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Friday, June 07, 2013

Death by Execution: Efficient Spurs Chill Sloppy Heat

The San Antonio Spurs tied the NBA Finals record for fewest turnovers in a game (four) and they outscored the Miami Heat 23-16 in the fourth quarter en route to a 92-88 game one victory. Tony Parker scored a game-high 21 points on 9-18 field goal shooting and he led the Spurs in assists (six) without committing a single turnover. Tim Duncan controlled the paint at both ends of the court, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots; he missed his first five field goal attempts but shot 8-14 the rest of the way. Duncan has supposedly handed the reins over to Parker--whatever that means--but the main difference between this Spurs team and the Spurs teams in recent seasons that did not make it to the Finals is that Duncan has lost weight, turned back the clock and resumed being a dominant force in the paint. There have been a few exceptions but in general NBA championship teams have been led by a dominant post player and/or a dominant 6-6 to 6-9 wing player; Parker is without question a great point guard but without Duncan's scoring, rebounding, defense and screen-setting Parker and the Spurs would not have made it to the Finals.

LeBron James had a strange game, as he often seems to do against elite level opponents; the box score numbers look great--18 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists--yet he never took control of the game and he disappeared in the fourth quarter. Dwyane Wade finished with 17 points on 7-15 field goal shooting but, after scoring 13 points on 5-8 field goal shooting in the first half, he scored just four points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the second half--and he went scoreless in the fourth quarter with the outcome up for grabs. Wade played very passively, accumulating just two rebounds and two assists while posting a game-low -11 plus/minus number. As NBA TV's Kenny Smith said, Wade did not have a performance worthy of someone who is considered a potential Hall of Fame candidate. Chris Bosh scored 13 points, ranked second on the Heat with five rebounds and led the team with three steals; those are not great numbers but--as discussed below--the Heat treat Bosh like a role player, not a multidimensional perennial All-Star.

On the first play of the game, the Spurs committed the cardinal sin for a Miami opponent; Duncan turned the ball over, the Heat were off to the races and Wade converted a fast break dunk. After that miscue, the Spurs went on a 9-0 run but then the Heat recovered and took a 38-29 lead. The Heat were up 46-38 late in the first half after making eight of their previous 10 field goal attempts but the Spurs patiently chipped away, pulling to within 52-49 at halftime after Duncan hit a buzzer beating jumper; closing out quarters is very important--Doug Collins used to emphasize this during his broadcasting days--and in a four point victory the Spurs hit big shots at the end of both the second and fourth quarters.

After the teams played to a 20-20 tie in the third quarter, Parker scored 10 fourth quarter points, capped by a twisting, shot clock-beating bank shot that will forever be on the all-time Finals highlight reel if the Spurs win this series. Throughout the final 12 minutes, Parker attacked the paint off of the dribble and Duncan made his presence felt in the paint; meanwhile, without San Antonio turnovers or missed shots to fuel Miami's transition game, the Heat looked tentative and uncertain.

The whole rest versus rust issue played out the way that I predicted it might: "The Spurs may be rusty in the first half of game one but it is important for them to keep the score close and then make their move against Miami in the second half." The Heat led for most of the game but never by double digits--and they completely collapsed in the final stanza, shooting 5-18 from the field while committing five turnovers. In game two, the Spurs will be less rusty after getting back into the rhythm of playing every two or three days but the Heat should no longer be feeling the aftereffects of their long, physical series with the Pacers; neither rust nor rest should be an issue the rest of the way.

Bosh is often the scapegoat when the Heat lose but the Heat do not utilize him properly; instead of being an integral part of their offense as a post player, a face up player in the midpost area and/or a driver/attacker from the wing, he is relegated to being a long range spot up shooter who creates space for James and Wade to dribble the ball until they decide to shoot or pass. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly said that Bosh should be catching the ball in the midpost area; I made the same comment in my my recap of the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals when I explained why Bosh could be much more effective if he were deployed that way: "Perhaps James and Wade will even permit Bosh to post up once in a while and/or receive the ball in position to drive/attack the hoop, instead of consigning Bosh to the outer limits of the offense so that they have open driving lanes for themselves: Bosh cannot be expected to drive to the hoop from the three point line--he does not have handles like a shooting guard--but if he is given the ball in the midpost area he can face up and either hit the 15 foot jumper or make a nice, two dribble drive into the paint."

