James, Wade and Bosh Lead the Way as the Heat Melt the SpursLeBron James resumed playing like he is the world's best basketball player and the Miami Heat followed his lead, beating the San Antonio Spurs 109-93 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2. James finished with a game-high 33 points on 15-25 field goal shooting while also grabbing 11 rebounds, passing for four assists, swiping two steals and blocking two shots. Dwyane Wade finally performed at an All-Star level, scoring 32 points on 14-25 field goal shooting while also playing a great floor game (six rebounds, four assists, six steals). The Heat utilized Chris Bosh in the paint instead of relegating him to spot up shooting duty and he responded with 20 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 20 points on 6-10 field goal shooting but he only had five rebounds and one blocked shot as the Heat uncharacteristically won the rebounding battle (41-36) and outscored the Spurs in the paint (50-38). Tony Parker posted solid numbers (15 points, nine assists) but he had a very uneven game--great in the first half, scoreless in the second half on 0-4 field goal shooting. Manu Ginobili played 26 very ineffective minutes (five points on 1-5 field goal shooting, two assists). Game three heroes Danny Green and Gary Neal combined to score 23 points while shooting 6-9 from three point range; they did their jobs but that was not nearly enough to compensate for the way that Miami's Big Three destroyed San Antonio's Big Three.
Almost any playoff series that involves LeBron James is viewed as a referendum on his legacy and while there is some validity to that perception--a four-time MVP should be held to a high standard, particularly in the NBA Finals--the Spurs' three future Hall of Famers should not be given a free pass: the Spurs need for Duncan to play at a high level at both ends of the court, they need for Parker to be effective in both halves (though he may be limited by the hamstring injury he suffered in game three) and they need for Ginobili to make some kind of positive contribution at either end of the court. Duncan's defense and rebounding were exceptional in the first three games but he struggled to make shots; in game four he shot well but did not get enough opportunities (in part because the Spurs wasted so many possessions by committing turnovers) and he did not have quite the same defensive presence in the paint that he did in the first three games. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili scored 24 first half points on 10-18 field goal shooting, which is an acceptable output, but they only had 16 second half points on 4-13 field goal shooting, which is not acceptable from San Antonio's perspective. Although the Spurs' best players are "made men" in the sense that they have already won multiple championships, they have the opportunity to add a very nice page to their collective resumes if they can knock off a Heat team that looked unbeatable for extended stretches of the 2012-13 season.
James' numbers do not always indicate whether or not he played well; he had a triple double in game one but he did not assert himself offensively--and by game three even his staunchest advocates conceded that James was playing very passively and very tentatively. James vowed to do better in game four and he backed up his words with a strong performance--literally and figuratively: his numbers were strong and his game was strong as he played with a great sense of purpose, relentlessly attacking the hoop both on the fast break and also from the post in the half court set. When James forces his way into the paint he not only scores but he draws fouls, which is important for several reasons: this puts the opposing team in the penalty, creates individual foul trouble and generates potential free throw opportunities for his team. Even if James misses a shot in the paint and does not get fouled he attracts so much defensive attention that his teammates have offensive rebounding opportunities.There is no excuse for James to pound holes into the hardwood with pointless dribbling and/or to bail out the defense by shooting long jumpers; while it is true that in some cases he should take what the defense is giving him--open midrange jump shots--it is also true that whenever a big man switches on to him he should take the ball to the hoop and force the defense to take what he is giving: pain--the physical pain of dealing with his size/strength and the psychological pain of dealing with just how difficult it is to stop him when he is in attack mode.
Wade supported James by playing hard for the whole game instead of disappearing in the second half. The Spurs' employed the same defensive approach against James and Wade that worked in the first three games but three things changed: (1) James attacked immediately at full speed instead of holding the ball and/or dribbling the ball passively, (2) James and Wade took and made open jump shots and (3) the Spurs committed several careless live ball turnovers that gave James and Wade far too many easy transition baskets. The Spurs will continue to concede as many two point jump shots as James and Wade want to take but that strategy will only work if (1) James and Wade miss those shots (or refuse to even take those shots, deferring to teammates who have less talent and are not expecting to carry the load) and (2) the Spurs eliminate live ball turnovers.
