If there is anything that these 2014 NBA Finals have proven, it is that they are unpredictable. One thing though that can be predicted going into Game Four is that from the outset, LeBron James will most likely come at the San Antonio Spurs immediately after the opening tip. However, if the Western Conference champs have learned anything from Game Two, they know they need to stop the former MVP early in order to prevent him from having an explosive game.
Things change quickly in the NBA playoffs. Prior to Game Three of the NBA Finals, it was the Spurs who had their backs against the wall. After all, they had lost their home court advantage. However, behind the master adjuster of Popovich and a stampede of an offensive performance led by Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio downed Miami in a 111-92 final score in Game Three. This is how these four-time NBA champs play basketball. They always come back and change the game around, whether it is against the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder or their bitter rivals, the Miami Heat.
Much like the Spurs though, the Heat’s top player and arguably the best talent in the NBA, LeBron James, is another fighter. If one looks at his performances through the last few years, he uses losses as ammunition. It has already been seen in these finals. After Miami’s Game One loss to San Antonio, a game that was surrounded by James’ controversial leg cramp, he came back and pulled the Heat to victory with 35 points, 10 rebounds and two steals. With such a dominant style of play, he was too much even for the loaded roster of the Spurs.
Game Two of the finals was not the first time James has gone off in these playoffs. In the semifinals, after Miami won the first two games at home, the Brooklyn Nets came back and won their first game of the series. However, James reacted to the loss and went off on his opponents with a 49-point game that led Miami to a 102-96 victory.
If these two games are indicative of anything, it is that James will come into Game Four of these finals with something to prove. He will attempt to will his team to victory to avoid being put in a dubious 3-1 hole, which would make it so that the defending champions would have to win three straight games against a powerful Spurs team. Coming into this game, San Antonio needs to tighten their defenses on James before worrying about anything else. Leonard, who proved to be a solid defender against the former MVP, needs to continue to work his magic on the defensive end. However, Leonard may not be enough. They may have to clog the lane with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter to ensure James is not allowed to get into the paint, where he is most dangerous. Bottom line, they cannot allow any easy points for the four-time MVP.
On the other side of the court, San Antonio also has to be prepared that James will make the Spurs work for their offense. In Game Three, San Antonio shot a record-breaking 75.8 percent from the floor, which put the defense of Miami to complete shame. A huge part of that was Leonard again, who put up 29 points on 10-13 shooting. One better believe that James will be on the third-year forward like white on rice. Unlike Game Three, Leonard will have to work for his shot after James’ defensive performance in the previous game was exposed.
While LeBron James’ performance will be the key for the Miami Heat to tie up the series going back to San Antonio, they have to do a lot more to combat the Spurs. First and foremost, the team has to get Chris Bosh more involved. Whether San Antonio made it difficult for the ball to get to the big man or Miami simply did not set up any plays for him, he had an almost absent game of nine points, despite shooting 100 percent on 4-4 from the field. While his rebounding was as poor as it has been most of the season, Bosh is still the third best offensive player on Miami. If the Heat are to tie the series up, Bosh needs to find his game again.
Additionally, starting point guard Mario Chalmers has also disappeared. He is currently averaging only 3.3 ppg and 4 apg in the finals, and he has yet to score double digits in points in the last 12 games. Bottom line, as criticized as the Heat’s bench has been this year, it is now their starters that have to step up their game before anyone else.
While Leonard was the biggest threat to the Heat in Game Three, he was not the only one. The Spurs put on an offensive demonstration that put the Heat defense to task. Not only does James have to tighten the screws, but the overall defensive sets need to be executed more efficiently.
Beyond San Antonio shutting down LeBron James, they need to be wary of the entire Heat team bouncing back. They do have the lead in this series. They do hold the edge. However, as all other Spurs teams have done in the past, they cannot allow themselves to take things for granted. Instead, they need to take out Miami now when they smell their blood. If they do, it will be a hard road to climb for the Miami Heat to finish their quest of a three-peat.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey