Most NBA playoff games are decided in the fourth quarter and often with an epic performance by one of the NBA’s titans.
Last night’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals was decided in the first half when San Antonio shot an NBA Finals record 75.8 percent and went into halftime with a comfortable 71-50 lead, enroute to a 111-92 road waxing of the two-time defending champs.
The previous high was 75 percent by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Finals.
In fact, this game was so unexpected that it's forced me to embrace a no-no of sports journalism, and lead with the first- quarter's action.
San Antonio's explosion was the most points scored in the first quarter of an NBA Finals game since the Philadelphia 76ers did it against the San Francisco Warriors in 1967. The Boston Celtics were the last team to score 40-plus in a Finals quarter, racking up 42 numbers in the fourth of Game 6 in 2008 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Initially, LeBron’s jumper was cooking, but eventually the Spurs spoiled the King's meal.
Early in the contest ABC posted a split screen of LeBron and Kawhi Leonard’s performance to that point in the game. Leonard had 13 points on 4-4 shooting and Lebron had 14 points on 5-6 shooting. Both guys were singlehandedly keeping their squads in the mix.
At one stretch LeBron had scored the last 12 Heat points and although San Antonio led 27-20 with about 3:25 left in first quarter, it was looking like one of those classic scoring nights for King James.
LeBron cooled off and scored just eight points for the rest of the game, but Leonard (who I called “The LeBron Stopper” in an article during last year’s Finals) scored a game-high 29 points, including a career-high 16 first-quarter points and his athletic and pesky defense made LBJ hesitant to take offensive control of the game.
These moments highlighted the Spurs’ historical first-half shooting:
After Manu Ginobili drilled a trey-bomb, just beating the first-quarter buzzer, the Spurs were 13-of-15 from the field, shooting an NBA Finals-record 87 percent. They were also 11-for-13 from the line. By then end of the first quarter it was 41-25 Spurs.
Nobody was counting the Heat out at that point. In Game 2 San Antonio had an 11-point lead in the first quarter of a loss. But on Tuesday, even with Leonard, Parker (15 points) and Duncan (14 points) on the bench to start the second quarter, the Spurs prolific offense didn’t miss a beat.
Miami’s Erick Spoelstra called a timeout after Spurs guard Patty Mills stroked a three in transition with 9:52 left in the second and made the score 48-28. The Spurs were 16-of-18 from the field at that point.
Out of the timeout Danny Green started going Jerry West H.A.M. and nailed a three with 8:56 left to give the Spurs a 53-30 lead. They had made nine shots in a row at that point and 18-of-20 field goal attempts; an offensive blitz never witnessed before in NBA Finals history.
If history was going to be made on an NBA playoff floor, the general consensus was that LBJ would be the guy to do it. But when Leonard hit San Antonio’s 10th shot in a row and the lead ballooned to 25 points on 19-of-21 shooting, I started getting flashbacks of Georgetown vs. Villanova in the ’85 NCAA Championship game . It took an unfathomable 79 percent shooting effort from heavy underdog Villanova to defeat Patrick Ewing and the mighty Georgetown Hoyas. This shooting performance almost topped that.
Leading the brigade and providing a glimpse into Spurs life after "The Big Three" was Leonard, who averaged just 12.8 ppg in the regular season and totaled 18 points in his first two Finals games.
“Just started being more aggressive tonight and my shot was falling…" said Leonard, during a halftime TV interview. "But we have to play better defense in the second half because I don’t know if we’re going to keep making the shots we’re making right now.”
Green had 13 of his 15 in that first half, and his five steals were key in stifling Miami’s brief comeback attempt.
Miami, who was shooting at a respectable clip themselves, stayed hot to start the third quarter as San Antonio began 1-5 with three turnovers.
The Heat cut the Spurs lead to 77-64 with 6:32 left on a LBJ dunk. It was oddly just his first bucket of the second half. Miami kept chipping away and Wade’s floater in the lane with 2:27 left in the third cut lead to nine 81-72. A Norris Cole layup inched the Heat within seven. It was the first time Miami trailed by under 10 points since the first quarter popped off.
It didn’t last.
The Spurs settled down to end the quarter with an 86-75 lead, but it appeared Miami had the momentum as they entered the decisive fourth quarter on a 25-15 run.
Miami desperately tried to come back, but without James in attack mode and Wade hobbling around after spitting his bit in the third quarter surge, Ray Allen’s trey cut it to 90-80, but Tony Parker’s trey with 6:50 left put the Spurs back up 97-82. The LeBron Takeover never came. This Game 3 was never really a game.