Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs: Finals Top 10

This is the series I wanted. I wanted Game 7 in San Antonio, with the River Walk, with Spurs fans urging their team to finish something 24 months in the making. After it became apparent that neither the Thunder nor the Pacers have any semblance of the depth required to compete with this Spurs team, I wanted the Heat just like Tim Duncan did. They can elevate the Spurs to a higher level with their athleticism, intelligence and depth. Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich (possibly two coaches with the most miss-spelled names) took turns throwing haymakers at the other until neither had anything left for an epic Game 7. Both coaches drew deep from the well: lineup switches, ice cold guys getting hot of the benches, on the fly scheme and offense changes. And the players. Records fell. Young guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green proved they were ready for the Finals. Old vets like Shane Battier and Mike Miller showed they had something left. And the stars were stars. It was brutal and beautiful series all at once.

This is my Twitter feed in the waning moments of that exhilarating Game 7:

(By the way, I'd recommend following these guys)

These sound like superlatives but they aren't. Zach Lowe doesn't even know what to say in one tweet. Tom Haberstroh, too - "MY BRAIN JUST EXPLO." The best one? "Game 8 starts Thursday night."

There are others who are previewing the series, measuring the teams against each other, and seeing what is different from last year. I'll do a bit of that (prediction at the end), but wanted to approach this piece differently. I'll give 10 reasons why of all the championships I've watched, this upcoming the series is the one I've anticipated the most. Period.

10. Game 7 in San Antonio. The River Walk. The Alamo. The San Antonio fans. Miami earned home court advantage last year, but the Spurs fans deserve this. They deserve to see their team come home for a deciding game. The Spurs players deserve it. I love hearing Steve Kerr talk about how hospitable the folks in San Antonio are. They deserve to show America that they are worthy of hosting a Game 7 in this place. I wanted Game 7 in San Antonio, here's hoping we get there.

9. The Spur's Foreign Legion. Grantland did a great job with this. Last year's Spurs were missing just one extra guy off the bench. Once Manu was inserted as a starter, the Spurs needed one guy other than Boris Diaw to come in the game and swing a 4 minute stretch, and Gary Nea, as good as he shot, just wasn't that guy. The 2012 Mavs remain the only team to have beaten the Heat in a playoff series partly because they had 3 superior ball handlers at guard: Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and JJ Barea. The Spurs have Tony and Manu. If Patty Mills can be that guy that makes the Heat pay for gambling, it would go a long way to helping the Spurs go out on top.

8. Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and the Miami Shooters. After the Spurs stole the show with their hot shooting, the Heat needed more than dogged determination to come down from three separate series deficits and survive two elimination games. They needed Shane Battier to come alive in one of the most exhilarating shooting performances in recent memory. They needed Mario Chalmers to answer a Gary Neal buzzer-beating bank-shot three with one of his own. They needed Mike Miller hitting a three with one shoe, forcing a Spurs timeout. They needed LeBron's three-point game to come alive as he hit five threes of his own in Game 7. Finally, they needed one now-iconic shot just to see a Game 7.
I've watched replays of Ray's shot many times and have taken another look recently. When the rebound bounced off the rim, Ray was standing with both feet in the paint on the right side. Once he saw that it was going to Bosh crashing at the front of the rim, he started to backpedal. But he wasn't looking at the floor or the clock. His eyes were locked on Bosh. One step, two, three. By the fourth step the pass has been released. He catches it on the fifth. The sixth step brings hsi right foot behind the line. Then, elevation. I still can't believe how straight up-and-down he gets on the shot. He has to kick his feet a little for strength. I love how if you listen carefully, Mike Breen says "BANG!" right as the shot hits water. He knew it was going in. Ray knew it was going in. We knew it was going in.
In each of the last two playoffs, Miami's shooters have not only saved their season but validated their model: surround LeBron with shooters, play small, and live with the result.

7. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Can you believe, even now, that Danny Green holds the record for most Finals threes? Danny Green! More than Ray. More than Reggie. More than Michael, Larry, Kobe and Dirk. Danny Green is the only one of those guys that doesn't go by a first name alone. Sure, he couldn't pass or dribble to save his life, but he's getting better and he's back. I can't wait for an encore.
And Kawhi Leonard showed on the game's biggest stage that he's good enough to take on the game's biggest star. He banged with LeBron. He stole rebounds from him. He swiped passes with those giant hands and long arms. He shot the lights out. And when the Spurs needed a spark, he took it to the rim, too. And he's getting better, too. One day, Kawhi Leonard is going to be a star; it might as well be Thursday.

