A career high 29 points from Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to an initially-emphatic, latterly-narrow victory over the Miami Heat in game 3 as the Spurs reclaimed home court advantage.
Miami were by no means awful offensively this game, scoring exactly 25 points in each of the first three quarters before a less-than-stellar 17 in the final period where the Spurs outscored them by 8. Given the margin of victory was nineteen points, it’s fair to say that despite the 41 point explosion in the first quarter – part of a first half that saw the Spurs hit 76% of their shots (ALL shots) – the Heat were still in this game and had it back at a 10 point deficit in the 4th. The Spurs, however, were able to counter and push their lead back towards 20.
Leonard was sensational, going 10-13 for a plus/minus of +19. Given his average performances, hindered by foul trouble, in the first two games, the trip to Miami seems to have revitalized someone who was expected to the the Spurs x-factor these finals. He is the youngest player to score 29 in the NBA finals since Kobe Bryant.
Leonard is one of the most intensely likable players in the NBA at the moment. Off the top of your head and using your most irrational frame of mind, come up with a reason not to like him. Go on…I’ll wait…
Done? Nothing? Thought not. Leonard has overcome tremendous personal tragedy to succeed at the highest level and is in the frame for perhaps the toughest job in basketball – succeeding Tim Duncan as the face of the San Antonio Spurs. In 2008, at the age of 16, his father was murdered at the car wash he ran, where Kawhi used to work during his summers. Despite his huge hands and athletic frame, he was under appreciated coming out of high school and ended up at the relatively obscure San Diego State. Basketball became his distraction. He practiced. He lifted. He got bigger – often playing the 5 for the Aztecs. He worked on his shot – and has continued to do so; he was only a 29% three point shooter in college. He now shoots almost 50% from the corner, 40% overall, from behind the arc.
Last night he reminded everyone what he is capable of.
Meanwhile, across the floor, Mario Chalmers has been posted missing. He went 0-5 and managed 2 free throws, which pushed him over the 10 point mark for this series. He wasn’t good against Indiana, either – scoring 6, 6, 6, 4, 8, and 4. Indeed, his last moderately solid game was game 2 against Brooklyn, where he went 2-3 from downtown for 11 points and added 5 assists. He hasn’t broken 5 assists since the Brooklyn series (he had 7 in both games 4 and 5) and while that is right on his season average – not overly surprising given he’s playing with the greatest passer in the league who often plays point-everything – given he is making no other contribution, it’s fair to say that he is killing the Heat. You cannot afford to have mediocre point guard play against the Spurs.
He’s not alone – Norris Cole has been mediocre this series as well. He did have 8 last night, but gave the Heat 2 boards and 1 assist in game 2. Cole did come in during the Pacers series and provide excellent d on a number of players and therefore might offer the Heat a little more going forward, especially given the fact that Toney Douglas is clearly not in Coach Spoelstra’s thinking.
Chalmers is one of many Heat players who will see his contract expire this offseason. He is making $4m this season – relatively speaking a bargain for a starting point guard on a two-time defending champion. He has been integral to the Heat’s success in the past, but the Heat will be very cautious not to focus too much on what has happened in the past this offseason, particularly with so many players seemingly on the verge of retirement.
Norris Cole is even better value for the Heat – earning $2m next season with a team option for $3m the following season. Cole is two years younger than Chalmers as well. Chalmers does deal with the pressure of being the starting point guard on a team including three legitimate superstars in their prime (or at least at the tail end of their prime in Dwyane Wade’s case). The problem is that he has lost all sense of his game at the worst possible time.
The most significant thing he has done these finals was throw an elbow at Tony Parker. The Heat need more.
Game 4 prediction: Heat
TCC will be back at the NBA finals for Game 5 on Sunday!