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Friday, June 21, 2013

LeBron James Dominates as Miami Heat Win Second Straight Championship

LeBron James authored one of the greatest seventh game performances in NBA Finals history, winning his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP and his second consecutive championship after carrying the Miami Heat to a 95-88 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. James scored an NBA Finals career-high 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting (including 5-10 from three point range), grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds and passed for a team-high four assists. James tied Tommy Heinsohn's 1957 record for the most points scored in an NBA Finals game seven by a member of the winning team. James played a game-high 45 minutes and he guarded multiple positions, including spending a lot of time smothering San Antonio's All-Star point guard Tony Parker. James hit the jump shot that put the Heat up 92-88 with :27.9 remaining and then he stole the ball before making two free throws to clinch the win. He averaged 25.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg and 7.0 apg in the NBA Finals, leading his team in all three categories by wide margins; James averaged 25-10-7 in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year--an NBA Finals stat line that no other player has equaled even once--and he joined Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players who won both a championship and the regular season MVP in consecutive seasons. James averaged 25.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 6.6 apg during the 2013 playoffs while shooting .491 from the field, .375 from three point range and .777 from the free throw line.

James' production can best be described by two words: "great" and "necessary." There are many perks, awards and honors that come with being the best basketball player in the world but that status also carries with it a tremendous responsibility, something that James understands much better now than he did earlier in his career. Great players do not put up ordinary statistics in the NBA Finals; great players dominate the NBA Finals and impose their will on the opposing team. In the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals, James scored 18, 17 and 15 points as the Heat fell behind two games to one; in the final four games of the series, James scored 33, 25, 32 and 37 points as the Heat won three times to capture the title. There are many statistics and strategies from this series that can be discussed and analyzed but the bottom line is that when James was a 16.7 ppg scorer in the first three games the Heat were headed for a very disappointing loss but when James averaged 31.8 ppg in the final four games he carried the Heat to the championship. James is an all-around player who can rebound, pass and defend at a very high level but his greatest attribute--no matter what anyone says--is that he is one of the best scorers in pro basketball history.

James' primary job is not to pass the ball or defer to others; his primary job is to score at least 25 ppg. The same thing is true of Kobe Bryant--and every time Bryant led the Lakers to the NBA Finals after the creation of this web site I wrote that he needed to average at least 25 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field: that is the standard and that standard has nothing to do with "loving" one player or "hating" another player. James averaged 25.3 ppg on .447 field goal shooting versus the Spurs and the Heat did not clinch the championship until the final seconds of the seventh game at home--and they easily could have lost the championship in the final seconds of game six. James had a great series by the standards of most NBA players but he also barely met the 25 ppg/.450 threshold and that is why his team barely won; if he had performed better in the first three games then this series would not have lasted seven games but if he had not stepped up to the challenge in the final four games then the Heat would have lost. That is part of the confusing legacy of James: he is a great player who has already won two championships and may very well win several more championships but he has a strange propensity to not play his game when the stakes are highest. Maybe the glimpses he provides of his talent raise expectations to unreasonable levels--but I don't fault James for missing shots in the first three games as much as I fault him for not being aggressive enough. In the fourth quarter of game six and during most of game seven, James played decisively: he shot open jump shots without hesitation and he relentlessly drove to the hoop whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Any objective observer has to admit that James played very tentatively during the first three games, hesitating to shoot open jumpers and shying away from attacking the hoop.

