Jun 17, 2013 12:24 PM EDT
There's no magic to it. It's basketball. It's not that complicated. -- Gregg Popovich
Over the course of the NBA Finals, the lineups on the floor have become progressively smaller. In Game 1, Udonis Haslem and Tiago Splitter started while Matt Bonner and Chris “Birdman” Andersen came off the bench. In Game 4, Erik Spoelstra took out Haslem for Mike Miller. In Game 5, Gregg Popovich responded in kind, taking Splitter out for Manu Ginobili. Bonner and Birdman, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found. The result has been beautiful basketball: two skilled teams playing 4-out for 48 minutes.
Both San Antonio and Miami are built to exploit the geometry of the floor. They attack defenses all 94 feet. If you let up on either team for a second, the ball can find its way to someone spotting up for an open corner three, the most dangerous shot in the game. When their offenses are clicking, all five players are moving in unison to create an open shot for a good shooter. The ball flows freely around the court. This is what coaches mean when they talk about The Way The Game Was Meant To Be Played.
While there hasn’t been a close finish since Game 1, it hasn’t been for any lack of dramatic back-and-forth action. In the playoffs, every stretch of the game is crunch time. And with both teams going small, any lack of offensive execution can snowball quickly. When either misses shots or turns the ball over for 4-5 minutes, it gives the other too many chances for run-outs and transition 3’s. It’s two boxers in the middle of the ring trading wild overhand punches. Eventually, someone connects.
In Game 5, the Spurs landed the first blow, with a 12-0 run in a 3-minute stretch at the end of the first quarter. The floor spacing of the Heat was terrible: Haslem, Norris Cole and Ray Allen around Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Allen is the only guy San Antonio doesn’t feel comfortable leaving open outside of 15+ feet. LeBron and Wade started missing long two-point shots because there was no room on the floor, while Parker treated Cole like a turnstile on defense.
Miami was able to make a comeback, but they had expended too much of their energy getting back into the game. You could see it by the end of the third quarter, when LeBron and Wade were missing a number of easy shots at the rim in transition. The Spurs didn’t win the game in that 3-minute stretch at the end of the first, but they did remove almost any margin of error for the Heat. In this series, it only takes one false move to dig yourself into a pretty deep hole.
San Antonio essentially played flawless offense on Sunday. They scored 114 points on 60 percent shooting, with an offensive rating of 119.4 per 100 possessions. All five of their starters had at least 16 points. That’s hard to do against a bad team in the middle of December playing the second night of a back-to-back, much less against the defending champions on the biggest stage of the sport. Were it not for their 18 turnovers, the Spurs might have had some truly jaw-dropping point totals.
Much of the credit for that will go to Popovich and his offensive system, but as he’s said in a million times, there’s nothing all that complicated to what he’s doing. The Spurs run pick-and-rolls with a lot of movement on the weakside of the floor. A good portion of their game is played in semi-transition, which is probably the “purest” form of basketball, with players reading and reacting in space and flowing into open shots rather than running set plays.
At a really basic level, it’s just having a lot of shooting on the floor. If defenses have to defend four players all over the three-point line, they are too spread out to effectively help each other. If they don’t respect a player’s outside shot, they can pack the paint. There are ways to score when there’s traffic around the basket, but it’s much easier to make plays when there is space in the middle of the floor. Any coach can look like a genius with LeBron or Tony Parker operating in space.
With enough space, even a marginal player can look like a superstar. Danny Green was the No. 46 pick in the 2009 draft and he was cut three times in his first two years in the NBA. Now, he’s averaging 18 points on 66 percent shooting from three in the Finals and is one of the front-runners for series MVP. It’s no slight on Green to say there are players just as talented as him in Europe. How would Wayne Ellington, his more celebrated teammate at UNC, have done in Green’s role in San Antonio?
If a player can’t consistently stretch the floor, he can become a liability quickly. There just aren’t many places you can hide a player who can’t shoot against modern defenses. In four-out basketball, either you are a center or a three-point shooter. As a result, anyone can look mortal without a jumper. The Spurs realized they didn’t have to play guys who could run with LeBron and Wade; they could just play shooters who could give them three feet of cushion.
In the modern NBA, a non-center who can’t shoot is becoming an endangered species. The old cliche was that the game slowed down in the playoffs, but the reverse is happening these days. Neither team could afford to play this small in the regular season. With floor spacing so crucial in the Finals, defensive liabilities like Gary Neal and Miller can be hidden in ways that offensive liabilities cannot. In the nine minutes Haslem played in Game 5, the Heat were -20.
The lesson for young basketball players is clear. If you want to play basketball at the highest level, you had better be able to shoot the ball. It doesn’t take a ton of athletic ability to be a good shooter. It just takes good mechanics and a strong work ethic. Shooting is as important to basketball as hitting is to baseball. No one’s calling up minor leaguers to the show who can’t hit. If you’re in the D-League and you’re not shooting three-pointers, you’re doing it wrong.
Jun 14, 2013 9:17 PM EDT
To paraphrase George Orwell, all NBA Finals games are equal, but some are more equal than others. After splitting the first four in what’s been a back-and-forth series, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are set for an epic Game 5 on Sunday. It’s essentially a must-win for San Antonio. A loss would mean winning Games 6 and 7 in Miami against a team that hasn’t lost consecutive games in months. The stakes couldn’t be higher, particularly for the two all-time greats set to take the stage.
Even in a series with future Hall of Famers all over the court, LeBron James and Tim Duncan stand out. The seemingly ageless Duncan, a first-team All-NBA center at the age of 37, is averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds in his fifth NBA Finals. LeBron, a 28-year-old at the apex of his powers, is averaging 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists a game ... and people want him to do more! How many NBA Finals have ever featured two of the ten greatest players of all-time?
All transcendent basketball players share a few things in common. They have the size and athleticism to dominate at multiple positions and they don’t have any holes in their game. Duncan helped usher in a new era as multi-dimensional 7'0 power forward, although age has caused him to slide down to center. LeBron, a 6’9, 270 point guard/center hybrid, is something we've never really seen before. Both can score, pass, rebound and defend at an elite level. In this series, their only weakness has been an inconsistent jumper.
Unselfishness is what separates them from many of the NBA's pantheon players. Over the course of their careers, both have consistently been fantastic teammates. They don't force the action and let the game come to them. It’s impossible to imagine either getting into the type of locker room struggle that eventually broke up Shaq and Kobe. There isn’t a team in the history of the league they couldn’t seamlessly fit into. They're all-time great players who play the game “the right way”.
From a historical perspective, the great tragedy is they never faced off at the height of their powers. When they met in the 2007 Finals, LeBron was only 22, still years away from his prime. A prime Duncan, meanwhile, would change everything about the 2013 Finals. Rather than serving as a ball-mover and secondary option, he would have dominated Chris Bosh in the low-post. On defense, he would have shut down the paint, forcing LeBron and Dwyane Wade to play as jump-shooters.
As great as LeBron is, there’s very little he could have actually done against a 28-year-old Duncan. Duncan has four titles on his resume and he’s this close to having many, many more. He’s literally two plays -- Derek Fisher’s 0.4 shot in 2004 and Dirk Nowitzki’s and-1 in 2006 -- from winning five straight titles. He faced a Lakers team with two all-time greats in their prime and defeated them twice. Were it not for Shaq, Duncan could have had a Bill Russell-like run through the 2000’s.
For Duncan, a title in 2013 would be the capstone to one of the greatest careers in basketball history. The awards speak for themselves: 14 All-NBA teams, 13 All-Defensive teams, two MVP’s, three NBA Finals MVP’s. He would be the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win a championship as a first-team All-NBA player in his early 20’s and his late 30’s. David Robinson and Tony Parker are great, but they aren't Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.
For LeBron, a title would be be the capstone for one of the greatest three-year runs of all-time. Russell won championships as a player/coach, but no one has won as a player/GM before. Practically every important player in Miami -- Wade, Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Ray Allen -- took less money in free agency in order to play with LeBron. If LeBron becomes a GM, he will probably be more Larry Bird than Michael Jordan.
No matter what happens over the next week, winning in 2014 will be a tall order for the Heat. No team has made four consecutive Finals since Bird’s Celtics. Climbing the mountain every year takes a toll, physically and mentally. LeBron and Bosh are their only core players under 30. Everyone else has shown signs of wearing down. And with rumors flying about Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, they may have to face the ultimate challenge in 2014: a superteam created in their own image.
In that respect, a loss to the Spurs could sink any realistic chance LeBron has of “catching” Kobe, much less Jordan. Regardless of whether it's fair or not, the Big Three will be judged by the standard they gave themselves three years ago. More than any team since the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, if the Heat ain’t first, they're last.
The pressure surrounding the team, both on and off the court, is palpable. Everything that happens to Miami is the biggest deal in the world, one way or the other. It’s crazy.
That may be the biggest difference in the way Duncan and LeBron approach the game. No one who unironically calls himself “King James” and has “The Chosen One” tatted across his back can say he doesn’t have an ego. Duncan, in contrast, might as well be a Buddhist monk when it comes to operating without one. He loves basketball, but it’s his job, not his identity. You don’t get the sense he spends too much time worrying about legacy or Q rating.
