Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 NBA Finals: 2 Games In

What well-played basketball. After 2013's magnificent spectacle, anything less would be a disappointment, and this has not been disappointing. Both teams are better. Miami have improved its spacing with Bosh and Lewis in the starting lineup and has a healthy Dwyane. San Antonio have a savvy Boris Diaw making plays all over the floor, spry-looking guards, and a fired-up Duncan. I wanted to examine how these year-over-year differences change the complexion of the teams and the series:


Dwyane Wade's Health: Wade had two good games in last year's finals. The Game 4 explosion and Game 7. While his point bonanza in the earlier game was impressive and memorable, so too were the ways he contributed in the decider. The biggest difference in that game vis-a-vis the rest of the series was his quickness and explosion. On offense, that translated into a fast first step and the ability to dribble to his preferred spots on the floor. On defense, that meant someone who could change direction with the Spurs' guards and redirect them away from the paint. The rest of the time? He was a huge liability, constrained to shooting bad jumpers out of meandering post-ups. When he checked in late in the 4th quarter of Game 6, replacing a capable three point shooter, it almost sounded a death knell for the Heat season (admittedly, he did come up with an enormous offensive rebound to compensate). His game-to-game inconsistency was one of the more frustrating aspects of that series.
This year, Dwyane is looking good, especially on defense. He has successfully corralled Manu Ginobili and even Tony Parker at times. There is less lollygagging on transition defense as he complains to the refs. It helps that the Spurs are one of the NBA's most foul-averse teams, so it's rare that they would hack him in the first place. Last year there were a lot of lazy switching on the weak side of pick-and-rolls, many of them initiated by Dwyane's disdain for chasing shooters from baseline to wing. The Heat still do that, but have tightened their communication on when and how they switch (Mike Miller was a disaster last year in this department). On offense, Wade is still able to get to his spots, a highly underrated skill. I don't want to see Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, and Jabari Parker shoot step-backs that they may use maybe once in an NBA game. How about the ability to dribble against pressure defense and make good passes while facing ball denial? You know, actual basketball skills. Sure, Dwyane has a bag full of shooting tricks but he is most successful when getting to his spot on the floor, first.

Norris Cole's Defense: Cole is much improved since last year. Parker would clear out the offense and attack him one-on-one trip after trip last year, but it hasn't been nearly as easy this year (is Parker completely healthy)? And he has been very effective checking Manu, pressuring him far from the basket but not fouling.

Chris Bosh' Range: Jeff Van Gundy, whom I love, had a great comment about tactics last night: the Heat had just run a "horns" set (double high screen, one on either side) for LeBron with (I think) Chalmers and Wade as the screeners. Stationed in the corners were Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis. Van Gundy commented that he had never seen a pick-and-roll where the smalls screened and both 4 and 5 were in the corners as shooters. He said it was a genius play by Erik Spoelstra and I completely agree. That play accomplished so much: It bumps Kawhi Leonard off LeBron's path. It sucks out both bigs preventing them from challenging the drive. And it puts San Antonio in an untenable help situation: the floor is so spaced and LeBron is so good at whipping passes all over the place that there isn't a good place to help from. That pass to Bosh for the go-ahead 3? It came on a high pick set with he and Lewis in the corners.
Chris Bosh' 3-point shooting prowess has allowed the Heat to take the spread pick-and-roll to a whole new dimension. He has become so proficient at this shot that with 3 minutes left and facing a deficit, the Heat ran a LeBron/Allen pick and pop action specifically to find Bosh spotting up in the corner. They ran a play for Bosh to shoot a 3! What the Nowitzki? I didn't love that play (felt like it should go to the rim), but have to admit it caught me and the Spurs defense off guard. When the Heat came back with a LeBron/Chalmers pick-and-pop that turned into a LeBron rim run, there was Bosh again in the corner. This time, with LeBron forcing DEFCON-3 level help defense the shot was even easier and Bosh nailed it. Finally, the last Heat scoring possession, the one that gave them a 5-point cushion they would not relinquish: it came because Duncan closed on an open Bosh like a madman. Duncan does not like closing on shooters. But Bosh was so open that there was no choice. That's what 3-point shooting can do. It can cause the best rim protector on either team to sprint away from the basket. That Bosh had the guile to blow by Duncan before fitting a nice bounce pass into a cutting Wade shows how special he can be.

