John Clay: Spurs' gem of a first half is a must-see for students of the game

jclay@herald-leader.comJune 11, 2014 

  • NBA finals GAME 4

    San Antonio at Miami

    When: 9 p.m. Thursday

    TV: ABC-36

If you missed the first half of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, you missed the opportunity to witness a basketball clinic.

That doesn't happen much in college's one-and-done era, or even pro basketball, with its penchant for making it all about the stars.

And yet basketball coaches all over the country will be cueing up the video of Tuesday's first 24 minutes of San Antonio-Miami to show to their players this fall.

Or at least they should.

In beating the Miami Heat 111-92, the San Antonio Spurs shot 76 percent in the first half. They scored 71 points on 33 shots. They made 13 of 15 shots on the way to scoring 41 points in the first quarter alone. They almost literally could not miss.

"I don't think we'll ever shoot 76 percent in a half ever again," Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio coach, said afterward.

That makes sense, considering no team had done it before.

No team had shot such a high percentage for a half in an NBA Final. And we are talking NBA Finals here, with arguably the two best teams in all of basketball competing for the greatest prize in all of basketball.

It wasn't just the dead-eye shooting. It was the way the Spurs moved the basketball to get those shots. It was the selfless way they ran their offense, the way they moved without the ball.

After losing Game 2 on Sunday, Popovich had complained that the basketball "stuck" too much when the Spurs tried to run their offense. There was too much dribbling, too much standing, not enough energy. He got the polar opposite Tuesday.

Here's the thing: You know the college basketball fan who says pro basketball coaches don't do anything but baby-sit. Those fans don't know what they are talking about. Popovich exposes them every time.

Tuesday night, the Spurs' coach benched center Tiago Splitter in favor of the more mobile Boris Diaw, the veteran 6-foot-8 forward. Diaw set the tone early for the San Antonio offense, making passes, grabbing rebounds, giving the ball up at just the right time. The Heat couldn't handle him.

And Miami certainly couldn't handle Kawhi Leonard, who shook off two subpar performances in San Antonio — a combined 18 points and a much-less-than-effective job containing LeBron James — to score a career-high 29 points on offense and virtually neutralize James on defense.

On Thursday night, it will be Miami's turn to make the adjustment.

Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra went without a point guard in the fourth quarter of Game 2, using a backcourt of James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. Popovich countered by using two point guards in the fourth quarter Tuesday, and Miami's Mario Chalmers failed to hold his own.

Then there's LeBron, who answered those who criticized him for suffering cramps in Game 1 by exploding for 35 points in Game 2. James scored a quiet 22 points on Tuesday, but he's known for his bounce-back efforts. He should be pumped come Thursday night.

That's the great thing about this series, just as it was a year ago when the two teams met in the Finals with the Heat prevailing in a seventh game. Not only are the teams evenly matched, they exude an obvious mutual respect for the other.

San Antonio is known for its teamwork. Miami is known for its star power. There is an element of myth in each description. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are Hall of Famers. James and Wade are both stars, yes, but they go to great lengths (especially James) to involve teammates.

If San Antonio wins Thursday night, the Spurs could close out the series Sunday night at home. If Miami wins Thursday night, the series becomes a best two-out-of-three.

No matter how it ends up, however, the guess here is basketball purists will be raving about the first half of Game 3 for quite some time.

They'll be saying, "That's the way you play basketball."

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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