LeBron, unlike Duncan, has transcended the sport he plays in. He’s as famous as any one person can possible be. Until you see it in person, it’s hard to grasp the level to which his life has become a reality show. During timeouts, one of the ABC cameras follows him around the court, to the complete exclusion of anything else going on. It’s a good metaphor for how people view the series. Duncan will probably be remembered mostly for being “boring”, but the older I get, the more I see why that isn’t such a bad thing.
Jun 12, 2013 11:17 AM EDT
There could be as many as seven future Hall of Famers in this year's NBA Finals. Yet in Game 2, the leading scorer was Mario Chalmers. In Game 3, Danny Green. The three-point shooters, not the superstars, have taken over.
The Spurs and Heat are built to space the floor and attack with the three and both want to play as small as possible. The result has been small-ball gone wild, an up-and-down series filled with dramatic shifts in momentum. It's soccer on the hardwood and it might just be the future of the sport.
Their personnel are different, but the two best teams in the NBA this season share a similar philosophy. Put as much shooting on the floor as you possibly can without sacrificing defense. Spacing the floor is the top priority. Almost every role player in this series can shoot 3's. The only ones who can't are big men -- Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw for San Antonio, Udonis Haslem and Chris "Birdman" Andersen for Miami. All four had their playing time cut in Game 3. They don't need to match up with each other.
Throughout Game 3, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra kept daring each other to go smaller. They started lineups with two big men, but went small almost immediately after. Spoelstra struck first, bringing in Mike Miller for Haslem. Popovich brought in Matt Bonner, a big man in name only, for Splitter. After a few minutes of Bonner on Miller greatness, Pop went small too, replacing him with Gary Neal. It was all four-out basketball from there, with eight perimeter players on the floor the entire second quarter.
As a result, there was some real flow to the game. It was up-and-down action without many stoppages of play. There were only 17 free-throws in the first half, with large stretches played in semi-transition. That’s the way the NBA has been heading this season: more three-point attempts and fewer free-throws. The two outliers in the playoffs were the Pacers and the Grizzlies, who slowed the game to a crawl with massive front-lines. With those two eliminated in the last round, the NBA Finals have been wide-open.
In the first three games of the series, the three-point shot has been the knock-out punch. In Game 2, Miami closed out San Antonio with a 33-5 run in only seven minutes. In Game 3, the tables turned, as the Spurs reeled off runs of 7-0, 11-0, 13-0 and 11-0 in the second half. Neither game even made it to crunch time, as early TKO’s left fans with as much Tracy McGrady action as they could handle. All jokes aside, he's still only 34 and he was one of the best players in the world in his 20's. If healthy, he might be able to help a team.
There are a bunch of professional shooters in this series. If they get clean looks at the basket, they aren’t going to miss very often, especially if the defense isn’t set. In Games 2 and 3, Ray Allen and Miller went 11-for-13 from beyond the three-point line. Danny Green and Neal went 20-27! In the halfcourt, the Heat use LeBron's size and floor vision to generate three-point shots while the Spurs run pick-and-rolls, but the end result is the same. Where both teams become deadly is when their shooters start walking into transition 3's.
If either starts playing downhill, the game can get out of hand pretty fast. The team that has won the turnover battle has won all three games, with the Spurs +4 in Games 1 and 3 and -10 in Game 2. This is a possession focused series, which is why offensive rebounds and dead-ball turnovers are as important as the live-ball variety. Since both teams take so many 3's, the one with more field goal attempts has the chance to blow the game open. In Game 3, San Antonio took 14 more 3’s.
Even after three games, there are moves still on the board for both coaches. Miami, down 2-1, could move Miller into the starting line-up, start LeBron on Splitter and go four-out for 40+ minutes. Conversely, they could play Birdman and Bosh together and try to force the Spurs to match up with their size. Either way, in terms of line-ups, Splitter is the fulcrum point of the series. How much he plays with Duncan determines how much small-ball is played.
In the three years since The Decision, no team has been able to threaten Miami playing small-ball. The 2011 Mavericks won by shifting the rules of engagement, a strategy followed by the Pacers in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Both beat the Heat up and slowed the pace of the game. The Spurs, in contrast, have been beating them at their own game. In that sense, LeBron and Wade hitting open jumpers is the only adjustment Miami has to make. They are getting the shots they want at the pace they prefer.
