Greg Cote

Greg Cote: With loss, pressure falls on a Miami Heat team in search of an identity

LeBron James is a body-language guy. He might not even know it, but he is easy to read — especially when the Heat is struggling, because what he conveys physically is shouting.

In one bunched sequence during Tuesday night’s NBA Finals Game 3 here he slapped the basketball hard between his palms in frustration. Then his shoulders visibly sagged at another Spurs three-point basket. Then he stood with hands on hips, head tilted and lips pressed tight as if trying to contain an expletive, as another Miami turnover was turned into fast-break points.

And then things got bad.

Really bad.

Things got so bad at one point that if James’ body language was commensurate, you would have had to cover the children’s eyes. And ears.

The Heat trailed by as many as 25 points in this pivotal game, the bayside arena stunned to a buzzing hush, the series advantage Miami had gained by splitting two games in San Antonio running away fast.

That was before the Heat marshaled a measure of champion’s pride and rallied, at one point drawing within seven only to eventually lose 111-92.

But now here’s the thing.

Only the loss matters, not the manner or the margin of it.

The fact Miami was flat-out embarrassed on its home floor for so much of this game doesn’t matter. Neither does the second-half comeback by the Heat. Whether Miami lost this game by two points on a last-second shot or by 45 – so what.

All that matters — and it matters a lot — is that Miami now trails these Finals 2-1 entering Game 4 back in the downtown arena Thursday night.

Now all of the pressure shifts squarely back to the double-defending champion Heat.

“We feel like we have an advantage now,” Chris Bosh had said before this game.

It is gone.

But cast the mind back only one year to recall how quickly an advantage can return.

One year ago the Spurs pasted an even bigger loss on Miami in Game 3, 113-77, a 36-point avalanche, for the same 2-1 series lead. But the eventual championship parade was here, not in south-central Texas.

“What it feels like is the Finals,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Frustration, anger, pain, elation — you deal with all of it, and it can swing back and forth. That starts [Wednesday] by owning it. We have to do that together and collectively come out with a much better response Thursday.”

Said LeBron: “They had us on our heels from the start and that’s something at this point in the season that shouldn’t happen. We hate the performance we put on. But it’s 2-1. It’s not 4-1.”

Miami came out early as if relying on the home crowd to make up for the Heat’s lack of early intensity. At the same time the Spurs were not missing shots.

“I don’t think we’ll shoot like that in a half ever again,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “Ever.”

In a record-setting first half the Spurs made Miami look as helpless as we have ever seen them look in a playoff game, with so much at stake.

San Antonio did not miss. The Spurs made 19 of their first 21 shots. It was surreal. Their 75.8 percent accuracy in the half set an all-time NBA playoff record. The 71 points were the most ever given up in one half in the postseason in the Heat’s 26-year history. The Spurs’ 21-point halftime lead was the biggest by a road team in the playoffs since 1996.

“They came out at a different gear than what we were playing at most of the first half,” Spoelstra said.

You know how Spoelstra always talks about defense being his team’s “identity”?

Then this first half was a case of identity theft.

“We don’t have to make a 20-point play!” Spoelstra told his players at halftime. “We’re built for this. Take the challenge. Is it easy? No. We’re in the Finals!”

They took the challenge.

And, no, it wasn’t easy.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re coming back from 25 down,” Bosh said.

Don’t blame the loss just on San Antonio’s record-stetting first half shooting and Miami’s dumbfounding lack of early defensive intensity. So much else went wrong.

The Heat committed 20 turnovers, with Spoelstra borrowing a football phrase, referring to “pick-6’s” that helped swing momentum. A dozen of the turnovers were by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined (though each scored 22 points).

“Another storyline for LeBron,” James deadpanned.

James also only had eight points over the last three quarters.

Bosh was mostly in spectator mode with nine points.

Oh, and Mario Chalmers was miserable again. Dead-weight absymal. A non-factor.

“Mario is a big piece of what we do,” said Dwyane Wade. “We’re missing that piece right now for whatever reason.”

If the Heat had won this game — this game — then anything would be possible. Three-peat? How about six! Man on mars? Not a problem. Medical miracle? Believe it. You hitting the Lotto … twice? I’d have liked your chances.

But the hole that grew to a 25-point crater proved just too big.

Miami fought back into the game by limiting the Spurs to a 15-point third quarter, but still the hole was deep.

“You could see the different intensity,” said Spolestra of that third-quarter surge. “That’s how hard we should be playing the whole game.”

The Heat cut the deficit to a manageable seven points by late in the third quarter as the arena found its full throat again. But the Heat would get no closer. See, two champions are playing in this series. San Antonio aims for its fifth NBA crown of the Tim Duncan era while Miami seeks a three-peat in the James era. Giants are at play here.

A team other than champion Miami might have crumbled when down by 25 early.

A team other than San Antonio might have panicked when that lead was cut to seven.

These teams are each other’s equal.

That’s why this looks like another epic Finals to match the one Miami won in seven games a year ago. And that’s why a rebound victory by the Heat on Thursday in Game 4 might fairly be relied upon.

What Wade said of the Spurs, the Spurs would say of Miami.

“You never put them away,” he said. “They always believe, and it’s the same with us. That’s why this is a perfect, different-animal kind of series. They’re the other team like us.”

Miami had won a club-record 11 straight playoff games at home before this loss. That included an 8-0 mark by the downtown bay this postseason, and by an average margin of 12.4 points. The Spurs by contrast were only 3-5 on the road this postseason.

This was the 14th game Miami has hosted in an NBA Finals, carrying in a 10-3 record.

All of that made the Heat’s first half nearly shocking.

Historically Game 3 has been a Finals barometer, with that game’s winner going on to be champion 83 percent of the time. Then again, one of the exceptions was just one year ago, when the Spurs won Game 3 over Miami in an even greater rout, to no eventual avail.

That is why Tuesday night didn’t change a whole lot.

This still feels like a seven-game series.

It still feels like either champion might win.

Miami’s climb got a little steeper, that’s all. A little higher, and a little harder.

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