With the Miami Heat down 2-1 to the San Antonio Spurs going into Thursday's Game 4, here are 40 thoughts on the NBA Finals:
1. It feels ridiculous to call Game 4 pivotal or crucial: Game 2 was crucial, a chance for San Antonio to put the Heat completely down and out facing extinction headed back to San Antonio, and provided a way for the Heat to respond. Game 3 was crucial for San Antonio to get momentum back and was demoralizing for Miami. So yes, Game 4 is a "must-win" for Miami and another way for the Spurs to put the Heat against the ropes. But every game in this series feels that way.
2. Miami's reaction on Wednesday to Game 3: It was eerily similar to Memphis' reaction to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Whether it's denial or genuine frustration, both teams talked about how disappointed they were in their performance, focusing on how they just "didn't play well." Guess what, guys? The Lakers and Warriors are saying the same things.
3. The Dwyane Wade situation: It's more complicated than it's being made out to be. It's not that Wade is not having success at all. He's starting games out well. Particularly, he and Chris Bosh had a rhythm going in the pick and roll and pick and pop. It's the easiest way to get Bosh in rhythm and to exploit the attention Wade still draws as a ball-handler, to simply use him to create instead of score. But as the game goes along, Wade simply physically or mentally does not remain engaged.
4. Duncan's struggles are a fascinating under-covered subplot: Tim Duncan said after Game 3 he doesn't feel in rhythm right now. Some of that is obviously the work the Heat have done on him, but it's also just an interesting element that seems to be a product of cumulative fatigue. Tony Parker has run into injury issues, but with Duncan it seems more of an issue with staying in a comfort zone.
5. Leading with little from Spurs' Big 3: That's right. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili have bad series, and the Spurs lead 2-1. Gregg Popovich is the end boss of whatever video game you're playing.
6. LeBron's reaction: We're all too busy clamoring for the page views that go along with torching James, and deservedly so for a horrible series, but his comments Wednesday in taking full responsibility carry a different tone than his reaction two years ago, when the Heat fell to the Mavericks. Then James focused on how it was a "team game," but Tuesday night and Thursday were all "It's about me."
7. But then again: On the flip side of that is the fact several Heat players echoed the thought Wednesday that James has to "let them help him." For a guy so often criticized for deferring too much, there's an awful lot of talk from Miami about not wanting James to force the issue.
8. James can't control officials: James can't control how the game is being officiated, and I've long recognized James' overpowering physical ability works against him on 50/50 charge/block calls. But to have no free throw attempts in a game is horrible, and something he has to recognize in game. Players should almost never adjust to the stat sheet, but having no free throws is an indication you're not forcing the issue enough.
9. LBJ, not MJ: James is not Michael Jordan and should not be held to that standard. But look at Jordan's lowest Finals scoring game, a dreadful 5-of-19 performance similar to James' Game 3. The difference? Jordan drew 12 free throws, and knocked down 11. James draws 10 free throws, knocks down seven, and he's got 22 on 21 shots -- a bad game but not a disaster, and the story probably flips back to how the Heat aren't giving him enough.
10. LeBron better when angry? Typically I try and caution the idea that great players respond when angry. Jordan certainly did it. Tim Duncan did to start Game 3, but wore out by halftime. Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, though, tend to just start chucking and playing into a defense's mindset. James is a different creature, though. The question will be whether in Game 4 he comes out with the cold, dead-inside approach he took to Game 6 in Boston last year or his usual, emotional, sensitive to the whims of the game feeling that has landed him in defeat so often.
11. Emotional Spurs: The San Antonio bench guys (plus Danny Green) are a little bit of a crack in the Spurs' robotic facade. They were whooping and hollering a little bit in the blowout and seemed to have, dare I say, fun out there. You wonder if Popovich told them to knock it off in the film session.
12 -- Prepared Spurs: The Spurs expected a response after Game 1, and were still caught off guard when they got it. You get the feeling they'll be more prepared for the speed of a ramped-up Heat team in Game 4. A close victory does not bode well for Miami, they need a similar demolition as the one San Antonio gave them in Game 3.
13. Splitter's future: Spurs bloggers are adamant that Tiago Splitter will re-sign with San Antonio for a discounted rate, based off the fact that so many players recognize that this is the best place for them to succeed. But Splitter has probably raised his value to nearly $8 million or more per year on the open market in a league desperate for any center who can tie his own shoelaces. Outside of The Block, he's played very well in the Finals.
