SAN ANTONIO — Somehow, some way, the San Antonio Spurs seem to have discovered a secret that every team in the league desperately searched for all season long. They have figured out a way to slow down LeBron James.
Whether it’s Kawhi Leonard’s incredible wingspan, Danny Green’s dogged determination or a stash of kryptonite that Tim Duncan happened upon while taking a walk along the banks of the San Antonio River, it’s working. And yet the Spurs return home for Game 3 of the NBA Finals tonight at 8 perhaps feeling lucky to have earned a split in Miami. Pregame starts at 7:30 on ABC.
James is averaging a pedestrian 17.5 points and has posted his two lowest point totals in the postseason during the finals. One would think that’s a recipe for a commanding 2-0 series lead.
But San Antonio needed an incredible shot from Tony Parker with 5.2 seconds to play in Game 1 to hold off a charging James, then got blown out in Game 2 on Sunday night even though the four-time MVP scored 17 points on 7-for-17 shooting.
“Obviously, LeBron is unbelievable,” Parker said after the 103-84 loss to the Heat that evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. “He’s going to score. But right now the other players, they are playing great, too. So we can’t have both.”
James shot an astounding 56.5 percent during the regular season and made 103 3-pointers — the first time in league history someone has made that many 3s while shooting a percentage that high. The improved shooting has made the 6-foot-8, 250-pound freight train almost impossible to guard this season, and had the Heat confident that their star player had the antidote for any type of defensive approach against him.
The last time the Spurs were in the finals in 2007, they won their fourth title over the Cleveland Cavaliers by daring James to shoot the jumper in an all-out effort to keep him from attacking the rim. It worked beautifully when James shot an abysmal 35.6 percent in a four-game sweep.
The Spurs have essentially used the same approach this time around, with Leonard and Green sharing time on him and Duncan and Tiago Splitter crashing to double every time James even thinks about coming into the paint. And so far, that efficiency that he showed in the regular season hasn’t been there.
James had a triple-double in Game 1, but only scored 18 points on 16 shots in the 92-88 loss. He is shooting just 41.4 percent from the field, is 2 for 8 from long range and has only attempted six free throws in the first two games, monumental achievements against the most dominant player in the game.
“I know I attract a lot of attention,” James said. “This team has been set up the right way where when I do attract attention, we have guys that can make plays.”
In Game 1, Dwyane Wade kept the Heat in it with 17 points in the first three quarters and Ray Allen hit three 3-pointers before Parker bailed the Spurs out with the shot of these playoffs. In Game 2, it was Mario Chalmers’ 19 points and three big 3s from Mike Miller that helped fuel a 33-5 run and put San Antonio away early in the fourth quarter.
“I think LeBron is the type of player that you have to pay a lot of attention to,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “And it’s not something that happens that often that he scores less than 20. But I don’t think that was the difference why they beat us so badly in the second half.”
That’s the biggest problem for these Spurs. They have done what many viewed as impossible. They have stopped LeBron James from scoring.
And still, when the two teams boarded their respective planes to head for San Antonio, the defending champion Heat were the ones walking with a renewed swagger, with new life.
The Spurs haven’t hosted a finals game since 2007. They’re going to need the energy, the juice, the charge that should come from a passionate fan base eager to once again see the only show in town playing on the biggest stage.
Because they’ve thrown everything they’ve got at James in the first two games. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s worked pretty darn well. Yet there they were on Sunday night, staggering out of American Airlines Arena, their victory in Game 1 a distant memory.
Instead, the realization was creeping in that they’ve done as well as can possibly be expected against the league’s brightest star, and still they need to do so much more to stop James and the Heat from running away from them the way they have run away from everyone else for the last two years.
“It wasn’t just LeBron attacking us or getting those 13 points,” Ginobili said of James’ awakening during the game-deciding run. “It was just the whole Miami team was killing us. ... So it’s not just that he turned it on. It was Miami that turned it on.”