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Finals In Their Prime

In an NBA Finals that features seven future Hall of Famers, two have separated themselves from the pack. Even among the best of the best, Tim Duncan and LeBron James stand out. Duncan did most of his damage in the first half of Game 2, but he still finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, which tied him with Magic Johnson for most double-doubles in playoff history. LeBron, meanwhile, had a game for the ages, with 35 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists.

If you had every player in basketball history in an open gym, LeBron and Duncan would take two of the ten spots when you made teams. The stats only tell part of it - they are the their team's most valuable player on both sides of the ball. When you have a player whose presence guarantees a great defense and offense, it's almost impossible not to have an elite team. Duncan has missed the second round three times in his career; LeBron hasn't missed it since his second season.

Even at 37, the Miami Heat don't have an answer for Duncan. At 6'11 250, he's bigger than any of the Heat big men and his presence in the lane collapses the defense and opens up the floor. While he no longer commands a double team on the block, he's still a very effective pick-and-roll player, particularly against a Miami team that doesn't have a lot of size on the back-line. You could really see the size differential on the glass, where Duncan had 7 offensive rebounds.

The San Antonio Spurs, like the rest of the NBA, don’t have an answer for LeBron, especially when he is hitting from the outside. He took over Game 2 in the third quarter, when he had 10 points in a little over 2 minutes.

“You’re not going to block his jump shot. He’s 6’9 and he’s pretty athletic,” said Danny Green. “So you’ve got to live with contested jumpers.” When he’s making those shots, all you can do is shake his hand and go the other way.

On defense, LeBron’s unparalleled versatility gives the Heat a tremendous amount of options in terms of setting their line-ups. Duncan is the only player on the Spurs roster he can’t guard - Erik Spoelstra can sic LeBron on Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Green, Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw and take them out of the game.

Depending on how the game is going, Miami can go big or go small at the drop of a hat, knowing that LeBron can guard just about anyone.

Duncan is just as essential to the Spurs game-plan on that side of the floor. He no longer has the lateral quickness and explosiveness of his youth, when he was a perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender, but he still has elite length and a great sense of where to position himself.

“He is probably one of the best players at protecting the rim, so they are able to funnel a lot of stuff to him,” said LeBron. “In that sense, he is a very, very smart guy.”

A high basketball IQ is one of the commonalities in their games. You can’t take away everything from the other player and LeBron and Duncan almost always make the right play.

“It’s about seeing things before they happen, putting guys in position, reading my teammates, knowing who is out of rhythm, who is in rhythm, who has it going on the other end, knowing their likes and dislikes and being able to calibrate that in a game situation,” said LeBron. 

In that sense, it’s very hard to make an adjustment against either player. They have seen it all - they know all the counters and all the possible counter-moves. After starting slow in the 2013 NBA Finals, both have figured out their other team’s strategy. In his last 6 playoff games against the Spurs, LeBron is averaging 31 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 51% shooting. Duncan in that stretch is averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds on 52% shooting.

Both teams put so much shooting around their best player that it’s impossible to take away their offense.

“You can double [LeBron] if you want,” said Gregg Popovich. “He’s a pretty good player. I’m going to guess he’s going to find the open man.” The same is true for Duncan, whose seen double and triple teams since he first came into the league. All either team can do is try and keep someone in front of the other team’s star and hope for the best.

When they aren’t scoring, they can both take over a game on defense or on the glass. In Game 2, Duncan led the Spurs with 15 rebounds and LeBron lead the Heat with 10. None of the wings on San Antonio’s roster can box out LeBron and none of the big men on Miami’s roster can box out Duncan. They are physically dominant players who have an edge in strength and length against every player they face who also know how to position their bodies.

It’s what you would expect from two of the greatest players to ever play the game. Where exactly they stack up amongst the 10-15 greatest players of all-time is a fairly subjective exercise because you are splitting hairs at that point, but you can put either Duncan or LeBron’s resume up against anyone and they come out looking pretty good. The shame is they never faced each other in their prime - LeBron was too young in 2007 and Duncan is too old now.

As dominant as he has been in this series, Duncan isn’t nearly the player he was in the early 2000’s, when he could single-handedly take over a game on either side of the ball. San Antonio can’t pound the ball inside to him for 40 minutes and he can’t shut down the paint on defense. LeBron and Chris Bosh both put Duncan on a poster at various times in Game 2 - he was right there to make a play at the rim, he just no longer had the ups to play at 11+ feet.

Most importantly, at his age, it’s hard to see Duncan being able to go more than the 38 minutes he played in Game 2. The 38 minutes LeBron played on Sunday, in contrast, are closer to the floor for what he can give the Heat going forward. That’s one of the biggest benefits of being in your prime - there’s more gas in your tank to go that little extra longer. LeBron is 29 and Duncan is 38. In a series this close, that could ultimately prove to be the difference.

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.

The Big Mistake: Measurables Vs. Situation

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. 

The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.

So what happened?

Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. 

At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.

Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.

However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.

His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.

Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.

After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.

Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.

At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game. 

Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.

On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.

Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.

Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.

Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?

When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.

In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.

If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.

Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything. 

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

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