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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Three-mendous: Spurs' Long Range Barrage Buries Heat

The San Antonio Spurs dominated the boards 52-36 and rained down an unprecedented three point barrage to blow out the Miami Heat 113-77 and take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Spurs shot 16-32 from beyond the arc, setting an NBA Finals single game record for three pointers made. This was the worst playoff loss in Miami Heat history, the worst loss in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big Three Era and the third worst loss in NBA Finals history. Danny Green scored a game-high 27 points while shooting 9-15 from the field, including 7-9 from three point range; he has shot 16-23 (.696) from three point range overall and he is the leading scorer in the series (18.7 ppg). Gary Neal scored 24 points while shooting 9-17 from the field, including 6-10 from three point range. Kawhi Leonard contributed 14 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Tim Duncan had a solid performance: 12 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots, 5-11 field goal shooting. It is easy to overlook Duncan when three point bombs are exploding from every direction but his defense in the paint and his post up presence on offense should not be ignored or diminished. Manu Ginobili added seven points and six assists; his deft passing played a role in San Antonio's perimeter shooting prowess. Tony Parker only scored six points but he had a game-high eight assists and just two turnovers before missing most of the fourth quarter due to a hamstring injury; he is scheduled to have an MRI on Wednesday morning and is listed as questionable for game four. If Parker cannot play then that could turn out to be a bigger story than anything else that happened in game three.

Dwyane Wade played very aggressively in the first quarter and then he disappeared for the rest of the game; that has been his pattern recently and it does not seem likely that this will change. He finished with a team-high 16 points (including eight in the first quarter) on 7-15 field goal shooting, five assists, four steals and no rebounds. Whether his leaping ability has been limited by injury or taken away by Father Time, it is evident that Wade has no backup plan when he cannot just elevate over everyone; he has been transformed from an All-Star into a hesitant role player who does not have the footwork or perimeter shot to be a consistent scorer and the Spurs are guarding him like he is a scrub: no double teams are sent his way and he is being dared to shoot any shot outside of six to eight feet.

Chris Bosh is trying to do the right thing, largely abandoning the three point line in favor of the midpost area, but he is an afterthought in Miami's offense; he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. It is fashionable to criticize Bosh when the Heat lose but the reality is that he does not get to touch the ball very often; he is supposed to watch James and Wade dribble around and then be ready to shoot jump shots when they deign to pass him the ball.

LeBron James scored 15 points on 7-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds and passing for five assists but his performance was even worse than those mediocre numbers (by his standards) suggest. James made just two of his first 12 field goal attempts, the second game in a row that he has missed 10 of his first 12 shots, and even after he padded his statistics with a one man 9-0 run late in the third quarter the Heat still trailed 76-63; he did not play aggressively until the game was out of reach and he combined with Wade to shoot 0-8 from the field as the Spurs extended their 50-44 halftime lead to 73-52.

The emergence of Green this season--and especially in this series--is fascinating. Green could barely even get on the court for the 2009-10 Cleveland team that went a league-best 61-21 in the regular season and could very well have won a championship if LeBron James had not quit versus Boston in the playoffs. Just two years later, Green started 38 games for an excellent San Antonio team--and now he has outscored James through the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals. There is little doubt that Green has matured since his Cleveland days and that he has further developed his skill set, but the larger point is that he did so while starting for one of the league's best teams because they did not have anyone better to put in the game ahead of him--and he did not get the same opportunity in Cleveland precisely because the Cavaliers possessed so much depth, contrary to popular belief. It is true that the Cavaliers never brought in an All-Star in his prime to play alongside James, but that is in no small part because James would not entice such a player to come to Cleveland by definitively saying that he was going to stay in Cleveland. Despite James' refusal to recruit players to come to Cleveland, the Cavaliers' front office built a very deep, defensive-minded team that was good enough to reach the NBA Finals once and to post the NBA's best regular season record in two other campaigns.

