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