MIAMI — Tuesday night was typical of the San Antonio Spurs, who have remained an NBA staple of consistency and dominance by ignoring outside elements and sticking to their philosophy the past 15 years.
It appeared the Miami Heat were entering Game 3 of the NBA Finals with all the momentum, a healthy LeBron James and a return to their comfortable home, but the Spurs erased that with 16 minutes of brilliant basketball that essentially was the key to their victory.
San Antonio converted on a stunning 19 of its first 21 shots, built a 25-point second-quarter lead, then spent the rest of the evening successfully fighting off Miami rallies in 111-92 win at AmericanAirlines Arena. It was the first home loss for the Heat (now 8-1) in the 2014 playoffs.
The Spurs lead the best-of-seven series, two games to one, with Game 4 Thursday night in Miami.
The Spurs led, 55-30, after a Kawhi Leonard jumper with 8:09 left in the second quarter, putting on a remarkable display of ball movement and shot making. Leonard, who totaled just 18 points in the first two games, scored that by the second quarter and finished with a career-high 29.
Leonard drew raves in last year’s NBA Finals, using his brute strength to defend LeBron James, then scoring by attacking the rim or with a soft jumper. His displayed that same aggression and passion Tuesday after being beset with foul trouble in the first two contests.
“Well, we just wanted him to be who he’s been the whole year, in the regular season and in the playoffs,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I think the foul situations the first two games, really he overreacted to them and became very cautious, and he doesn’t play like that. He’s got to be real active at both ends, and so he figured it out.”
Miami cut the deficit to 9 at the end of the third quarter but seemingly had little left for a fourth-quarter run. LeBron James scored 14 points in the first quarter but finished with 22, and Dwyane Wade added 22, but Miami’s defense was the issue.
The Heat fell apart in the searing conditions of Game 1 and allowed the Spurs to convert 14 of 16 shots in the final period. On Tuesday night, they fell behind, 41-25, after the first quarter, allowing the Spurs to make 13 of 15 shot attempts.
“Oh, they jumped on us, and they were the aggressor tonight, and they had us on our heels from the beginning,” James said. “This is something that at this point in the season shouldn’t happen, but they were more aggressive than us. I don’t think we had a lack of urgency. Just they were very aggressive and we didn’t match that. They came in with a desperation that we just didn’t match.”
San Antonio finished shooting 59.4 percent, including 9-for-20 from the 3-point line. Five Spurs scored in double figures as they methodically broke down the Miami defense with crisp passing and sparkling perimeter shooting.
Although the series was tied at 1, there was a perception the Heat had dominated the first two games and could have been ahead, 2-0, if not for James leaving Game 1 with leg cramps. But the Spurs countered a rested James with a 41-point first period and good enough execution defensively to keep their lead.
The Spurs spent the entire third quarter staving off Miami runs. The Heat used a 10-0 surge late in the period that cut a one-time 25-point lead to 7 at 81-74. And James was on the bench during that run as Wade keyed the rally with a layup and two free throws.
With memories of their Game 6 collapse of last season perhaps piercing their minds, the Spurs held on, using a Marco Belinelli 3-pointer to stop the run, then matching Heat buckets in the fourth. The Spurs finally eased matters with a 5-0 run punctuated by a Manu Ginobili breakaway dunk and a 102-84 lead with 5:11 left.
The Heat did not have enough energy to mount another run.
“When we started to get to a different gear in the third quarter, it was just tough to change the energy of the game,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “So you have to give them credit for really coming out with an aggressive mind-set on both ends.”
San Antonio opened the game with a staggering haymaker to the Heat that they never fully recovered from. Leonard turned into the offensive juggernaut of the 2013 Finals, as he scored on an array of 3-pointers and powerful drives to the basket.
He was 10-for-13 shooting with 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocked shots in 39 minutes.
“I just was in attack mode trying to be aggressive early. Just knocking down a couple shots got me going and my teammates found me. They did a good job. They just got me involved,” he said. “[Popovich] wanted us to come out just being aggressive on the road and we just wanted to win tonight and we all put a full effort in.”
Tony Parker, who scored just 2 of the team’s first 62 points, scored 6 in the final 2:24 during a 9-2 San Antonio run to end the half. San Antonio put together a stellar 24-minute stretch, shooting 75.8 percent to lead at the break, 71-50.
Leonard and Danny Green combined for 31 of those points, and nine Spurs scored in total. San Antonio ended the half on a 14-5 run, capped by a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Ginobili, who watched from 25 feet as the ball curled into the basket. It was that kind of quarter for the Spurs, who scored on a stunning 19 of 23 possessions.
The 41-point quarter for San Antonio was the first of 40 or more in the Finals since the Celtics tallied 42 in the clinching Game 6 of the 2008 Finals against the Lakers.