|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
SAN ANTONIO -- The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have created an identity crisis for the NBA Finals.
Through three games, role players on both sides have outperformed superstars and future Hall of Famers. Two supposedly evenly matched teams have exchanged blowout victories the past two games.
Most people figured a former Cleveland Cavalier would have a huge impact on the series. But that player has been San Antonio's Danny Green, not Miami's LeBron James.
Therein lies the enigma of a series that has the Spurs carrying a 2-1 lead into Game 4 on Thursday in what is arguably shaping up as one of the most unpredictably impressive Finals in league history.
In a series that has been short on stability, both teams share the same logic on at least one factor: The first team to string together a pair of consistently solid performances will emerge with the Larry O'Brien championship trophy.
The Heat and Spurs continued to shift to the extremes Tuesday as San Antonio responded to a 19-point blowout loss in Game 2 with a 36-point win in Game 3 that was the third-largest victory in Finals history.
"You don't expect it to go the way it did," Spurs forward Tim Duncan said of a series that has seen both teams transition from the doldrums one night to dominance the next. "We both answered losses very well. We both have not answered to wins very well. That's one thing [coach Gregg Popovich] always points out. You have to be able to bring that same energy with wins and not be satisfied."
Sustaining any level of consistency has been a major challenge for both teams. However, there have been two constants: James' stunning offensive struggles for Miami and the historically hot shooting by Green and Gary Neal for the Spurs, who set an NBA Finals record with 16 made 3-pointers in Tuesday's 113-77 victory at the AT&T Center.
Another development could throw even more wrinkles into the series, if Spurs point guard and leading scorer Tony Parker is limited or unavailable for Game 4 Thursday after he sustained a strained hamstring midway through Game 3.
Parker, who missed most of the second half and finished with six points and eight assists, was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Wednesday to determine the extent of the injury; his status for Thursday is unsure. The uncertainty with Parker could set up yet another momentum shift. The Heat need a victory Thursday or Sunday in Game 5 -- both games are in San Antonio given the 2-3-2 Finals format -- to force the series back to Miami.
For that to happen, coach Erik Spoelstra needs to see a Heat team that resembles the squad that won a franchise-record 66 games in the regular season, including 27 in a row, and ran through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Instead, what Spoelstra witnessed Tuesday was more of the same helter-skelter basketball bunch that has alternated riveting victories and astonishing setbacks in its past 10 playoff games. That disturbing trend for the Heat dates to the start of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana and has carried right into this series with San Antonio.
Frustrated with Miami's Jekyll-and-Hyde act, Spoelstra repeatedly scolded his team during Tuesday's postgame news conference for getting "what we deserved" in the worst playoff loss in franchise history. Spoelstra later bristled: "I didn't recognize the team that was out there."
For the Heat, it's been a case of a team playing to the extremes. In Game 2, point guard Mario Chalmers led Miami with 19 points and was essentially the hero in a 103-84 victory. On Tuesday, he went scoreless in 20 minutes.
One game after committing just six turnovers in a home win, the Heat lost the ball 16 times in Game 3.
On top of everything else, Miami's best three players can't get on the same page on either end of the court. The same James who mesmerized the league earlier this season when he scored at least 30 points and shot at least 60 percent from the field in six straight games has failed to reach 20 points in a single Finals game and is barely half as efficient with his shot against the Spurs as he was during that remarkable run.
There was a game in the conference finals when James made as many free throws as the entire Indiana team. That same aggressive, attacking player has been missing against the Spurs. He didn't attempt a free throw in Game 3, which has happened only one other time in his playoff career.
"We'll make those adjustments in the next couple of days," Spoelstra said. "But the most disappointing thing for us in that locker room is to look at each other and to know that we let ourselves down. I don't know if you can point to the history. I don't even know if that's relevant. The only thing that matters is we're down 2-1 and we did not bring anywhere near our best game [Tuesday]."
While the Spurs are confidently relying on their supporting cast as Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili try to work their way into a collective rhythm, the Heat are coping with trust issues. Dwyane Wade, who has yet to offer a breakout scoring game amid James' struggles, said Miami is playing up to expectations only "in pockets of the game."
The Heat's problems on offense have been compounded by an inability to stay with the Spurs' shooters at the 3-point line. A lack of aggression on one end is too often followed by blown defensive assignments on the other end.
"We got away from some of the things we do. We got away from some trust," Wade said. "You can't do that. You can't break down, especially versus a team like this. We own it. This was a terrible performance by the Miami Heat -- our worst one yet. And we have to correct it. Every game from this point on is a must-win."
The Heat haven't won consecutive playoff games since they closed out Chicago in Game 5 of the second round and took the conference finals opener against Indiana nearly a month ago. On the other hand, Miami hasn't lost consecutive playoff games since last season's conference finals against Boston. The Heat hope to stabilize their play in Game 4 and avoid falling into a serious deficit against the four-time champion Spurs.
Players normally welcome a quick turnaround between games, but James said the Heat need time to regroup and regain their identity heading into Thursday's pivotal game.
"We have to make adjustments," he said. "As much as we want to get back out there and redeem ourselves, we have to get back in the lab and figure out exactly where the cracks were. I think effort may be more than anything."
Finding an answer for their sporadic play in recent weeks has proved to be as difficult for the Heat as searching for cracks in the Spurs' daring defense during the Finals. So far, no game has had any bearing on the next one.
"We expected them to respond, [and] they responded way better than we thought," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "It's difficult to get a feel for the rhythm of this series. It's been a very odd series so far. I'm sure it's going to continue to be just as crazy as the last six days have been."