MIAMI - There is just a different feeling when the San Antonio Spurs suck the air out of a hostile crowd than when most other NBA teams do it.
In Game 2 on Sunday night, by the middle of the third quarter, San Antonio’s crowd was sighing any time LeBron James took a shot. Once James got on a roll, every Spurs fan in the AT&T Center was praying for him to pass it to somebody else. Even if Chris Bosh or Rashard Lewis or Dwyane Wade got a good look, everybody was relieved when James relinquished control. And every time James was able to raise up and shoot, the crowd collectively groaned in anticipation of yet another blip of brilliance.
That’s how it usually goes in the NBA. Most teams parade into enemy territory on the back of their superstar, the guy whose individual abilities often have opposing fans feeling utterly hopeless when he has the ball. Kevin Durant is the league’s most lethal scorer, Stephen Curry can swing a game in an instant with his3-point stroke and even the altruistic James can go on scoring rampages that demoralize sold out arenas.
But with the Spurs, it’s usually a collective and unrelenting outburst that spreads a feeling of helplessness across the faces of everyone in the building, not an individual explosion.
By the second quarter of Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals, the entirety of the American Airlines Arena was crying out in unison when Patty Mills, San Antonio’s backup point guard, was pulling up from three, almost pleading for mercy.
You can’t really blame them, mostly because it was basically impossible for it to get worse for Miami. When Mills buried that triple, he put the Spurs up by 20 with nearly 10 minutes left in the first half, and that still wasn’t the worst of it. Over the next two minutes, Danny Green added a layup and a three and Kawhi Leonard knocked down a midrange jumper, giving the Spurs a game-high 25 point lead. Despite some pushback from Miami in the second half, the Spurs would keep it a double digit contest for most of the night, winning by a final margin of 111-92.
The Spurs’ strong start to the second quarter was just a continuation of their historic first quarter effort. San Antonio shot 13 of 15 from the field in the first quarter (86.7 percent) and 4 of 4 from deep, putting up an unconscionable 41 points on Miami’s vaunted defense in just 12 minutes. At one point, San Antonio had made 10 straight baskets, and the only Spurs to miss a shot in the period were Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. It was the best shooting display in a single Finals quarter since … Game 1, when the Spurs made 14 of their 16 shot attempts (87.5 percent) in the fourth quarter to secure a comeback victory.
That makes for two record quarters over the course of three games for the Spurs, and, though they would obviously regress to the mean in the second half of Game 3, San Antonio did set the Finals record for shooting percentage in a single half at 75.8 percent, putting up a ridiculous 71 points during the first 24 minutes on Tuesday night.
But even after that virtuoso performance in the first half, San Antonio still needed a star-like performance from someone to help fend off Miami’s inevitable runs in the second half. So, naturally, the Spurs looked to one of the pillars of their franchise for stabilization as the Heat ramped up the pressure.
Or did they?
In Game 3, Duncan had a quiet 14 points and six rebounds, Parker had 15 points and five assists and Manu Ginobili had 11 points and just one dime. After seeing the final tallies for San Antonio’s big three, it’s tough to see how the Spurs managed to blow the Heat out of their own gym, a place where Miami had won 11 straight.
But now the Spurs have Leonard, a 22-year old that is still learning on the job, to turn to when they are in need. His services aren’t always available — Leonard had just 18 combined points in Games 1 and 2 — but the third year forward may have very well had the defining game of his career on Tuesday night.
Though Leonard is still brimming with potential, it’s too difficult to predict whether he’ll be back on this stage again with a team of his own someday. What we do know is that Leonard just delivered an all-time performance when San Antonio needed it most, going toe-to-toe with James in the first quarter and winning the battle, knocking down his shots with total confidence, aggressively attacking closeouts and hassling James defensively.
Leonard finished with 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and his only three misses were from deep. He also made three triples and got to the line seven times. And, by staying out of serious foul trouble for the first time this series, Leonard helped force James into seven turnovers while holding him to just eight points after the first quarter. It was the kind of all-around performance that makes you think twice before you brush off Gregg Popovich’s frequent assertions that Leonard will soon be the face of the Spurs.
The Spurs and Heat have now played each other 10 times in the Finals over the past two seasons. Each team has won five times. These two teams have taken us on a wild ride, with each game even more unbelievable than the last, and it’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen next.
But one thing has always been guaranteed with the Spurs and the Heat: Each game, you’re going to get a glimpse of one of the two best basketball teams in the world.
And now the Spurs are just two wins away from proving they are the best of the best.