Here are my observations from Game 3 of the NBA Finals (San Antonio beat Miami 111-92 to take a 2-1 series lead):
There was talk that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and star Tim Duncan had conversations with Kawhi Leonard between Games 2 and 3. We may never know exactly what they told Leonard. Leonard says little and hides his contempt for the press less than Duncan and Pop do. Perhaps when Popovich writes a memoir (don't hold your breath), we will get a paragraph or two on a most unusual game.
"I am sure Pop said something to Kawhi," said teammate Manu Ginóbili.
Perhaps Popovich had the same effect on a slumping Leonard as he had on Ginóbili before Game 5 of last year's Finals, when the coach inserted his future Hall of Famer as a starter in a bold move to restore his confidence, which was shaken by turnover-plagued games.
"I made shots," was the laconic Leonard's explanation for going 5-for-5 from the field for 16 points in the first quarter after shooting 1-of-5 combined in the first quarter of Games 1 and 2 of the Finals. At some point on Tuesday night, Leonard must have realized that the fulfillment of his dream -- to star in the game he loves, on the brightest stage -- would also bring about intense media attention, which he finds to be torture. Leonard did not go to the media interview room after the game and now cannot wait until the start of Game 4, when the basketball world's focus can move elsewhere.
Maybe Pop did not have a one-on-one with Leonard, after he roasted his team in video sessions. One of the advantages of bilingualism is listening to Ginóbili's interviews with the press in Spanish. Manu is always direct, frank and extremely grounded in his assessments, but pithy in English compared to his Spanish, in which he adds more color and more details.
"We had a couple of rough little chats," Manu said, referring to the days before Game 3. "Pop screwed a couple of lug nuts tighter. He showed us the amount of mistakes we had made in Game 2. He showed us mistakes in Game 1 that went unnoticed because we won the game. You can make silly mistakes, like bouncing a ball off your foot, but we had way too many turnovers off distractions. When Pop showed them to you, then rewound the tape and played it again and again, we all wanted to die. We came out a lot hungrier, and angrier. We came out much better, but no one could have foreseen a 19-of-20 start from the field."
Where to, Miami?
To win a third consecutive championship, Miami now has to either win the next three games in this Finals consecutively, or win a Game 7 in San Antonio. Those were the stakes Tuesday night, and the Heat were fully aware before tipoff.
Were the losses just freak occurrences? Is the narrative, "We lost Game 1 to LeBron's cramps in a once-in-a-million air-conditioning meltdown and lost Game 3 in a once-in-a-lifetime display of incandescent offense"? San Antonio will not have another night like Game 3 of these Finals, right?
Part of San Antonio's success was due to simply making both open and contested shots. The adjustment for Game 3 was not as much that the Spurs passed the ball around more, but they passed it more sharply and made quick decisions earlier in the possession.
Those midcourt turnovers in the first quarter by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James set an early tempo that carried San Antonio into an offensive trance, which lasted into the second quarter and built the cushion the Spurs needed. Only in the third quarter did Miami show both the physicality and speed that trouble the Spurs. Miami's help defense rotated quickly, but San Antonio's passing was always one move ahead. Leonard, who is only 22 years old, embodied that offense in Game 3.