Spurs-Heat 2014 NBA Finals Game 3: Three big questions

Ball Don't Lie
Spurs-Heat 2014 NBA Finals Game 3: Three big questions
Spurs-Heat 2014 NBA Finals Game 3: Three big questions

After a wild start to the 2014 NBA Finals in San Antonio that featured air conditioning malfunctions, cramping, a dominant fourth-quarter offensive display by the Spurs in Game 1, days of discussion about hydration, and LeBron James going god mode in Game 2, the scene now shifts to South Beach for Game 3, with the best-of-seven set tied at one game apiece. How big is the Tuesday night tip? Winners of Game 3 in a tied Finals have gone on to win the series 30 out of 36 times (83 percent). Seems like kind of a big deal, no?

As we get set for the 9 p.m. ET tipoff from AmericanAirlines Arena, here are three big things to keep in mind as the championship battle continues:


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1. How will the Spurs generate offense when Erik Spoelstra puts LeBron James on Tony Parker?

We learned it during last year's series, and we saw it again on Sunday: this is Miami's defensive trump card, the cross-match to which Spoelstra can go when he wants to short-circuit San Antonio. He doesn't want to put James on Parker too early or too often, lest he wind up running his top gun into the ground, but when he has given the four-time MVP the assignment on the straw that stirs the Spurs' drink, it has fundamentally changed how the Spurs' offense operates.

Guarded primarily by Heat point guard Mario Chalmers with brief pick-ups by Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole, Parker scored five points and dished three assists without a turnover in 9 1/2 first-quarter minutes on Sunday, as the Spurs picked up right where they left off in their scorching close to Game 1. After a brief rest to start the second quarter, Parker replaced Patty Mills at the 9:39 mark; shortly thereafter, James checked him, and would pick up the assignment intermittently throughout the game before taking it exclusively over the final six or so minutes.

As NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, Game 2 saw Miami take to switching high ball screens on the perimeter, which changed matchups at times. By and large, though, whenever James picked up Parker, the Spurs sent the ball somewhere else, had Parker cut away from the play, and decided they'd try other ways to initiate offense.

Sometimes that worked well, like when they found Boris Diaw filling the lane in delayed transition on this second-quarter possession:

Sometimes San Antonio's combination of spacing, ball and player movement gave Parker enough runway to operate against James' size, such as this third-quarter Parker drive-and-kick that resulted in a Kawhi Leonard shot-clock-beating 3-pointer:

(It doesn't hurt when Chris Andersen falls down behind the play after trapping a pick-and-roll on the far side of the court, either.)

This third-quarter trip, which results in a Diaw attack, drive, spin and nifty finish over Rashard Lewis, is probably the best-case scenario for the "Parker gives it up and cuts to bring LeBron away from the play" move:

Unfortunately for Spurs fans, San Antonio rarely approached "best-case scenario" status once Spoelstra flipped the LeBron switch in the fourth.

With James' length, size and quickness deterring Parker's penetration, the Spurs had difficulty getting any action going toward the paint, resulting in swing-the-ball-around-but-go-nowhere possessions:

Without any interior push to scramble the Heat's defense, everybody's on balance and able to make reads, enabling the neat cross-up rotations by Wade to Diaw in the right corner and Chris Bosh to Danny Green on the right wing to prevent either Spur shooter from getting an open look. That leads to Manu getting handed a flaming bag, 27 feet away from the basket, with five seconds left on the shot clock, which is a bad spot to be in, even if you're as comfortable taking bad shots at Manu is.

The Heat want to keep San Antonio out of the paint and out of the middle of the floor, but if someone's going to try to break them down off the bounce and get there, they'd much rather it be someone like Danny Green:

A good, active double up top by Ray Allen and Andersen stalls Manu. A good recovery by Bosh impedes Diaw's drive from the corner to the middle, and Birdman's shot-blocking presence in the paint influences Diaw into kicking out to Green. Wade challenges Green's drive, Birdman's there to deter the spinning layup and clear the glass. Parker barely moves. That's a win for Miami.

