The Spurs, Heat, and walking the tightrope against the NBA’s elite

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A tightrope walker’s professional existence depends on two critical aspects of the human psyche: impeccable balance and unbreakable concentration. With so many outside elements and variables capable of affecting the outcome of the exercise, unflappable precision is key, because failure results in one common end. When one or both of these elements is compromised and the performer isn’t able to react appropriately, the fall to the bottom is always the same, regardless of height and distance. Because once the plummet begins, you don’t stop until you’ve reached the landing zone.

In the case of the San Antonio Spurs in Games 2 and 4, the final buzzer marked the end of the dive.

Playing against the Miami Heat is somewhat of a death-defying challenge in itself. Compounded mistakes typically result in the end of the line for the opposition, and it often feels like you’re hanging by a thread even when things are going well. They’re too smart, too athletic, too explosive. Give them an inch and they’ll take 94 feet, from baseline to baseline. And they’ll do it over and over again until the clock reaches zero.

Much like the daunting threat of gravity to the walker on a highwire, the threat of a Miami onslaught is ever-present. One misstep, one blemish in balance or concentration, and the fall begins. On Thursday night, San Antonio — a team in itself capable of breaking a game open in a hurry — was toeing the line on one foot for too long. Then came the final gust of wind.

But the reality was, the Spurs had been teetering all night while still being able to keep pace. Eventually it became too much, but it’s an avoidable situation. A difficult situation that will also require a level of focus few teams are able to achieve consistently, but avoidable, still. Tony Parker was brilliant in the first half of Game 4, but his weak right hamstring couldn’t produce the energy output required in the second half.

His zero points after the break and his noticeable fatigue were indicators of his physical state, and as he laid face-up on the floor after a failed floater attempt at the third-quarter buzzer, it was clear the Spurs’ point guard would need help. He just didn’t get enough.

Despite struggling after halftime, San Antonio found itself hanging around against a much more aggressive Miami team than what we saw in Game 3. But then, the fourth quarter happened. Possessions became crucial at that moment with Parker getting a breather, but the Spurs failed to respond. Here’s what San Antonio did with the ball on its first nine possessions of the final frame:

  • Danny Green missed 25-foot 3-pointer
  • Tiago Splitter missed 2-foot layup
  • Splitter turnover
  • Gary Neal MADE 28-foot 3-pointer
  • Boris Diaw turnover
  • Neal missed 6-foot runner
  • Diaw missed 2-foot layup
  • Splitter turnover
  • Manu Ginobili missed 25-foot 3-pointer

When the only shot the Spurs get during a nine-possession stretch is a 28-foot Gary Neal bomb, things are likely not going according to plan.

This sequence came over the first 3:14 of the fourth, just prior to an official timeout and two Splitter free throws, both of which he made. At that point, the 5-point lead remained unchanged, but the tone of the quarter had been set. After Splitter’s free throws, the onslaught began.

Miami’s Big 3 scored 23 of its 85 points over the final 8:46 of the game. In fact, James, Wade and Bosh accounted for 25 of the 28 points the Heat scored over the final 12 minutes. A Ray Allen 3-pointer was the only other contributing factor.

The Spurs had seven turnovers in the fourth, shot 5-for-15 from the floor and allowed Miami to find a comfort level they hadn’t found at any time during this series. And what made it look even worse, when Gregg Popovich waved the white flag with 4:27 remaining, James and Bosh remained in the game until the final buzzer. The final deficit of 16 points was the largest of the evening.

Whether it was Green’s missed dunk, Diaw’s botched putback or any time Splitter received the ball out of the pick and roll, San Antonio blew opportunities to stay close. And it all started early in the game. After the Spurs jumped out to a 15-5 lead, they became careless with the basketball. Ten of their 19 turnovers actually came before halftime, and the cushion they built over the first few minutes of the game evaporated into a 29-26 deficit at the end of the first quarter. From there, it felt like San Antonio was playing catchup all night, which is exhausting to do against a team with the kind of defense Miami has.

You have to believe the Spurs will be better on Sunday, and it’s difficult to think the Heat can be any more perfect. If we see THAT Dwyane Wade in Game 5, then don’t bother to plan around a river parade in the next week or so. But he hasn’t shown that he can produce that sort of effort with any regularity. His recent performance was shocking enough in itself, so to think he can duplicate that is something I’ll have to see to believe. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but considerable evidence points to the contrary. The 85 points was the most Miami’s Big 3 has ever combined to score in a playoff game. If they can do that again, then give ‘em the trophy, because nobody’s going to stop that. I just doubt it happens twice in this series.

Both teams now have an extra day to rest and prepare, something that’s huge for Parker’s hamstring. The good news out of Thursday night’s loss was that he came out unscathed physically, just fatigued from the initial weakness of his strain. Which is to be expected. But it also gives the Spurs a chance to re-evaluate their game plan. Miami was all over the passing lanes in Game 4. And while that’s certainly something they’re known for, that doesn’t mean San Antonio isn’t capable of making the right chess moves.

I tend to give a great offense a slight advantage over a great defense, because with proper adjustment and game-planning, the offense will always be a step ahead of the defense. Not a large step, necessarily, but a step nonetheless. It will take exact timing, quick decisions, precise passing and some unexpected wrinkles to take advantage of the anticipatory Heat defense for the Spurs to attack the paint with regularity again. But if any team is capable of doing that, it’s this one.

And remember, neither of these teams lose back to back games. At least, that’s been the trend. The Heat haven’t done this since January, but the Spurs haven’t lost consecutive contests when the Big 3 play together since December. Miami was desperate last night, and now the pressure has moved San Antonio’s way. We’ll see what the response is.

