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Monday, June 10, 2013

Sizzling Second Half Run Propels Heat to Game Two Win

The San Antonio Spurs led the Miami Heat 62-61 with 3:50 remaining in the third quarter of game two of the NBA Finals and were in prime position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead but then the Heat went on a 33-5 run to save their season; the Heat's 103-84 win puts the pressure on the Spurs to win three straight games at home in the NBA's outdated 2-3-2 Finals format. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with a game-high 19 points; he is not a traditional point guard--Chalmers had just two assists--but he is a fearless scorer, equally able to attack the hoop off of the dribble and to drain long jumpers. LeBron James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots while shooting 7-17 from the field. Chris Bosh contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Although Bosh's numbers are not eye-popping, he made a subtle but important adjustment by eschewing the three point shot in favor of stationing himself within 18 feet of the basket on offense; this enabled him to improve his shooting percentage, grab more rebounds and have more of an impact on the game. Dwyane Wade added 10 points and six assists, with all of the points and four of the assists coming in the first half. Danny Green led the Spurs with 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, including 5-5 from three point range. San Antonio's Big Three came up very small: Tony Parker had 13 points, five assists and five turnovers while shooting 5-14 from the field, Tim Duncan had nine points and 11 rebounds while shooting 3-13 from the field and Manu Ginobili had five points on 2-6 shooting in 18 unproductive minutes.

James has won four of the previous five NBA regular season MVPs, so there is an understandable tendency to view every Miami Heat game through the prism of James' performance--but the real story of game two is just how badly Parker, Duncan and Ginobili played. Duncan is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and Parker and Ginobili will both likely earn Hall of Fame induction as well, so they should be held to a high standard; Parker and Ginobili were both very careless with the ball, which is inexplicable since the Spurs know that live ball turnovers are death against the Heat because such miscues ignite Miami's potent transition game. If Parker and Ginobili make safe passes and patiently run the Spurs' half court offense then San Antonio can be very effective against the undersized Heat. Duncan played a more poised and intelligent game than Parker and Ginobili did but he has to shoot much better from the field.

Some commentators place great emphasis on one or two statistics from a particular game but it is important to understand the difference between a trend and something that is simply an aberration that has no real significance due to a small sample size. Here are two examples of aberrations: (1) the Spurs tied an NBA Finals record by committing just four turnovers in game one; (2) the Spurs shot 7-10 from three point range in the first half of game two. The Spurs soon regressed to the mean in both categories; they committed 16 turnovers in game two and they shot 3-10 from three point range in the second half of game two. The Spurs cannot reasonably expect to have another four turnover game or to regularly shoot 7-10 from three point range during a half but in order to beat the Heat they should strive to commit fewer than 12 turnovers per game and to shoot around .400 from beyond the arc.

Much has been made about how difficult and/or intimidating it is to interview San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich. I love Popovich's press conferences and in-game interviews because he does not let reporters off of the hook for asking stupid and/or lazy questions. After game one, someone asked Popovich how the Spurs managed to commit just four turnovers and he candidly replied that he has no idea because he does not have a "no turnover drill." In other words, "Why are you asking me to come up with an explanation for something that is obviously an aberration?" In another Finals press conference, Popovich noted that one year his team finished close to the bottom of the league in three point field goal percentage defense and then the next year they finished near the top of the league in that category despite not doing anything differently; he said that he never figured that one out but that he thinks that many people are too narrowly focused on statistics instead of just watching the game as a whole. "Advanced basketball statistics" supposedly bring basketball analysis to a higher, more objective level but in the wrong hands these numbers just dumb things down; instead of watching games with understanding, media members randomly pluck out a bunch of statistics and look for patterns that do not exist and/or are not meaningful because the sample size is too small. It is true that to win this series the Spurs must keep their turnover total as low as possible but it is not logical to draw definitive conclusions based on one game during which the Spurs only committed four turnovers.

The first time that I interviewed Popovich I did not feel intimidated at all; I asked him intelligent questions and I received thoughtful responses. He gives short and/or repetitive answers to some reporters because those reporters asked him stupid and/or obvious questions. After game two, someone asked Popovich what he saw during Miami's 33-5 run and Popovich said, "They did a great job." Many reporters do not even ask fully formed questions; they simply say something like, "Talk about what happened in the third quarter." Some coaches respond to such lazy "questions" by sticking to whatever message they want to deliver but Popovich draws attention to unprepared questioners by issuing direct, curt replies. If you ask Popovich to "talk about" something then he is going to say, "They played well." He is not going to do the reporter's work for him. I have yet to see/hear Popovich give a disrespectful answer to a well formed question, so anyone who tells "horror stories" about interviewing Popovich is essentially admitting his/her own incompetence. One quasi-exception is the celebrated "happy" question that TNT's David Aldridge asked; Aldridge is an excellent, well-informed NBA reporter who made a poor word choice earlier this season at the spur of the moment (pun intended) when he asked if Popovich were "happy" about how the game was going and Popovich replied that no one is "happy" in the middle of a tough contest. Aldridge knew that he had phrased his question poorly and the two of them joked about it later. The rest of the reporters who are so intimidated by Popovich need to stop complaining and do their jobs better.

In addition to taking numbers out of context, media members also like to take spectacular highlight plays out of context and then elevate the importance of those plays. James' block of Tiago Splitter's fourth quarter dunk attempt has already been replayed countless times--but the Heat were up 86-67 and the outcome of the game had already been decided, so this was not a game-changing play. It was a very athletic play and it was nice to see James go for the block without fearing being dunked on but that sequence had very little meaning in the larger context of the game and the series.