Despite all of the talk about James not receiving enough help during his Cleveland years, consider these numbers: his 2007 team that reached the NBA Finals had three players who averaged between 11.3 and 12.6 ppg during the postseason, his 2008 team had three players who averaged between 10.8 and 13.1 ppg during the postseason, his 2009 team had three players who averaged between 10.5 and 16.3 ppg during the postseason and his 2010 team had three players who averaged between 11.5 and 15.3 ppg during the postseason. What about this year's Miami Heat featuring two perennial All-Stars other than James plus future Hall of Famer Ray Allen? Three Heat players averaged between 10.2 ppg and 15.9 ppg during the playoffs. Only four Heat players other than James scored in game seven and one of them, Chris Andersen, contributed just three points; both Chris Bosh and Ray Allen did not score, though Bosh made some key defensive plays and Allen matched James with four assists. No matter how you slice the numbers or analyze the skill sets of the Cleveland players and the Miami players, the reality is that for a team to win a championship the best player must not only post great numbers but he also must dominate the action down the stretch of close games. James has won two championships in Miami after failing to win a championship in Cleveland because James has improved his skill set, strengthened his mindset and committed himself to consistently dominating playoff games versus elite competition. If he had posted a 20-10-10 triple double in game seven that might have looked great on paper to some people but the Heat would have lost; James has an obligation to be a big-time scorer and he fulfilled that obligation in the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2013 NBA Finals after failing to do so in the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Revisionist historians are eager to say that James has now refuted his critics but the truth is that James heeded some very valid critiques, worked hard to improve himself as a player and as a person and now he is reaping the rewards of that self-improvement.

Dwyane Wade was ineffective--and at times looked indifferent--during most of the 2013 playoffs but he played with tremendous energy and aggressiveness in game seven. He not only scored 23 points on 11-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds but he also made several hustle plays. For someone who says that he does not talk about injuries, Wade talks about his injuries a lot but I do not doubt that he really is injured and he deserves credit for saving his best for last, even if it seems like maybe he could have done a little more earlier in the playoffs; some people act like it is a crime against humanity to criticize Wade but, even after he boosted his statistics with his performances in games six and seven, he averaged a career-low 15.9 ppg during the 2013 playoffs and he only surpassed the 20 point plateau four times in his 22 playoff games.

Chris Bosh shot 0-5 from the field but he grabbed seven rebounds and he played excellent defense; the Heat left him on an island one on one versus Duncan, which enabled the Heat's perimeter players to smother the Spurs' perimeter players and hold them to 6-19 (.316) three point shooting. Bosh rarely touched the ball on offense, so it is not fair to judge his performance based on his scoring; on one play he approached Wade to set a screen but Wade turned the ball over and then glared at Bosh for daring to venture over to the strong side of the court when Wade wanted to go one on one. The Heat do not utilize Bosh like the eight-time All-Star that he is but they instead treat him like a glorified Horace Grant, someone who is expected to do the dirty work and occasionally hit a spot up jumper.

Championship teams often have a role player who makes a major, unexpected contribution during their playoff run; Shane Battier put his name alongside John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher by scoring 18 points while shooting 6-8 from three point range, tying the record for most three pointers made in a seventh game of the NBA Finals. Battier received the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) during Miami's 99-76 game seven win against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals but when Coach Erik Spoelstra called Battier's number in this game seven Battier responded with a clutch performance.

Tim Duncan had a very good overall game--24 points on 8-18 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, four steals--but he admitted that he will forever be haunted by his critical late game mistakes, including two missed shots from point blank range that could have tied the score. Tony Parker looked completely drained, which is what happens when a small player is hounded by a much bigger and more athletic defender--especially if that defender is LeBron James. Parker had 10 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, plus four assists and three steals; he is an excellent player and he has been a key member of the ensemble cast for three San Antonio championship teams but--as Bill Russell mentioned before game six--Duncan is San Antonio's most valuable player. Anyone who doubts that size matters in pro basketball or who thinks that a small point guard can be the best player on a championship team should look very carefully at what happened in the final two games of this series: James dominated at both ends of the court and played a major role in shutting down Parker, while Parker had very little impact offensively or defensively. Size is significant not just because it affects what a player can and cannot do in a game but also because a smaller player is more likely to become worn down by the end of a long series than a bigger player is.

