Spurs get what they want as defense shines in Game 1 victory
MIAMI — The San Antonio Spurs turned the ball over 13 seconds into the first quarter, leading to a Dwyane Wade dunk on the other end and opening a can of worms nobody cared to see from the start. But they committed just three turnovers over the next 47 minutes and 47 seconds of the game, including zero in the fourth quarter. And in the game’s final moments, it was the turnover they avoided by a tenth of a second that sealed the 92-88 Game 1 victory.
Tony Parker was on the ground with two seconds left on the shot clock in a two-point game in the waning moments, his left leg torqued underneath him and a live dribble in his right hand. The imposing shadow of LeBron James was standing over him, making an already improbable situation essentially impossible. But the point guard spun right off his folded leg, avoided James’ block attempt, double-pumped and fired an 18-footer off the glass by the slimmest margin of time imaginable.
It bounced on the front side of the rim for a split second, and then it fell.
As the play was reviewed by the officials, every set of eyes in the arena was focused on Parker’s fingertips as the shot clock hit zero. Not a one came away with a conclusion, including the referees. The shot was ruled good on the floor, and there wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to prove otherwise. The shot pushed the lead to four points with 5.2 seconds remaining and effectively cemented the win for the Spurs.
Parker clenched his fists and let out a primal yell as he walked toward his team’s bench. He knew a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals belonged to San Antonio.
And those four turnovers? The last time San Antonio gave the ball away four times or fewer in a single game: March 27, 2009, when they turned it over three times against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Parker was brilliant, as usual, and the offense made no mistakes beyond missing a few too many shots. But the Spurs’ defense continued to be the most underrated aspect of what has become perhaps the most balanced team in the league. Finally pushing aside the Indiana Pacers was supposed to be a relief for the Heat, as San Antonio’s collective smaller size would allow more space for the defending champions to operate. While it’s true, the Spurs aren’t as physically imposing as the Pacers, the task at hand for Miami was hardly any easier.
James had a triple-double on Thursday night, but the Heat needed more. It boggles the mind to type such a statement, but when your two other “superstar” teammates fade away in the second half, the onus falls upon the MVP of the NBA. And it’s not going to be easy, because the Spurs are ready. They were on this night, at least.
Kawhi Leonard made his first appearance on the biggest of stages, and nothing about it rattled him. Not playing against the defending champs, not guarding the best player in the world, nothing. His shot wasn’t falling — he was 3-for-9 from the floor and missed on all four of his 3-point attempts — but he defended James as well as anyone can possibly be expected to. He had help, though. A lot of it.
San Antonio made clear its defensive intentions against “the King,” and they weren’t all that different from the approach they employed against Zach Randolph in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs always had a help man waiting, even though Leonard’s individual defense was fantastic. He was closing out hard but sticking with James flawlessly when he would attack. He was always in his hip pocket, and Kawhi’s length makes him one of the few players in the league that isn’t beaten simply because his man gets past him.
Still, the Spurs packed the paint anyway, making life miserable for James when he would break the teeth of the defense. Though he did his thing, to be sure. You’re not going to stop the eighth wonder of the world (or ninth, or tenth, or whatever), but you can do your best to force him to rely on his teammates to do the damage. Most of the time, that’s the better option.
The Heat shot 43.6 percent from the floor, including just 8-for-25 from beyond the 3-point line. James connected on just seven of his 16 shots, while Wade and Chris Bosh went for 17 points and 13 points, respectively. If Miami’s Big 3 combines to go 20-for-47, things will be OK for the Spurs. And the thing is, San Antonio was far from great, itself. Aside from the incredibly low turnover count, the silver and black have areas that must be addressed.
Shooting 41.7 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from the arc typically won’t get the job done. Not against a team like the Heat. And on top of that, San Antonio was outrebounded 46-37. It was a less-than-stellar performance from the Western Conference champions, but they took care of the ball and executed beautifully when it was necessary to do so. If there was lag from a 10-day break, it was minimal, and the Spurs showed why the “rest versus rust” debate is one of overblown proportions.
Still, it’s difficult to come back from such a long layoff and expect to shoot the ball well, so limiting turnovers was of the utmost importance. The shots were there, the opportunities abundant. Getting the looks to drop was a chore, but at least those attempts belonged to the Spurs rather than racing to the other end in the form of a Heat fast-break.
“I think the most important thing we did offensively is not turn the ball over, and that’s something we talked about,” Manu Ginobili said. “First play of the game: turnover, dunk. And that’s what they do. The fact that we didn’t turn the ball over really helped us. They played most of the game 5-on-5, and that’s what we want.”
The Spurs opened an NBA Finals on the road for the first time in franchise history, but it didn’t matter. They still got everything they wanted.