While the story of this game should be about how poorly/passively the Spurs' Big Three performed, most of the focus will shine on James; James' performance/box score numbers once again provide a Rorschach test about how one evaluates basketball players: did James play passively and get bailed out by his teammates until he came to life during the big 33-5 run or did James deftly take what the defense gave him while resisting the temptation to force the action? When James quit in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas and in the 2010 playoffs versus Boston no rational observer could dispute what happened: James played lethargically, he gave up the ball early in possessions without making any effort to get the ball back and he looked/acted disinterested. What James did in the first half of game two is harder to quantify/explain. The Spurs have set up their half court defense to make it difficult for James to drive to the hoop--but every team does this against James and he still can get to the hoop when he puts his mind to it. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said during the first half that James was "remarkably uninvolved" offensively. After the Heat took over the game in the second half, Van Gundy resisted the urge to engage in revisionist history (i.e., to act like James had deliberately eased himself into the game) and he reminded viewers, "Until that spurt, he was not himself." This is not just a matter of ignorant fans and/or ignorant media members wrongly blasting James; Van Gundy--a former NBA coach who has no obvious agenda and who has a deep understanding of the NBA game--was puzzled by and critical of James' first half performance. James scored two first quarter points on 1-4 field goal shooting, two second quarter points on 1-3 field goal shooting and four third quarter points on 1-6 field goal shooting before scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. James had 11 points and three assists during Miami's decisive 33-5 run. The idea that the Heat are better off without James being a big-time scorer is absurd; this game was up for grabs until James asserted himself offensively.

During NBA TV's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that when he was James' teammate in Cleveland during the 2009-10 season he told James that James sometimes holds the ball too long and thus lets the defense get set; at that time, O'Neal urged James to be aggressive and attack quickly. O'Neal is right; that is how he played when he was dominant and that is how other dominant players who won multiple championships played, from Julius Erving in the ABA to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan: during their primes, those players made the defense react to them. This is not about statistics but about mindset and impact; a great player should have the mindset to dictate the terms of play and he should perform in a way that controls the game. James usually does this but he has displayed a strange tendency to be passive during his NBA Finals career; James' regular season career scoring average is 27.6 ppg and his playoff career scoring average is 28.1 ppg but he only averaged 22.0 ppg in the 2007 Finals and 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals before scoring 28.6 ppg in the 2012 Finals. Not surprisingly, James' teams lost both times when his scoring declined significantly but he led the Heat to the 2012 championship and won the Finals MVP when he maintained his normal scoring average. James has now played in 17 Finals games; his teams are 7-10 in those games and he has scored 30 or more points just twice while scoring fewer than 20 points six times. James has yet to consistently make his mark as a scorer in championship play. If that trend continues, the Heat will not win this series and it will be difficult to rank James at the top level of pro basketball's pantheon, no matter what else he accomplishes in the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: James is not Magic Johnson nor has he ever led a team to the Finals by playing like Magic Johnson; James has led teams to the Finals as a big-time scorer, he won his only championship as a big-time scorer and if he is going to win more championships he will do so as a big-time scorer.

The Heat survived James' passive first half because the Spurs' Big Three all performed badly but if the Spurs rediscover their game in San Antonio then the Heat will need for James to be at least a 25 ppg scorer in order to extend the series to six or seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 AM

5 comments

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5 Comments:

At Monday, June 10, 2013 11:43:00 AM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Thank you for your insight as always particularly on the impressive block by James on Splitter. This highlights-filled media will no doubt be talking more about that than his bizarre 1st half performance in game 2.

I also agree with your assessment on the poor play of the Spurs Big Three. I think Duncan missed some easy shots. Parker and Ginobili were very sloppy with the ballhandling and passing. Ginobili does not seem like himself and I have never seen him so careless with his dribble; Jeff Van Gundy also pointed this out.

I think there is more pressure on James and the Heat since James has yet to score over 20 points in his series vs San Antonio. I also find it baffling how the media has to commend Bosh and Wade when they score over 20 pts and/or grab 10 boards. I understand that they are injured and limited but it's inexcusable especially at the championship level.

 
At Monday, June 10, 2013 3:40:00 PM, Blogger Raza said...

David, I'm a Spurs fan but now I'm feeling hopeless

If the Spurs can manage two wins out of the next 3 games do you think they can win the series?

Not sure if they can win in Miami again.

 
At Monday, June 10, 2013 4:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Raza:

The Spurs can win the series but one of the reasons that I picked the Heat is that in the 2-3-2 format it is likely that the Spurs will have to win twice in Miami and that will be a difficult task.

 
At Monday, June 10, 2013 5:36:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I agree at some point LeBron will have to score more for Miami to win. Game 2 win was a good enough production from everyone. Even if LeBron scores more points he still will need consistantl production out of his teammates to have a chance at winning the title, or it will be difficult for them as Was the series vs Indiana.

LeBron only had 17 points in gane 2, but look at his all around play. Good playmaking and energy on the defensive side of the ball.

 
At Monday, June 10, 2013 6:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Aw:

The Heat were trailing until James scored 11 points during the 33-5 run. Yes, James is an outstanding all-around player and he can impact the game without scoring but his team is built around him scoring at least 25 ppg and if he stops doing that during the most important games then his team's chances of winning dramatically decrease.

 

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