Remember the helpless feeling of Thunder fans – heck, of Thunder players and Thunder coaches and Thunder mascots and Thunder anything – when the Spurs roared to runaway leads in Games 1, 2 and 5?
The natural feeling is to analyze your own squad. Make excuses or make scapegoats. Blame it on Serge Ibaka’s absence or Scotty Brooks’ coaching or Kendrick Perkins’ mere existence on Earth.
But the truth is, sometimes, the other guys have something to do with it. The Miami Heat, with a pedigree as good as any in the NBA over the last half century, felt the wrath of San Antonio excellence Tuesday night in Game 3.
Shooting that included 19 of 21 to start the game, 25 of 33 in the first half, 38 of 64 for the game.
A lead that was 41-25 after one quarter, 55-30 with eight minutes left in the second quarter and 71-50 at halftime.
Didn’t seem any different than those debilitating leads the Spurs put on the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Of course, Miami being Miami, the Heat came back and made it interesting, getting the lead into single digits in the second half and making the Spurs sweat.
But still, San Antonio’s performance showed that all that ailed the Thunder in the West finals wasn’t all about the Thunder. A lot of that was about the Spurs.
Here’s what I saw in Game 3:
* Kawhi Leonard was great, as you know: 29 points, 10-of-13 shooting, great defense on LeBron James. I don’t know if Leonard is a budding superstar. The jury seems mixed on that one. But those who believe he will be – Leonard is a third-year pro, two weeks why of his 23rd birthday — now you know why they think so.
Leonard was assertive and fearless. He had not been that way in the first two games.
* And yet Leonard’s plus/minus was not the game’s best. Leonard was plus-19 – the Spurs outscored Miami by 19 points with Leonard on the court. Boris Diaw was plus-20.
Gregg Popovich started Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter. Splitter hadn’t been bad in the first two games of the series. Splitter was +1 in each of the first two games. He had 14 points and four rebounds in a Game 1 victory, six rebounds and five assists in a Game 2 loss.
But Pop’s decision was more about Diaw than it was Splitter. Diaw is what our sports editor, Mike Sherman, calls “the Blender.” Diaw just makes everything work a little more smoothly.
Diaw, typically, had mundane numbers in Game 3: nine points, 3-of-6 shooting, five rebounds, three assists. For the series, Diaw has averaged 6.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He’s only made seven of 20 shots. But his plus/minus is plus-50.
Diaw is a versatile defender. He can guard LeBron for short periods. He can guard big men, not that Miami has any of those worth guarding, other than Chris Bosh. Diaw passes the ball – too much, I’d say; he sometimes doesn’t take an open jumper, trying to drive not for an easier shot but for someone else an easy shot.
Diaw is a wonderful player, and his value in the starting lineup is the same reason why the Thunder shouldn’t start Kendrick Perkins against the Heat. There’s no one for Splitter to match up with.
The Heat starts Rashard Lewis and Chris Bosh. Bosh has become a perimeter player and Lewis always has been. It’s bad enough that Tim Duncan has to chase one of those guys all around the 3-point line, but Splitter, too? It makes no sense.
Splitter has value in this series. Heck, in Game 3 he played 15:52 and had six points and four rebounds. The Spurs were a plus-11 with Splitter on the court. But no Duncan and Splitter together.
Popovich turned on the blender, and it paid off.
* Strange game. The Heat’s big run came with LeBron on the bench. With 5:03 left in the third quarter, LeBron went out of the game and the Heat down 79-64. Perfect time for the Spurs to put away this game. But no; when LeBron returned at 1:04, Miami had sliced the lead to 84-75. That’s an 11-5 run for the Heat without LeBron.
* Of course, LeBron was all Miami had in the first quarter. With 3 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter, the Spurs led 27-20 – and LeBron had 14 of the 20 points. But LeBron had made five of six shots to that point; he made just four of eight shots the rest of the game. So more kudos to Leonard; LeBron in the final 41 minutes had eight points and no foul shots. Holding down LeBron like that is a great night’s work for anyone, much less someone who led the game in scoring.
* Danny Green was terrific in Game 3. Just as good as Leonard, really, except for the fact that Green’s primary assignment wasn’t LeBron.
Green played 21:19 and had a plus-14. He made seven of eight shots and only one of them was his patented 3-pointer. Green made a variety of running jumpers and drives to the hoop. Green had three assists and five steals.
* Miami, let me introduce you to someone. Fellow by the name of Bosh. Chris Bosh. Bosh took just four shots in Game 3; made them all. That’s ridiculous, for Bosh to get only four shots in 34 1/2 minutes.
* Miami is not a point guard team. So it’s not cataclysmic that Mario Chalmers is playing so poorly. But it’s also not necessary.
Chalmers missed all five of his shots in Game 3. He had four assists and three turnovers and committed four fouls.
In 70 minutes of this series, Chalmers had scored nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, committed nine turnovers to go with his nine assists, and been whistled for 12 fouls.
The Heat does not want to go to Norris Cole, who frankly hasn’t been much better – 4-of-15 shooting, seven assists, five turnovers in 57 minutes.
Maybe it’s time for the Heat to use its no-point guard lineup. Dwyane Wade or LeBron running the point, an extra shooter on the court. That would require LeBron on Tony Parker and probably Ray Allen on Danny Green. Chalmers’ defense is a valuable part of the Heat success. But he’s got to play better.
* In this series, Miami has made 50.5 percent of its shots and 30 of its 69 3-point shots. LeBron and Wade each are shooting over 60 percent from the field. And the Heat trails 2-1.
* Diaw. Green. Patty Mills hit two big shots when the Spurs were trying to rally. Marco Belinelli nailed the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer that stemmed a Heat comeback when the Spurs’ lead had been trimmed to seven. Who says role players don’t travel?
* The Spurs are winning different ways. Tim Duncan’s plus-minus was plus-8, the eighth-best on the San Antonio squad. The Spurs didn’t win this one by pounding away.