The Miami Heat are set to take on the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Arena, the same place where the infamous Game 6 took place in which Ray Allen essentially stole the Finals back for the Heat. Both teams are struggling with injuries and stability heading into the second half of the regular season, but the recent loss of Kawhi Leonard could haunt the Spurs for the entire month that he will be out.
The Spurs currently tout one of the best defenses in the league, only allowing fourth-best 96.5 points per game. Leonard is a huge catalyst for this performance, leading the team in steals with 1.7 per game and also being one of the top rebounders for his team with 6.1 per game.
Where Leonard’s importance comes into play is when he’s guarding some of the top small forwards in the league, which would have been LeBron James in Sunday’s contest. During last season’s NBA Finals, Leonard would sag off James on the perimeter, helping to pack the paint with other Spurs defenders, forcing James to shoot the jump shot from mid-range.
In Games 1 through 6, this plan worked, with James only shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc and 50 percent from the field. Game 7 is when the dynamic changed, and James was finally able to light up the Spurs’ defense from everywhere on the court, shooting 50 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 55 percent from the field.
Outside of his phenomenal Game 7 shooting streak, James was guarded quite well by Leonard throughout the course of the Finals. Leonard’s defensive absence will definitely be felt in this game, especially with Spurs also being without Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, two other Spurs starters.
It isn’t like the Heat will be without injuries either, with Dwyane Wade most likely missing this game as well. The most important task in this game will be containing James and without Leonard, that could be a very difficult one for the Spurs.