Ray Allen Bouncing: I'm not talking about the Jesus Shuttlesworth transition dunk in Game 1, though that fits the narrative, too. I'm referring to Ray's ability to bounce the ball. And bounce the ball while diving in different directions into the middle of the floor and collapsing the Spurs' well-tuned defense. The Spurs have played really good defense; pace aside Miami are still under 100 points in both games. They want to continue throwing bodies at LeBron, go over screens, run shooters off, and force someone other than LeBron or Wade to make a pass/play. A lot of times, that's Allen, and he's delivered.
This is exactly what swung last year's series the other way. As the Heat started sprinting Danny Green off the 3-point line, they exposed his curious inability to take more than 2 dribbles without turning the ball over. This made him hesitate whenever he had the ball and he was invisible down the stretch in Game 6 and all of Game 7. This year, Ray has made some nice plays dribbling to the middle of the floor. He has shown that old ability to change direction in the key and finish at the rim over shot blocking. He has kicked to open shooters. He had that nice behind-the-head feed late in Game 2 to find Andersen on the baseline. His ability to make the Spurs pay for closing hard is juicing the offense by maybe 6-8 points each game, points that make a huge difference in a series this close.
On defense, Ray versus Manu isn't a complete disaster, and even though he completely lost Danny Green for two big threes at the end of Game 1, at least some of that was from the defense bending due to missing LeBron. Allen's handful of good defensive plays makes up for his inability to really stop anyone and he rarely turns it over on the other end helps. The Heat now have 4 above average ballhandlers in James, Wade, Allen, and Mario Chalmers, one more than the Spurs have in Parker, Ginobili, and the emerging Kawhi Leonard.

LeBron James' Decision Making: LeBron is making decisions and reading the defense much faster than last year. When he sees a sliver of space, he immediately attacks the rim. When that space opens on the perimeter, he steps in quickly to the jump shot. I think he's realized that Kawhi Leonard has the size, athleticism, speed, and smarts to contend with his post ups and more drawn-out dribble drives, and that any degree of separation needs to be feasted upon. His decision at the end of Game 2 to take a giant Euro-step to lure Duncan before kicking to the Bosh 3 looked to me like a player that has it figured out and is making plays two steps ahead of the rotation. I hope the Spurs can figure out a way to stop him because if not, this could be a short series. I really thought the Heat were in complete control of both games - their Big 3 were playing well, role players were answering the bell, and the games were both slower-paced, defensive encounters. I thought the Spurs were a little hot in Game 1 before the Heat defensive collapsed minus LeBron. So what can the Spurs do to avoid their 2013 fate?


Boris Diaw, Wily Vet: I was bamboozled by Diaw's surprising play in last year's playoff run, so the fact that he looks even better astounds me. I knew he had something left after good performances in the summers for Team France, but this is a level that hearkens back to his days with Steve Nash in Phoenix. I played a little "how many guys can do this" game with Chris Bosh' defense in my Finals preview. But seriously, how many power forwards can do the following:

  1. Make 3s.
  2. Pump fake and drive to the rim.
  3. If necessary, Euro-step around help defenders.
  4. Assist cutters after the drive.
  5. Assist shooters from the mid- or low-post.
  6. Abuse smaller players in the low post.
  7. Serve as a hub in the Spurs side-to-side ball swinging offense.
  8. Take the LeBron assignment on defense for a few minutes without conceding an utter disaster.
Bosh can kind of do those things, and maybe LeBron if you classify him as a 4. Blake Griffin can't make 3s. LaMarcus Aldridge can't really either though he shoots from far enough away it kind of counts, but he is nowhere near the passer Diaw is. Kevin Love could never guard LeBron even for a second and doesn't have as fancy a dribbling game. Dirk is another without the defense. Carmelo is a black hole for the ball. 
The only guy I can think of that kind of fits the bill is Paul Pierce, LeBron's primary rival his entire career. And when your closest comp is a Hall of Fame title winner, that's a pretty valuable skill set. Not that Boris does all those things particularly well; there are better shooters and better defenders. But he allows the Spurs to space the floor, moves the ball beautifully, and gives them tremendous flexibility, something Popivich has sought all year to find. He's become one of Pop's guys, which is as high a praise as I can write.

Kawhi Leonard, Bouncing: This young Spur showed flashes of dribbling creativity as the Heat defense tightened in last year's series, and he's exhibited more this year. He knows he's athletic enough to dunk on anyone and is fearless taking the ball to the hole. He needs to continue attacking the rim and creating for his teammates, though, if the Spurs are to have any chance. When the Heat are really active in their sprinting defense, active like they were at the end of Game 2, the Spurs desperately need superior ball handlers to come alive. They need someone with size to feed Duncan. They need someone to drive and kick to Parker and Ginobili. Leonard has to be that guy because he's the only one that can guard LeBron (and he needs to stay out of foul trouble to do so). The Spurs need Leonard to assume his destiny as a future All-Star now, in this series, to beat the champs.