With both teams getting so much of their offense from high-variance shots, there could be more wild shifts in the narrative ahead. That’s the nature of a game played along the three-point line. Rather than Duncan and LeBron battling to control the paint, the key has been who can run more plays that get open shots for Neal, Green, Miller and Allen. San Antonio and Miami are both built around the idea that it’s impossible to protect the paint and guard the three-point line against modern offenses.
Indiana was able to do it, but they play half-court station-to-station basketball that isn’t in the DNA of either team in the Finals. Every year, more players of all shapes and sizes come into the league with a three-point shot. Front offices are building their teams around the strengths of modern players while players adapt their games to the philosophy of the modern NBA. It’s a chicken-and-egg dynamic whose end result has been some beautiful basketball. The future is here and it’s everything basketball fans could have wanted.
Jun 04, 2013
Regardless of what happens in The Finals, the lesson of these playoffs is clear. If you don’t have LeBron or Durant, a two-way center is still the quickest way to playoff success. The NBA game has become more perimeter-oriented, but having the bigger team never goes out of style.
May 31, 2013
Whether Chris Paul thinks Donald Sterling threw him under the bus isn’t the point. If he thinks Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a championship-caliber frontline, he’ll get over it.
May 28, 2013
The post game of LeBron James is the glass box Erik Spoelstra breaks in case of emergency. Until someone figures out a counter, it will be hard to beat the Heat four times in a seven-game series whether it is 2013 or 2018.
May 23, 2013
To keep Dwight Howard, the Lakers will have to sell him on a vision for 2014 and beyond. As a result, if championships are his goal, the Rockets are the safer bet for a whole host of reasons.
May 17, 2013
The Thunder made a business decision when trading James Harden nine months ago. Now, they need to be just as cold-blooded with Scott Brooks. Brooks has consistently left points on the board in each of the last three seasons and has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes.
May 14, 2013
Basketball is a team sport; the “Green Lantern Theory of the NBA” doesn’t hold. As in baseball, it doesn’t matter who the closer is if there isn’t a starter who can get him a lead headed into the ninth inning.
May 09, 2013
When healthy, Andrew Bogut is one of the best centers in the NBA. Going small around him has been a best of both worlds scenario for the Warriors: all the benefits of a small-ball offense without the downsides that come on the other end of the floor.
May 06, 2013
If the Grizzlies and Pacers can't dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against the Heat. Only the 2011 Mavericks have forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, the postseason record of the Heat with their Big Three healthy is 24-3.
May 02, 2013
With the modern game becoming more perimeter-oriented, lumbering centers have become an endangered species. As a result, there’s a fair chance Jason Collins’ NBA career is over, not because of his sexuality, but because his job description is obsolete.
Apr 29, 2013
Patrick Beverley could be the Rockets' point guard of the future, a tremendous coup considering how they acquired him. He’s the new poster boy for the benefits of mining Europe for talent as well as a walking embarrassment for every point guard-hungry team in the league.
Apr 25, 2013
The best teams in the NBA can spread the court on offense without sacrificing much on the defensive end because of the versatility of a star forward. That’s what makes LeBron James and Kevin Durant so scary; the best two players in the league just happen to play the most important position in the game.
Apr 19, 2013
Along with Duncan, Garnett, Webber and Dirk, Rasheed Wallace redefined the power forward position and revolutionized the game. But while he was as talented as his four contemporaries, he's the only one who won't wind up in the Hall. Wallace never cared much for his image or his legacy, which is why, paradoxically enough, he became such a beloved countercultural figure.
Apr 15, 2013
The Lakers will have to make some hard decisions on Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Earl Clark, but they won’t make or break the franchise. No matter who is around him, if Dwight Howard can be as dominant as he was with the Magic, L.A. could be a title contender next season.
Apr 11, 2013
There was only so long Mavericks and Suns could paper over their inability to find and develop young talent. This season, those chickens have come home to roost. With the importance of the draft magnified by the new CBA, both teams have to turn some draft picks into home runs.
Apr 06, 2013
Louisville is more vulnerable than Kentucky was last year, especially without Kevin Ware, but a lot of things will have to go wrong for them to lose. There isn’t a team in Atlanta that can match their speed and athleticism at all five positions, a testament to the program Pitino has built.
Apr 03, 2013
Stripped of its pomp and pageantry, the business model of the NCAA is rather ugly: inner-city kids putting their bodies on the line in order to fund scholarships for suburban teenagers to play country club sports.
Mar 30, 2013
The Spurs have more continuity than any other team in the NBA, which allows their front office to identify players who could fit specific roles in Gregg Popovich’s system. In effect, the great job he’s done coaching from 1997-2012 has made his job in 2013 that much easier.
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