Manu Ginobili's overall FIBA/NBA resume will likely earn him induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame but the 2013 NBA Finals will not provide many clips for his career highlight video. He finished game seven with 18 points, five assists, four turnovers and a +6 plus/minus rating, providing an excelllent example of how misleading statistics can be; with the result up for grabs in the final 7:14, Ginobili committed three turnovers--including fumbling an easily catchable pass out of bounds plus firing two horribly off target passes that were easily stolen--and shot an air ball from three point range. Ginobili's butter fingers had a lot to do with San Antonio fumbling away the championship, regardless of what the numbers might suggest.

The good news for every future Hall of Famer in this series not named LeBron James is that so much attention is focused on James' legacy that few people care that much about the performances of any other player; Parker's late-series fade, Duncan's miscues at the end of game seven and Ginobili's atrocious ballhandling throughout the series will all be ignored by the vast majority of people who are trying to determine where James ranks among the greatest players in pro basketball history. I focus a lot of my coverage on James, too, but the performances of Wade, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili should at least be mentioned. Wade's excellent showings in games six and seven elevated his series scoring average to 19.6 ppg and he shot a very solid .476 from the field; he was not dominant but overall he was an effective second option. Duncan averaged 18.9 ppg and a series-high 12.1 rpg while shooting .490 from the field, which is about as much as can be reasonably expected from a 37 year old post player--and if the Spurs had closed out game six then he would have deserved serious NBA Finals MVP consideration. Parker averaged 15.7 ppg and 6.4 apg while shooting .412 from the field, numbers that are not good enough considering his role. Ginobili is only asked to be the third scoring option and second playmaking option but he averaged just 11.6 ppg (fifth on the team) and 4.3 apg (second on the team) while shooting .433 from the field and leading the NBA Finals with 3.1 turnovers per game despite only ranking ninth in the series in minutes played.

Two other Spurs should be mentioned. Kawhi Leonard tied James with 45 minutes played, finishing with 19 points and a game-high 16 rebounds; Leonard is an excellent rebounder/defender whose offensive game is still developing. Danny Green set three point shooting records during the first five games of this series but the Heat made a concerted effort to deny him open looks in games six and seven. Green scored five points on 1-12 field goal shooting in game seven; the Heat forced him to dribble instead of allowing him to catch and shoot and he looked extremely uncomfortable trying to make plays with a live dribble.

This series was notable not only for its great drama and high level of competitiveness but also because it thoroughly refuted the idea that it is necessary to hate and/or disrespect an opponent; after game seven, both teams demonstrated commendable sportsmanship as the players and coaching staffs exchanged hugs, handshakes and congratulations/consoling words. During the series there were no flagrant fouls, no technical fouls and no trash talk; rivalries are formed by great players making great plays, not by players doing a lot of extracurricular nonsense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bill Russell's Insights About the 2013 NBA Finals

Prior to game six, the NBA TV crew interviewed Bill Russell and the 11-time NBA champion made some interesting comments about the 2013 NBA Finals.

Media members make a big deal about in-game adjustments and between game adjustments but Russell--who served as a player-coach for two championship teams--cautioned, "You have to make adjustments that your team can make." An adjustment will only work if it is something that a team has previously practiced and is thus mentally/physically prepared to execute. The idea that a coach can come up with something completely new between games--let alone during a 15 minute halftime break--is absurd and that is why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich gives snarky answers when media members ask him stupid questions about what kind of adjustments he is going to make.

