Another year of NBA basketball is almost in the books. The 2013-14 season gave us one hell of a ride. From Derrick Rose breaking again to Dwyane Wade getting weekly maintenance to Goran Dragic’s rise to Steve Nash’s fall–the list could go on and on forever. But let’s turn our attention to the matter at hand–the NBA Finals.
The Finals represent a culmination of every moment of this season. Everything fell into place for the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs to, once again, clash at the biggest moment for avid NBA fans. This should be a dream come true for the NBA and it’s ratings. The NBA should get a much needed boost with its ratings falling from last season and this season.
The narratives that follow these two teams are stark. We’ve seen the memes and the tweets all week about the Spurs being “built, not bought”. The Spurs build is more of an organic one to the public and it’s going against a Miami build manufactured from mostly free agency. Even though neither path is really the wrong one to take, the narrative on the series is still a very entertaining one.
It’s also one that we saw last year. A lot of the same arguments were made during last year’s NBA Finals. But, looking back, it’s really amazing that we’re actually here. It’s not often that you get a repeat NBA Finals–this is the first one that we’ve seen in over a decade. As often as the same teams show up in the Finals over and over again, it’s still a rarity to get the same matchup. And that makes for the rivalry narrative that the NBA has been lacking for years now.
There have been many forced narratives throughout the last decade or so for the league. The Kobe vs. LeBron narrative really didn’t exist–it was more Paul Pierce than Kobe. And even the LeBron vs. Pierce narrative didn’t hold as much weight as we would’ve wanted. They only met in the Eastern Conference Finals once–a majority of their playoff bouts have been in the second round of the playoffs. And, even though Pierce has the advantage on LeBron overall, it hasn’t been much of a contest since his last year in Cleveland. And he’s also got the advantage statistically.
James’ rivalry with Kevin Durant isn’t as healthy as we’d like to believe it is. These are the two best players in the world, but they only meet twice a year and have only met in the NBA Finals once. If not for Durant saying he’s tired of being second, we wouldn’t even be discussing this.
But a repeat Finals does so much for the league and the sport of basketball itself. It creates a headline for the large media outlets to focus on. “The Spurs vs. The Heat: Part 2”–put that as your headline and let me know how many clicks it draws. It was even enough to get Tim Duncan talking about the series–I mean, he practically guaranteed(!) a series win for the Spurs. That’s not normal Tim Duncan. And, in response, LeBron made the claim that the Spurs “don’t like” the Heat. There’s clear animosity between the two sides here. That’s something that people love to see.
What’s really surprising about it is how the Spurs have reacted. Well, mainly Duncan. This is so anti-Duncan, anti-Popovich and anti-Spur. It’s not really a feel that we’re used to coming from the Spurs corner. But it’s what we’ve been waiting to see since the Jordan era, really. And, frankly, I couldn’t be more excited.
But enough with the possible impact the Finals will have on the league, lets talk about this matchup. It’s a juicy one between two of the best coaching minds in the game. These are two coaches who aren’t afraid to adjust on the fly or step out of their comfort zones in order to gain an edge. They’re aware that every minute, every second counts in the series and they’ll maximize the potential of each moment.
To get a feel for this, we’ll go over some of what each side did last season to counter each other’s hand. It’s going to be a wild ride.
In the Spurs Corner
Gregg Popovich is one of the most innovative minds in basketball and that was made clear, if you didn’t already know, during last year’s NBA Finals. He came up with a strategy that, through the first three games, held LeBron James to only 16.7 points per game on 18 shots. He shot 39 percent from the floor and couldn’t draw fouls to energize his scoring efforts.
Dwyane Wade got a taste of that same medicine. He averaged just 14.3 points on 14.3 shots through the first three games. Chris Bosh? Just 12.3 points on 12 shots per game. There was no production coming from Miami’s power trio and if that kept up there’d be no way that they’d win the series. Miami ended up going 2-1 through those first three games because of the Spurs’ strategy. Don’t be surprised if we see that again this year.
What the Spurs did was take a huge gamble by backing off of the big three and forming a wall around the paint. They wanted to bait them into taking midrange jump shots and pull-up threes–for the first three games of the series that worked. Take a look at Miami’s shot distribution through the first three games of that series.
