Put the tin hats away, it’s time to basketball again

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SAN ANTONIO — With all the unexpected extra variables that surrounded the opening night of the NBA Finals, the actual basketball game — a pretty damn good one — became not much more than an afterthought over the last couple of days.

The San Antonio Spurs fired a cruise missile at the HEAT in the fourth quarter of Game 1, scoring 36 points on 12-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-6 from the 3-point line, and notching 12 assists. The advanced numbers translate like this in those final 12 minutes: 177.2 points per 100 possessions, a 106.3 effective field-goal percentage and a net-efficiency rating of 94 points. It was one of the most unbelievable offensive outputs you’ll ever see in an NBA Finals, but it was lost on many through the AT&T Center’s warmth and humidity and LeBron James’ suddenly unusable legs.

The basketball bifocals understandably came off once the best player in the world was forced from the evening’s events, but unfortunately, too many replaced those viewing lenses with tin hats.

 


 

We’ll get back to the basketball in a second, as I’m not trying to be a hypocrite within a paragraph or two of those previous comments. But the worst thing that could’ve happened after Thursday’s air-conditioning debacle was a full, two-day break in between games. Conspiracy theorists were on a rampage, subtly suggesting, if not outright alleging, that the Spurs somehow had something to do with what happened in the series opener. If you want to live in that world, go for it. If you’d like to assume that, for some bat-shit crazy reason, Gregg Popovich and Friends felt it would benefit his team — one whose title chances depend on a 32-year-old point guard with ankle and hamstring issues, a 36-year-old “Crazy Boy” with a history of random injuries and a 38-year-old center with a knee that’s being held together by technology — to crank up the temperature, then go ahead and live in that world. It must be stressful.

And forget about the players. It feels like a liability issue to voluntarily subject nearly 20,000 people to an atmosphere like that. Yes, let’s break the air conditioning on purpose based on the remote hope that LeBron’s legs tighten up halfway through the fourth quarter. We’ll risk the health and safety of every single person in the building just for the possibility!

One thing that didn’t hit me until afterward: the entire concourse on each level was completely wet and slippery due to the humidity. Apparently I’m an idiot, because at first I just thought it was some massive beverage spill; but from wall to wall and end to end, the floors were completely soaked. The entire arena was a hazard for everyone involved, but I guess some will have you believe the plan worked. Get out of here with that.

But back to the basketballing.

 


 

It’s interesting how a game can be so entertaining when neither side played its best. The Spurs committed 23 team turnovers, a number that will typically get you blown away by the HEAT. Miami committed 18 turnovers themselves, a total that is normally death by transition 3-pointer against San Antonio, and only assisted on 16 baskets.

But the Spurs managed to shoot a ridiculous 58.8 percent from the floor when they didn’t give the ball away, and the vast majority of their buckets came from the most efficient spots on the floor. Thirty-four of San Antonio’s 40 field goals came from inside the restricted area or outside the 3-point line. What’s even more ridiculous, this team was 28-of-35 on shots from the corners and at the rim. When the HEAT didn’t take the ball the other way, the Spurs got whatever they wanted.

Those turnovers, though — there are some issues there. Whether it’s the familiarity these teams have with one another or just another one of those sloppy Spurs games, it’s an issue that must be quickly corrected. To be blunt, if you lose the ball that many times against Miami and still win, you’ve gotten pretty lucky. Since the Big Three assembled in South Beach four seasons ago, the HEAT are 47-5 when their opponent gives the ball away 19 times or more. Loss No. 5 just happened to be Game 1 of the Finals.

On the other side of the ball, Miami missed a boatload of open 3-pointers. The defending champs hit 12 of their 29 attempts from beyond the arc, which is a really good number on the surface; but Popovich said it best during media availability on Friday.

“I thought we made a good number of mistakes.  I thought they missed some wide, wide open shots that they had, that scare you to death once you watch the film,” Pop said. “That’s not just blowing smoke or an exaggeration. There were about seven or eight wide‑open threes they had that just didn’t go down.”

How the Spurs fix this issue is a question whose answer will only come with research that’s beyond my pay grade, but it likely starts with the way Pop opens the game. I have a difficult time believing we’ll see Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter start the game together again, especially given what the HEAT are likely to put on the court. San Antonio is playing a team with starting “bigs” that each shoot 3-pointers, and there just isn’t enough foot speed between its two pivot men to deal with that for long stretches.