Like Danny Green in 2009-10, Shannon Brown could barely get on the court for the 2006-07 Cleveland team that advanced to the NBA Finals; two years later Brown was the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers as they reached the NBA Finals and in the next two seasons Brown was the first guard off of the bench for the Lakers' back to back championship teams. Many pundits claimed that those Lakers were very talented and/or very deep but I made the case that the 2009 Lakers were one of the least talented championship teams of the past two decades. It should be obvious that if a guy who cannot even get off of the bench for one of the 2007 NBA Finalists becomes part of the seven man rotation for a championship team then that championship team is not very talented. Furthermore, look at what happened to those "talented" Lakers since 2009: Lamar Odom, the team's third best player, has looked like garbage since he stopped living off of Kobe Bryant being double-teamed; starting point guard Derek Fisher became a seldom-used reserve in Oklahoma City; Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar--two young players who were endlessly praised by the same media members who still mock LeBron James' Cleveland teammates--are not even in the league anymore! The 2009 Lakers won the championship because Kobe Bryant relentlessly attacked opposing defenses. Here are Bryant's scoring and assist numbers in the 2009 NBA Finals:

Game one: 40 points, eight assists
Game two: 29 points, eight assists
Game three: 31 points, eight assists
Game four: 32 points, eight assists
Game five: 30 points, five assists

Bryant averaged 32.4 ppg and 7.4 apg in that series. He posted the fourth highest scoring average in NBA history for a five game NBA Finals and in the decisive game he led both teams in scoring while also leading the Lakers in assists, steals and blocked shots in addition to grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover. Here is part of what I wrote in my series recap:

[LeBron] James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.

In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.


Bryant lived up to his responsibility and obligation as an elite player; he scored, he passed, he rebounded and he defended: he did not defer to anyone or wait for anyone to do anything but instead he dictated his terms to the opposing team and he instilled confidence in his teammates with his aggressiveness. The notion that James must choose between being Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan is ludicrous. James will never be Magic Johnson because Magic Johnson was a pass-first point guard on a team full of scorers while James is an all-time great scorer on a team that needs for him to score at least 25 ppg. Furthermore, the idea that James has to choose between scoring and passing is nonsense; Jordan scored and passed as his teams won six championships, as did Bryant as his teams won five championships.

James is averaging 16.7 ppg on .389 field goal shooting in the 2013 Finals; his scoring has declined in each game (18-17-15), as has his field goal percentage (7-16, 7-17, 7-21). He did not attempt a free throw in game three and he has only attempted six free throws so far in the series. In 18 career Finals games he has scored less than 20 points seven times. When he won the 2012 Finals MVP while leading the Heat to the championship he averaged 28.6 ppg and he scored between 26 and 32 points in each game; it seemed like James had finally figured out how to excel on the sport's biggest stage but so far in the 2013 Finals he has regressed.

I very much respect Kenny Smith's basketball acumen but I disagree with his defense of James' play in the first two games of this series and I don't see how anyone can defend James after game three. James is naturally going to put up big rebounding numbers as the power forward in Miami's small lineup but in game three the Heat got killed on the boards anyway. James is not Magic Johnson and the Heat cannot win this series unless he plays aggressively on offense; the Heat need for James to resume being a big-time scorer and their players must be very puzzled by James' passivity and apparent lack of confidence. Bryant exuded personal confidence and instilled confidence in his less talented teammates, while James is doing the opposite in the 2013 Finals.

What we are seeing from James in this series is a good example of why I did not include any active players in my pro basketball Pantheon; James is a great player but he has played on several championship caliber teams so far while winning just one title. All of the players in the Pantheon either won multiple titles or else put up outrageous statistics while losing in the Finals to other Pantheon members. James may play in several more Finals, he may win multiple titles and he may push his way to the top of the Pantheon--but if he keeps scoring in the teens in the Finals then he is going to end up with one championship on his resume and he will not deserve to be mentioned ahead of the Pantheon members no matter what the "stat gurus" say about his "advanced basketball statistics."

