"It was a cumulative of everything," James said after a 111-92 loss to the San Antonio Spurs pushed the Heat into a 2-1 series deficit. "One thing about [the Spurs], if you make a mistake, they're going to make you pay. And they made us pay more often than not."
The Heat better learn quickly from these costly lessons.
Defensively, Miami was torched from the outset in a game that saw the Spurs make 19 of their first 21 shots and eventually set a Finals record for a half by converting 75.8 percent of their attempts from the field.
San Antonio also set postseason records by a Heat opponent for most points in a quarter (41 in the first) and a half (71 by intermission) on the way to building a 25-point lead before halftime that created enough cushion to withstand a late Miami run. To say this game was essentially over from the start wouldn't be a stretch.
With Kawhi Leonard playing the best game of his NBA career after fouling out in Game 2, the Spurs took control early. And then they kept taking away the ball seemingly every time the Heat even thought about mounting any semblance of offensive rhythm.
By the time it was all over, Leonard ended up with a career-high 29 points in a performance that was equally as remarkable for the work he did defensively in containing James to 22 points and a Finals career-high seven turnovers. Those miscues from James were especially painful on a night when the Heat committed 20 turnovers that the Spurs converted into 23 points.
At a time when the Heat need stability and consistency from their primary ball-handlers and playmakers, they're instead getting stretches of sloppy play from their catalysts in James and Dwyane Wade. On top of that, point guard Mario Chalmers extended his frustrating disappearing act for a third straight game.
The most glaring weak spot for the Heat in this series has been the disparity at the point. Saddled by foul trouble in Game 1, Chalmers was assessed a flagrant foul penalty for his elbow shot on Tony Parker at a pivotal point in Game 2 and finished 0-for-5 with two points and three turnovers Tuesday. Mix in Norris Cole's erratic stretches off the bench in the series, and it's clear that Parker and Spurs backup Patty Mills are dominating the point guard matchup in the series.
"Still at the drawing board," Chalmers said when asked after Tuesday's loss where he stood in his search for answers in the series. "Everybody else is doing their job, and it's me that's not helping the team right now. And I don't want to be that guy. I don't know what it is right now, but I have to figure it out."
Through three games in the series, Parker and Mills have combined to shoot 49.1 percent from the field overall and 50 percent from 3-point range while accounting for 25 points, 7.6 assists and two steals a night. By comparison, Chalmers and Cole are shooting a combined 7-for-27 overall, including 2-of-11 from beyond the arc while contributing just 6.6 points, 5.3 assists and 4.7 turnovers a game.
Although James and Wade are more likely to run the offense late in games, they have been pressed into more ball-handling duties earlier than usual in this series because of the struggles at the point. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra hasn't hesitated throughout the playoffs to tweak his rotation and starting lineups. But he suggested Tuesday that the plan involves remaining committed to Chalmers and Cole for now.
"It's a big-time possession series both ways, so you have to be able to take care of the basketball," Spoelstra said of Miami's playoff-high 20 turnovers. "You have to hopefully force the other team into mistakes. [San Antonio] won that battle clearly tonight. As far as point guard play, we'll stick with those guys, and clearly, they're important to us."
James said he doesn't expect Chalmers and Cole to match the production of Parker and Mills, but he does want the Heat's point guards to compete and provide energy on the defensive end of the court. James has taken on the assignment of defending Parker during critical stages of the fourth quarter the past two games when the Heat switch to a bigger lineup with Wade and Ray Allen on the perimeter. But the Heat would prefer not to have to use that group for extended stretches throughout the game.
"We want them to run the offense and we want them to defend," James said of the Heat's point guards. "When they get open looks, we want them to take [shots] with confidence. When they have an opportunity, we want them to be aggressive. You can control how you defend. You can control how much energy you bring to the game. If our two point guards do that, we can be OK with that."
James said he's confident that Chalmers and Cole will soon come around.
"I know our two point guards; they're very passionate," James continued. "They've got a lot of pride. And I know they're looking forward to learning from what they did and try to be better in Game 4."
Wade believes Chalmers' issues are more psychological than anything tactical on the court.
"Mario is a big piece of what we do, and we're missing that piece right now, for whatever the reason is," Wade said. "We're going to continue to give him confidence. He's our guy. We're not going to leave him out on an island at all. So we're going to continue to pull for him. He can bounce back from it."
The Heat are confident they'll collectively respond as well from their first home loss of the playoffs. The Spurs snapped Miami's 10-game home postseason winning streak that started with their win against the Heat in Game 1 of the 2013 Finals. The Heat recovered to win that series in seven games.
Miami also has won 13 straight games coming off a postseason loss. That track record suggests the Heat won't allow the problems that cropped up Tuesday to linger for long.
"We have to take this one on the chin," center Chris Bosh said. "We're kidding ourselves if we think we're going to win a championship with that kind of effort, home or away. Everything was bad."