cooling down.

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Miami's defense eventually surfaced, and an actual game interrupted the demonstration, so San Antonio did not reach 150 points. The Heat actually sliced a 25-point lead to seven late in the third quarter, but the Spurs promptly dusted off yet another sniper who made yet another three, this time Marco Belinelli. The Spurs won, 111-92, took a 2-1 series lead, and sent the Heat to the film room for the next 48 hours, where they will study defensive breakdowns. Unfortunately for them, that may not be enough time. "It starts with tomorrow owning it," said Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra. "That will be the process we have to go through together and somehow collectively come out with a better response." The Heat can take solace in the memory of last year's Finals, when they were also blown out in Game 3 but still captured the series. That, however, was on the road. This was Miami's first home loss of the playoffs and it came in mortifying fashion.

San Antonio went small Tuesday, pulling Splitter from the starting lineup, and inserting Diaw. Teams that go small against Miami typically regret it because the Heat are so swift and agile themselves. But Diaw's presence appeared to unlock Leonard, who scored more points in the first half than in the first two games combined. Leonard, assigned to James, was frustrated early in the series by all the fouls he collected and buckets he allowed. After discussions with Popovich and Duncan, Leonard netted 29 points and held James to a modest 22 with seven turnovers. "A new storyline for LeBron," James cracked. The narrative swings at full speed once again.

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A national audience, which remembers the Spurs as those boring plodders who dumped the ball into Duncan a decade ago, may be surprised by this onslaught. But it was no fluke. The Spurs have evolved over the past five years into the most artistic and efficient offense in the NBA. They led the Western Conference in field-goal percentage this season and the league in three-point percentage. "There were no magic plays," Ginobili said. "We just moved the ball and every shot went in. ... It happens once in a while." If anything even remotely like it happens two more times in the next eight days, the Spurs will take the title.

Miami can watch a hundred cut-ups and make a dozen adjustments, but when the Spurs are turning the court into a stage, there is no stopping the show.

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