NBA Finals preview: Spurs offense, Heat defense and pick-and-roll kryptonite
Rarely do you head into a series of this caliber with hardly any precedent on which to base a prediction, breakdown or preview. But as the Heat and Spurs meet for the Larry O’Brien trophy, that’s exactly what we have. The last time these teams faced one another at full strength, Kawhi Leonard, who has never before played against Dwyane Wade, was still a San Diego State Aztec.
Of course, other things have changed since then as well, beyond just the drafting of the rangy Spurs small forward. Rosters have been modified, weapons have been added around the respective Big 3’s in Miami and San Antonio, and both teams have reached elite levels on both sides of the ball. What it’s all created is a built-for-the-Finals matchup that feels like it’s been several years in the making.
The Spurs haven’t reached this point in six years — an eternity by Duncan-era standards — while the Heat are staking their claim as the league’s preeminent basketball monster hellbent on league dominance in a third consecutive Finals appearance, this one chalk full of storylines their previous two trips lacked to an extent. (Not a slight against the Mavericks or Thunder, at all.)
And are there ever storylines…
A trio of players raised through a single, adaptable system versus a threesome of NBA superstars whose mettle had already been tested in other stomping grounds prior to LeBron James’ and Chris Bosh’s arrival in South Beach. An MVP who still remembers watching the Spurs celebrate in Cleveland, then his home floor, after being swept out of his first Finals appearance. The ultimate small-market, team identity of a proven past champion against the ultimate in purchased individual star power. The past against the present.
Except, the past is still the present, and the present still has a future.
At 37 years of age, Tim Duncan continues to defy the typical logic of Father Time. At 28, LeBron still holds him in his hand.
And while the narratives that open this series will assuredly shape and shift with swings in momentum and game-by-game overreactions, the on-court adjustments between two championship coaches and handfuls of brilliant, ring-laden players will be most fascinating. But if ever there was a time for Gregg Popovich to flex his mental muscle, it’s now. Trying to game-plan against the best player in the world will be a difficult, if not fitting test as his career winds down.
To borrow a phrase from the coach himself, perhaps we’re nearing Pop’s final exam.
The Miami Heat defense: pick and roll kryptonite
The transformation of the Spurs’ offensive attack has been well-documented in recent seasons as it has stood regularly among the league’s elite since the move away from the post-centric Duncan system. Tony Parker’s emergence as San Antonio’s offensive engine has brought about brilliant, fast-paced action not before seen during Pop’s reign in the Alamo City, and the constant utilization of the pick and roll has been at the forefront of the movement.
When the Spurs are on offense, the screens will come in waves.
One after the other, opponents’ backcourt defenders crash into the floating walls personified as Spurs bigs. It’s nearly impossible to stay in front of the Frenchman because his teammates do whatever they can to prevent it from happening. And even if you’re able to wrestle through Duncan, Tiago Splitter and the ‘Land Walrus’ himself, Boris Diaw, the repetition of the process over a 48-minute game can be exhausting.
Note: I’m sorry, Boris. I didn’t make the name up. It’s awful, and I blame Dan McCarney.
It’s not unusual for Spurs guards to run around five, six and seven picks on any one possession, so sustaining the energy required to effectively guard Parker and Manu Ginobili in these situations is next to impossible. On top of that, every Spurs player that sets screens in this offense is capable of doing damage to any defense. Whether it’s Duncan popping for the mid-range jumper, Splitter rolling to the basket or Diaw … doing Diaw things, danger is ever-present wherever the ball goes.
But then there’s the Heat defense. The one that takes pick-and-rolls, stuffs them in its pocket and snuffs out any offense that relies too heavily upon the most effective play in basketball. Miami has rangy athletes, led by perhaps the most athletic player the NBA has ever seen in James, and it uses them to swarm the perimeter, crash down in the paint and recover to the 3-point line when the ball is kicked out. And that’s ‘if’ the ball even escapes their grasp when the Heat blitz the ball-handler.
James and Wade didn’t play in San Antonio on Easter Sunday due to …*ahem* … injuries. (Sorry, had something in my throat.) But we still got a look at how they want to defend the Spurs’ offense when Parker is running the pick and roll. The PnR can come in different forms outside of the traditional set, with a big man flashing up high to set a pick for a guard from the triple threat position or with a live dribble. San Antonio runs variations of this all over the court, and we’ll likely see more of the hand-off variety to keep the Heat a bit more off guard.
