If you don’t count the four minutes that LeBron James had to sit out to end Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have played to a 92-minute, 190-190 draw over the first two games of the NBA’s showcase series. They’ve also split a pair of games, with the Heat taking an admirable Game 2 victory on the road in San Antonio on Sunday night.
James rebounded from both leg cramps and the complaints of those who don’t regularly watch basketball contests to dominate the second half of Game 2, tossing in 33 points over the final three quarters. James just about single-handedly fouled out San Antonio’s top perimeter defender in Kawhi Leonard and turned the contest into a slowly paced back-and-forth that suited Miami’s style. The Spurs' ball movement slowly got away from them, Miami’s interior defense improved considerably in the days between Games 1 and 2, and nit-picky mistakes did the Western champs in.
San Antonio missed four crucial free throws on two consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, at around the same time James had to sit with leg cramps during Game 1. Guard Tony Parker understandably missed two freebies after being flagrantly elbowed in the ribs by Heat point man Mario Chalmers, while Tim Duncan clanged two on the ensuing possession. San Antonio turnovers, poor shot selection, and an inability to cover a fancily passing Heat unit on the other end allowed James room to maneuver offensively.
The reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP finished with 35 points and 10 rebounds in the win, nailing all three of his three-pointers while hitting eight of his 14 field goal makes from outside the paint. James’ ability to find teammates (“you can go double him if you want,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said following the loss, “he’s a pretty good player, I’m gonna guess he’s gonna find the open man”) and Miami’s sound spacing made guarding the two-time champion an impossible task, and LeBron’s footwork and touch from the perimeter was up to the challenge of evening the series.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, the team’s pace and ability to create havoc on the offensive end was just about out for lunch.
There’s little wrong with continually posting up a future Hall of Famer like Duncan or letting Parker forays to the hoop define your evening, but San Antonio needs rhythm to its bounce and it thrives on attacking a defense with five players at a time. Miami is to be credited for sussing out San Antonio’s initial options offensively; denying baseline drives and screens away from the ball, but the Spurs are not going to enjoy watching tape of Game 2 in the hours between Sunday evening and Tuesday’s Game 3 in Miami. The movement and timing that marked Game 1’s somewhat convincing win was absent down the stretch Sunday, with those untimely free-throw misses and turnovers giving James enough space to help his team pull away.
Parker paced the Spurs with 21 points and Duncan added 18, but both players missed half the free throws that they attempted. Ginobili ranked second on the team in points after contributing 19 off the bench, but a crucial late-game turnover and poorly conceived isolation foray against Ray Allen with less than a minute to go nearly sealed San Antonio’s fate. The ball stuck, to use Popovich’s parlance, which allowed a game Miami defense to load up on potential penetrators and eventual attempted finishes.
There is the LeBron Problem, to be sure, but he was always going to be a problem whether his jumper was on or not, and regardless if the air conditioning was on full blast or rendered kaput. San Antonio was always going to have to win this series with nearly impeccable offense, Popovich noted as much following the game, and 18-point fourth quarters just aren’t going to cut it. Especially at home.
Not that home matters, if we’re honest. This series was always going to be closer than Game 1’s 15-point margin would indicate, and though we’ll see a blowout or two as these two championship-level squads figure things out, either team is completely capable of taking even more than one game on the other team’s home floor. Not only have these squads played each other to a draw over the last two contests, if you don’t count LeBron’s crampdown in Game 1, the Heat’s current 5-4 record against San Antonio in their last nine Finals games can hardly be called a stirring advantage.
These two teams have locked horns, and it’s going to take something special to untangle things for long enough to declare a winner. With that in place, a small list of missteps has awarded Miami the thing San Antonio worked for 82 games to establish – a home-court advantage in June. This series is as close as NBA Finals will ever get, and nothing has been determined, but you can’t deny the fact that San Antonio will badly want this game back.
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