Masters Of Space
Before a second half that will go down in infamy as either the air condition game or the cramping game, fans were treated to an exhilarating display of basketball in the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. There were 5 lead changes and 3 ties, as the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat traded baskets, racing up-and-down the court and spraying 3's from all over the floor. No teams in the NBA space the floor better than the Heat and the Spurs, which isn't a coincidence.
San Antonio and Miami have three-point shooting up and down their roster, which is very, very hard to defend. The entire game was played in semi-transition, with both teams spreading the floor, pushing the pace and constantly probing for three-pointers. If any defender falls asleep, his man can devastate you in a matter of seconds. Eighteen guys played in Game 1 on Thursday and only three - Tim Duncan, Chris Anderson and Tiago Splitter - didn't attempt a 3.
The Spurs started Duncan and Splitter, but the two barely played together in Game 1, a continuation of the adjustment Gregg Popovich made in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. By splitting up his two big men, the Spurs coach turbocharged his offense and played 4-out for almost the entire game. When they came off the pick-and-roll, either Splitter or Duncan had miles of space in the paint, since the other three players were spread out along the three-point line.
The Heat, meanwhile, started the game playing five-out with Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis. While neither player is a traditional rim protector, they are both lights-out shooters who have to be respected 25+ feet from the basket. Bosh was spotting up from behind the three-point line like he was Ray Allen, catching and shooting as soon as he touched the ball. He finished the game with 18 points, including 3-4 from deep, while Lewis chipped in 12 with two 3’s.
When Bosh and Lewis came out at the end of the first quarter, Miami went even smaller with LeBron James at the 4. With one big man and three shooters playing with the best player in the world, their second unit is as dangerous as a starting unit which features three future Hall of Famers. Given how many three pointers that line-up attempts, there's a lot of variation in how they perform on a nightly basis, but they have the potential to blow open a game very quickly.
With Duncan and Splitter getting their minutes staggered, pretty much every line-up San Antonio uses over the course of a 48-minute game has the same kind of potential. Almost all of them shot well from 3 in Game 1: Kawhi Leonard (2-3), Danny Green (3-7), Tony Parker (2-2), Patty Mills (1-3), Marco Bellinelli (2-3), Manu Ginobili (3-6) and Boris Diaw (0-1). With the way they move the ball, they will get open looks and some of their shooters will be hot.
It's the same story for Miami, who have Bosh, Lewis, Mario Chalmers (1-1), Ray Allen (3-8), Norris Cole (03) and Shane Battier (0-1) spotting up off of Dwyane Wade and LeBron. Even Wade, their only perimeter player without a green light to hoist 3's, has been shooting well from beyond the arc in their last two playoff series. He's had seasons where he shot 35% from 3 - if he can consistently knock down that shot, the Miami offense goes to another stratosphere.
The threat of the shot dramatically alters the geometry of the floor, making everything easier for the other four players. Just by spotting up beyond the arc, a great three-point shooter turns the game from 5x5 to 4x4. Playing in space is the key to any offense - an average player becomes good, a good player becomes great and a great player can become an all-timer. Just look at how every player on the Phoenix Suns team improved in Jeff Hornacek's spread offense.
Of the five basic tools in the game of basketball - scoring, shooting, passing, rebounding and defending - only shooting can guarantee a spot on the floor. "[Shooting] is what [Green] does, you know," said Popovich. "That's his major skill. If he's not going to do that, than we might as well play somebody else. That's the honest to God's truth." A coach would never be able to get away with using a one-dimensional scorer, passer, rebounder or defender in the same way.
If you can't shoot, you had better be good at just about everything else. Even then, it can be tricky. Wade is still one of the best players in the NBA and the Spurs almost forced him off the floor in last year's Finals. Whenever he played with LeBron, his man would shade off him and force the ball out of LeBron's hands. At the highest level of the game, a player who can't shoot needs to be an elite offensive player or a center who plays at the front of the rim.
There are ways to massage a line-up around 1-2 players who can't shoot, but all things being equal, modern NBA teams would rather not do it. That's the way the game is going - no one had seen a big man like Dirk Nowitzki a generation ago and now the stretch 4 is one of the most important positions in the game. Adreian Payne (Michigan State) and Isaiah Austin (Baylor) spent most of the college season playing as stretch 5's and both will be taken in this year’s draft.
Young basketball players have gotten the message. It's not like it's impossible to learn the corner 3 - most NBA players are skilled enough to do it. Birdman, who has taken only 12 3's this season, spent a lot of time taking corner 3's in warmups before Game 1 and his shot didn't look half-bad. If the last two NBA Finals are any indication, there's no stopping that trend. A generation from now, you may not be able to play in the NBA if you can't shoot 3's.