Sustainability, mental lapses and the Heat's defensive struggle in Game 3

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

More NBA Finals: Schedule, results | Game 3: Spurs 111, Heat 92 | Court Vision

Unreasonable, that would be the word I would use to describe the Spurs' shooting in the first half. You can talk about ball movement, skilled offensive players, rhythm, confidence and whatever you want about the defense. The Spurs hit 19 of their first 21 shots and 25 of 33 in the first half Thursday night to build a lead that they would use to hold on for a 112-92 victory to win Game 3 and take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Those numbers are just unbelievable. They shot 7 of 10 from 3 in the first half and scored 41 points in the first quarter, the third-most in NBA history.

It was, quite honestly, historic.

So now the debate becomes this: In light of San Antonio regaining momentum, control and homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals, does Miami look to Game 3 and think that its defense failed, that clearly it was a total letdown? That the Heat allowed those 41 points, that shooting? That they helped the ball go in that much? Or was this just some sort of outlier performance, which regression could not drag back down fast enough over the next 24 minutes, despite a massive third-quarter Heat run?

The answer is both. This was unsustainable, special, once-in-a-lifetime stuff by the Spurs. It was also a considerable failure on the Heat's part, and something they have to learn to adjust to in Game 4 if they want to even the series.

The Heat have to console themselves with the fact that that performance just won't happen again. You can look and say, "Fourteen of 18 in the paint in the first half, that's high-percentage looks!" and you'd be right. But some of those were twisting, diving, and-one layups. The outside shooting may actually be slightly more sustainable than what they did inside. Even without a rim protector, NBA teams miss layups against NBA defenses, even before you get to a unit as good as Miami. What they did was unreal, it was beyond surreal. It was somehow non-real. But the result was very real.

So how did it happen? You can point to the crazy interior shots they made, but they had to get there first. Mario Chalmers is a nightmare, and his perimeter containment and lack of communication on the edge is letting guys inside. Dwyane Wade was a step slow in Game 3, and that allowed the inside-out game to get going. And LeBron James fell into the trap he did last year, in which he bought into the idea that Kawhi Leonard can't hurt him. Leonard was a ghost for two games and then came out roaring like the librarian in Ghostbusters.

Throw in Danny Green having an uncharacteristic floater game and that's what you get. The Heat's third quarter run was impressive, valiant and ultimately meaningless. They burned themselves out trying to get back into the game, and when they hit the fourth quarter had nothing left in the tank. They tried to catch their breath for a moment, the Spurs answered, and that was that. The 20-point victory doesn't reflect how close the overall game was, nor how lopsided the first half was.

So to read into this, the Heat have to know the Spurs won't do this again ... but they can do this again. This is who they are. The smart plays, the expert cuts, the fine shooting, the very definition of good basketball, and it topped by two of their most key players -- Green and Leonard -- not sitting back and finally taking control of the game like they did last year in the Finals. Miami walked into Game 3 with some sort of thought that they had really won something by getting the split, especially after the Game 1 hijinks. But they didn't, and San Antonio's desperation level was evident the entire game.

"We did it to ourselves," Miami forward Chris Bosh said. "With all due respect to them, it's nothing they did. They made some shots but by halftime the contested shots were mostly layups. Once you have momentum like that and you get that time after time after time ...you feel like you are invincible. We have to take this one on the chin. We are kidding ourselves if we think we are going to win a championship with that kind of effort."

But just as the Heat have to improve defensively, the Spurs need to keep something in mind: You can't rely on that kind of shooting performance again. Maybe you'll get one, and if so, great, that might be the title. But they also let the Heat score at will, and if the shooting had been just a bit more grounded in averages, Miami would have had a chance to steal it.

Both teams have work to do, as it's been from game-to-game-to-game since last June between these two.

One final note: Erik Spoelstra did this last year. It drove me crazy then, it drives me crazy now. He hardly played veteran defensive expert Shane Battier for the first four games. When he finally turned to Battier late in the series, Battier turned the tide. So, too, has he held Battier out almost entirely through the first three games, and the defensive problems for Miami are evident.

"When they missin', your defense is great. When they're hitting shots, your defense is lackluster, it's the nature of the beast," Dwyane Wade said. "We helped them out early on."

Spo has managed minutes, built an offense, coached up role players, made adjustments, the works. He's proven himself to be an elite coach. But once again, he needs to remember how pivotal a role Battier has played in each of the past two Finals. The Heat need defense and a reliable shooter. Battier may not be reliable, but he's been clutch for the Heat. You wonder at what point will Spoelstra turn to the veteran in the last days of his career and give him the chance to do what he has done two years in a row: Help win a title.

The Heat defense fell apart in Game 3.   (USATSI)
The Heat defense falls apart in a Game 3 loss to the Spurs. (USATSI)

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