One major improvement for James over his Cleveland days is that he now takes responsibility for his poor play instead of saying things like he has "spoiled" the fans with his consistent excellence; after game three, James said, "I gotta be better. It's that simple. If I'm better, we're better. I gotta be better. I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders. I gotta be better. It's that simple. My teammates are doing a good job; they're doing a great job and I'm not doing my part."

James is right that he must do better but saying the correct words is one thing and putting those words into action at the highest level of the sport is another thing. After one of the Chicago Bulls' painful playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons, Michael Jordan's father tried to console Jordan by saying that there would be more chances to win a championship but Jordan replied that one never knows how many chances he will get. We do not know if James is only beginning to write his Finals story, if he is in the middle of that story or if this is his last Finals appearance but James' 1-2 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals)--while scoring far below his normal average and shooting far worse than his normal field goal percentage--does not stack up very well against the Finals records posted by the greatest players of the past 40 years; each of these players won at least three titles and none of them had a losing record in the Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 6-4 Finals record. Julius Erving won championships the first two times he reached the Finals (both in the ABA) and he finished with a 3-3 Finals record (including the NBA). Larry Bird won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 3-2 Finals record. Magic Johnson won championships in his first two Finals appearances and he finished with a 5-4 Finals record. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals. Shaquille O'Neal lost in his first Finals appearance and he finished with a 4-2 Finals record. Kobe Bryant won a championship in each of his first three Finals appearances and he now has a 5-2 Finals record. Tim Duncan has a 4-0 Finals record (pending the outcome of the 2013 Finals). A great player should not be judged solely on how many championships he wins but when the best player in the league annually plays for a top contender he should be expected to be at the top of his game in the Finals and he should be expected to win multiple titles.

"Stat gurus" mocked Jordan for saying that he would take Bryant over James because "five beats one" but every time in the NBA Finals that James settles for a long two point jumper or passes the ball instead of attacking the defense he is proving Jordan right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 AM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 8:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how is it possible that lebron and his coach have not figured out how to play against a zone defense.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Don said...

Hey David,

How did the Spurs guard Lebron's postgame? I missed the game and I'm now just counting on your observattion regarding the matter. Did Kawhi's length and Spurs' help defense bother Lebron or it's just Lebron not trying to be aggresive in the offensive end?

Don

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 3:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

Good criticism of Lebron, although the comparison to Kobe's 2009 Finals performance is unnecessary.

I though Lebron had put this kind of stuff behind him, but I guess not.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 3:31:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

LBJ is not himself, possibly rattled by the Spurs' Rondo-like defense. You gotta credit Leonard with the ability to face up James and tempt him into settling for jumpshots, plus the ability to defend him on the low post without requiring a double to completely sell out. Duncan is always waiting for LBJ, and ignoring his own man, ready to step up if LBJ gets by the first line of defense.

But Wade is just plain horrible. He needs to be benched for someone like Miller who actually provides spacing on offense, since he's hitting 90% of his threes so far in three games. Plus Wade keeps sinking off Green or losing him repeatedly.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 9:46:00 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

I'm having trouble getting a good read on the series so far; there have been two blowouts where the losing team performed dramatically worse than I am accustomed to seeing.

In addition I felt Game 1 swung in San Antonio's favor because the Spurs committed only four turnovers, which I didn't think they'd be able to replicate again.

Coming into the series I thought LeBron had finally broken through whatever mental block had stymied him in 2010 and 2011, but he appears to have regressed back to his tentative self from prior year playoff failures aside from that brief spurt in Game 2.

To the Spurs' credit though, their role players have come through (particularly Leonard and Green) when Miami's aggressive defense has forced them to finish plays instead of the Big 3.

Looking forward I expect the keys to the series to be Parker's hamstring and LeBron's mindset. I think whoever wins the next game will hold on to win the series.

