James played all 12 minutes of the third quarter, which admittedly drained him to some extent before the beginning of the pivotal final period.
That was when the San Antonio Spurs overtook the suddenly sloppy Miami Heat and escaped with a 92-88 victory that now has the defending champions in must-win mode. “I told him (coach Erik Spoelstra) I needed one,” said James, referring to his three-minute rest at the beginning of the fourth quarter. “At that point, I had played the whole third. I had been accustomed to being able to start the fourth. But the third quarter was so ‑ I was in the paint, defensive rebounding, I was closing out Kawhi Leonard on shooters. It took all in the tank from me in the third quarter. So I needed a little breather.”
It’s not so often that King James needs a break from action; rarely will he take himself out of the game at such a crucial juncture. But that’s how hard Leonard and his teammates forced James to work – on both ends – in their impressive win. James’ points were a postseason low.
“(Leonard) made him work,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Nobody is going to stop LeBron James for all the reasons that we all know, but to try to make him work and maybe deny a catch here and there is important. Kawhi did the best job he could.”
“You’re not going to stop him,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “You just have to try to stay in front of him as much as possible and make his life as tough as possible.”
Leonard not only made James work for his catches but also funneled him into areas on the court where the Spurs planned to have multiple defenders waiting for him, including the lengthy Duncan and Tiago Splitter, who both played excellent help defense.
“They did a good job of putting two guys on the ball,” explained James. “When I got the ball, they kind of shrunk the floor and set a guy at the elbow and dared me to pass the ball.”
Being the phenomenal playmaker that he is, James tallied nine assists through the first three quarters, many of which were to 3-point shooters.
In essence, San Antonio’s defense was utterly brilliant and worked nearly exactly how Popovich drew it up. After averaging over 20 shots per game in the Eastern Conference finals vs. Indiana, James got up just 16 against San Antonio.
“Just following game plan we had coming in,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said. “We were able to follow it and we were able to execute and they missed shots. I don’t know if it’s our defense or not, but we’ll take it.”
Even though James consistently found teammates for clean outside looks – Miami was 8-of-20 from the arc through three quarters – he didn’t take over when he checked back in for the last nine minutes.
With his team trailing for the final seven minutes, James attempted just three shots and got to the line just once charity while also committing a crucial turnover, a steal by Leonard that led to Tony Parker putting Norris Cole through the spin cycle at the other end that extended San Antonio’s lead to 81-78 with six minutes remaining.
“I think Kawhi did a great job of guarding him , and we did a great job of crowding the paint and making him make plays for other people,” explained Spurs guard Danny Green.
In the fourth quarter, James’ passing led to open looks – and lots of misses by Miami, which went an ice-cold 5-of-18 from the field and 0-of-5 from the arc.
Norris Cole (2-of-4, 5 points) made a 3-pointer in the second quarter. But he missed an open, high-percentage look from the elbow with 10:40 remaining.
Mike Miller (2-of-3, 5 points) also made a 3-pointer in the second quarter. But he bricked a somewhat contested 3-pointer from the left wing at the 8:33 mark.
But the play that summed up the evening – for Miami offensively and San Antonio defensively – was Chris Bosh’s uncontested 3-pointer from the right wing with a minute left and the Heat trailing, 90-86.