6. Chris Bosh and His Unsung, All-World Defense. Tell me how many people can do the following:

  1. Push his guy away from a high pick then drop back to wall off the paint while protecting the screener; 
  2. Trap the side pick and roll and force the ball handler backwards (and occasionally come up with a steal if the ball handler tries to force a pocket pass);
  3. Respectably guard the best power forward who ever lived one-on-one on the block;
  4. Front said power forward to prevent an entry pass and continue fronting as the ball is swung around the perimeter;
  5. And finally, as a ball handler dives toward the baseline dribbling towards the front, somehow detach from the big and switch on to the dribbler;
  6. Block his shot;
  7. After emergencies, rotate onto shooters in the corner and block their shot;
  8. Rebound.
Again, tell me who can do those things. Dwight is probably in that conversation. Maybe Joakim. And even though he did struggle with the Duncan cover (who wouldn't), Chris Bosh did every one of them in the 2013 Finals, and some of those plays came in crucial situations near the end of games. Forcing the Manu turnover on the Spurs' second-to-last possession of Game 7. Blocking Danny Green's 3 at the end of Game 6. Battling with Duncan again and again and again until even the Big Fundamental was clutching at his jersey. Some people remember that Bosh didn't score in Game 7. That he looked tentative when given the ball. He only attempted 5 field goals. I do not care. Chris Bosh's defense in that series can only be described as heroic. He's found his shooting touch this year and is key to Miami's offense. I'm looking forward to seeing him cover the paint again on D.

5. Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili. These two can say how much they tune things out all they want, but they must hear the whispers. Game after game of "he's done" or "there's nothing left in the tank." Maybe they even faced doubts of their own; getting your knee drained in the middle of a series doesn't sound like the most confidence-inspiring move. Each was imperfect. Dwyane had to be hidden on defense and gummed up Miami's spacing. Manu was a turnover machine (I think my most common Twitter exclamation was "Oh Manu"). I still don't know if Manu has looked the same since Game 7 against Dallas in the first round - his game saving shot against the Thunder in Game 6 came after missing a slew of earlier opportunities.
But you know what? Those imperfections, maddening as they are, serve as a counterpoint to the brilliant play that both provide that remind of their superhuman talents. Manu throwing passes between the legs of Heat defenders. Dwyane with those creaky knees, out-leaping one, two, three Spurs in getting key offensive rebounds in Games 6 and 7. Dwyane turning back the clock in Game 4 with 32 points and one sweet Euro-stepping slam. Manu answering with 24 and 10 of his own in Game 5. These are two of the best the NBA's seen, sure-fire Hall of Famers, and we're treated to see them go at it again.

4. Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra. There are three NBA head coaches who have won a championship with the team they are coaching. These are two. The other one is Rick Carlisle. Personally I think Thibodeau is on the active Mount Rushmore and there is a MASSIVE gap between those 3-4 guys and everyone else in the league. Eric and Gregg did everything right last year. Everything. Having Shane Battier come off the bench out of nowhere and hit 6 THREES is a testament to him as a professional, but also to amazing coaching. Every single year Miami and San Antonio pull guys off the end of the bench and see them nail enormous shots. Mike Miller, James Jones, Udonis Haslem, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, the list goes on and on and on. That is phenomenal coaching.
Then there are the in-series adjustments that only the 3 championship guys seem to make. Going small, adding shooters. The playing of passing lanes by Miami to turn the Spurs over. Pop countering by stationing release guys at the top and maneuvering Kawhi Leonard inside. The manipulation of spacing, timing, everything. The fact that this was such a well-played series shows just how much these two teams embody their coaching. Forget LeBron and Tony, Dwyane and Timmy, Chris and Manu. If Erik and Pop squared off in a high school girls match, I'm the first one there.