Patty Mills, Wild Card: I loved the way Gary Neal played last year's Finals. He shot the ball beautifully and confidently and gave the Spurs a boost off the bench that Norris Cole and Ray Allen just couldn't deliver for Miami. He's gone, but I think Patty Mills is even better. Mills is known for his ridiculous shooting performances in the 2012 London Olympics, and he can certainly light it up from long range. But I'm more interested in his ability to penetrate and create. I wrote before last year's series that I don't think Parker can give the Spurs more 30 really effective minutes each game. Sure he can play 35 or 40, but when that happens, there are usually stretches where they have to hide him on defense (hard to do) and keep him in the corner on offense (a clutch 3-point shooter but someone the Heat are willing to help off). He is someone that can juice the offense in those moments. Ginobili is one of the league's best passers, especially after the pick-and-roll, but he can also be a turnover machine and the Heat have become increasingly proficient at stopping the initial action out of the pick. Decoy actions can help solve that, but only when you have other players you trust to run secondary actions and make the right reads.
I don't ever want to question Pop but sometimes I wonder if some of the Spurs haven't developed dribble-drive games because of Pop's focus on ball movement and passing. Don't get me wrong: those Spurs possessions when the ball never hits the court are some of the most exhilarating things to watch in this sport. And Parker/Ginobili have usually been enough. And sometimes it's not so much the players lacking skills as not knowing where to go. Tony and Manu understand that they're breaking the offense on some of their drives but also know where space is and where the other guys are taught to move to without the ball. The other problem seems like role players who don't know how to finish/draw fouls at the rim. Again, Patty Mills has played by far the most minutes of his career this year and has done will while Parker has been injured. Can he be they extra guy in this department?


  1. The Spurs offensive rebounding has been effective, but I would be wary of this if I were San Antonio. LeBron is attacking off misses and the Heat don't seem to be concerned about a couple offensive boards each quarter. 
  2. The Spurs should free Leonard/Mills to push the pace in transition and semi-transition to play faster and also conserve Parker/Ginobili. It's tiring even for offensive players to play the Spurs' precise style.
  3. I think Mills needs 2-3 extra minutes to take the load off Parker. Especially when the Heat have two non-Wade guards in together (Cole/Chalmers/Allen/James Jones). 
  4. Erik Spoelstra is searching somewhat with the rotations, and the A/C malfunction didn't help. What's good though is that guys off the bench are sprinting everywhere on defense. I watched Udonis Haslem come in late in Game 2, hedge a high screen, sprint back to his guy, sprint out to hedge and ultimately switch another high screen, and generally muck up with the Spurs wanted to do. Then he went back to the bench without complaint. The other thing is that the Allen-Wade-LeBron-Lewis-Bosh lineup is working. 
  5. Defensive communication improved in Game 2 for the Heat. The Spurs still got open shots, but none were often blatantly blown assignments. Most of the open looks were generated by superior offense with the ball flying.
  6. I think the Spurs know that Parker doesn't have the legs to carry them all the way. And while Manu's machinations are key to the Spurs' success, he does have the tendency to get a little hero-bally at the end. Those plays generally end well but when LeBron/Wade are defending him, it's a different story.
  7. The Spurs' inability to hide Marco Belinelli on anyone has been a big problem. And after shooting 43% from deep in a banner year, he's had one good shooting series against an out-classed Portland team, and that's it. His ball handling and decision making have been borderline disastrous. He played 18 minutes in Game 1 and 22 in Game 2 and was completely ineffective. The Spurs' depth is an asset in this series, but some of those minutes have to go to Patty Mills and Danny Green. I think the only times he's really playable are in the 10 or so minutes LeBron sits each game and the Heat lose a bit of their passing acumen.
  8. Should the Spurs put Kawhi Leonard on Wade? Kawhi may not be fast enough, but he can play with cushion and still contest, and will definitely keep Wade from shooting floaters as easily. Can they live with Boris on LeBron, let James score 50, and keep everyone else in check? If the Spurs just had another playable small forward, this would be interesting.
  9. Someone needs to get Duncan the ball late in the 4th quarter. As hard as Bosh fights, I like Duncan in the post against him. The Miami pressure is preventing that pass, but some of it is the Spurs needing to concert more effort into giving their guy the ball.
  10. Both teams are shooting and making 3s at a ridiculous rate. In today's NBA, you just can't play guys that can't shoot. James Jones has played 6 minutes more than Udonis Haslem this series. Tiago Splitter played great in his 19 minutes in Game 2, flashing some nice passes, but he was unplayable when the Heat went small. This is a dire warning to other teams. The Wade/Allen/James/Lewis/Bosh and Parker/Ginobili/Leonard/Diaw/Duncan crunch time lineups feature only one non-shooter (Duncan) among 10 players. And Duncan is still playing at an elite level. Teams like the Pacers, Thunder, Raptors, Grizzlies, Clippers, etc. regularly feature non-shooters. That's not going to work.

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