The two dominant themes in this series figure to be the Spurs' ability to collectively execute a sound, efficient game plan and James' willingness to take over the game. Players who aspire to be considered all-time greats have an obligation to dominate games at the championship level; they cannot wait for their teammates to step up and they cannot suddenly change how they play: James has established himself as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history and he ranked fourth in the league with a 26.8 ppg scoring average this season--5.6 ppg more than Wade, who has rarely scored 20 points in a playoff game this year--so it does not make sense for James to suddenly become a reluctant shooter. James won the 2012 Finals MVP by averaging 28.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 7.4 apg; while he posted good all-around numbers in that series, he also asserted himself as a dominant scorer. In contrast, James averaged just 22.0 ppg when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the 2007 Finals and he only averaged 17.8 ppg as his Heat lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks 2011 Finals.

The comparisons of James to Magic Johnson are ridiculous; James' career-low scoring average is 20.9 ppg as a rookie coming to the NBA straight out of high school and he has never averaged less than 26.7 ppg since that season, while Johnson's career-high scoring average was 23.9 ppg and he averaged more than 20 ppg just four times in 12 full seasons. Johnson was a pass first point guard who played alongside a Hall of Fame center and a Hall of Fame forward in a different era when teams were deeper and his Lakers did not rely on him to consistently put up big point totals; James is Karl Malone with passing/ballhandling skills but he is only at his best--and his team is only dominant--when he relentlessly attacks the hoop as a scorer. James must first make the defense commit to stopping his scoring drives and only then should he pass to open teammates; when James settles for jump shots or passes the ball without distorting the defense by driving he is not fully utilizing his skills, no matter what the box score numbers and/or "advanced basketball statistics" say. The "stat gurus" will never understand this, but the Kobe Bryant in his prime who dominated with scoring first and only passed when trapping defenses forced him to give up the ball was a greater player than the James who lets defenses off of the hook by not asserting himself as a scorer (comparing that Bryant to the James who showed up in the 2012 playoffs--and especially the 2012 Finals--is a different matter but Bryant repeatedly established himself as a great performer in championship level games while James' record in that regard is much more sporadic). The Heat could still win this series but that will only happen if James resumes being a 25-plus ppg scorer; it is not a good sign for Heat fans that James smugly answered a question about his lack of offensive efficiency by noting that he had 18 rebounds and 10 assists in game one: James is a little bit too aware of his personal statistics, when he should be focused on doing whatever it takes to win--and the Heat need James to be a big-time scorer, even if that might mean that his rebound and assist numbers go down.

The Miami Heat suffered death by execution: the Spurs did not play flawlessly--they missed wide open corner three pointers that they normally make and they messed up several defensive rotations in the first half--but in general they executed the anti-Heat game plan described in my series preview, when I wrote that the Spurs could win if they "...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 two part question now is, "Can the Spurs execute this game plan three more times and, if so, can James overcome this by asserting control as the best player on the court?" It is clear how each team must play to win this series but after one game it is not yet clear which team will win this series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:17 AM



At Friday, June 07, 2013 11:48:00 AM, Anonymous Stephen said...

I felt going in this was a tossup; I ultimately leaned towards Miami.

After last season I remember saying to a friend that while I wasn't trying to create a moving target for LeBron, I wondered if the Heat would have won the title had it not been a truncated season. LeBron has shown repeatedly to be dominant over the course of 82 games; but he's yet to show that dominance for around 100 games.

I thought LeBron was being a little passive last round but I attributed that to Hibbert; now I'm not sure why he's deferring so much.

That 25 ppg barrier will be interesting to watch; felt a great deal like his other Finals appearances outside of last year's OKC series.

At Friday, June 07, 2013 12:59:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Miami must make adjustments for Bosh to assert himself in the post. It's mindboggling how they're misusing Bosh, who's tied with LeBron as the two highest paid players on the team.

If Miami loses this Finals, there will be a great chance that LeBron will leave the Heat, but that is another discussion for another day to come.

I can't wait for the rest of this series. Yesterday's game was simply too good.

At Friday, June 07, 2013 3:53:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

Does the media overhype the value of a triple-double? If LeBron finished with 9 assists instead of 10 would people be so quick to say he had a great game? For a guy who handles the ball as much as he does, 10 assists should not be considered amazing. And his 18 rebounds are impressive, but Miami goes much of the game with only playing one true big man (Bosh, and they play him away from the basket), so it is reasonable to assume that LeBron's rebound totals will be inflated by the style that Miami plays.

At Friday, June 07, 2013 4:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that the media overhypes statistics in general, because numbers are only meaningful when placed in proper context--a context that many media members are not intellectually equipped to provide.

As I indicated in my article, James' triple double is superficially impressive but the reality is that he did not control the game down the stretch. As you suggest, since Miami only plays one big man and since James monopolizes the ball on offense it is not amazing that in one particular game he can accumulate 18 rebounds and 10 assists.

