Death by Execution: Efficient Spurs Chill Sloppy HeatThe San Antonio Spurs tied the NBA Finals record for fewest turnovers in a game (four) and they outscored the Miami Heat 23-16 in the fourth quarter en route to a 92-88 game one victory. Tony Parker scored a game-high 21 points on 9-18 field goal shooting and he led the Spurs in assists (six) without committing a single turnover. Tim Duncan controlled the paint at both ends of the court, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots; he missed his first five field goal attempts but shot 8-14 the rest of the way. Duncan has supposedly handed the reins over to Parker--whatever that means--but the main difference between this Spurs team and the Spurs teams in recent seasons that did not make it to the Finals is that Duncan has lost weight, turned back the clock and resumed being a dominant force in the paint. There have been a few exceptions but in general NBA championship teams have been led by a dominant post player and/or a dominant 6-6 to 6-9 wing player; Parker is without question a great point guard but without Duncan's scoring, rebounding, defense and screen-setting Parker and the Spurs would not have made it to the Finals.
LeBron James had a strange game, as he often seems to do against elite level opponents; the box score numbers look great--18 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists--yet he never took control of the game and he disappeared in the fourth quarter. Dwyane Wade finished with 17 points on 7-15 field goal shooting but, after scoring 13 points on 5-8 field goal shooting in the first half, he scored just four points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the second half--and he went scoreless in the fourth quarter with the outcome up for grabs. Wade played very passively, accumulating just two rebounds and two assists while posting a game-low -11 plus/minus number. As NBA TV's Kenny Smith said, Wade did not have a performance worthy of someone who is considered a potential Hall of Fame candidate. Chris Bosh scored 13 points, ranked second on the Heat with five rebounds and led the team with three steals; those are not great numbers but--as discussed below--the Heat treat Bosh like a role player, not a multidimensional perennial All-Star.
On the first play of the game, the Spurs committed the cardinal sin for a Miami opponent; Duncan turned the ball over, the Heat were off to the races and Wade converted a fast break dunk. After that miscue, the Spurs went on a 9-0 run but then the Heat recovered and took a 38-29 lead. The Heat were up 46-38 late in the first half after making eight of their previous 10 field goal attempts but the Spurs patiently chipped away, pulling to within 52-49 at halftime after Duncan hit a buzzer beating jumper; closing out quarters is very important--Doug Collins used to emphasize this during his broadcasting days--and in a four point victory the Spurs hit big shots at the end of both the second and fourth quarters.
After the teams played to a 20-20 tie in the third quarter, Parker scored 10 fourth quarter points, capped by a twisting, shot clock-beating bank shot that will forever be on the all-time Finals highlight reel if the Spurs win this series. Throughout the final 12 minutes, Parker attacked the paint off of the dribble and Duncan made his presence felt in the paint; meanwhile, without San Antonio turnovers or missed shots to fuel Miami's transition game, the Heat looked tentative and uncertain.
The whole rest versus rust issue played out the way that I predicted it might: "The Spurs may be rusty in the first half of game one but it is important for them to keep the score close and then make their move against Miami in the second half." The Heat led for most of the game but never by double digits--and they completely collapsed in the final stanza, shooting 5-18 from the field while committing five turnovers. In game two, the Spurs will be less rusty after getting back into the rhythm of playing every two or three days but the Heat should no longer be feeling the aftereffects of their long, physical series with the Pacers; neither rust nor rest should be an issue the rest of the way.
Bosh is often the scapegoat when the Heat lose but the Heat do not utilize him properly; instead of being an integral part of their offense as a post player, a face up player in the midpost area and/or a driver/attacker from the wing, he is relegated to being a long range spot up shooter who creates space for James and Wade to dribble the ball until they decide to shoot or pass. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly said that Bosh should be catching the ball in the midpost area; I made the same comment in my my recap of the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals when I explained why Bosh could be much more effective if he were deployed that way: "Perhaps James and Wade will even permit Bosh to post up once in a while and/or receive the ball in position to drive/attack the hoop, instead of consigning Bosh to the outer limits of the offense so that they have open driving lanes for themselves: Bosh cannot be expected to drive to the hoop from the three point line--he does not have handles like a shooting guard--but if he is given the ball in the midpost area he can face up and either hit the 15 foot jumper or make a nice, two dribble drive into the paint."
The two dominant themes in this series figure to be the Spurs' ability to collectively execute a sound, efficient game plan and James' willingness to take over the game. Players who aspire to be considered all-time greats have an obligation to dominate games at the championship level; they cannot wait for their teammates to step up and they cannot suddenly change how they play: James has established himself as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history and he ranked fourth in the league with a 26.8 ppg scoring average this season--5.6 ppg more than Wade, who has rarely scored 20 points in a playoff game this year--so it does not make sense for James to suddenly become a reluctant shooter. James won the 2012 Finals MVP by averaging 28.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 7.4 apg; while he posted good all-around numbers in that series, he also asserted himself as a dominant scorer. In contrast, James averaged just 22.0 ppg when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the 2007 Finals and he only averaged 17.8 ppg as his Heat lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks 2011 Finals.
The comparisons of James to Magic Johnson are ridiculous; James' career-low scoring average is 20.9 ppg as a rookie coming to the NBA straight out of high school and he has never averaged less than 26.7 ppg since that season, while Johnson's career-high scoring average was 23.9 ppg and he averaged more than 20 ppg just four times in 12 full seasons. Johnson was a pass first point guard who played alongside a Hall of Fame center and a Hall of Fame forward in a different era when teams were deeper and his Lakers did not rely on him to consistently put up big point totals; James is Karl Malone with passing/ballhandling skills but he is only at his best--and his team is only dominant--when he relentlessly attacks the hoop as a scorer. James must first make the defense commit to stopping his scoring drives and only then should he pass to open teammates; when James settles for jump shots or passes the ball without distorting the defense by driving he is not fully utilizing his skills, no matter what the box score numbers and/or "advanced basketball statistics" say. The "stat gurus" will never understand this, but the Kobe Bryant in his prime who dominated with scoring first and only passed when trapping defenses forced him to give up the ball was a greater player than the James who lets defenses off of the hook by not asserting himself as a scorer (comparing that Bryant to the James who showed up in the 2012 playoffs--and especially the 2012 Finals--is a different matter but Bryant repeatedly established himself as a great performer in championship level games while James' record in that regard is much more sporadic). The Heat could still win this series but that will only happen if James resumes being a 25-plus ppg scorer; it is not a good sign for Heat fans that James smugly answered a question about his lack of offensive efficiency by noting that he had 18 rebounds and 10 assists in game one: James is a little bit too aware of his personal statistics, when he should be focused on doing whatever it takes to win--and the Heat need James to be a big-time scorer, even if that might mean that his rebound and assist numbers go down.
The Miami Heat suffered death by execution: the Spurs did not play flawlessly--they missed wide open corner three pointers that they normally make and they messed up several defensive rotations in the first half--but in general they executed the anti-Heat game plan described in my series preview, when I wrote that the Spurs could win if they "...take care of the basketball, utilize their advantage in the post with Tim Duncan and break down the Heat's perimeter defense with the driving of Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili; Duncan's post ups and the Parker/Ginobili drives will create open three point shots if the Heat are forced to collapse their defense into the paint. Defensively, the Spurs must force LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots." The two part question now is, "Can the Spurs execute this game plan three more times and, if so, can James overcome this by asserting control as the best player on the court?" It is clear how each team must play to win this series but after one game it is not yet clear which team will win this series.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:17 AM