Media members act as if after every loss the losing team should react to what the winning team did but Russell said, "When I played, when we had to make adjustments we would adjust not to what we did wrong but we would try to get back to what we did right and do that. That is the only way you can take control of the game." This is a very important and underrated point: great teams focus on what they do well and they play their game, as opposed to reacting/overreacting to what the opposing team just did. In the 2007 NBA playoffs, Coach Avery Johnson of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks changed his starting lineup against the eighth seeded 42-40 Golden State Warriors, a decision that I criticized for exactly the reason that Russell mentioned: "The Mavericks posted one of the best regular season records in NBA history but for most of this series they have been changing their lineup and trying to outthink the Warriors--but you can't outthink a crazy man. Don Nelson is the crazy man in this series--crazy like a fox. He knows that his team is not as good as Dallas, which is why he keeps saying that--but he also knows that by running and gunning on offense and triple-teaming Nowitzki on defense and just creating a wild and crazy shootout that there is a chance that his team will be standing at the end; certainly, the Warriors would have no chance to win by playing in a more conventional way." In another article about that series, I declared, "Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a big mistake--pun intended--by benching his centers in game one and trying to play 'small ball.' Dallas must continue to use the starting lineup that rampaged to one of the best records in league history." Instead of making an adjustment to react to how an inferior team played, Coach Johnson should have focused on making sure that his Mavericks kept doing what they did well.

After San Antonio took a 3-2 series lead over Miami, most Finals MVP talk focused on Tony Parker and Danny Green but Russell said, "If San Antonio were to win, I would pick Tim Duncan as the MVP because he makes both the offense and the defense for San Antonio; you've got inside presence offensively and inside presence defensively. One thing about Tim Duncan that I like is he is one of the best passing big men." I agree with Russell that Duncan's impact has neither been measured fully by statistics nor has it been appreciated by most media members/commentators; I still think that Duncan should have won the 2007 Finals MVP for the very reasons that Russell mentioned.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 PM

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Heat Force Seventh Game After Spurs Squander Late Fourth Quarter Lead

"Our world's out of order. All I see is missed opportunity."--Hall & Oates, "Missed Opportunity"

The San Antonio Spurs are renowned for their crisp execution and praised for their championship pedigree but in game six of the NBA Finals they squandered a golden opportunity to win the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan era--and now the Miami Heat are one victory away from claiming the second championship of the Big Three era. The Spurs led 94-89 with :28 left in regulation after Manu Ginobili split a pair of free throws, a time/score situation that simply requires making free throws, not giving the opposing team extra possessions via turnovers/offensive rebounds and not giving up open three pointers; if the Spurs had executed those basic fundamentals for less than 30 seconds then they would have won the 2013 NBA championship. Instead, the Spurs gave up an offensive rebound that led to a LeBron James three pointer, Kawhi Leonard split a pair of free throws, the Spurs gave up an offensive rebound that led to a Ray Allen three pointer and the game went to overtime after Tony Parker missed a tough, low percentage fadeaway jumper as time expired in regulation. The Spurs scored first in overtime and eventually took a three point lead but then they missed three straight shots and suffered a shot clock violation; the Heat finished the game with a 6-0 run and emerged with a 103-100 win. Game to game momentum has been non-existent in this series as the teams have alternated victories but this is a devastating loss for the Spurs and the last time a road team won game seven of the NBA Finals Jimmy Carter was President (Washington 105, Seattle 98 in 1978), so on Thursday the Spurs will face a daunting task.