I am not saying that James performed badly in game one; I am just saying that the mere statistical fact that he had a triple double does not prove that he had a great game. Duncan had more impact than James because Duncan's defensive presence deterred the Heat from effectively driving to the hoop and because the Spurs ran a lot of their offense through Duncan, who can can post up, set screens and hit jumpers. I am sure that "advanced basketball statistics" would say that James was the best player on the court but Parker and Duncan both had more impact than James.

At Saturday, June 08, 2013 1:45:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Not taking away anything from Parker. He's that good. The best player on the Spurs. Some people may consider him underrated. But I still believe he's a borderline superstar type player. The best player on a team with depth. I dont know if Hes a true superstar/franchise player. My reasoning has nothing to do with his size of not being at least 6'6". I don't think my opinion would change even if Spurs won this series.

Duncan is past his prime, no longer a franchise guy, but still a very good player. He seems to be doing what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was doing; staying highly affective til his late thirties.

You're correct that Bosh is nit being utilized correctly. It may not be fair to use him as a scapegoat whenever they lose. You have to factor in that Wade hasn't been consistantly good in the playoffs. You dont know what you'll get out of him from game to game now.

At Saturday, June 08, 2013 8:31:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Saw the game at a frenetic sports pub, then watched it again in the morning.

It looked like LBJ visibly wore down by the end of the third quarter: he was no longer closing out on Leonard, letting him take wide open threes (though he missed them). Plus LBJ watched the Spurs grabbed a couple offensive boards flatfooted. Just didn't have the legs there.

Then coach Spoelstra did something strange - he sat both LBJ and Wade at the start of the fourth quarter. He hadn't done so in the playoffs. LBJ usually plays at the start of the fourth. Perhaps that was when the momentum swung, and Spoelstra should have had Wade in there, if LBJ was exhausted and needed a breather. Once they both came back in, both LBJ and Wade were strangely passive.

At Saturday, June 08, 2013 2:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right that it is unusual for James and Wade to be on the bench at the same time but they both asked to come out of the game because they were tired. Wade has been passive for most of the playoffs; he showed a bit of a burst in the first quarter and then went back to being passive. I have yet to figure out what goes through James' head when he goes through these stretches of not being aggressive. He can get off a shot whenever he wants to get off a shot, yet in the biggest games he sometimes is very passive (he also has performed very well in some big games, which makes his passive games even stranger and more inexplicable, because we have seen that he knows what to do and is capable of doing it).

At Saturday, June 08, 2013 8:44:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Perhaps let someone else handle the rock?

The Spurs are doing the same thing they did in 2007, by throwing the kitchen sink at LBJ, and force his teammates to hit clutch shots. No great NBA player in history could finish in the paint vs 3 guys already defending him, or awaiting him there.

Thus if LBJ is on one side of the court with the ball, then a teammate's defender isn't paying them any attention. So that teammate should cut through, but I hardly saw any movement off the ball.

Perhaps that's up to the coach? Poppovich has them figured out? I think LBJ will not have a superlative, Wilt in 1970 Finals type of game, not because he's not good enough, but because Coach Spoelstra isn't savvy enough to adjust to counter Poppovich.

At Saturday, June 08, 2013 9:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


James is Miami's best player, so taking the ball out of his hands is probably not the best solution. Also, James does not play particularly well without the ball (neither does Wade, but Wade's decline has solved any potential problem in terms of James and Wade sharing the ball because Wade is clearly not equipped to be the first option now).

In the 2007 Finals, the Spurs blatantly dared James to shoot outside shots; often they would not even contest those shots. Now James must be guarded on the perimeter, though the defense still prefers for him to shoot jumpers as opposed to him driving to the hoop.

Spoelstra has done a good job of taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of his players and thus the Heat's half court offense is much better now than it was during the Big Three's first full season.

In the 2010 and 2011 scenarios (versus Boston and Dallas respectively) that I have discussed here many times, it is obvious that James quit. What happened in game one versus the Spurs is more complex. It is possible that James became fatigued, either from that game alone or from the cumulative effect of the just-concluded series with the Pacers; James asked to come out of game one in the fourth quarter because he was tired.

The larger issue is that James spent most of the season and most of the playoffs scoring 25-plus ppg despite often being double-teamed; that is his defined role on the team and that is what his teammates expect him to do. When James decides, for whatever reason, to be less aggressive and he is content to score less than 20 points this is not good for his team. It is easy to point out one or two particular plays and argue about whether or not James should have passed the ball--but the point is that James typically shoots often enough to routinely score 25-30 points and when he is hot he can score 35-40 points or more. The Spurs have not unveiled a new defense, as Popovich readily admits. The difference is that, for whatever reason, there are some nights that James does not aggressively try to score--and it is strange that these nights often happen in the NBA Finals.


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