The San Antonio Spurs were coming off a disappointing Game 2 loss in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat and lost homecourt advantage. The team was heading into Game 3 prepared to give the Heat their best shot without repeating the same road they went through last year that ended in disappointing fashion. San Antonio wasn’t just going to give them their best shot, but also give the Heat a new look that they weren’t expecting to start the game, and also a familiar look on the defensive end if you had been watching the Spurs when they faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
These are the two major adjustments that helped the Spurs win Game 3, and reclaim homecourt advantage.
Boris Diaw in the starting lineup: The versatility that Diaw brought to the starting lineup was huge. He had his series scoring high of 9 points, but what showed were his intangibles for the starting unit. Tiago Splitter, the constant in the center position for the Spurs, is a staple to the team’s defense and is one of the reasons why the offense has thrived with his role in the pick-and-roll. His strengths have not been a factor this series as Rashard Lewis and Chris Bosh’s shooting have neutralized Splitter’s impact with the floor spreading and his one dimensional offense being easy to guard under Miami’s system. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich opted to insert Diaw into the starting lineup and his presence now made the Heat’s strength their biggest liability. The shooting from Lewis and Bosh was quickly nullified with Diaw’s quick feet and rotation on the defensive end, while also making them guard him while he was in motion on the offensive end. Boris’ 3-point shooting (41% this postseason) helps spread the defense, but he’s also a threat at putting the ball on the floor and creating his own shot, or passing it up to open teammates when the defense collapses on him. His presence alone helped the unlikely Game 3 heroes of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard see open shots and drives for finishes. The Spurs saw Diaw in all those different situations, including occasionally posting up his counterpart Lewis for a basket. Sometimes the best offense is also the better defense, and Diaw’s intangibles proved that by making his presence known on both ends of the floor against multiple players.
Making LeBron drive: LeBron James is one of the hardest covers in the NBA with his versatility and improved shooting. Once he puts his head down and decides to drive with strength, it’s extremely difficult to stop him one on one. That was exactly the San Antonio game plan and it proved to play into the Spurs’ favor for the majority of the game. The success of the Heat’s offense revolves around one man: LeBron James. It just doesn’t revolve around him, but his whole skill as a basketball player. He’s seen different schemes throughout his career and even in these playoffs. He can shoot, drive and score, and dish it out to his teammates for open jump shots. If he is connecting on the majority of his strengths, the team is likely to prevail in the game or series. The Spurs decided to dare James to beat them, but not in the way he chose to beat San Antonio. The Spurs have traditionally chose to make a decision on what he was going to try to do. He was either going to drive or shoot as we saw in last year’s Finals. When he drove last year, the Spurs decided to show the defense and force him to make the right decision. The game plan was dramatically changed on Tuesday night for Game 3.
With Diaw insert in the starting lineup, the Spurs forced LeBron to beat them under their own terms: drive the majority of the time. James couldn’t find a clear open look for the majority of the game with a defender constantly in his face, daring him to beat him on a drive. The help wasn’t as obvious as last season, but it wasn’t late either. The defense rotated depending in the angle he drove to deflect or intercept a pass and looked to steal the ball before he stopped the dribble. The hardest part for James in this situation is that the Spurs had no problem on switching. The pick-and-roll was no longer an option in Miami’s favor with Boris Diaw in the starting lineup. Rashard Lewis was usually the constant on the pick-and-pop that left him open, but the Spurs eliminated that with the switch. Now LeBron was left guarded by Diaw (if Lewis set the pick) or Green (if Dwayne Wade set the screen). There were even some instances that saw a 3-1 pick-and-roll to switch Tony Parker on him or a 3-5 pick-and-roll to push Tim Duncan at the top of the key on defense. The end result was the same. It didn’t matter who guarded him, he was still going to get pressured away from the jump shot and forced to drive. The Spurs may have given the Heat two points in that instance, but it didn’t come without a price as James’ legs were being used up on offense constantly (he played the whole first quarter of the game) and also had the task of guarding Leonard, who scored 29 points. It’s not hard to argue that the defensive scheme of San Antonio forced LeBron James to wear out sooner than usual, and forced him to be one dimensional on offense to where he became the whole offense. He not only guarded Leonard, but also Parker and Ginobili in instances along with Diaw and Duncan. He had to carry the whole offensive burden while guarding guys on defense that moved for the reason of tiring him out and also posting him up to wear him down. James also didn’t see many moments in transition and you can credit that to the fact that the Spurs have three guys who can switch to him in transition (Diaw, Leonard, Green) with no let down on defense. It was clear LeBron was overwhelmed with the different bodies thrown at him on both ends and the looks the Spurs forced him to.
The Spurs came up with two huge adjustments that forced the Heat to become a one man team. While it may have worked against other teams, the Spurs’ depth proved to be too much for one man to carry the burdens on both ends of the floor with no rest. Diaw’s versatility on both ends of the floor helped the team dominate Game 3 along with forcing James to beat them with baskets that used up his energy every play on offense he was forced to be the creator with the basketball.