Kawhi Couldn’t The Heat Slow Leonard, Spurs?
Do not overcommit to the immediate reaction in this series. It will bite you the next time, with the The Cramp Game leading to LeBron James’ Social Media Throwdown, and LeBron James’ Social Media Throwdown leading to … rhymes about Kawhi Leonard in Game 3? These breathtaking NBA Finals inevitably will be extended to a seven-game precipice again, as you surely know now, and if Leonard and the Spurs continue to be unleashed like a playground team by a legendary coach who urged them to bust out of his system and run, then, no, don’t overreact to it, because LeBron will up the ante to 50 in Game 4.
“It’s not something you can plan for,” Manu Ginobili said after the 111-92 blowout. “There were no magic plays. We just moved the ball, and every shot went in.”
After the Game 2 loss in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich said with a glum face that the Spurs needed to move the basketball more crisply or they would “die.’’ Ambulances were not necessary Tuesday night, but heart palpitations were an issue throughout America as the Spurs made 19 of their first 21 shots and set a Finals record with 75.8 percent shooting in the first half. Do not chalk it up to dumb luck. This was a technical clinic that took advantage of San Antonio’s quality depth and ability to push different buttons, none hotter than Leonard. Heretofore, he has been known as a project who eventually, after the departure of the Big Three, will be the cornerstone of the next Spurs era. He also is known for his uncommonly large hands, which measure 11.25 inches when stretched from his thumb to his pinkie finger. Whatever they say about large hands also applied to his 29-point breakout performance, which answered concerns about his relative no-shows in the first two games.
“I just was in attack mode,” said Leonard, who hit 10 of 13 shots. “Trying to be aggressive early. Just knocking down a couple of shots got me going. My teammates found me. They did a good job of getting me involved.”
And Kawhi did the Heat play matador defense when every game in the Finals should be play with optimum desire and intensity? “They came out at a different gear than what we were playing at, and it just seemed we were on our heels the most part of the first half,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“They jumped on us,” James said. “They were the aggressors and had us on our heels from the start, which shouldn’t happen at this point in the season.”
In delivering a crushing performance, the Spurs overcame any mental block about losing last year’s Finals in the same waterfront arena. The immediate reaction crowd assumed the Heat were in control of the series, having won its first eight home games this postseason, and figured the Spurs would be haunted in American Airlines Arena after blowing a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left in Game 6 and going on to lose Game 7. In the middle of the Game 6 mess was Leonard, who missed a free throw that kept the margin close enough for Ray Allen to hit his epic three-pointer and change the course of sports history.
“That’s why we’re here again,” Leonard said. “We knew we threw away the game. And we’re back at it. We’re not really thinking about last year like that. It’s a new year and we’re trying to get this series.”
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Spurs are positioned to clinch the series this weekend at home if they win Game 4. Popovich will make damned sure no such thoughts enter his players’ consciousness — “I don’t think we’ll ever shoot 76 percent in a half ever again,’’ he said, almost apologetically — but the Heat have no defensive answer for Leonard if he remains on this level. The Spurs were fueled by his surge, not only offensively but with solid defensive help on James, who had lit up Leonard and other defenders in the first two games and was slowed only by severe leg cramps that haven’t been a problem since.
“It was a cumulative of everything,” James said. “One thing about them, if you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay. And they made us pay more often than not. … We will get better from tonight. We hate the performance we put on tonight. But it’s 2-1, not 4-1.”
While we’ve seen the Heat climb from deficits throughout the title reign, we haven’t seen much finger-pointing. Dwyane Wade, who showed up offensively, didn’t hesitate to rip his team’s point guard play. While Tony Parker and Patty Mills were igniting the Spurs engine, Mario Chalmers was going 0 for 5 from the field while Norris Cole was 3 for 9. “Mario is a big piece of what we do, and we’re missing that piece right now,” Wade said.
Said Chalmers: “Still at the drawing board. Everybody else is doing their job, and it’s me that’s not helping the team right now. And I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t know what it is right now, but I have to figure it out.”
That said, blaming Mario Chalmers is a byproduct of a larger Miami dilemma. Simply, the Spurs are better, healthier, deeper and hungrier this year. When they are playing at an optimum level, they are the best team.
But will they play at an optimum level Thursday night? Probably not.