Miami is ultra-aggressive on defense, often opting to trap the ball-handler in these situations. If the offensive player isn’t able to split the double team or find the correct outlet pass, the offense can become disjointed, allowing the defense to dictate the pace and force a team into late-in-the-shot-clock situations. Few teams in the league have the athleticism and the intellect to recover quickly and rotate correctly, but the Heat are masterful in this capacity. In that March 31 matchup, the Spurs had 10 pick-and-rolls that ended in a field-goal attempt, free throws or a turnover. Of those ten, San Antonio made only two shots, got fouled once and turned the ball over three times, according to Synergy numbers. That’s a bit jarring for a team that relies so heavily on these sets.
But there’s one thing that must be taken into account: Tony Parker had just come off an ankle sprain that had kept him out for weeks. He was not the Parker we’re watching today. When you look at tape, you can see he was noticeably more tentative when the Heat trapped off the pick and roll, opting to get rid of the ball quickly rather than attack hard off the dribble. He wasn’t healthy then, but he is now.
The Heat’s style of defense is effective because of the personnel they boast on the court, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a dangerous game plan. If the Spurs handle it correctly, they can make Miami pay dearly. But it means they must make quick, sharp passes to the open players. It won’t be the first pass out of the pick and roll that beats this defense, it will be the second, third and fourth that must take advantage of scrambling players. But at the point of attack, the initial responsibilities will be on Parker to make the right decision, something he’s proven he can do throughout the playoffs.
Probably the best example of a counter-attack to Miami’s traps is what you can see in the photo below. Rather than taking the screen and falling into the Heat’s hands, we’ll likely see a lot of reversals and refusals of the screen that’s been set. If Miami overcommits, this is the end result:
In this instance, Udonis Haslem shows trap over the top too early, and Parker baits Norris Cole into the screen before crossing him over and diving into the lane. Cole is completely off-balance and lost Parker the second he turned to fight through Duncan’s screen and Haslem is in no position to help any longer. Now, Parker has an open lane and multiple options at his disposal. Bosh is the next man up here. On this play, TP threw a little ball fake toward Boris Diaw on the baseline, getting Bosh to jump out. The rest of Miami’s defenders stayed on their men and Parker got as easy a lay-up as you’ll ever see.
Now, with Wade and James back on the floor for these Finals matchups, there will be two much more physically imposing defenders capable of recovering for come-from-behind blocks and crisper defensive rotations. But the Spurs will still have the opportunity to move the defense more than it wants to be moved. We’ll see breakdowns like this from time to time when Parker and Ginobili decide to refuse the screen, and we might even see more isolation than usual from the Spurs’ two best playmakers, just to keep the extra defenders away.
But when the double teams do come and the defense is forced to scramble, it’s going to take a ton of energy to keep up, especially if San Antonio takes care of the ball. James has inhuman stamina, but the rest of Miami’s role players are aging and aren’t necessarily known for the fleetness of foot anyway. When the Spurs get in to the paint, penetrate and kick, the Heat are going to have issues covering out to the arc if this series goes long, which it likely will. It may very well be a battle of conditioning, as Miami’s rotations will cause the Spurs to exert a ton of energy on both sides of the ball as well.
The execution must be brilliant, passes must be precise, players must move intelligently without the ball and turnovers must be limited if the Spurs want to damage the defense. But if these things happen and San Antonio is hitting its shots when the Heat collapse on the paint, there’s a great chance a fifth banner will be raised to the AT&T Center rafters.
Then there’s the Wade and Bosh situation. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s unpredictable in terms of what we’ll get on a nightly basis, especially out of Wade with his ailing knee. Bosh has done damage to the Spurs in the past, and with the fresh start of a new series we may see him revert back to form. But that’s still not a certainty. Unpredictability is not a good thing going into the NBA Finals against the Spurs, because you know what you’re going to get from them.
There are many other facets to these games than just the Spurs’ offense against the Heat defense, but they’re rather obvious. LeBron James is the best player in the world, and it’s going to take a Herculean effort from Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the defense to prevent him from just taking this thing himself. We know this. (We will keep an eye on the James-Leonard matchup throughout the series and break it down for you here as the Finals move on.)
We know that Duncan will have an opportunity to excel in the post against the less-than-stellar interior defenders of Miami, but the days of the 4-Down offense are gone, and you can’t expect to dump it inside to Duncan 20 times a game and come away with the win. As great as he is, the double teams are no longer there in droves like they used to be, which means the open looks from the 3-point line wouldn’t necessarily be there.
This is Parker’s team now. How well he is able to control the Miami defense and make the right decisions will likely decide this series.
In his twelfth year in the league, Parker has never been better. But he hasn’t faced an NBA Finals opponent like this one. It will be the most difficult task ever put upon him, but he’s as ready as he’s ever been. Spurs in 7.
Numbers and screenshots, as always, courtesy of mySynergySports.com and NBA.com.