14. Manu mystery: I don't really know what to say about Manu Ginobili, conclusively anyway. He's not scoring particularly well, but when he does, as he did with the pump-fake, drive and slam against Wade in Game 3, he looks phenomenal. The Euro-Step floater is still there for him. But his handle looks remarkably compromised. On the other hand, his passes have been just incredible, and he may be the most creative player in the Finals based on that.
15. Shots they wanted: The Heat were not taking the bait on whether San Antonio's man-zone hybrid they're running out is working. To a man, it was "we got the shots we wanted, we just didn't knock them down."
16. Seen this before: What the Spurs are doing is similar to what the Mavericks did in 2011, and what the Bulls and Pacers do against James, in different ways. Everyone's in a man position but once the ball gets into place, they're zoning to provide help, which cuts off driving lanes and backdoor angles. This gets hurt if you reverse the ball, but a, the Heat aren't doing that well, as Ray Allen talked about Thursday and b, San Antonio is showing with their bigs consistently more aggressively than the other teams did, which messes with spacing.
17. When Bosh (never) attacks: The premise raised in No. 16 would be fine if the Heat ever sent Chris Bosh to the basket, but they don't.
18. Matter of time for Leonard: James has been playing with fire when it comes to Kawhi Leonard in this series, consistently leaving him open, daring the young guy to make him pay. Leonard struggled shooting in the first two games, but James went to the well too many times in Game 3. And on some plays, James simply surrendered open threes, not bothering to close out. James cannot afford to give that kind of effort off-ball, no matter his responsibilities or exhaustion level.
19. Green speak: Danny Green is either trying way too hard to say that the Heat are better than they've shown, or he's the designated smack talker for the Spurs. Every team kind of has one, and Green's comments about both Wade and James were said with a confusing mix of respect and honesty about the fact they're not playing well.
20. Happy Joseph: If you want the definition of "just happy to be here" go talk to Spurs reserve guard Cory Joseph during the NBA Finals. His smile's about to bust off the kid's face.
21. Endangered Birdman: Chris Anderson playing 10 minutes in Game 3 is kind of odd, given the success they've had with him on the floor. Spoelstra clearly wants to go small, and Udonis Haslem has played well, but you'd like to see Anderson in a little bit more for explosive purposes.
22. Miller time: I argued earlier in the series that Shane Battier needs to play more but Mike Miller's just making it impossible, given the way the lineups are shaking out. Spoelstra will never want to have two of the Triad out for meaningful minutes. It might be worth a shot to try some lineups featuring Chalmers/Cole with James, Miller, and Battier along with Bosh, in a three-forward lineup. You can't go at San Antonio's double-big lineup with that, but when either Duncan or Splitter sits, it might be worth a try.
23. Bad, but we've seen worse: Dropped this note on Twitter, the other night, but Wade and James were -30 in Game 3. That's shocking, but not as shocking as the fact that that's not the worst two-man lineup plus/minus in Finals history, even of the past 10 years. Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom were -32 in that blowout loss to the Celtics in 2008.
24. Deficits bad at this point: I don't feel like either team can come back from being down 3-1 or even 3-2. The other team is just too good to beat 2-out-of-2 with a title on the line. So if San Antonio can just split the next two at home, I like them to win the title. I also think either team would recognize the other one has won. We've seen that a lot in the past where veteran teams just give out mentally and emotionally due to their understanding of the format.
25. Pop wins (again): Gregg Popovich has finally done it. It took him all this time, but we, the media, have simply given up. Have you seen those press conferences? We don't even ask anymore! We just come in, sit down, wait to be scolded and derided, then file out. I love Popovich as a leader of men, a basketball innovator, and a fascinating public figure. I hate having to cover him out of frustration and a feeling of denegration. God Bless you, beat writers and bloggers of San Antonio. You do yeoman's work.
26. No way to go out: I can't help but feel it's regrettable that this may be the last moments of Wade on the biggest stage. The guy came in and from the moment he stepped on the floor, took over the league. His years in the late 2000's with Miami are overlooked, but in many ways, he was like Tracy McGrady with the Orlando team in the early 2000's. An MVP candidate never recognized as such due to the team that surrounded him. Now to see Twitter take to openly mocking him only makes me remeber how great he was once.