The Spurs opened the game with a 15-5 run as Parker made three of his first four field goal attempts but things unraveled as soon as Parker went to the bench to rest; the Heat settled down, fed James in the post and took advantage of careless San Antonio turnovers to go on an 8-0 run that tied the score at 19. Miami led 29-26 by the end of the quarter as the Heat feasted on six San Antonio turnovers. The Heat extended that margin to 47-38 late in the second quarter but the Spurs countered with an 11-2 run--keyed by Parker's seven points--to tie the score at 49 by halftime. One interesting moment happened during a second quarter timeout: San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich sat and watched as Parker did most of the talking in the huddle. Popovich believes that sometimes the players who are in the game have a better handle on things than the coaches on the sidelines, so he lets the players speak their minds and he is rightly praised for enabling his players to take on leadership roles--but when Mike Brown, a former Popovich assistant coach, did the exact same thing as Cleveland's head coach the media relentlessly ripped him for not having a strong enough presence. This illustrates the ridiculous double standards often applied by some media members who do not have a clue about what is actually involved in coaching a team; the coach does much of his most important work behind closed doors in practice, developing the necessary habits and mindset for his team to be successful--but media members make a big deal about in-game adjustments and histrionics during timeout huddles, as if a coach is going to come up with some brand new insight on the fly in the middle of a game; even if a coach makes an in-game adjustment, that adjustment will almost certainly be based on something that the team practiced throughout the season. This is what Bill Belichick calls "situational football" and the same principle applies in basketball; a good coach prepares his team for various scenarios so that his players are ready to handle different situations. What is significant is not the in-game adjustment or the words that are said in the huddle but rather the months of preparation that enable the players to adapt to changing circumstances (with or without specific prompting from the coach during the game)--and that is why Phil Jackson often did not even call a timeout when his team struggled: he had already prepared his players to deal with challenges, so he did not have to make a grand spectacle in a huddle but rather he expected them to execute at both ends of the court the way that they had been trained to execute. I am not impressed by a coach who constantly jumps up and makes hand signals to his team throughout a game; that is not coaching, it is showing off for the TV cameras. I don't need to hear Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich or Mike Brown talk in a huddle to evaluate their coaching acumen; the way that a team executes under pressure at both ends of the court tells you whether or not that team's coach is doing a good job. Jackson won 11 championships, Popovich has won four championships and Brown built the Cavaliers from a non-playoff team to an NBA Finalist and a franchise that twice posted the best regular season record in the NBA.
Despite their turnovers and some defensive miscues, the Spurs seemed to be in good position to win game four; Parker looked unstoppable in the first half and Wade had been terrible in the second half of each of the previous games, making one wonder if the Heat could score enough points down the stretch if the Spurs kept the game close. Danny Green's three pointer at the 6:30 mark of the third quarter put the Spurs up 61-60 but San Antonio never led again: in the next 1:08, Ray Allen scored on a layup, Mario Chalmers drilled a three pointer and James went coast to coast for a dunk after stealing the ball. The Spurs stayed in contact until Wade scored eight points in a 2:12 stretch of the fourth quarter to put the Heat up 92-83; the Spurs never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way.
In order to win this series, the Spurs have to limit their turnovers, use post ups/drive and kick action to create open shots (either three pointers or layups, depending on how the defense reacts), control the paint at both ends of the court and force James and Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots; the Spurs fell short in all four areas in game four, so it is no surprise that the Heat routed them. Even if the Spurs execute their game plan efficiently, it is difficult to picture any team beating the Heat four times in a seven game series if James plays at his best--and it is even more difficult to picture that happening if Wade continues to be effective and if the Heat continue to utilize Bosh in the paint as opposed to treating the eight-time All-Star like he is nothing more than a spot up shooter.
As I predicted in my series preview, the Spurs will have to win at least two games in Miami to dethrone the Heat; game five at home is a must win situation for the Spurs but even if the Spurs take a 3-2 lead it will not be easy to eliminate the Heat in Miami. If James plays up to his capabilities, then the Heat will defeat the Spurs regardless of what else happens or where the games are played--but the strange and perplexing thing about James is that, as great as he is, there is no way to predict how he will play from game to game. When Michael Jordan was in his prime, how he played did not vary from game to game; his statistical output varied but his mental approach of relentless aggressiveness did not change--and the same is true of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan (in his prime), Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great players of the past four decades who each led their teams to at least three championships. James has some work to do to join that club and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this challenge.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM