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The Heat’s Whac-A-Mole Problem

Game 3 of the NBA Finals featured the San Antonio Spurs’ offense at its best. It wasn’t just its 19-point margin of victory over the Miami Heat, 111-92, that impressed, or its 41 points in the first quarter, or that it made 75.8 percent of its shots in the first half; it was the way the players did all this Tuesday night: running their system and taking what the Heat gave them.

The aggressiveness of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green was key in the Spurs’ hot start. Usually these two function primarily as finishers. But in Game 3, Leonard and Green attacked mismatches and closeouts, looking to drive the ball to the basket. The NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking Statistics showed that drives (defined as any non-transition touch that starts at least 20 feet from the basket and is dribbled within 10 feet of the basket) by Leonard and Green were more frequent and more effective than usual.

Kawhi Leonard’s and Danny Green’s Drives


Combined, Leonard and Green put together 44 points on 17-of-21 shooting, with five assists. This was not so much an explosion of individual excellence, but a reflection of how adaptable the Spurs’ offense is.

While Leonard and Green were slashing through the Heat defense, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were distractions, pulling defensive attention in other directions. According to the SportVU Player Tracking Box Score, Parker and Ginobili touched the ball 82 and 44 times, respectively, essentially the same as their playoff averages coming into the game. But though they had been averaging 19.9 drives per game combined in the playoffs, they had just eight in Game 3. The Heat were focused on bottling up the duo, which usually leads to open outside shots for guys like Leonard and Green.

During the regular season, about a quarter of Leonard’s and Green’s shots were spot-up 3-pointers, according to mySynergySports. But as the Heat pay more attention to chasing those shooters off the 3-point line, the Spurs have attacked open spaces off the dribble. This opportunity doesn’t always present itself because the Spurs’ offense is so good at getting them those open shots. But the beauty of the Spurs’ offense is that when Plan A is stymied, they don’t scramble; they move smoothly on to Plan B or Plan C. Take away Parker’s and Ginobili’s driving lanes, and they kick it out to shooters. Cover up those shooters, and they drive through rotations.

This cascade of offensive options usually works inside out (drive and kick out for a 3-pointer), but in Game 3 the Spurs added one more step, working it back inside with these reactive drives by Leonard and Green. During the regular season, about 47 percent of the Spurs’ shots came in the paint. In Game 3, it was 56 percent.

The Heat’s offense played at a high level in this game as well, but it was chasing an absurd threshold of efficiency almost from the outset. Miami’s main challenges are figuring out how to raise their own offensive performance and disrupting the Spurs’ offense somewhere in the process. Both look to be difficult.

Ian Levy is the senior NBA editor for and the man behind the curtain at The Step Back and Nylon Calculus.