3. Tony Parker. Tony Parker was a menace for the first few games of last year's series and was never really the same after hurting his hamstring. So first, I sincerely hope he's completely healthy for this series. There is a video on YouTube detailing a play the Spurs run that can only be described as a loop. Tony runs in circles around a series of screens, often losing his man, before receiving the ball from a wing passer. With separation and full head of steam, he proceeds to eviscerate defense as we know it. This is beautiful, beautiful basketball. It's less than 6 minutes long but I could watch this over and over again for an hour. Tony Parker may not be the best point guard I've ever seen but he's one of the best at what he does: come off screens and make fantastic decisions.
It is for that reason that over the last few years, I patterned what little game I have after Tony Parker. He almost never makes a bad decision after a pick. Chris Paul has flashier numbers but handles the ball more. Steve Nash has won MVP's, but his shooting is something I can't hope to replicate. My goal as a player was to be able to run a pick and roll like Tony Parker. Knowing how fast to go. When to shoot and when to drive. When and where to pass. It's like orchestrating a symphony. Of course, Tony is surprisingly athletic. But that's not the reason he's Pop's point guard. He has that job because he is his coach on the floor which is the very essence of playing point.
It's funny to hear stories of how Timmy didn't talk to Tony during the latter's first year. Or how the Spurs almost traded him for Jason Kidd. Or how, despite winning a Finals MVP, he isn't really regarded as one of the league's premier superstars. Maybe it's because he's French. Or because Pop has him on a tight minutes schedule. Whatever it may be, the world is going to be treated with more of Tony Parker in these playoffs, and like the tweet from Eric Freeman says, that's an overwhelmingly positive basketball experience.

2. Tim Duncan and LeBron James. I can't talk about one without the other. Others have gone on about how historically great these two are at the game of basketball. There seems to be little doubt that when they retire, each will do so as the greatest player at his position (which is itself humorous given both are known for playing somewhat position-less). What links Timmy and 'Bron to me however is how completely their teams have assumed their respective personalities.
I love this ESPN piece about Pop and Tim. I love the quote that everyone in the Spurs organization is working for Tim. So true that is. There is no dynasty without Tim. And it goes beyond skill. It's his devotion to his coach. To the city. To his teammates. It's how unflappable, professional, and dedicated he is at his craft. The Spurs didn't just draft the best player in 1997. They drafted a guy that would define their culture for the next 20 years (or more). A lot of people have commented how successful the Spurs are at finding international talent (Manu, Tony, Tiago Splitter, Patty), or overlooked players (Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal), or even rehabilitating careers (Boris Diaw, Danny Green). I don't think it's an accident. They get to bring these guys into an organization where the best guy holds the line. Their best guy defines how and how long they will work to become a team. When you have a guy like that, I think plugging in people becomes a lot easier.
As for LeBron, look how far he's come. The Heat had an idea of what they needed to do in the summer of 2010 when they signed the Big 3. They knew they needed shooting, hence the signing of Mike Miller. They needed bigs to protect the paint and got his pal Zydrunas Ilgauskas and kept Udonis Haslem. But watching those pieces fall apart in the series against Dallas, it was clear that the pieces didn't fit. The offense looked a lot like Oklahoma City's this year - lots of aimless dribbling, standing around, and isolation play. They may have known what they had in LeBron but had no idea how good he could be.
This year, the ball flies for the Heat. It flies and it has for over two years. LeBron did that. Remember that when he came, this was Dwyane's team. Even that first year, Dwyane was player 1 or 1-A depending on the situation. And Dwyane had won a Finals with his ability to create one-on-one. That was the Heat identity - do your job, play defense, rebound, and on offense, let Dwyane go to work. Over the past two years, that identity has completely shifted. Instead of shooters spacing the floor for the stars, the floor is spaced for the shooters. LeBron never gives up a pass to an open shooter for a contested shot inside the arc. Never. It's not in his DNA and it's been exorcised from the DNA of his team.
On defense, his impact is even greater. When the Heat trap a side pick-and-roll, sometimes LeBron is stationed on the opposite wing. Often the Heat will bring the other four guys to the strong side to ward off the play leaving LeBron covering 2+ opponents on the opposite side - by himself. They can do this because LeBron knows how to station himself between two shooters so as to ward off passes to either of them. He can guard one half of the court single-handed, and that's the foundation for what the Heat want to do. That ability made Gregg Popovich scrap spacing in last year's Finals and station Kawhi on the baseline while bringing the shooter from the corner up to the wing in an effort to create maximum distance between the two so that LeBron wouldn't be able to cover both. So the Heat switched LeBron onto an ailing Parker and that was that. LeBron's individual defense may have slipped, but the Heat defend as a team how he defends.
There are other players whose teams have assumed their identities. People talk about Kevin Garnett changing the culture in Boston or Chris Paul doing the same in L.A. They talk about how professional those guys are and how they make everyone else work hard. Those things are real and matter, but they scratch at the surface. These teams don't just follow the lead of their best players. They embody them. On offense, defense, in the locker room, in interviews. Their personalities. Their greatness. Kevin and Chris are great and in Kevin's case, he has hardware to prove it. But neither have ever had such tremendous impact on their teammates. Tim and LeBron have gone to another level, a level that precedes my last point, the thing I'm looking forward to the most this series:

