NBA Finals Heat-Spurs Game 3 Preview: Back to the future
2014 is shaping up a lot like 2013's thrilling seven-game series. Will the pattern hold or will Miami seize on the momentum?
1. The Facts: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET (ABC). Follow the action here. Everyone is healthy.
2. Where We Are: It feels like we're right back in 2013. The two teams split the first two games in San Antonio, after LeBron James took over and broke the Spurs apart like your high school biology teacher dissecting frogs in 5th period. James fed Bosh, Bosh fed Wade, and the Heat tied the series headed back to South Beach.
What's compelling about this series so far, outside of, you know, history, the level of execution, the superstar narratives, the legacies on the line and everything else that makes this series so tense to watch is that you can make a decent argument the team that played better in both games lost. The Heat largely outplayed San Antonio in building a seven-point lead in Game 1, only to see James leave with cramps, which opened the door for San Antonio to finish its comeback. (The Spurs were up two when James went to the bench.) In Game 2, the Spurs had everything going in the first half, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker played well, and the Spurs looked like a better team. And then LeBron James just sort of ... won the game.
So now going to Miami, are the Heat in control thanks to the fact that they could be up 2-0 if the AC hadn't broken down? Are the Spurs still where they need to be since they got so far away from their game plan in the fourth quarter, missed four huge free throws, and only lost by two? Does homecourt matter? Does anything matter other than "will a few more shots go in for one team or the other?'
I counted it. Eight people I talked to from league personnel to media to coaching staff all said the same thing. "This thing's going seven."
3. The Big Number: Plus-54. That's the number, per-48 minutes, that the Spurs have been better with Manu Ginobili on than off the court in the second half of the first two games. Let me simplify that for you. Put the two second-halves together. The Spurs were 54 points better with Manu on than off. Foul trouble limited him in Game 2 and that was a huge swing. The Spurs are living and dying with Ginobili right now.
It gets doubly worse when Marco Belinelli is in for Ginobili. With Belinelli on the floor for 18 minutes in the two games in the second half, where the Spurs have really struggled, the Spurs are minus-13. The Spurs are lauded for having this great depth, but this is the reality. San Antonio has a top-heavy bench, which sounds oxymoronic but it's true. Diaw and Ginobili are great, everyone else ranges to "eh" (Patty Mills) to "trash can fire rolling down hill" (Belinelli) to no-factor (Baynes, Bonner, etc). Either the bench has to improve or Ginobili has to play all 24 in the second half.
4. Key Adjustment: Can the Spurs stay out of foul trouble? Bear in mind that when the Diaw-Duncan-Parker-Ginobili-Leonard lineup is out on the floor, the Spurs are generally unstoppable. They're plus-23 in this series with that lineup on the floor. Diaw spreads the floor and makes plays inside, Duncan has been lethal, and that's really at this point their best five guys. But foul trouble messed with both Leonard (who fouled out in Game 2) and Ginobili, and that caused mayhem.
Popovich has resisted starting Diaw in the first two games, and the results have still netted the Spurs leads. But he might want to try and blow the game open early, and playing this lineup for an extended eight-minute run might be the best way to do that.
5. The Big Story: Is this going to be like last year? The series was 1-1 last year, and each team won ever other game until Game 7. It's just not reasonable to expect the Spurs to go down 3-1. That seems nearly impossible. The two teams are two evenly matched. So will this series follow the model of 2013? And if so, why is it still so thrilling?
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