Miami is a team that focuses on shots at the rim, in the paint and from three. They aren’t a take that takes 32% of their shots from the middle of the floor and that’s what the Spurs turned them into. They backed up and played underneath every screen while Miami’s ball handlers thought about what their next move should be.
Look at how much cushion Wade is being given by his man with the ball. Boris Diaw is back at the free throw line, waiting for Wade to make a decision. This limits what Wade can do with the ball because of his shaky jump shot and his weak knees. The Spurs knew that he wouldn’t try to drive into the paint with his current health situation and they knew they’d be able to recover to wherever he’d swing the ball to.
They didn’t respect his jumpshot enough to play out on him, and they had more than enough reason not to. Wade was a 39 percent shooter from the midrange area during 2012-13 regular season and a 36 percent shooter from the same area in the playoffs. This was a sound strategy from Popovich that we may see again even though Wade’s shooting has improved a bit this season.
What we probably won’t see, though, is Diaw guarding him again. Tiago Splitter spent some time on Wade during the series as well. Take a look at how much cushion Diaw is giving Wade here.
There are three Spurs watching the ball and the floor isn’t optimally spaced for Miami. Both Diaw and Splitter have the quickness to stay in front of Wade on creaky knees. They don’t have to come out and guard his jump shot, so that makes it easier for them to help on the back end and rebound misses. Instead of being stretched out on a big like Chris Bosh or guarding LeBron James, another viable perimeter threat, they were put on Wade who was a non-threat until his game 4 explosion.
Popovich got away with this, but it made absolute sense when he did it. It was disrespectful to Wade as a guard and as an elite player, but it worked for a limited time. I doubt the Spurs will be able to get away with this again, though. Wade is much healthier than he was last season and won’t hesitate to attack anyone–let alone a big–in front of him.
But the Spurs still may not respect anyone on the team’s jump shot. They may overhelp on ball handlers because Miami doesn’t have the same shooting depth it did last season. James Jones and Rashard Lewis have come on during this season’s playoff run, but they may not be long term options throughout the series because of their defensive liability. Ray Allen is still a top three shooter on the planet, so they’ll still respect his jump shot, but Miami can’t afford to have too many non-defenders on the floor at the same time. The Spurs are a great perimeter team that will make them pay.
Take a look at how hard Kawhi Leonard helps into the lane off of LeBron James here.
Mario Chalmers drives into the lane and Leonard swipes at the ball way off of LeBron. Instead of spotting up and waiting to make the catch, LeBron cuts into the lane. This shows a lack of confidence in his on shot on LeBron’s part. The Spurs wouldn’t guard him on the outside and he gave them no reason to work on the outside. There’s no way LeBron should be cutting here into a defense that is already focused on guarding the paint. You’ve got to play outside in at this point.
I doubt we see the same mental mistakes from LeBron here, but I’m also confident that we’ll see Pop come up with some other strategy to attempt to stifle the Heat’s big three.
Offensively for the Spurs, it was all about Danny Green. Green was made into quite the spectacle during the Finals and was even dubbed “Touched By God” by Grantland’s Zach Lowe. He broke the three point record for the Finals and continued to provide the Spurs with the ultimate spacing threat. The Heat knew that he was a good shooter, but during the Finals he was great.
It was all because of the baseline action that he worked in the Spurs’ motion system. It sprung Green open on the weakside of whatever action was going on. The Heat’s defenders are taught to crash off of the wings hard on pick and rolls because of the hard show that the bigs are required to give up top. I don’t know if the Heat are going to use that same strategy here–they’ve slowed on it a bit this year. But if they do, we should expect to see Green getting some nice looks.
Just take a look at what impact Green had on this post action from Duncan. He attracted so much defensive attention that Diaw got a wide open layup.
The Heat are caught ball watching on Duncan’s post-up while Green is cutting baseline. Mike Miller winds up being the only player under the basket because he was trailing Green and Diaw was able to finish over him. It was a simple play with some simple action, but it ended up being very effective. In other words, that play stood as Danny Green’s NBA Finals in a nutshell–really simple action yielding very good results.
