Dwyane Wade dribbled around tentatively, made a half-hearted move to drive, then yo-yoed the ball back out to the 3-point line. He and the Miami Heat were trying to endure a stretch with LeBron James on the bench, which really should not have been as hard as they were making it look on this second-quarter possession. In what has become standard procedure for the Heat without James, though, they looked utterly impotent.
As Gary Neal and Danny Green outshined James, allowing the Spurs to breeze to a 113-77 win in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals on Tuesday, the Heat, as a whole, fell flat. Wade was oh-fer the second half until he hit a pair of meaningless runners in the fourth quarter. Mario Chalmers, the hero of Game 2, contributed five bricks and clocked out. Mike Miller was scorching, nailing all five threes he attempted, but with next to nothing chipped in by Wade, Chalmers, Ray Allen or Udonis Haslem, Miller’s 15 points were a mere footnote in San Antonio’s display of dominance.
Three games into the third NBA Finals for the South Beach Big Three, it is clear the Heat are no All-Star team. The names may be recognizable, but Wade, Allen and Chris Bosh — who actually wasn’t terrible, which is saying something — are not game-changers anymore. Without James at his absolute peak, the Heat have nowhere to turn. And that has left Heat coach Erik Spoelstra looking most ineffectual of all, especially compared to his counterpart on the San Antonio bench.
James has been far from outstanding in the series thus far, obviously. He has yet to crack the 20-point mark in any of the three games. He is 14-for-38 from the field in the last two. His triple-double the Heat’s Game 1 loss looks like it may be the epitaph for Miami: Even when James does everything, it is not enough.
In two finals wins, the Spurs have now had a collection of disparate heroes. While Manu Ginobili continues to look like he should not be on the court most of the time, Tony Parker reminded everybody in Game 1 that he is still pretty darn good, and Neal and Green buried the Heat with threes to the tune of 51 combined points in Game 3. The Heat? Well, Chalmers and Miller have hit some shots, and Wade has alternated decent halves with horrible ones. Bosh has played Duncan to a standstill, at best. The same could be said for Kawhi Leonard and James, which does a tidy job of explaining Miami’s problems.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich came out with an interesting defensive wrinkle in Game 3. He instructed his players to concede midrange jump shots to Wade, Bosh and James, almost daring those perennial All-Stars to shoot. The move was simultaneously disrespectful and brilliant.
With so much space between themselves and their defenders, James, Wade and Bosh lost their rhythm. They did not attack the basket — not that Bosh would have, anyway — and as a result seldom forced the Spurs to make any tough decisions on help defense. With none of the drive-and-kick opportunities that players like Chalmers and Allen rely on, the Heat resorted to a monotonous game of H-O-R-S-E, in which they were only allowed to take 15-foot jumpers.
Every time they made one of those shots, Popovich probably gave a little shrug. The Spurs will take that. On a practical level, giving up midrange two-pointers while taking away high-percentage layups and open threes is a trade-off that benefits the Spurs. But it’s about more than the mathematics of the most efficient shot. Turning James into a jump shooter constricts him. If he’s not pressured, he can’t see the defense losing its shape, can’t pick and choose which crack he wants to attack to open up one of his teammates for a wide-open shot. He is stuck tossing up jumpers like it’s an off-day shootaround, not the third game of the NBA Finals. When the opportunity to attack did arise on Tuesday, James looked unsure, as though he were uncomfortable taking layups after living outside the paint all night.
It goes without saying that this time of year, role players become legends largely because their opponents let them. Robert Horry, Steve Kerr and Eddie House hit big shots precisely because leaving them open in the clutch was the lesser evil compared to their Hall of Fame teammates. The Spurs have taken this a step farther. They are willing to make James beat them — just on their terms. If he could fill it up from midrange and Miami’s defense had done enough to stop the Spurs on the defensive end, James might have walked out of AT&T Center with a win in Game 3. The Spurs bet that those things wouldn’t happen, and they were right.
There is still a long way to go before a champion is crowned. Don’t forget that James was on the opposite end of this two years ago, leading the Mavericks, 2-1, before Dallas came back to win in six games. Most fans remember Dirk Nowitzki‘s heroics, but the Mavs’ title would not have been possible without Tyson Chandler‘s defense and unlikely contributions from guys like DeShawn Stevenson. So far, the Spurs are getting those types of complementary performances, while Spoelstra looks at a loss to counter Popovich’s tricks.
James is still the best player in this series, but the Spurs have been the better team.