By Dennis Glade
The Miami Heat were supposed to be past this. LeBron James was supposed to be past this. All year the Heat showed us how good they could be when they played at their best.
Their best won 66 of 82 regular season games, and won 27 straight victories at one point. Miami dominated to the point that some openly questioned whether or not the Heat could go undefeated in the playoffs on the way to a second consecutive championship.
Those days, however, seem like a distant memory. The San Antonio Spurs made 16-of-32 3-pointers in Game 3 Tuesday night to embarrass the Heat, 113-77.
Gary Neal and Danny Green combined for 51 points while shooting 13-for-19 beyond the three-point line. Any team can get hot, but it seemed like the Spurs had two or three extra players on offense, because they were so open on most of their attempts.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra looked like a deer caught in the headlights on the Miami bench during the Spurs’ second half 3-point barrage. Spoelstra couldn’t believe the effort from his once-dominant team in the biggest game of the season. He refused to even speculate on what he saw from the Miami offense.
The main focus on the mind of the head coach with the most pressure in professional sports was the defense and figuring out what happened.
What happened was for the third straight game, the Heat didn’t come out with the urgency befitting a defending champion in the NBA Finals. The urgency that you thought you would see in Game 3 starts with LeBron James, the four-time MVP and unquestioned No. 1 player in the world. For the third straight game, James sat back and was incredibly passive, and the Heat paid the price.
James attempted only four shots in the first half, and he didn’t make his third shot of the night until 95 seconds remained in the third quarter when he ended the quarter with nine straight points, but the damage was done.
Imagine that, the best player in the world couldn’t make more than two shots from the field for nearly three quarters. Kawhi Leonard has done a great job on defense, but this is LeBron James we’re talking about.
The Spurs have employed the same strategy that forced the famous James meltdown in the 2011 Finals against Dallas. San Antonio is packing the paint with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter and forcing James to take jump shots — something he doesn’t seem comfortable doing at this time.
James shot 40 percent on 3-pointers this season and 57 percent overall from the field, so this defense shouldn’t be shutting him down. James is averaging 16 points per game and 39 percent shooting in three games against the Spurs.
As surprising as his offensive struggles appear to be, maybe we’re all just being blinded by James dominating weak defensive teams. In 18 career NBA Finals games, James has shot 52-for-211, or 24.6 percent outside the restricted area.
Last year, Oklahoma City wasn’t able to keep James and Wade out of the paint, and the Thunder paid the price by losing in five games to give James his lone championship in 10 years of NBA basketball.
James is the ultimate leader of the Heat, and they follow his lead. When his confidence dips on the court the way it has looked the last two games, Miami doesn’t seem to be the same team.
Now, Miami could easily win Game 4 to tie the series at two, and make this a best of three with the Heat having the final two games at home.
The Spurs obviously bounced back nicely after Miami blew them out with a 33-5 run in Game 2. There’s one caveat to that comparison – the Spurs got to come home – Miami still has two more games in San Antonio.
The Heat aren’t done yet, but they have a lot of work to do. They need to start playing like the team that we all thought would make history and put itself in the conversation of one of the best teams ever. To do that, LeBron James needs himself, pure and simple.