Tuesday, June 17, 2014

2014 NBA Finals: What I Learned

I’m not going to bore you with a recap or an analysis of why the Spurs won. They obviously did because they were the better team and deserved to win. I will admit a dash of disappointment – watching the Spurs brand of basketball at its apex is exhilarating, couldn’t we have gotten a couple more games? I’m not going to talk about what I got right (Spurs need for another ball handler) and wrong (Heat shooters failing spectacularly). I wanted to share some of the things that I learned watching this series.

The Spurs’ Offense – If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Play Like This. The Spurs offense is so fun to watch. The ball flies around, from corner to corner, from one pick-and-roll into another, form dribble drives to shooters and back to the rim. Last year, the Spurs started figuring out the Heat defense, but Erik Spoelstra gamely made some lineup adjustments and Miami cranked up the pressure in Games 6 and 7. There was nowhere to hide this year. Guys rocketed of screens, made heady, quick decisions, and shot the ball with confidence. One of my favorite plays of the Finals was an innocuous Patty Mills leakout where, upon seeing no defenders back, Mills pulled up and canned a 3. Some coaches deride this kind of play – you can shoot 3’s any time, why not take it to the rim? But I enjoyed how decisive Mills was, how he was unafraid to take a three in this moment, and that open threes are what the Spurs’ offense is designed to generate in the first place – why not take the first one and push the pace?

So the Spurs have a great offense. Why don’t the other 29 teams take a page from it? There are other coaches that are capable of copying these plays, right? (Scott Brooks excepted) My theory: it looks exhausting to play the Spurs’ offense. Guys sprint from baseline to baseline, sometime as decoys, sometimes receiving the ball. And they do that the whole game. The ball has to be driven, shot, or passed within milliseconds – once it stops, the whole thing collapses. You have to have superior ball handlers, shooters, and passers, and guys that have the know-how and willingness to do those things against an elite defense. You have to play 8-deep because Tony Parker is gassed by the end of games if he has to run things alone. You need extraordinary organizational buy-in because it takes immense dedication to excecute every play right every time. The rest of the league don’t’ play like this because it’s hard, because they don’t have a guy like Tim Duncan that will devote himself to this system. Because they can’t find 10 guys who love each other and love the game enough to do this.

Miami Looked Very, Very, Old. This is why signing Carmelo Anthony is not going to help things. The Heat already have an old roster. Another shooter who doesn’t do little things, doesn’t have the energy or athleticism to keep up with 20-year-olds, is not going to help them. Once Mario Chalmers self-destructed, the Heat lost the final bit of youth in their starting lineup, and don’t even bring up the bench. Why do I think they look old? Erik Spoelstra is one of the game’s better offensive tacticians. He understands spacing, passing, screens, and angles with the best of them. He draws fabulous out-of-timeout plays and has overseen a complete overhaul of Miami’s offensive system. And yet, possession after possession, the Heat would walk the ball up the court, dump it to LeBron, and watch him wait out the shot clock before attacking in isolation (or with a rudimentary high screen). It’s OKC basketball, so what is it doing in South Beach?

I think Spoelstra has his guys purposefully playing this way because he knows he doesn’t have guys that can sprint from side to side and make quick, accurate decisions. That the Heat can’t run up and down the court with the younger (!), more athletic Spurs. That his only chance is to limit possessions, drain clock, and hope that the world’s best player can pull something out of his butt to save them, over and over again. I think the Heat play this way because Ray Allen can only run around so many screens, because Dwyane never cuts anymore, because they have no other ball handler they trust. Because they’re about 5-6 guys short from being able to run the Spurs’ system.

Kawhi Leonard Is a Deserving Finals MVP. I’m not going to gloat that I was right about Kawhi because it was no secret he was a star in the making. I’ll just say that I really enjoyed his transformation. He guards everybody. He gets every rebound. He is a deadly shooter, one you can run plays for. He has a handle and can take it to the rack. Once, there, he will destroy them rim with a shattering dunk. He even has a midrange, pull-up game. This was brought up in the broadcast multiple times, but he really is like a younger Pippen, with those long arms and huge hands. I already trust his shot more than Scottie’s. All he needs to develop is a little more change-of-direction in his dribble drives and to keep working as a passer. I’m so glad that he looks like the next star in the Spurs’ dynasty.

