SAN ANTONIO -- Erik Spoelstra said it's not all on LeBron James. Tim Duncan said there's nothing wrong with LeBron's offense other than the Spurs are guarding him with five guys. Gregg Popovich said we were trying to make early deadlines. The man himself said he "played like shit."
So, here's LeBron James facing yet another milestone moment in his career that seems to be defined and redefined with every series, game and possession. The Heat are reeling and it's on James to deliver a performance for the ages.
The Spurs' scheme is fantastic, as our own Mike Prada illustrated, and Kawhi Leonard's individual defense has been stellar. Under normal circumstances, you'd tip your hat to San Antonio and move on to the pivotal Game 4 in a series that hasn't yet had a linear storyline, except for this one.
The Spurs have made James look mortal and they have throughout the series, save for a brief flash of dominance in Game 2 and some isolated moments in the opener. Besides a brief flurry at the end of the third quarter that only momentarily slowed the Spurs' roll, there weren't many times in Game 3 when LeBron looked remotely like LeBron.
James has scored just 50 points on 54 shots in this series -- or six fewer than Danny Green, who has had 24 fewer attempts. He got up 21 shots in Game 3, which doesn't suggest that he was tentative. But he made only seven of them and didn't get to the free throw line once, which implies he was way too tentative in the Heat's 36-point loss.
"You can't have both of them," James said. "If you can go 7‑for‑21, but you get to the free throw line 10‑plus times, you're being aggressive. You have to be able to shoot the ball at a high clip from the field if you're not going to the free throw line. You can't have both. It's impossible for me to go 7‑for‑21, shoot 33 percent from the field and not have free throws. You have to figure out ways offensively that you can make an impact."
"I'll be better," James vowed. "I'll be much better tomorrow night."
LeBron has his championship, which makes all of this a little bit easier to digest and analyze. With that out of the way, we can move on from those questions about heart and confidence and focus on his play on the court. Of course, it's impossible to do that without scrutinizing his teammates, especially Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who have been even worse. Green is guarding Wade about as closely as other teams check Johan Petro. By leaving the mid-range jumper open, they are packing the paint and denying anyone who enters.
The Spurs aren't just daring the Heat to fire away from mid-range. They've already called ahead and made the reservation. The bottle of Pinot should be arriving shortly.
It's not that complicated, really. It is brilliant in its simplicity and execution. It takes discipline to play that kind of defense and trust so completely in the game plan that you go against your better instincts to deny your man opportunities to score. But complicated? Nope.
The Heat know this and they still can't solve it. When they do drive, they're being met by everyone in a San Antonio uniform with arms up high and extended. So no, it's not all on LeBron to save the day.
At some point, Wade and/or Bosh will have to do something positive to draw some (any) defensive attention away from the MVP. The Spurs are making this hard and the Heat haven't shown that they can make it easy on themselves. This has always been the knock on James, even with a title in hand. When teams make things difficult, he retreats to the perimeter. It doesn't always work out that way.
Few will ever forget his epic Game 6 performance in Boston last spring when the entire city was making Finals plans. He silenced Indiana in the last round and blew their doors off in Game 7. He has risen to the occasion, imposed his will and done all the other stupid cliche things that fill up airtime and column inches.
"We're not worried about LeBron," Wade said. "He's going to find his way. He's going to get in a groove. As teammates you try to figure out a way to get him an easy basket in a breakout, try to get it back to him, get a layup, so he can see the ball go in. As a scorer you need to see it go in. Besides that, we're not concerned about him at all."
Okay, sure, but it has to be a little disconcerting that three games into the Finals we have yet to fully see the LeBron James that eviscerated the league and carried the Heat to this point.
"I take full responsibility for our team's performance last night," James said. "Me, as a leader, I can't afford to perform like I did last night and expect us to win on the road. It's that simple. So I'm putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That's the way it is."
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It's fair to say that there is also some legitimate concern about the health of Tony Parker, who suffered a Grade-1 hamstring strain in Game 3. That's the lowest grade of severity, but for a player who relies on speed and quickness, it's obviously an issue. Parker had an MRI on Wednesday and everyone proclaimed him day-to-day.
"I don't know," Parker said when asked if he'll be ready to play. "We'll see."
If Parker can't play, or more likely, if he's limited, there aren't that many great options for Popovich to explore. Cory Joseph has been fine in limited doses, but asking him to run the show for at least 30 minutes is a little much. Manu Ginobili is more of a point guard these days when he's not flinging up wild threes, and he'd seem to be the best candidate to soak up those minutes.
When it was suggested that the Spurs might be better off to let Parker sit out in Game 4 to take advantage of the two off days before Game 5, Pop stared and said that line of thinking was, "confusing his brain."
"I would like to help you, but I don't know how to help you," he added. "You can come back to our coach's office and hit us. We'll be talking about all these sorts of things. Any ideas are welcome. I have no idea until I know how healthy he is tomorrow."
The Spurs were able to prosper without Parker in Game 3, but that was within the flow of the game when their threes were dropping and everyone was feeling good about themselves. The feeling here is that Parker holds the key to the rest of the series. He was their best player in the opener, which was the only game so far that made a ton of sense.
Ultimately, that's what we're left with heading into Game 4. This series still feels undefined. Yes, all the focus has been on LeBron and the Spurs' defense, and if that continues, then James will have to live with another crushing postseason disappointment. We'll all reassess everything all over again, but we're not there yet, and honestly, we shouldn't be there yet. There is still too much basketball left to be played.
But beyond that, there has yet to be a fully recognized pattern to the Finals. Things that worked in Game 1 have already been modified. Same as in Game 2. Someone will give this series definition and shape in Game 4. If the Heat are going to pull themselves out of yet another hole, that someone will have to be LeBron.