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Monday, June 17, 2013

Manu the Magnificent: Revived Ginobili Spurs San Antonio to 3-2 Finals Lead

Manu Ginobili made his first start of the 2012-13 season very memorable, scoring 24 points and passing for 10 assists as the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat 114-104 to move within one victory of seizing their fifth championship in the Tim Duncan era. The Spurs never trailed and they led by as many as 20 points before a late Heat rally made the final score more respectable. Tony Parker scored a game-high 26 points on 10-14 field goal shooting and he had five assists. Danny Green scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots and set the all-time NBA Finals record for most three pointers made in a single series (25, three more than Ray Allen made in the 2008 NBA Finals). Tim Duncan authored a very efficient performance, scoring 17 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, snaring a game-high 12 rebounds and blocking three shots; he controlled the paint at both ends of the court, drawing double-teams to make it easier for the Spurs' perimeter shooters to get open and challenging Heat players who drove to the basket. Kawhi Leonard added 16 points and eight rebounds; he is the modern-day Jamaal Wilkes--not exceptional in any skill set area but also not possessing any skill set weaknesses and very content to make winning plays at both ends of the court without drawing attention to himself.

LeBron James had a solid stat line--25 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals--but he shot just 8-22 from the field and never definitively asserted himself as the best player on the court. James continued the pattern he established in game four, attacking the hoop more than he did in the first three games of the series, but he missed several shots in the paint and he was much less effective in the second half when Boris Diaw proved to be a surprisingly effective primary defender against him. After sleepwalking through most of the postseason, Dwyane Wade played well for the second game in a row, scoring 25 points while also tying Ginobili for game-high honors with 10 assists. James and Wade shot just 10-26 in the paint, their worst combined field goal percentage in the paint during their three playoff runs together. Wade has struggled to finish at the rim throughout the postseason but James' misses are harder to explain; Green has demonstrated an uncanny ability to anticipate James' moves and either block James' shot or else force James to awkwardly alter his delivery but it was shocking to see James come up short on so many point blank shots: it is hard to believe that anyone can stop James if he consistently posts up and makes quick moves to the hoop (as opposed to holding the ball, waiting for a double-team and looking to pass).

Ray Allen contributed 21 points, including 15 points in the fourth quarter. Chris Bosh scored 16 points, tied James for the team lead with six rebounds and led the Heat with a +7 plus/minus rating; the plus/minus rating can be very "noisy" in small sample sizes but in this particular case I believe that the rating accurately reflects that Bosh had a positive impact even though his box score numbers do not jump off of the page: the Heat's offense revolves around James and Wade so much that the eight-time All-Star Bosh has been transformed into a glorified Horace Grant shooting spot up jumpers but Bosh is an efficient scorer who also is a mobile and versatile defender. It is interesting that the commentators who criticize Kobe Bryant for supposedly not passing the ball frequently enough to Pau Gasol do not have anything to say about the way that the Heat utilize Bosh on offense; Bosh was a more prolific scorer as the number one option in Toronto than Gasol was as the number one option in Memphis, so anyone who believes that the Lakers' offense should revolve around Gasol is being hypocritical if he does not say the same thing about Bosh and the Heat's offense (I do not think that the Lakers' offense should revolve around Gasol nor do I think that the Heat's offense should revolve around Bosh but I also think it is evident that playing with Bryant enhanced Gasol's individual numbers while leading to team success; the jury is still out about how playing with James and Wade has impacted Bosh).

Ginobili's 24 points not only set a season-high but also nearly matched his total for the first four games of the series (30). Ginobili made an immediate impact, hitting the first shot of the game--a long jumper just inside the three point line--before assisting on each of San Antonio's next two hoops and then making two free throws. Ginobili's performance--and the inevitable media reaction to it--reinforces a point that I made during the San Antonio-Golden State series: "As an injury prone third option, Ginobili is not expected to put up big scoring totals on a nightly basis; he can be the hero--like when he hit the game-winning shot in the series opener--but, no matter how poorly he plays, he will not be the goat unless he makes a serious mental error during a crucial possession down the stretch: in contrast, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are expected to be highly productive every game and a team's first option (Parker and Duncan are options 1A and 1B for the Spurs) cannot have an off half, much less an off game. The first option is the focal point of his team's offense and the main concern for the opposing team's defense." Even in his prime, Ginobili was never a player who could average 40 mpg and consistently put up big numbers--and that is what "stat gurus" failed to understand when they looked at his per minute numbers/"advanced basketball statistics" and compared Ginobili to Kobe Bryant. Ginobili has always been a second or third option, a spark plug, a great resource to have but not a franchise player. The same is true of James Harden, which is why Houston's record barely improved despite all of the hype about Harden's impact this season. Ginobili's team can win a championship with him having one or two good games out of six or seven in the NBA Finals; Kobe Bryant's team could never win a championship under those conditions, nor can LeBron James' team win a championship under those conditions.

Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra changed his starting lineup for game four by replacing Udonis Haslem with Mike Miller and even though Miller did not make much of a statistical contribution his presence as a three point shooting threat spread out San Antonio's defense, creating driving lanes that James and Wade exploited. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich initially stayed with his regular starting lineup but after less than a minute elapsed he also went small, putting Gary Neal in for Tiago Splitter. Since late last season, the Heat have generally done well with their small lineups whether or not the opposing team also went small and this again proved to be the case in game four--but in game five the Spurs used their small lineup more effectively at both ends of the court: on defense, the slow-footed but crafty Diaw kept James out of the paint for the most part in the second half, while on offense the Spurs relentlessly attacked Miller by either isolating him or else setting screens that forced switches so that Miller had to guard a quick ballhandler who had a live dribble. By attacking Miller and exploiting the Heat's lack of size in the paint, the Spurs shredded the Heat's usually stout defense, shooting 42-70 (.600) from the field; that high field goal percentage mitigated the effect of the Spurs' 18 turnovers. The Heat gave up 114 points or more only three times during the 82 game regular season--and two of those three games went to overtime. This was just the third time in 21 playoff games that the Heat gave up more than 100 points--but it has happened twice in the past three games, as the Spurs scored 113 points in their game three win.

The Spurs are one of the few teams that can be equally effective with a big lineup or a small lineup; the Indiana Pacers' big lineup gave the Heat fits in the Eastern Conference Finals but the Heat closed out that series by relying heavily on James and Wade to relentlessly attack the hoop on offense while also creating havoc all over the court on defense: the Pacers were unable to impose their will with their big lineup nor were they able to put an effective small lineup on the court to match up with the Heat. The Spurs can play a methodical, half court game with Duncan and Splitter but they can also go small and play at a fast tempo; throughout game five, Popovich exhorted his team to push the ball up the court regardless of whether the Heat scored or not--and it is very rare that a Miami opponent is comfortable playing as fast or even faster than Miami.

In my series preview I picked the Heat but I also outlined the Spurs' correct anti-Heat game plan: "... 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 Spurs have executed this plan well enough to win three games. Before the series began I predicted that the Spurs would have to win twice in Miami to dethrone the 2012 NBA Champions and that is indeed the case; I am still skeptical that the Heat will lose two games at home in one series but I am a bit less skeptical now than I was before the series started.

Green is the Spurs' leading scorer in the Finals (18.0 ppg) and he has set three point shooting records but he is not a one-dimensional player: he also ranks third on the team in rebounding (4.0 rpg) and second in blocked shots (1.6 bpg); barring a significant performance by another Spur in game six and/or game seven, if San Antonio wins the championship then Green has to receive serious consideration for Finals MVP (I think that Duncan's impact is almost as underrated this time as it was in the 2007 Finals but I realize that unless he puts up at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in the clinching game he will not receive any Finals MVP votes). One could make a joke about Green having to leave Cleveland and get away from LeBron James to reach his full potential--but, in all seriousness, think about what a stunning turn of events we may be on the verge of witnessing (to borrow a word formerly used to describe James' performances in Cleveland): this would be like Mike McGee leaving the Lakers in the mid-1980s, landing with another team and then winning Finals MVP honors in a head to head duel with Magic Johnson or like Rick Carlisle doing the same thing versus Larry Bird or like Craig Hodges taking a Finals MVP away from Michael Jordan. If this happens it would not nullify all of James' great accomplishments--but, to put it mildly, it would not enhance James' legacy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Monday, June 17, 2013 6:47:00 AM, Anonymous john p said...

If Heat lose this series Lebron should be blamed for his game 1 performance where he took only 16 shots and asked out of the game because he was fatigued. He is the on of the most frustrating stars and cost his team a finals victory against Dallas in 2011. Was Wilt Chamberlain the same way?

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 7:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

John P:

We don't know how the series will end, so it is a bit soon to assign blame, but I agree with you that LeBron could have played more forcefully earlier in the series.

Wilt won two titles while leading two of the most dominant single season teams in NBA history, so the answer to your question is, "No."

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 9:58:00 AM, Anonymous John P said...

I meant that James seems to come up small in NBA finals. Was Wilt similar. Also this series is eerily similar to the 2010 NBA finals.

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 11:07:00 AM, Anonymous Charles said...

Good writeup. I agree with your points about Bosh - very often I see him scapegoated whenever the Heat are struggling for "not giving LeBron enough help" when he has been treated as a role player all along in Miami. I've also seen comments stating that he is in decline as well as Wade; my usual response is "How can you tell?"

I think the contrast with Pau Gasol is apt; Bryant is often criticized for shooting instead of feeding it to his big men, but James and Wade never draw criticism for marginalizing Bosh. Instead, Bosh is the one who is mocked as the "third wheel" even though he has generally stepped up to the plate and become more productive anytime one of his fellow stars has sat out games due to injury.

While most of your trends have held up so far this is still a strange series; aside from Game 1 each game has been a comfortable double digit victory for the winning team. I am still holding to the Heat ultimately being victorious in seven games; I am impressed with the resilience of the Spurs but I am not convinced they can hold an aggressive, active LeBron to the same poor shooting percentage as he had this game or that their role players (particularly Green) can keep the white hot shooting up for the entire series.

I suppose I wouldn't be surprised if the Spurs wound up winning the series either though. I expect this will go to 7 games either way.

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 1:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what im seeing from the heat is poor defensive rotations under utilzing chris bosh inconsistent PG play and the spurs have one or two role players that can step up and play big while duncan can control the paint

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 3:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

John P:

LeBron James does not just "seem" to "come up short in NBA Finals"; he did come up short in the 2007 and 2011 Finals. In the 2012 Finals he played the way that he should play and he won the Finals MVP. So far in the 2013 Finals he has not played as well as he should be expected to play.

Chamberlain won the 1972 Finals MVP despite playing with a broken wrist and he would have won the 1967 Finals MVP if the award had existed at the time.

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 3:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Charles:

There is no evidence that Bosh has declined but there is clear evidence that Wade has declined in the past two years; Wade is not nearly as explosive as he used to be.

I do not consider Gasol or Bosh to be elite players but it is funny that many media members blame Bryant when Gasol's numbers decline but they do not apply the same reasoning to Bosh's situation. Bryant has always encouraged Gasol to be more aggressive and to attack the hoop and Bryant feeds Gasol the ball when Gasol does those things; in contrast, during a recent press conference Wade joked that Bosh could go into the post but he might not get the ball. James and Wade both want to have the ball in their hands at all times and they tend to give the ball to Bosh only as a last resort, relegating Bosh to being a spot up shooter. The Heat have so much talent and are so good on defense that this works against most teams but it did not work against Dallas in the 2011 Finals and it might not work against San Antonio in the 2013 Finals.

 
At Monday, June 17, 2013 9:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave,

What's your finals prediction at this point? Would be devastating if Miami was to win in 7, think the Spurs have a better shot at stealing Game 6 over a Game 7 (where LeBron historically does do well).

Keep up the good work!

 
At Tuesday, June 18, 2013 1:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I picked Miami before the series, so it does not make sense for me to switch now; I can't have it both ways.

That said, in my series preview I outlined the correct anti-Heat game plan for the Spurs to use and the Spurs have executed that plan effectively in three of the five games. I would not be shocked if the Spurs win but since the Heat have the best player and they also have homecourt advantage they should be tough to beat.

 
At Tuesday, June 18, 2013 6:40:00 AM, Anonymous sean j said...

Has there ever been a superstar who quit on his team in an NBA finals other than Lebron.

 
At Tuesday, June 18, 2013 3:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sean J:

No one immediately comes to mind.

 

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