On the other hand, there must still be an effort to pack the paint. Giving LeBron and D-Wade one-on-one opportunities with little to no help is like giving your grade-school teacher the splintered ruler when you misbehaved. (We do not advocate corporal punishment here at 48 Minutes of Hell. Or I don’t know, maybe we do. Actually, we’re impartial. Damn kids.) Even when San Antonio uses its small-ball lineups to counter that floor-spacing, a guy like Boris Diaw still must stay close to the key to cut off those blow-by angles. With all the shooters that surround Miami’s playmakers, this makes life quite difficult.

The Spurs have shown some zone defense stuff at times during the postseason, and they pulled it out again in Game 1. They’ll likely continue to mix it in every so often to change the pace or momentum if it starts to swing, but I’d guess they’ll stick with man looks more often than not.

Side note: Check out Zach Lowe’s analysis of Game 1. There’s a lot of stuff in there, but he mentions the fact San Antonio is playing LeBron differently this time around. Defenders aren’t sagging and daring him to shoot quite as much, and they’re even going over the top of screens when he’s got the ball in pick-and-rolls. The adjustments in this series are going to be so fun to watch, especially given everything these two teams seem to know about the other.

For the San Antonio offense, it should be much of the same, just without the turnovers. The HEAT’s defense isn’t as aggressive as it has been the last couple of years, so it’s not as if a lot of these were forced by seriously uncomfortable situations. Still, their slightly more conservative approach doesn’t take away from the intelligence these guys possess, and it doesn’t mean they won’t crank up the intensity from time to time.

I already mentioned the Spurs’ shooting numbers from Game 1, but perhaps even more impressive were the stat lines of Duncan and Splitter. The two big men combined for 35 points on 14-of-16 shooting, and Miami’s small front line had some major issues defending them near the rim out of pick-and-roll sets.

It might be a chore for San Antonio to defend Miami’s floor-spacers, but it’s equally as daunting a task for the HEAT to deal with the Spurs’ interior offense. Duncan was able to find a million ways to get the ball in this game at different spots on the floor, but it was almost as much about questionable defense as it was about great offense. Almost.

With all the hard hedges, traps and double-teams, Miami left itself susceptible on the back end around the basket. Given the fact they basically never play two traditional big men at the same time, all it takes is a minor slip-up and Duncan is going to have it nice and easy. And if they crowd him, he’ll find shooters. It’s a difficult problem to solve.

Take this sequence early in the game, for example. After stealing the ball from Wade, Parker pushed the ball toward the paint; Miami was able to get back and redirect Tony’s path back out to the perimeter, but as the defense attempted to scramble and recover, it became discombobulated.

Notice Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on the weak side, both initially looking to cut to the strong corner (the “Danny Green cut,” a play Lowe has also illustrated in-depth). Both Wade and Chris Bosh have their heads turned away from the ball, trying to locate the threats on the far side. But all it takes is a split second.

Parker attacks once the opportunity presents itself, and Leonard and Green both realize what’s transpiring at the same moment and stop in their tracks as they identify Duncan’s position on the baseline. They don’t want to pull a defender anywhere near him.

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The result is a quick pass from Parker to Duncan, and a helpless Bosh on the other side of the rim. All it takes is a pump fake from Timmy and he’s laying it up on the reverse side. Also, notice where Wade eventually finds himself. There were many moments in this game where the guy just seemed completely lost on the defensive end.

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Of course, it’s not always this easy. Miami might be small along the front line, but its quickness elsewhere is what makes this defense so dangerous. Some of the stuff San Antonio pulled off seemed simple, but a lot of it was done by the skin of its teeth. Then again, when you have wizards on the court like Manu Ginobili, sometimes the impossible is anything but that.

Here, Ginobili identifies the mismatch with Rashard Lewis defending Duncan off a cross screen on the block from Leonard, who moved to the opposite corner. Lewis has no chance if he doesn’t front Timmy, a staple of this HEAT defense given its collective size. They just don’t have the ability to defend a guy like Duncan from the hip.

Initially, there is no angle, but again, Manu is a magician. He takes one dribble toward the baseline, curls the ball around Wade and Lewis and just in front of a lurking LeBron. Duncan makes a smooth catch, splits the two defenders and lays it in without any contest at the rim.

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Not long after, we see an almost identical situation, except this time it’s LeBron fronting Duncan, and any backside help is so far off the center axis of the court there is no threat to an over-the-top lob. Manu, again, takes one dribble to his left, and this time the two defenders overplay toward the baseline. So Ginobili just flips it up, Duncan takes it out of the air, turns and puts it in.

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They also found ways to get the ball to him in the middle of the floor. Again, sometimes the HEAT will hurt themselves with too much aggression; they didn’t get burned here (below), but they’re lucky they didn’t. As Ginobili dribbled into the front court, Duncan slid down the middle of the floor but didn’t pull up to set a pick. Bosh acted like that’s what was going on despite Duncan clearly just slipping.