LeBron James authored yet another Finals performance that will baffle both his critics and his admirers; he scored 14 points on 3-12 field goal shooting in the first three quarters and he seemed to be on pace for one of the worst performances by a reigning MVP in a possible elimination game--but then he took over the game in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 points on 7-11 field goal shooting as the Heat rallied from a 75-65 deficit. James finished with 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and three steals while shooting 11-26 from the field. He is just the fourth player in NBA Finals history to post a 30-10-10 triple double, joining Jerry West, James Worthy and Charles Barkley. Without James' poor shooting and tentative play in the first three quarters the Heat probably would not have trailed by as many as 13 points but without his forceful, determined and skillful play in the fourth quarter the Heat would not have been able to come back. So what should we make of James? He is a tremendously talented player who has had many great playoff performances, who sometimes becomes passive in the biggest games and who learned last year how to snap out of that passivity to reassert the aggressiveness that makes him unstoppable; no player and no defensive scheme can stop James when he attacks the hoop with force--period. Anyone who thinks that James did not quit versus Dallas during the 2011 NBA Finals and versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs should watch the fourth quarter of game six of the 2013 NBA Finals: that is what LeBron James looks like when he is playing hard, when he is fully engaged mentally, physically and emotionally--and that kind of effort (not necessarily those numbers but that energy level, that kind of relentless determination to attack the defense) should be expected of James all the time, because that is what Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant--the two wing players who led teams to multiple championships in the past 20 years--delivered. If LeBron James wants to be mentioned in the same breath with those players then that is the standard--not statistics, not awards but rather a consistently high effort level that uplifts his teammates and deflates the opposing team. Prior to the game, NBA TV's Greg Anthony said, "Everyone says how well they are defending LeBron. LeBron is defending LeBron." Does anyone really believe that Boris Diaw can stay in front of LeBron James? Does anyone really believe that any of the Spurs' wing players can guard LeBron James in the post? The Spurs' defensive scheme is to concede two point jump shots to James and hope that James either misses those shots or refuses to even take those shots; there is no plan to stop James when he drives to the basket with a full head of steam and looks to score instead of looking to pass: James did that for the whole fourth quarter and there was nothing that the Spurs could do to slow him down. If James does that in game seven then the Heat will win--and if he had done that more often in the first five games then this series would already have been over.

For a half, it looked like Tim Duncan was the player who was going to deliver a legendary performance; in the first 24 minutes he produced 25 points (a personal high for a half in a Finals game) on 11-13 field goal shooting and he grabbed eight rebounds as the Spurs took a 50-44 lead. Could the 37 year old Duncan really produce a 40-20 game to clinch his fifth title? The predictable answer to that question was, "No"; he finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds and did not score after the third quarter--but Anthony correctly noted that a 30-17 stat line is more than the Spurs could have reasonably expected from Duncan and the Spurs needed to receive more production from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Parker scored 19 points and passed for eight assists but he shot just 6-23 from the field. Ginobili had nine points, four rebounds, three assists, a career-high eight turnovers and a mind-boggling -21 plus/minus rating, by far the worst of any player in this game.

Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra took a page out of Phil Jackson's book; when Jackson coached the Lakers against the Spurs he preferred to single cover Duncan and blanket San Antonio's perimeter players, figuring that Duncan would not score 40 or 50 points and that the Spurs could not win without getting huge production from their three point shooters. Duncan put up great numbers in game six against single coverage but the Spurs shot just 5-18 from three point range (.278). Danny Green--whose record-setting three point shooting in the first five games generated some Finals MVP consideration--scored three points on 1-7 field goal shooting, including 1-5 from three point range.

Meanwhile, the Heat shot 11-19 from behind the arc (.579), with Mario Chalmers leading the way (20 points, 4-5 three point shooting). Dwyane Wade had a quiet game (14 points on 6-15 field goal shooting, four rebounds, four assists) and he was on the bench when the Heat made their fourth quarter run. Chris Bosh had solid numbers (10 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocked shots) but he had an impact far greater than those statistics suggest; his defensive versatility played a huge role as Miami outscored San Antonio 30-20 in the fourth quarter, he collected the offensive rebound that led to Allen's game-tying three pointer and he blocked Green's three point attempt as time expired in overtime. Allen finished with nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting but he scored seven crucial points late in the game: in addition to the huge three pointer at the end of regulation, he converted a drive to cut San Antonio's lead to 100-99 and he made two clutch free throws to put Miami up 103-100 with 1.9 seconds left in overtime.

The Spurs have to be very careful to make sure that game seven does not get out of hand, because it is easy to picture a scenario in which James runs wild (literally and figuratively), Chalmers hits some three pointers and the Heat cruise to victory; the Heat have played two game sevens in the Big Three era and they won both by double digits (99-76 versus Indiana in 2013, 101-88 versus Boston in 2012). On the other hand, if James plays like he did in the first three quarters of game six and the Spurs execute at their normal efficiency level then the Spurs could put themselves in position to transform their game six collapse from a huge missed opportunity into a historical footnote.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:28 AM

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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

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