The NBA playoffs are renowned as a time for the veterans and when being battle-tested matters more than anything else. That truism held in Game 3 of both conference finals matchups, as the San Antonio Spurs put an ironclad grip on the West, and the Miami Heat prevented the Indiana Pacers from getting any ideas in the East.
SPURS A GAME AWAY
No one has forgotten how San Antonio won the first two games at home in last year’s Western Conference Finals, only to lose four straight to Oklahoma City. Least of all, the Spurs themselves. They took Memphis’ best punch in the first quarter of Game 3, when the Grizzlies ran out to a 29-13 lead. But San Antonio settled back down, had the lead mostly wiped out by halftime and ended up getting a 104-93 win in overtime.
What stands out the most is the rebounding—the Spurs beat the Grizzlies on the boards, 50-48. It’s a narrow edge to be sure, but this is the area that Memphis was supposed to dominate. Even more interesting is that this didn’t happen through any fault of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Memphis big men combined 29 rebounds, and 30 points to boot. San Antonio countered some of that with a big night from Tim Duncan, who had 24/10. But it’s the Spurs’ depth that ultimately delivered them. Kawhi Leonard had 11 rebounds. And Manu Ginobli not only scored 19, but he chased down seven rebounds. Add it all up, and San Antonio’s quantity of talent was able to overtake the quality of Randolph, Gasol and Mike Conley.
It’s now just a matter of time for San Antonio to wrap this up, either tonight on the road or on Wednesday back home. Games 2 & 3 were as competitive as I, and most observers, expected out of this series. But we underestimate San Antonio’s ability to consistently close at the end, winning both games in overtime.
HEAT TAKE CHARGE ON THE ROAD
After Indiana stole Game 2 on the road, the pressure had shifted to Miami last night when the series went to the heartland. Miami easily responded, with a 114-96 win where they took command in the second quarter and never looked back.
The key story here was the surprise emergence of Udonis Haslem, who scored 17 points and 7 rebounds, and at least gave the Heat some type of inside presence. Miami is never going to be a post-oriented team, but a game like this from Haslem at least neutralizes some of Indiana’s substantial edge in down low, and makes Miami virtually unbeatable.
Indiana still got a good game from David West (21/10) and a great one from Roy Hibbert (20/17). But Miami clamped down defensively on Paul George, who shot just 3-of-10 from the field. And the Pacers have got to get something from Lance Stephenson, who’s had a miserable series in the backcourt. Indiana also needs to shoot its free throws better. They had a 44-28 edge on Miami in attempts, but only translated that to a 30-24 margin on the scoreboard.
There isn’t any reason for Indiana to panic. They didn’t revert to settling for jumpers, kept going down low and it’s unlikely Haslem is going to keep playing like he did on Sunday night. Furthermore, Indiana seems to have found some way of preventing LeBron James from racking up assists. LeBron had been good for seven or so a game in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but his passing has been quiet in the last two games. I expect Indiana to win Game 4 tomorrow night.
But ultimately, this game showed that the Heat have that “other gear” that veteran, tested teams seem to find in the playoffs. Whether it’s the lockdown defense on George, or the unlikely contribution from Haslem, this is the way veteran teams find a way to win. And it’s why I think Game 4 is the last one Indiana will win.
The Spurs-Grizzlies resume tonight on ESPN with a 9 PM ET tip. Tomorrow night it’s Heat-Pacers with an 8:30 PM ET start time on TNT. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will be back on Wednesday with an overview once both Game 4s are in the books.