Plenty of factors went into the San Antonio’s decimation of the Miami Heat in Game 3, in which the Spurs shot 99 percent from the field and at one point went 44 minutes of game time without missing a shot (all numbers approximated).
There was sharp ball movement from the Spurs, leading to open shots galore. There were lazy closeouts and slow rotations by the Heat, affording San Antonio’s role players to dominate the first half. There were the Spurs making the hustle plays, getting on the floor for loose balls and straight up ripping steals away from Miami’s ball handlers.
While some of the onslaught could have been prevented by the Heat playing a little harder, as Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game, the Heat actually played okay offensively, although not at the historic pace the Spurs were blazing. San Antonio actually shot 59 percent for the game, with a 66.4 effective field goal percentage, while shooting better than 75 percent in the first half. LeBron James started the game strongly, and Rashard Lewis and Dwyane Wade took their turns powering Miami’s spurts that put them within (relative) striking distance as the game wore on. But Miami had a major anchor holding it down: its point guard play.
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole were, in a word, awful on Tuesday night. They combined to shoot 3 of 14 from the field in their 40 combined minutes. That’s bad. They committed five turnovers between them, not obscene when you look at LeBron’s seven giveaways or Wade’s five, but those guys handle the rock a lot more than Miami’s point men. The Heat struggled mightily with the two point guards on the floor - Chalmers posted an offensive rating of 53, Cole came in at 72. Their net ratings of minus-83 and minus-66 were by far the worst of Miami’s rotation players on the night, per basketball-reference.com.
Gregg Popovich blinked first in this series, changing his lineup and moving vital piece Boris Diaw into his starting unit for Game 3. It’s easy to suggest that Spoelstra should shake things up in Game 4, looking specifically at the point guard spot.
Our own Russell Peddle already advocated for benching Chalmers in favor of Cole, and things have only gotten worse for Mario since then. His effective field goal percentage is down to 29.2 in the Finals, and he posted net ratings of minus-61 and minus-5 in the first two games of the series. He’s scored a whopping 10 points in 70 Finals minutes and has nearly as many turnovers (nine) as points. Although he’s been a solid contributor to the last two Heat championships, Chalmers has been missing open looks from deep and has had the ball simply ripped from his hands on multiple occasions. Rio appears to have forgotten how to play basketball at this level.
The problem is that Cole has been nearly as bad in the Finals. He’s yet to post a positive net rating in the first three games, and basketball-reference.com had him at a seemingly impossible 22 ORtg (and minus-89 net rating) in Miami’s Game 2 win. Cole's been undeterred by his lack of success - his 30 eFG% is a far cry from his playoff number of 47.4 - and posted a usage rate of 34.7 percent in Game 3. While the Heat definitely needed some non-LeBron players to step up in the first half, having Norris Cole use up a third of the team’s possessions in his nearly 18 minutes of playing time probably wasn’t the solution.
It’s easy to say that Spo should more heavily rely on some of the no-point guard lineups that he’s trotted out throughout the postseason. After all, LeBron handles and distributes like a point guard anyway, and Wade can run the offense as well. The problem with that is simple, though. Having Wade and James chase Tony Parker for long stretches is a serious chore. They can both take him for a couple of possessions at a time, but Popovich’s offense has Parker running through pick after pick, which would take its toll on the Heat over the course of a full game - either through sheer exhaustion of the stars, or through defensive rotations being stretched to a breaking point. Cole and Chalmers are going to be needed to chase Parker and backup Patty Mills around the court going forward.
Of the 30 lineup combinations Spoelstra has tried in the Finals, only 10 have posted a positive net rating, per NBA.com. Guess what? All but one of them includes one of either Chalmers or Cole.
That leaves Spoelstra with some tough decisions to make with the Heat two losses away from their season ending. Finals adjustments are commonplace - Mike Miller saved the Heat’s season when he slid into the starting lineup in 2013 - but the Heat are much thinner this year and lack a true option to replace Chalmers and Cole both. Some of the adjustments will come in how the Heat play defense, and it’s safe to assume their tenacity on that end will pick up.
The point guard play is going to have to improve exponentially, too. It could spell doom for the Heat if it doesn’t.