Also, in case you haven't seen it, Marc Stein at ESPN wrote an article about how various sideline reporters approach interviewing Gregg Popovich:
http://espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2013/story/_/id/9341250/gregg-popovich-vs-sideline-reporters

It made me think of your comments about interviewing Pop in your Game 2 recap. I found it interesting that Heather Cox seems to share your opinion that Pop blows off or punishes thoughtless questions. I can't remember the last time I heard her interview Pop though. Many of the others seem to think his behavior is just Pop being Pop, though I suppose your experiences may be just a bit different as they are primarily talking to him in the middle of a game.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

That is a good question.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Don:

The Spurs are single covering James as much as possible, going under screens and daring him to shoot jumpers. In the post, Leonard or Green guard him one on one unless he gets too deep and then a big man slides over. James has not gone into the post often enough or aggressively enough. Also, when a big has been forced to switch on to James, he has too often settled for a long jumper or made a non-threatening pass instead of attacking the big to score and/or draw a foul.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Wade's defense has been even worse than his offense; I understand that he is limited physically but there is no excuse for him to bite on routine pump fakes and to consistently be completely out of position.

Miller is too old and too banged up to play more minutes than he is playing.

What the Heat need more than anything is for James to go back to playing the way he played in the regular season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs. If that happens it will solve most of their problems; if that does not happen then nothing else will matter.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous said...

I think you have been right on mark on all your comments. LeBron James is a great player and will finish his career as one of the greatest but this talk about the best of all time and the comparisons that are made are so ridiculous, especially since each player has a different set of skills that he is going to use in a basketball game. As you mentioned, Lebron has to be in attacking mode but I would add, using the skills that he posses. Sometimes I think that all those scribes at ESPN that continuously praise him also doing him a disservice because he could work more in some aspects of his game and "mental" preparation. Kobe Bryant has been continuously criticized but in a fact, an this is a truism, it helped to focus and get better. It would be a petty if he does not develop other facets of his game because people in the media do not point it out that he is not perfect. I am afraid also that as it is right now he is going to suffer a lot when in 3 years his athleticism starts to disappear.

Harley

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Harley:

You originally posted this comment in the wrong thread; I deleted the original comment and have reposted it here, unedited.

I don't know if unwarranted criticism helped Bryant or not but I agree with you that it does not help James that he is praised even when he makes the wrong plays.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Charles:

You are right that each game has featured some anomalies but certain patterns have developed:

1) The Spurs will dare James and Wade to shoot from outside of the paint.

2) When the Spurs do not turn the ball over they can get any shot that they want.

3) Wade can be somewhat effective in the first half but is mostly useless in the second half.

4) Duncan's presence at both ends of the court is having an impact that is not completely captured by statistics.

5) Except for a few brief bursts--one of which came when game three was already out of hand--James has been very passive.

If those patterns remain unchanged then the Spurs will win the series. I picked the Heat and I still think that the Heat can win a game in San Antonio, force the series back to Miami and win the championship there but game four is obviously a must win scenario for the Heat.

I saw Stein's column (he is one of the few ESPN writers who is worth reading). It is true that Popovich does not like being interviewed in the middle of the game but I still have yet to see him be dismissive of an intelligent question. Popovich just has a low toleration level for nonsense and I don't blame him for that at all. A well-informed questioner will always fare better than an ignorant one. One year at the National Sports Collectors Convention I met Tom Brown, a defensive back for Lombardi's Packers; I was waiting to interview Dolph Schayes but I had a nice conversation with Brown and one of the things that he told me is how irritated he would get when a reporter who interviewed him did not know the basics of his career (what years he played, which teams he played for, etc.). We got along very well because, off the top of my head, I knew a lot about Lombardi's Packers and he could tell that I am serious about my craft (even though I was not there to interview him and thus had not made any specific preparations to talk to him). A sports reporter should have a lot of general knowledge and then he should do specific research to prepare for an interview; unfortunately, far too many reporters are incompetent and/or lazy.

