In Game 4, the Spurs will look to get Kawhi Leonard involved in the offense early -- just as they have all series.
In one of the first possessions in each game thus far, the Spurs have run Kawhi off of a screen in order to get him the ball at the top of the arc. From there, he has had two choices: either attack the rim or keep the ball moving.
Virtually every time, he called his own number, put the ball on the deck and looked to score. In the first two games, he played aggressively, but not intelligently -- driving into traffic without a plan; that's one of the reasons he didn't score the ball well in San Antonio.
Part of the blame should also fall onto Gregg Popovich, who elected to start his big lineup of Duncan and Splitter at the 4 and 5 (power forward and center) during those first two games.
The Heat don't respect Splitter as an offensive threat, so his defender, usually Rashard Lewis, played off of him by more than an arm's length and zoned-up in the paint on the strong side -- playing kind of like a free safety in football.
On top of that, if Duncan wasn't directly involved in the offensive action (e.g. setting an on-ball screen or fighting for post position), Bosh also stepped away from Duncan and clogged the paint. Generally, when the two bigs played at the same time for San Antonio, Miami mucked up the interior -- taking away driving lanes and easy post-entry passes early on.
In Game 1, the first time he touched the ball he dribbled headlong into a mass of bodies -- congestion at least partially caused by the lack of floor spacing. Regardless, it was a bad decision: Wade easily picked his pocket which led to a breakaway dunk by Lebron.
Similarly, early in Game 2, Kawhi again got the ball at the top of the three-point line. This time he used a Duncan screen to try and make a play, but instead of driving directly at the hoop, he veered off toward the sideline where Lebron and Bosh trapped him, the baseline acting as a third defender. Somehow (and a bit luckily) Kawhi got the ball to Splitter (who was standing right next to him on the left block -- a bit more of that awkward spacing) who hit Duncan cutting down the lane for a dunk.
Kawhi compounded his poor start by picking up a few early fouls in the first two contests. As Pop told the media after Game 3, he thought Kawhi "overreacted" to his foul trouble and subsequently played "very cautious." Unable to get easy baskets early and then forced to sit due to fouls, Kawhi had virtually no impact on the first two games.
In Game 3, Pop switched up his starting lineup, substituting Diaw for Splitter and splitting up Timmy and Tiago so that they were never on the court at the same time.
The adjustment worked beautifully. Boris hovered out beyond the arc on offense and that stretched the Heat defense, opening up avenues in the paint for Kawhi and Danny Green to take toward the hoop. The two wing players took advantage of all the free space, combining to shoot a perfect 10 for 10 in the lane -- easy baskets which helped build their confidence and the Spurs' gargantuan lead.
When Kawhi plays well, he gives the Spurs a decisive advantage over the Heat. He provides a fourth versatile scoring threat who can manufacture easy points; the Heat only have three such options.
The question is: can he do it again tonight? Is Kawhi reliable?
If the Spurs keep the same starting lineup as Game 3 (and why wouldn't they?) then I think yes.
In Game 4, I expect the Spurs to continue to feature Kawhi early from the top of the key and for him to keep attacking the rim. I'm curious to see how the Heat will defend him. Chances are Lebron will take the assignment early on and he'll back off Kawhi, daring him to shoot his outside shot. If Kawhi can hit those open looks and provide that extra scoring punch, the Heat will lose.
The Spurs will need another big contribution from Kawhi in order to win Game 4 on the road against a desperate Miami squad. Or as Pop succinctly told the media: "He's got to be one of our better players on the court or we're not good enough. That's just the way it is."
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