MIAMI — To the San Antonio Spurs, American Airlines Arena was the equivalent of a haunted house; a place where their championship dreams were spoiled last year by a corner three-pointer by the best long distance shooter to ever lace them up, and where a four-time most valuable player became a bogeyman with an improved jumper.
On Tuesday, the Spurs returned to the location of their greatest heartbreak, where the Miami Heat snatched away what they felt should’ve been a fifth NBA championship with two crushing wins. San Antonio was able to move on from those miserable memories with a few three-pointers and dunks by Kawhi Leonard, some unlikely runners by Danny Green, and a record-breaking shooting performance that resulted in a redemptive annihilation.
The Spurs will never be able to go back in time and make up for that disappointment, but they at least took a step toward getting the job done this season with a 111-92 victory that put them ahead two games to one in this best-of-seven series.
“They came in with a desperation that we just didn’t match,” LeBron James said of the Spurs.
The team that claims a 2-1 lead after the series was tied at one apiece has gone on to win the Finals 30 of the past 36 times. But the Heat is one of the teams that managed to complete the comeback and claim the championship, as it did last season.
The Spurs won the first game of the series with the benefit of a broken down air conditioning system that successfully “smoked out” James, who was unable to finish after developing leg cramps. In Game 3, San Antonio provided a different kind of oppressive heat, scorching the nets with a record-breaking first half in which it shot 86.7 percent in the first quarter and 75.8 percent in the first half, entering the locker room with a 21-point lead.
“That will never happen again,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “I mean, that’s crazy.”
Leonard scored a game-high 29 points to lead five Spurs in double figures. Popovich made the first major adjustment of the series, replacing Tiago Splitter in the starting lineup with Boris Diaw. The doughy Diaw gave the Spurs another facilitator and a versatile forward capable of defending and scoring on the perimeter. Popovich complained about the ball “sticking” at times in the second half of Game 2, but the Spurs were able to jump all over the Heat with more space to operate and more ball movement.
The Spurs scored on 19 of their 23 possessions in the first quarter, when Leonard made his first five shots and scored 16 points — nearly matching his total from the previous two games. Leonard has been groomed to take the reins of the organization, but he has too often been willing to defer to Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili while picking his spots. With the Spurs needing consistent contributors from all over, on both ends, to defeat the Heat, Popovich acknowledged that he had spoken to Leonard before the game. But Popovich wouldn’t divulge the message he conveyed: “That’s family business.”
Leonard personally outscored Miami, 13-12, in the first seven minutes of the game, hitting a three-pointer to give his team a 13-point lead. James tried to single-handedly combat the Spurs’ hot shooting, picking up where he left off from the previous game by scoring 14 points in the period, including off-balanced three-pointers on consecutive possessions. But James’s one-man show was no match for a team fueled by anger after what happened last season — and in Game 2, when James scored 35 points and the Spurs failed to capitalize on several opportunities to go up 2-0.
James had scored at least 30 points in four of the past six Finals games against the Spurs, but the Heat lost both games in which he didn’t reach that number. The Spurs didn’t necessarily contain James, who still shot an efficient 9 of 14 from the field. But Leonard did a solid job in making James uncomfortable, and James’s production was offset by the scoring of a more efficient team.
“He had a great game on both ends of the floor,” Ginobili said of Leonard. “It’s really hard to make LeBron score under 25, and scoring 30 in a Final is really hard to do. An unbelievable game by Kawhi.”
The Spurs connected on 13 of 15 shots in the first period and now have the two best shooting quarters in NBA Finals history; both have come in this series. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, San Antonio shot 14 of 16 from the field. They led 41-25 after one period Tuesday, with Ginobili hitting a three-pointer that rolled around the rim and dropped. It was the most points scored in the first quarter of a Finals game in 47 years.
“This is something that at this point in the season shouldn’t happen, but they were more aggressive than us,” James said. “We hate the performance that we put on, but it’s 2-1, not 4-1. We’re going to come in and learn from our mistakes as we always do after a loss.”
San Antonio also built a 25-point lead without the benefit of Parker (15 points) scoring and with Duncan (14 points) opening the game with a shot off the glass and going without a field goal for the next 19 minutes.
Rashard Lewis made three three-pointers during a 14-4 run that brought the Heat within 14 points in the second quarter, but Parker spared the Spurs from letting the lead get chopped down any more before the end of the half. Parker hit a floater and a step-back jumper, then found Diaw for a three-pointer. Parker added two free throws to put the Spurs up 71-50 at the break.