The Spurs are a team with even more shooting options than last year. Manu Ginobili is healthy and Tim Duncan is motivated. There are some questions about Tony Parker, but if he brings all he has for this series then the Spurs should be a heavy favorite.
In the Heat’s Corner
This will be the first time that the Heat are entering the Finals as a strong underdog. The consensus last season was that they were even with the Spurs last season. This season, the Spurs are the clear best team in the league. The Heat aren’t didn’t have a 27 game winning streak this season, are weaker on the defensive end than they’ve ever been before, have a lot of shooting with Mike Miller being gone and have grown another year older.
They, unlike the Spurs, are a more top-heavy team when it comes to the scoring contribution. They rely on their role players for spacing more than anything else. They’ve even resorted to Chris Bosh becoming a deeper shooter to space the floor even more and make up for the absence of Miller. But things have worked this postseason for them, and a lot of that is because of Dwyane Wade’s contribution.
Wade missed more than 30 games during the regular season and didn’t seem to be fully healthy throughout it. After playing in the Olympics and making three straight trips to the Finals it isn’t too much of a wonder that Wade would be worn down–especially with his given health history. So the Heat put him through a preventative maintenance program this season that only allowed him to play when it “felt right”.
Because of that, Wade has been incredibly productive this postseason both on and off of the ball. He’s been an active helper on the defensive end and has been able to have an immense impact on the way the Heat have been playing. Take a look at this play that he made on Luis Scola during the Conference Finals.
That’s just a play that Wade doesn’t make during last year’s Finals. Hell, he probably doesn’t make that play during any round of the playoffs last season. It’s something that you can’t really gameplan for if you’re the Spurs. Your best hope is to keep using Danny Green on the weakside of any action to distract Miami’s wings from helping out at the rim.
They’ve got the elite athleticism in James and Wade, and even Norris Cole at times, to blow up plays at the last second. James said that the Heat defense is at it’s best when it flies around and that’s very true. When they’re active on the defensive end and everything is moving in sync, there’s not a better defensive team in the league.
Their defensive efficiency from this season is a bit misleading. They finished 11th in the league and outside of the top 10 for the first time since the big three’s inception. But they also lost Wade for a majority of the season. They shuffled rotations throughout the season and couldn’t settle in on one that really worked for them defensively. They played around with big and small lineups all season long just to see what would work when they finally reached the playoffs.
The Heat have still struggled defensively in the playoffs, but Wade’s healthy addition should help them in this series on both ends. As long as Spoelstra doesn’t remain stuck with one lineup if things get a bit funky, the Heat should be fine.
Offensively, the Spurs may try playing back again. But the Heat found a way to counter that last season by running offense closer to the rim or starting drives further from the outside. Take a look at this side pick and roll Wade and James run here.
The offense started within the three point line. The Spurs couldn’t afford to sag back any further or else that would’ve opened up an easy driving lane toward the rim. Because they were forced to play up a bit, that gave James the space to dive and Wade the opportunity to dish it. This is a play that we might see run from the Heat should the Spurs run with the same strategy early on.
I don’t think the same strategy will work on the Heat two years in a row. It’s not every day that we see such great players get flustered by such a simple strategy. There’s no guarantee that it wont’ work, but if the Heat bounced back from it in time to win last year’s finals they can do it again this year early. I have no clue what Pop is going to throw at the big three here, but I’m sure that he’s got something sly up his sleeve–even if it’s a bit unorthodox.
I’ve been going over it throughout the last three days and nights and this is a very hard series to pick. It’s extremely close and there are great players on both sides. The Spurs are a great team, but the Heat have LeBron James. I believe in legends, and I think LeBron James is one. A threepeat would be fitting for his reign over the NBA.
As the Pacers asserted after their game six loss, this is LeBron James’ league at this point. Kevin Durant was a better player during the season, but LeBron has been better when it has mattered. That counts for something, at this point. So, with that being said, I’ll go with the Heat. How many games? I have no clue. I just can’t go against the best player in the world when it comes down to it.