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Trying To Make Sense Of The Game 3 Madness

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs’ offense was firing on all cylinders in the first-half of Game 3. Through the opening 17 minutes, they had connected on 90.5 percent of their shots, en route to 56 points on 21 shot-attempts. In fact, 55 points were the most the Miami Heat had given up to a team in a first-half all season long, and there was still 8:08 remaining in the second quarter. However, the Heat weren’t bad either, and that’s where it got interesting. In that same span, they scored 32 points on 52.2 percent shooting, and had it not been for eight early turnovers, they may not have dug themselves such an insurmountable grave.

The Heat made a pair of runs in the second-half and managed to trim their deficit down to single digits, but to no avail — it was a case of too little, too late, and they are now down 2-1 with home court advantage being tossed back to the Spurs.

The main reason the Spurs were able to steal a game in Miami was, obviously, their record breaking shooting performance. However, their defense on the Heat’s Big Three was a big reason why, too. Through the first two games, the Spurs had no answer for LeBron James — he was averaging 30 points on 59 percent shooting from the floor and 83.3 from three. But last night, they had a lot more success against him, limiting him to 22 points on a series-low 14 shot-attempts. More importantly, following the first quarter, LeBron only scored eight points and committed seven turnovers. Dwyane Wade had 22 points, but a lot of that was negated with five turnovers, and Chris Bosh attempted only four shots in 34 minutes of action.

As a whole, the trio of LeBron, Wade and Bosh attempted 30 shots in Game 3 and the rest of the team combined for 32 — a stark difference between what occurred in the opening two games.

Game LeBron, Wade, Bosh FGA Rest of the Heat FGA
1 46 32
2 41 29
3 30 32

Having an equal distribution of touches amongst the Big Three benefits the Miami Heat. A big reason LeBron joined the team was so he wouldn’t have to carry as big of a load as he did as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Bosh and Wade are clicking, teams can’t hone in on LeBron and it makes those three, as a unit, much tougher to guard. However, when one of them is getting a lot more touches than the other two, they become more predictable and reliant on individual production. Their balanced attack was a reason they walked out of the AT&T Center with a victory in Game 2, and their unequal distribution — as shown below with the number of touches they’ve each had thus far in the series — was a reason they struggled last night in an all-important Game 3.

Touches Per Game | NBA.com

Touches Per Game | NBA.com

How the Spurs were able to disrupt the Heat’s offense can be deeper explained in the number of passes each member of the Big Three made. In Game 2, the Heat’s only victory thus far, the distribution between the three was nearly identical — LeBron made 35 passes, Wade made 45 and Bosh made 34. Game 1 was similar (with a few mild difference), but Game 3 was a different story. Even though LeBron saw his touches increase dramatically, so did his passes, while Wade (29) and Bosh (25) saw theirs decrease.

Passes Per Game | NBA.com

Passes Per Game | NBA.com

In Game 2, LeBron took advantage of the Spurs’ defense by knocking down some open jumpers, which opened up the floor dramatically down the stretch for the rest of the team. On the Heat’s final offensive possession, the Spurs quickly doubled LeBron, which led to an easy pass to Bosh, who drove by Duncan and dished it off to Wade for an open layup — a sequence that was a microcosm of why the Heat’s Big Three joined forces.

In Game 3, though, they gave LeBron much different looks. In half-court sets, Kawhi Leonard crowded LeBron and forced him into help side defense to get the ball out of his hands.* The Spurs also switched on pick-and-rolls, forcing Leonard onto the ball handler and their guard onto LeBron. The Spurs didn’t necessarily make it hard for LeBron to catch the ball (signified by the number of touches he had). Instead, they kept him in-front of them, got a hand up in his face to prevent him from getting an easy look and forced him to put the ball on the floor into help side defense. By switching Leonard onto Chalmers, Kawhi could play off him when LeBron caught the ball in the low-post, thereby allowing him to play the passing lanes. It’s a big reason why he finished with seven turnovers.

* Kawhi was terrific individually on the defensive end, too, which helps the Spurs tremendously because it allows the rest of them to stay home on their multitude of shooters.

The key to guarding LeBron (if there is even a key) is to give him different looks and not let him get comfortable, and that’s what the Spurs did in Game 3. The Heat were by no means awful. They still converted a high percentage of their shots, and LeBron and Wade combined for 44 points on 14-for-21 shooting. Not only that, following that inhumane spurt at the start of the game, they went toe-to-toe with the Spurs, outscoring them 60-55 in the final 31 minutes of game time. But the Spurs were able to force a number of turnovers — the Heat’s Achilles heel — and their ability to take Bosh out of the game made their lives, defensively, much easier.

Scott Rafferty