MIAMI — LeBron James drove around a screen to break free of San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard and stumbled once Tim Duncan switched over to defend him. James dribbled behind his back to regain his balance, sized up Duncan and dribbled between his legs five times before driving into the lane for a short jumper. He later cut backdoor and threw down a two-handed dunk and used two picks by Chris Andersen to make improbable, off-balanced three-pointers.
In less than nine minutes during the first quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, James scored 14 points and looked ready to put on an offensive display that would dwarf anything else he had done against the Spurs in the NBA Finals. The problem with James’s first-quarter barrage? When he was done and angrily stomped down the floor after his second three-pointer, the Miami Heat trailed by seven points and had no solution for a Spurs offensive showcase that would’ve been considered unrealistic by video game standards.
“Not that I recall,” James said when asked whether he had been a part of a game in which a team shot as well as the Spurs, who made 19 of their first 21 shots and converted on 75.8 percent of their shots in the first half.
James had a game most players would gladly accept: 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting with seven assists, five rebounds and five steals — but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the deficiencies of his teammates in a 111-92 loss. He also didn’t make the situation better by committing seven turnovers, the most he has had in 25 Finals games.
“There we go,” James said while cracking a smile late Tuesday night. “It’s a new story line for LeBron.”
Had James held on to the ball and scored more points, the Heat still would’ve had problems overcoming a Spurs team that cleansed its recent struggles at American Airlines Arena with a gratifying victory.
Miami trails for the fifth time in the past two Finals against the Spurs. The Heat has managed to follow up each defeat with a win. It has won 13 consecutive games after losses in the playoffs dating from 2012, when Boston won three in a row in the Eastern Conference finals and James led the team to wins in the last two games of the series before claiming his first title.
James’s quest to win three straight NBA championships and pursuit of the feats of other NBA legends has found a theme in this series. The Spurs can’t win unless the ball is moving and shots are dropping, and the Heat can’t win unless James is on the floor and playing great.
Miami lost Game 1 because James’s body wouldn’t allow him to finish. It won Game 2 because James laughed in the face of the Spurs’ defensive strategy, scoring 35 points on a flurry of contested jumpers. The Heat has won the past four games in which James has scored at least 30 points but is winless when he has fewer.
After the Spurs lost in Game 2, Coach Gregg Popovich said his team isn’t built to trump the individual brilliance of James without sharing the ball. The Spurs have the edge over Miami in depth, but that also comes with a need for several players to play well.
“We’ve got to be close to perfect to win, ” reserve guard Manu Ginobili said.
The margin for error is equally slim for the Heat. A team built around the talents of three superstars is going to struggle if one or two of those pieces has a tough game. Chris Bosh scored 18 points in each of the first two games but was limited to just four shots and nine points in Tuesday’s loss. Dwyane Wade had 22 points, but most came after the Heat had dug itself a 25-point hole. Bosh and Wade failed to score in the final four minutes of Game 1 after James left because of severe leg cramps.
James bailed out Miami throughout a regular season in which Wade was kept out of select games as part of a maintenance program for his balky knees. James has had to expend more energy as a playmaker with point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole providing little, and he has also been assigned to defend Spurs point guard Tony Parker.
“It’s five-man basketball,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He has a lot of responsibilities. He understands that. It’s one through five defensively. He has to create a lot of offense for us. Facilitate, be aggressive, attack, all of that. He wants all those responsibilities.”
The new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format puts James and the Heat in need of a home victory Thursday, lest the Spurs return home Sunday with a chance to close it out. James has been eliminated in fewer than six games only once in his career: in 2007, when the Spurs swept his Cavaliers in the Finals.
“A loss is a loss,” James said. “I mean, they’re all painful no matter if you lose by 30 or you lose by one. They’re all painful. That’s what it’s about when you get to this point in the season. You’re always on edge in the postseason, but I don’t want to be concerned at this point. For us, we have to make the adjustments. We owned what we had to do today in the film session and we’ll come in with a better mind-set [in Game 4]. But that doesn’t mean it results in a win, too. But we have to play with a little bit more focus.”