27. Bosh, we hardly knew ye: On the flip side, I can't for the life of me remember what it was like when Chris Bosh was a dominant NBA player on a terrible team. I know it happened, I watched it. The idea of Chris Bosh dropping 40 on Tim Duncan once seemed entirely conceptually possible to me. Now my face would fall off in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle in an earthquake. This was a guy who really did carry his team to the playoffs, and now he's basically "safety valve jump shooter X." Is there anyone that doesn't think the Heat would be better with David West right now?
28. Chris cares: And that's unfortunate because as much as he's derided, Bosh is actually a thoughtful, intelligent player who plays with a lot of emotion. His contrasting reactions to the 2011 defeat and the 2012 victory are easy fodder for mockery, but the guy cares if he wins and loses. Do you realize how many superstars care about their shots first and foremost? Bosh has sacrificed more than anyone in Miami and never complains about it for a moment, yet he's also trashed the most. Shame.
29. Simple, yet complex: The Spurs rely so much on floor positioning with their on-ball movement. What I mean by that is that for a system that's so complicated, with so many moving parts, they really rely on one central element: ball-handlers getting to the middle. A lot of teams thrive in side pick and rolls, but the Spurs absolutely have to keep the ball in the center of the floor. When they got caught on the wings in Game 2, the Heat's trapping defense swallowed them alive like a T-Rex. But when they get to the middle, which Manu Ginobili has done a great job of in this series, you're pretty much already ruined.
30. Spurs' D-League success stories: It's amazing to me that people still aren't sold on the D-League. Look at the Spurs, man! Danny Green, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph, Patty Mills, and on and on, they have sent guys up I-35 to Austin to develop. They run the same system, they have the same principles, it's just another part of their process. Why would teams not want to replicate this?
31. Where it goes from here: If San Antonio wins Game 4, I like them to close out in Game 6. If Miami wins Game 4, I'm sticking with my original prediction of Heat in 6. Given that I have the worst record of any analyst on the internet according to Deadspin, you can go ahead and bet directly against those results right now.
32. Not much to work with: The Spurs are one-point favorites in Game 4. That pretty much explains everything in itself.
33. Teamwork works: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Gary Neal combined for six offensive rebounds and five assists. That's nearly a LeBron non-scoring output right there.
34. Much respect: The Heat genuinely didn't respect the Mavericks. That was pretty clear in 2011. The way they made fun of Dirk's cough, their general attitude, and the history between the two franchises really let you know they didn't take Dallas as the title contenders they were. That's just not the case here. San Antonio is the most respected franchise in the league, and it's not close. No matter what their fans think about the media reaction, just know that the players get it.
35. Annoying sports writer travel interlude: No city makes for a better case of why the Finals should have Games 3 and 4 on a neutral court than San Antonio. No public transportation, a spread-out city, only a few blocks of real downtown and a traffic disaster so bad that two of the Spurs' Hall of Famers were late for the game. San Antonio's a great town, but I'll keep hammering this idea of a neutral court interlude in the Finals till I'm blue in the face.
36. Can't beat the fans: That said, the fans and food in San Antonio are tremendous. Smart basketball fans that love their team and have made the franchise part of the community.
37. Pop design: The location and design of the AT&T Center is exactly what you would imagine Gregg Popovich would choose if he were designing an NBA arena.
38. So you think you can sing: A local radio station did a parody of Florida Georgia Line's Shine On with the lyrics "Get your Spurs on." It's certifiably the worst thing I may have ever heard and I kind of want to make Gregg Popovich listen to it and then Vine his reaction.
39. Lay off Spo: It's more than a little preposterous that Erik Spoelstra is getting heat (forgive the pun) for this series. Everyone talks about how outclassed he is by Popovich, widely considered the best coach in the game, and then when he's out-coached, everyone hammers him on it, despite them expecting it. Spoelstra coached his team to the Finals. He won 27 games in a row. He's won a championship. Not everything is binary, awesome or suck.
40. No fun Spurs: The Spurs have been the team that ruined the "fun" 7-Seconds-Or-Less Suns' run in the mid-2000's. They consistently toppled Dirk's more "fun" Mavericks in the same time frame. They knocked out Chris Paul's crazy "fun" Hornets in 2008, and the scrappy fun underdog Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. Hating the Heat is fun for lots of folks, sure, but this series was also supposed to be a climactic series of great basketball with close games that showcased the fun of the league. How appropriate would it be if it were just another boring, blowout, dominant win by the Spurs? Game 4 is Thursday at 9 ET.