LeBron Had a Great Series. People are going to criticize him for the cramps, the loss, everything. But LeBron had a mammoth (though not epic) series. If not for those cramps in Game 1, I really think the Heat win that game and we go back to Miami for Game 6 on Thursday night. He was everything for Miami. He guarded the Spurs’ best players, whether Tony, Many, or Kawhi. He was the Heat offense. Sure, he was played to a draw by Leonard, but without that ridiculous shooting display in Game 2, this could have been a sweep. He scored a third of the Heat’s points in this series on percentages better than he had in the regular season. LeBron was not the reason the Heat lost. LeBron was the reason the Heat were here in the first place.

On defense, James continued to try to glue the Heat’s system together, but once it became evident that Mario Chalmers was unplayable, that system folded. Putting LeBron on Parker works for stretches, but it also draws him far from the rim, dissuades him from guarding two players as the Heat overload the strong side, and invite the Spurs to use secondary ballhandlers, including Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, and Patty Mills to collapse the defense. There’s a reason Spoelstra only resorted to this tactic during the 4th quarters last year. I’ll admit to supporting LeBron more than some – to me, it’s a privilege to watch a transcendent player. He had a great but not monumental series, and that is not at all indicative of his career. You may not realize, but the NBA is better than it’s ever been (though not necessarily the Eastern Conference). Teams and players are smarter and it’s becoming harder to build a dynasty. That makes LeBron’s two titles special and the Spurs’ most recent victory noteworthy.

Mike D’Antoni and 7 Seconds Or Less Worked. I believe Mike watched this series. Even though he’s out of basketball out of being unceremoniously canned by the Lakers, D’Antoni’s fingerprints were all over this series. In the mid-2000s, the NBA faced an identity crisis. After the removal of the hand check rule and a cleaning-up of officiating, the NBA had to decide if it would adhere to its physical, attack the rim and the other team past, or if would look to a future of spacing, threes, and penetrating guards. The 7 Seconds Or Less Suns that D’Antoni coached were at the forefront of that evolution. They pioneered spacing, 3 pointers, and constant ball movement around a bevy of screens.

That movement was defeated. I remember someone writing that the 2006 series in which Dwyane Wade and these Miami Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks as a referendum of sorts on the evolution. How the pack-the-paint, get-to-the-line, old-school Heat mucked up the game and knocked out the hot-shooting, floor-spacing Mavs. That series was followed by a half decade of traditional teams winning the title: San Antonio, Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers. Ironically, it was the Mavs that ended the cycle somewhat by beating these Heat and their Big 3, but even Dallas had to grab a rim-protecting big man (Tyson Chandler) and a defensive wing (DeShawn Stevenson) to win it. Then 2012 happened. Chris Bosh went down in the middle of the playoff run and the Heat unleashed small-ball destruction on the league. Gone were the post behemoths. In was Battier, a shooter, at 4. The next year they added another shooter and took down the small-ball Spurs. This year, the cycle is complete.

What evidence do I have of this transformation? Boris Diaw. Grantland just ran a great piece on him. He was a hallmark of the D’Antoni Suns, a player that combined passing, shooting, and ball-handling into one glorious package. After the evolution was suppressed, he bounced around more traditional teams that had no idea how to use him. I remember him languishing on the Charlotte bench, completely unplayable. Then he found the Spurs. Each year, he’s gotten better as his hair has turned more silver. Last year, I couldn’t believe my eyes when Boris, Charlotte Boris, was guarding LeBron and dishing to Duncan. This year, he was a wrecking ball. His passes didn’t just lead to made shots, they led to shots taken by wide open players. He punished people on the block. He rained threes. Along with Kawih, he’s a Spur that is markedly improved this year and a reason that this incarnation won the Finals.

I’m not saying that Mike D’Antoni is a great coach or whatever. But he deserves credit for anticipating the way the league would be played, even if it happened a few years too late for him. He deserves credit for challenging convention and losing because convention is a sticky beast. I hope Mike watched the Finals and I hope he was pleased by the product.

The San Antonio Fans Deserve This. I don’t want to harp on Miami again, but if LeBron, Wade, or Bosh are in the game, stay in your seat. Simple. Show them the respect to be there because they won’t always be around. The Spurs fans? Magnificent. I’m not one myself, but they deserve to savor this team a few more times. It’s truly special team, a special city, and a special relationship. So relish this, San Antonio. I hope you're back next year.

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