Another, more clear win for Miami: Parker trying to drive on LeBron, which, well, nope:

San Antonio attempted 10 shots in the final six minutes of Game 2. Only two came in the paint: Green's wild spinning layup and a Diaw try with two seconds remaining, after Miami had put the game away. James-on-Parker, to a large extent, nearly eliminated the Spurs' dribble penetration.

The good news for the Spurs is that San Antonio had some success in LeBron-on-Parker situations. It came — surprise! — when they were able to take advantage of the Heat's switching to both get LeBron off Parker and induce Miami mistakes, as on this play that ended with a Diaw corner 3:

Parker crosses half-court, immediately hands the ball to Ginobili on the right wing and cuts toward the right corner. The Spurs' set keeps moving, as Manu kicks the ball to Diaw trailing the play in the middle of the floor, then cuts to the basket and flows along the baseline to the left corner. That action draws James' attention; he follows Manu to the left side of the court, where Leonard now has the ball above the arc. With James otherwise occupied, Parker cuts back up to the top of the key, getting an off-ball screen from Diaw at the right elbow that momentarily slows a trailing Wade.

The ball's not headed there right away, though — Leonard wants to get it to Ginobili to initiate, but LeBron's close-out prevents an easy pass, and Kawhi can't dump it into the post to Tim Duncan thanks to Ray Allen playing close to pressure the pass and Birdman having good defensive position on Duncan on the left block. San Antonio has stalled. The good news is, there are still 14 seconds left on the shot clock.

As Leonard drives right on Allen, Parker preserves spacing by flowing to the right corner around another off-ball Diaw screen. Leonard gives it up, and Parker immediately runs a side pick-and-roll with Diaw that prompts a Miami switch putting Bosh on Parker at the right elbow.

Dwyane Wade, mid-whoops, blurry. (Screencap via NBA)
Dwyane Wade, mid-whoops, blurry. (Screencap via NBA)

Duncan slides up to set another screen for Parker; the point guard rejects it, knowing that if Duncan's screen brought Birdman to the ball, and if he's got Bosh on him, there's no big at the rim if he can beat Bosh off the dribble. As Parker drives right to attack, he sees that Wade has sunk way off Diaw in the short corner, one pass away. Parker makes Wade commit to helping, then fires the pass to Diaw for an open look that he drills.

San Antonio got another clean long-range look on another forced switch two minutes later. Here, Parker pitches to Ginobili on the left wing, then cuts to the baseline. Ginobili enters to Duncan, then cuts to set a screen for Parker cutting back up top, triggering a Miami off-ball switch.

Now James has Ginobili, and Wade has Parker, and the Spurs are able to get the machine whirring:

Duncan hands off to Parker and screens Wade, triggering another Heat switch that puts Birdman on Parker; Duncan immediately brings Wade to the basket, drawing the attention of Bosh on the back-side of the play. Parker swings to Ginobili, and James steps in close to take away the airspace from the Argentine, who was shooting a shade under 40 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs entering Game 2 and went 3-for-6 from deep in Game 1.

Ginobili, though, responds by crossing back from left to right, attacking off the bounce and getting to the middle of the floor. Birdman rushes back into the paint to help quell the dribble penetration; this was a bad choice, as he left Parker wide open beyond the arc. Manu passes back, Tony catches and shoots, San Antonio's back in front.

While San Antonio's roster is chock full of shooters capable of knocking down midrange and deep shots, the Spurs can't settle for them without having moved and to some degree compromised Miami's defense by getting into the paint. LeBron-on-Parker makes that harder, but if the Heat stick with a switch-heavy philosophy, the Spurs can beat it; they'll just have to use every bit of playmaking prowess at their disposal (Manu and Diaw facilitating, aggressive multi-cut actions to confuse the back line and create cross-matches, etc.), be quick to pull the trigger on catch-and-shoot opportunities and be aggressive in attacking slightly off-balance closeouts.

It won't be easy, but it's possible, and they'll have to do a better job of it down the stretch than they managed in Game 2.

2. Can Tim Duncan get going again?

"The Big Fundamental" followed a brilliant Game 1 in which he scored 21 points on sterling 9-for-10 shooting with a stellar start to Game 2 — 11 points on 5-for-9 from the field and nine rebounds in 18 1/2 first-half minutes. He was quieted after halftime, though, scoring seven points on 2-for-5 shooting in 19 1/2 minutes; moreover, he went scoreless in the fourth quarter, attempting only one field goal (and, somewhat famously, missing both of his free throws).