Against Miami, the Spurs are walking a fine line. If a momentary break in focus causes a free-fall they can’t overcome over the long haul, then San Antonio will have trouble recovering from the loss in Game 4. But this team has been there and done that. Surviving difficult situations is something upon which this franchise has built its legacy.

One they’re not yet done writing.

  • senorglory

    Poor splitter.

  • TunaDM

    Play some defense guys! Those championship years were molded from stellar defense. Manu, stop shooting the ball with more than 10 seconds on the time clock. Splitter, FREAKING PUMP FAKE! Tony, you da man, but you can’t do it on your own. Kawhi, stand tall big man, keep doing what you are doing! Tim, where is the off the glass 1 on 1 shot? Danny and Gary, take the shot, but if 2 points will get you a 8-10 point lead, don’t fire up a 3 without setting a play. C’mon Spurs! Show me the team you ARE!

  • TheFG21

    After one day I’ve cleared my mind of last game. MIA’s dominance felt brutal even more when we didn’t take advantage of that early ten point lead. Like I said before, I compare this Series w/ the GState series in the way of, when the Splash Brothers were hot, there wasn’t much you can do about it. BUT, the Spurs prevailed because they were the better TEAM and had the better system. After 4 games we adapted and shut them out 2 straight games finishing them on their own turf.

    I dont have any doubts that if we won tomorrow, we will win the Championship next Tuesday in the road. Lets stay positive and send all the good vibrance to our team!! In all, more to win a Championship for the sake of adding one to the record (a la Miami), they’re winning it for T.Duncan! Thats our X factor! The non material factor!

    GO! SPURS! GO!

  • Titletown99030507d

    You need to include Timmy’s TO’s as well. He surely isn’t playing HOF like. He might score a few points but he still making the same mistakes everyone is making. Start making a note of his mistakes, bad passes and rejections in game 5 and you’ll see what I mean. And if he doesn’t well then he’s earned his pay like he should.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Splitter isn’t pump faking because they won’t call a flippin foul even if they hack him. The ref’s are totally doing a number on him and I’m fokin tired of it.

  • Titletown99030507d

    The Splash brothers don’t have Lebro.

  • Titletown99030507d

    If the refs start calling some real fouls he could be at the line all day long getting his double figures as he did all season long.

  • Bry

    It’s nearly impossible to beat a good team, even when you’re playing at home, when two key players (Splitter and Ginobili) are basically MIA. That’s two guys basically contributing nothing in this game, and it isn’t new unfortunately. Both have struggled mightily in this series, and Splitter’s uncanny ability to turn what should have been a dunk or a very high-percentage shot into a layup on the other end for the Heat is KILLING the Spurs. Turnovers, by themselves, are the single most important factor in this series. And shot-blocks and blown lay-ups are basically like live-ball turnovers. Miami has proven unable to score against the Spurs except during those moment. So, it’s doubly unfortunate that Splitter and Manu not only can’t seem to throw a rock into the ocean, but they are giving Miami the very thing they need to get out and run. Neal might be working himself into a higher pay-grade next year (although I think it’s a bit crazy to pay him anything more than a few million per) but Manu is making over 14 million this year, and Tiago is making 4m and due to make 5m as RFA next season. I don’t care how much people over-value big guys, or how well Manu played in the past (which was extremely well); who in the world is going to give Manu even a third of what he’s making now? And who is going to throw big money at Tiago? What a horrible time for our South American duo to fall apart.

  • senorglory

    He does seem to have a hard time drawing a foul, whatever the reason.

  • senorglory

    Honestly, I’d really rather see from Splitter a two handed dunk much more than a pump fake.

  • Hurtorinjured

    Question, will Wade and Bosh load up on the painkillers…

  • Sir Timothy

    The fix is in…but how far does it go?

    The NBA thrives on ratings. That is one reason why the Spurs have not been back to the Finals in 6 years. They made a HUGE mistake in sweeping LeBron in 2007. Everyone connected with the NBA HATES a sweep. One team is embarrassed the broadcasters have to run re-runs instead of games 5 – 7. The vendors at the stadiums don’t make any money. Add to that the fact that the Spurs embarrassed the up and coming NBA product LeBron “king” James.

    This year the Spurs were so good that they overcame whatever adversity might have come their way – AND with Durant and Kobe out of the way – the games in the Western Conference were officiated in a reasonable manner.

    Then comes the Finals. Game 1 was officiated well. It was allowed to play out. Game 2 was a guaranteed win for Miami. We could not have the Heat down 0-2 going to San Antonio. Game 3 was played straight up and you see what happened. If the Spurs had won game 4 this might never make it back to Miami. The NBA was not having any of it. 6 games minimum for the finals. Even the series at 2-2 and you guarantee six games. So the Spurs got no calls of any kind at home.

    So the fix has been in – at least in so far as having this go to 6 or 7 games. But will game 5 be allowed to play out? Will Manu and Splitter get any calls? Or will this extended mugging continue? Make no mistake the Spurs will need to play well enough to win by 20 in order to win by 2. Even at home. This is a must win for the Spurs. Have the officials already decided how they willy play this one? Will it be NBA basketball or a street ball mugging?

    We shall see.

  • Damon

    Spurs swept the Grizz. Just saying. I agree with the others. TO’s are killing them. Also game 1 officiating was an anomaly, no NBA game is that clean. Don’t forget Miami led all of game 1 before folding to pressure. If Pop gets efficient play then Miami has to play great to win. Playing at that level as the writer says is hard to duplicate.

  • Len

    Yeah, very true. Replays have shown Tiago getting hammered across the arms several times in the series with no call.