1. Respect. My favorite moment of the 2013 NBA Finals wasn't Allen's three. It wasn't LeBron rejecting Tiago or losing his headband. It wasn't Manu, Dwyane, or Tony. It was Popovich. After the horn sounded the end of Game 7, Popovich walked to mid-court and shook hands with Spoelstra and the other Miami coaches. LeBron found him, then Wade. They hug; then for a split second, Popovich kisses Wade on the cheek. The whole time, Pop has this massive grin on his face as he congratulates the Heat stars. Think about it. His team had just lost two straight stomach-punch games. What did Popovich have to be smiling about?
This is my theory. Popovich knows intimately how hard it is to win an NBA championship. He knows what a grind the whole season is. I think this has a lot to do with how he gets far away from basketball during the summers. Pop knows what it's like to win and win big - but also how much it hurts to lose. True, the Spurs had never trailed in any Finals series - until the end of Game 7. But they've endured plenty of playoff heartbreak in a decade and a half. Derek Fisher. Dirk Nowitzki (by the way - Dirk will retire as the only person to ever knock off the Tim-Tony-Manu Spurs and the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat - now look at his supporting cast and tell me with a straight face he's not top-25 all-time). They Spurs have been through this before. And they keep coming back. That tells me that Popovich and his team respect this process. They respect this game. They had the absolute best brought out of them in that series which required a pantheon performance from both teams. Popovich understood that and understood that his counterparts on the Heat side have gone through the exact same thing.
That's why he was beaming. He understood that the Heat deserved it. They EARNED it. His team pushed them to the very edge and they pushed back. He understood personally the sacrifices LeBron and especially Dwyane have made to get to this moment and I think he appreciated them, the moment, and the game so much that he couldn't help but be thrilled, exhilarated, and proud of his opponents. He respected them but more than anything, he respected the game. I think the Heat learned about that type of respect during the series.
My second favorite moment of that series was Tim Duncan's. Right after he missed that little running hook over Battier that would have tied it at 90, a shot he's made about 1,383,973 times, after he missed the tip-in, he still had to run down the court and play defense. And he was laboring. 9 months of basketball. 9 months of monitoring his minutes so his body wouldn't give out. 9 months of running weird because he has this massive brace on his knee. 9 months of "you're too old" and "OKC" and "Heat in 6." It all led to this moment. He grabs his jersey and wipes the sweat off his face. I've NEVER seen Timmy so tired. You realize that he's not really running down the court as he is staggering. He turns around to play defense. Defense! The Heat call timeout for a last play. Duncan squats down in exhaustion and slams the floor with both palms. Duncan is oft described as stoic, immovable, composed. I've never seem him do that before. For the briefest moment, we all saw exactly how much Duncan cared about this game. How much he's sacrificed for it. How much he respects it.
That's what sets these two teams apart. It isn't necessarily talent, thought they have plenty of that. It's respect. When I watch them play, I know I'll see two teams fully committed, who respect the game and how it's supposed to be played. That's why I wanted Spurs/Heat. I'm ready for another overwhelming basketball experience. 

My hope is that the series is extended indefinitely. Since that won't happen, Spurs in 7. And it's a bit premature, but can we all hope for this series again next year? You know, best two out of three?

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