San Antonio's demonstrative Game 3 win en route to a 2-1 series lead has put Miami on the ropes in the NBA Finals. Whether the two-time defending champs can respond immediately could well decide the series; there is a world of difference, after all, between a 3-1 hole and a 2-2 toss-up. Below are three elements to keep an eye on in Game 4 on Thursday:
• A needed defensive reboot from Miami. The Spurs' first-half showing in Game 3 was preposterously efficient: 71 points on 33 shots, 7-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc and five turnovers to the Heat's 10. That kind of performance isn't possible without Miami playing an active part. The lack of consistent rim protection yielded clean looks at the rim and open jumpers from the Heat's overcompensation, a combination that paved the way for the Spurs' hot-shooting run to span the full 24 minutes before halftime.
Many of the slips were understandable -- the byproduct of guarding against a team filled with capable shooters and passers always moving the ball one step ahead. Still, the Heat lacked the energy that typically gives their unconventional defensive system its bite. This can't happen:
The pressure on the perimeter has to eat up potential passing angles. The rotation decisions on the back line have to be sharper. The communication between the two -- the bedrock of any defense -- needs to be even more consistent. Miami's system leaves little margin for error and the quality of San Antonio's execution even less so. If the Heat can't reset their defense for Game 4, these Finals could curve toward a quick finish.
• The game plan for dealing with San Antonio's switches. Gregg Popovich has jazzed up the Spurs' base defensive system periodically throughout these playoffs, and in Game 3 he had his team switch far more often and more willingly than is typical. Watch the way Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green defend this Dwyane Wade-LeBron James pick-and-roll:
There's no effort by Green to fight through the screen, no movement by Leonard to hedge against Wade and not a hesitant step by either throughout the transaction. That's an orchestrated switch, one of many that helped San Antonio control Miami's pick-and-roll game and account for James, in particular. It didn't take long for the Heat to figure out what was up, though their more deliberate efforts to exploit switch-created mismatches often backfired. If Miami is able to better leverage those switches in Game 4 (and avoid some of the stagnation and turnovers that came with them in Game 3), this could prove to be a pivotal strategic subplot.
• What to do with Mario Chalmers? If Chalmers had boarded the wrong bus before Game 3 and been accidentally whisked away with a few dozen seniors to experience the charms of St. Augustine, the Heat might have been better off. Chalmers whiffed on every one of his five shots from the field (including a trio of open three-point attempts), committed two offensive fouls in just 22 minutes and contributed to Miami's defensive issues.
If Game 3 were an isolated incident, we could chalk it up to Chalmers being Chalmers -- another downswing in the performance of a characteristically erratic player. In general, though, Chalmers has failed to make much of an impact through much of this series.
"Mario is a big piece of what we do," Wade said after Game 3, "and we're missing that piece right now, for whatever the reason is."
If Chalmers can start hitting his shots and figure a few things out, he could help stabilize the Heat's playing rotation and save Erik Spoelstra a few headaches. If not, Miami could be forced to turn to Norris Cole or its PG-less lineups a bit more often than is comfortable.
The latter might seem interesting given the ball-handling talents of both James and Wade, though in this series the three variations of the no-PG lineup have struggled on balance. This is not for a lack of creating quality shots; the sheer amount of shooting on the floor in these lineups opens up all kinds of possibilities for Miami, and the curious lack of offensive success has more to do with missed opportunities than any troubles in execution. If Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen knock down their open shots, these lineups will hold. If not, Chalmers' struggles might become even more painful for Miami in their illumination of this rotation's limits.
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