As athletic, lithe and explosive as he looked in the early going, Duncan was physically outmatched for large chunks of the third and fourth quarters, thanks in large part to hard defensive work by Bosh and, especially, Andersen. According to the NBA's SportVU optical tracking data, Duncan scored only five points on 13 touches when defended by Bosh in Game 2, and just four points on 15 touches when checked by the Birdman.

Tim Duncan shoots Chris Andersen during the first half of Game 2. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)
Tim Duncan shoots Chris Andersen during the first half of Game 2. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

They were aided by tighter, more aware perimeter coverage from the Heat's wings, who pressed up on ball-handlers and didn't allow San Antonio the space to make easy entry passes, whether Bosh and Bird were fronting Duncan or playing behind him. But the bulk of the credit belongs to Miami's bigs, who did their work early, keeping Duncan from getting precisely the position he wanted.

Once he got the ball, they anchored against his back-down moves, forcing him to somewhat unwelcome counters — Duncan clanged a couple of righty bankers while spinning baseline from the left block, a tough, thin-angled shot that typically represents about the best you can do when trying to limit a post player as prolific as Duncan. And they paid attention to clearing the defensive glass, especially late — Miami came away with 90.9 percent of available defensive rebounds in the fourth quarter of Game 2, finishing off possessions and preventing San Antonio from getting second-chance opportunities.

“We lost a game,” Duncan said after Game 2. “We're not going to hang our heads. We're going to regroup and come out and get the next one.”

Duncan tilting the interior matchup with Bosh and Birdman back in his favor would be an awful big help in accomplishing that goal.

3. Who will get going first: Kawhi Leonard or one of the Heat's point guards?

Through two NBA Finals games, Leonard has fewer combined rebounds and assists (seven) than fouls (nine, including his first career NBA foul-out in Game 2). He's 0-for-5 on contested field-goal attempts thus far, according to SportVU. His coach and teammates are talking about the importance of keeping him engaged and involved in the game, even if he's again limited by foul trouble or if LeBron produces an encore of his Game 2 flame-thrower jump-shooting.

Kawhi Leonard has been quiet during the first two games of the Finals. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)
Kawhi Leonard has been quiet during the first two games of the Finals. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

Leonard's offensive responsibilities in the San Antonio system have grown bit-by-bit over the course of his three pro seasons; he's an important pressure-release spot-up shooter, a source of points in transition and on the offensive glass, and, increasingly, a supplemental ball-handler capable of attacking off the bounce and getting into the paint. When Parker's shut off by James, Ginobili's tasked with running the show and Duncan's struggling on the interior, Leonard has to be capable of contributing some buckets and keeping the flow moving offensively to keep San Antonio from stagnating. He showed in last year's series that he's more than capable of stepping up in big moments, even on the road in hostile environments; he'll need to do that in Game 3 for San Antonio to regain home-court advantage.

Heading into the series, I expected the Chalmers-Cole duo to struggle in checking Parker, for Chalmers to be something of a trick-or-treat performer offensively, and for Cole to have difficulty maintaining the hot long-range shooting that he'd carried through the first three rounds. This might be the only thing I've gotten right so far.

Chalmers was something of a trainwreck in Game 1, committing five turnovers against just one assist with five personal fouls. While he was better in Game 2 — four assists with one turnover, a +5 in 31 minutes, to the point where Spoelstra said he "gave us a lift" — his biggest impact on the series thus far has been elbowing Parker in the ribs. Cole, meanwhile, seems to have rediscovered his yips, missing five of his six field-goal tries and all four of his 3-pointers; Miami's been outscored by 14 points in his 40 total minutes.

The Heat are home now, though, and the familiar shooting backdrop and friendly confines could be a boon for the scuffling backcourt tandem. In a series that's been played in a phone booth for most of the first 96 minutes, an injection of offensive effectiveness or defensive acumen from either or both of the Heat's point guards could push Miami over the top and give them a 2-1 series lead.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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