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Bosh and James chased Manu and put him in a trap, but Duncan opened himself right in the middle of the paint. Once he received the ball it was 4-on-3, but he threw it away, perhaps failing to realize how freaking open Green was behind him. Instead of turning that direction, he threw a pass right into the teeth of the defense and a scramble ensued.

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But you get the point. If you can get it to Duncan in these spots, where the only big man on the floor is 10 feet away and he’s got guards on his back, you’ll take it. Miami put itself into situations like these a little too often, so I’d imagine we’ll see things tighten up quite a bit in Game 2.

Also, perhaps this example is too easy to pick apart, but I thought it was indicative of LeBron’s physical state at the time. Just follow the sequence that came just before James left the game for the first time. He picked up Parker on the wing before the point guard whipped over the top of a Leonard screen and into the paint. An instant later he was attacking the rim before dumping it off to Duncan for a layup. Look how far LeBron moved in the time Parker dribbled about 30 feet in total.

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So we saw both sides of the situation in Game 1. Miami’s defense isn’t quite what it used to be, but it can still be disruptive, as those 23 San Antonio turnovers indicated. Still, there are all these breakdowns that have to be a concern for Erik Spoelstra. Things will undoubtedly tighten up, and with a fully functioning air conditioner in the AT&T Center, fatigue won’t be as much of a problem this time around.

I’m very much looking forward to the adjustments the two sides make after two days of preparation, and I’m most intrigued by what Pop will do with the starting lineup. He loves bringing Diaw off the bench, but it’s got to be so tempting to start him from the jump against Miami’s five-out attack.

And by the way, here’s the absolute perfect Diaw sequence. It illustrates his array of skills and shows exactly why he’s been so valuable this season. First comes the screen, a skill most utilized by big men. Here, he sets one for Parker at the top of the key and pops out to the 3-point line. Of course, the HEAT double.

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The 3-point shot has obviously become a much more prevalent skill for big men around the league, especially among international players like Diaw. Traditionally, the best shooters have been backcourt players, but Bobo (whose bulky frame was described by Pop as “carrying around a little bit of luggage”) hit 3s at a clip of better than 40 percent during the season. And on top of that, if you close out, his big body can dribble right by you. So not only is he a threat to shoot, but he’s then you’ve got to account for him attacking the paint from 25 feet away.

Here, Diaw goes right at the front foot of Lewis, who scrambled away from the double-team to defend the 3-point attempt when Parker flipped the ball back to the weak-side angle.

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And then there’s the passing. Diaw maintained the space between he and Duncan by squeezing down the right side of the lane. He’s such a threat to score, that he got Bosh and Lewis up in the air without a fake of any kind. Once they left their feet, he dropped it to Duncan who slammed it home.

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So I guess we’ll see what happens next. I imagine life will be more difficult for Duncan in Game 2, but it’s not like the HEAT are going to get much taller without playing bigger lineups. And if they do that, they go away from those small-ball units that make them so dangerous offensively. Miami isn’t a team that adjusts lineups according to what its opponent does, either. It feels like it can beat whatever group you put on the floor regardless of size or speed. And it can. I expect the same lineup to start for the HEAT.

The Spurs, on the other hand, do adjust to the opposition. And that’s not a bad thing. They’re deep enough and versatile enough to adapt, but they don’t have enough individual talent and athleticism to go in with the mindset that they’ll beat anybody they want with their preferred two-big style. It really is a fascinating matchup, as these teams are so very different in the way they do things.

After two days of conspiracy theories, it’s time to get back to basketball. We’ll talk to you guys after Game 2!

Oh, and leave your tinfoil hat at home. I’ve been told they don’t make it past security.

Statistical support and screenshots courtesy of NBA.com’s media site.

  • DJMP

    Great analysis Matthew; helps me understand and appreciate greater intricacies of the game! GSG!

  • camnpat

    A good, short analysis on ESPN.com also was pointing out how Manu started holding the ball for a fraction of a second more later in the game when it became apparent that Miami were trying to intercept passes from the Spurs at the normal instances when they executed. Manu holding the ball a little longer not only negated this but also gave players such as Splitter a chance to get deeper in the paint for some easy baskets.

  • Len

    As Wacko Jacko mentioned on First Take, I’d also love to see Manu string together at least 3 more great games and take home the Finals MVP. I’d be redemption for the team and for one of the greatest Spurs of all time. GSG

  • camnpat

    If they win I think the MVP will surely go to Duncan. But yes, more of good Manu in the series will be redemption for everyone (and finally shut up the naysayers).