I have interviewed many people who are considered to be "difficult" and I never had a problem with any of them because I treated them all with respect and because I made it clear that I know what I am talking about.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sharp:

The 2009 Finals analogy is very apropos. The ABC/ESPN guys are wearing out this tired, false dichotomy about whether James should be Magic or Michael. Bryant's performance in the 2009 Finals is a perfect example of how a great player who has a complete game can dominate a series with scoring and passing.

 
At Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:46:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

David, I stumbled onto your site during this current NBA season and have thoroughly enjoyed your analysis and look forward to most of your future articles on the NBA. I'm a huge Kobe fan and dislike advanced stats due to their limitations and the general use by the media of these advanced stats.

I read in a post on ESPN boards about Lebron's offensive deficiencies and was wondering what your thoughts are on where Lebron is headed as his athleticism declines in the next 10 years. This poster mentioned his lack of skilled footwork, inconsistant jumper, being terrible in a triple threat position, and (almost) no post game. Other topics mention include no pump fakes, no up and unders, no spin moves, no pivot spins into a jumpshot/fadeaway, etc. Do you have any predictions on where Lebron will improve on as he gets older? If he doesn't improve, don't you think he's going to look like dWade in 5 years?

Another popular topic is Lebron needs to be more aggressive. In these 2013 Finals, the Spurs have defended him well in the paint. Are you suggesting he should "force" the action (into what I believe Lebron thinks is the bad play) and attempt to draw fouls and throw up shots in heavy congestion once in the lane? From the Spurs point of view, isn't that exactly what they want him to do (throw up bad shots)?

By the way, you wrote that "Shaquille O'Neal won a championship in each of his first three Finals appearances and he finished with a 4-1 Finals record." Shaq's one loss in the finals came in his first finals appearance.

 
At Thursday, June 13, 2013 12:07:00 AM, Anonymous Don said...

David,

I agree, James does not need to choose between being Magic or Michael (i.e. facilitating or scoring). The game is not played that way. The greatest players always strive to be the best all-around player that they can be. Sometimes it means getting your teammates involved, sometimes it means being the main offensive threat. It all depends on reading the complexion of the game and what the defense is trying to give. At this point in the season, James really need to be aggressive offensively so his teammates does not need to spend too much energy on that end and focus majority of their strength at the defensive end. The Miami Heat team does not have a defensive big man that they can funnel dribble penetration to and expect opponents to have their shots blocked or altered. They rely on their athletic and defensive minded wings (James, Wade, Battier, Chalmers, Allen) for quick rotations and close outs. But they have already played more than a hundred games this season and they are all nursing numerous injuries (at this point every player is), James can't expect his teammates to have enough energy to be the 2-way players (offensively and defensively reliable) they are during the regular season. He needs to be more aggressive and shoulder more of the offensive load for his teammates.

Don

 
At Thursday, June 13, 2013 2:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Unknown:

In previous articles, I said that if James and Wade do not diversify their offensive games then they will not age nearly as well as Kobe Bryant has. We are already seeing the results of this with Wade. James is in his prime, so he has some time to diversify his game before his physical skills erode; also, James is much bigger than Wade (and already is more skilled as well), so he will not age as poorly as Wade has.

I am not suggesting that James should "force" anything; James should play the same way that he played during the regular season and during the first three rounds of the playoffs: he attacked the hoop aggressively, he did not take many bad shots and he was a big-time scorer. James should be much more aggressive, instead of waiting for/accepting the trap and then passing the ball. For instance, when a big man like Duncan or Splitter gets switched on to James on the perimeter, James should attack the hoop instead of settling for a long, contested jump shot.

The mistake about O'Neal's Finals record has been corrected.

 
At Thursday, June 13, 2013 2:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Don:

I would put it even more simply: the Heat reached the Finals with James playing a certain way and he should continue to play that way instead of changing his game around during the most important games. James is not Magic Johnson; he is a big-time scorer and the Heat are at their best when he is scoring a lot of points.

 

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