Category Archives: 2013 NBA Playoffs

The Long Walk Home

I’ve been watching the NBA closely for nearly twenty years now. Over those two decades careers have begun and ended, burst and fizzled, and in some cases traced full and glorious arcs across my horizon. Having the chance to watch a player’s entire career from beginning to end is a strange experience. In the most detailed and elaborate cases, youthful exuberance gives way to the balance of guile and physicality, until the body drops away and wit alone can no longer sustain. There are some similarities to following a favorite character on a TV show, but the passage of time and the inexorable crawl of decay are either illusions or features fully ignored on a television show. In the NBA they are inescapably real.

That final chapter of a player’s career, from the peak to the exit takes an infinite number of forms. If you watch the league long enough you may think that you’ve literally seen it all. But what I’ve learned over the past two decades is professional basketball can always give you something new.

After their Game 7 loss, the question of retirement came up for more than one member of the San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili’s answer was remarkably candid and revealed how emotionally raw the series’ difficult ending had left him:

“For three quarters of the season it was the physical part,” Ginobili said. “I’d say, ‘No, I can’t deal with this anymore. I’m tired of rehab and trying to be in shape all the time.’

“But at this point I’m fine physically, so you are a little more optimistic. But you know, it’s been 18 years doing this. You kind of get tired and you want to enjoy a little more time at home sometimes. You go back to Argentina to see your people, and you think about it. I’m going to have time for that, too.”

Ginobili is one of those players whose entire career I’ve had the opportunity to observe. I certainly hope this wasn’t the last time we see him in an NBA uniform but his performance in the NBA Finals was clearly that of a character entering his final act. And the scene he set at the end of Game 7 was painfully original.

From the moment he stepped on the stage Ginobili has been described as a swashbuckling daredevil, one who flits past risk with a roguish charm. Of all the skills and characteristics which make up his basketball abilities none is more central than the power to skate the fine line between conquest and collapse, sprinting full speed into the maw of destruction, snatching victory from the jaws of chaos at the very last moment. Nothing he did on the court looked like it was going to work until the moment it actually did. LeBron routinely accomplishes the impossible,but with blazingly authentic speed and brute force. Ginobili is more serpentine, slithering and euro-stepping his way through the barriers of plausibility.

We’ve seen Manu Ginobili struggle before. We’ve seen him hobbled and limited, we’ve seen him play without the fully array of his talents available. What we, or at least I, hadn’t seen was him so utterly impotent in a moment of extreme importance. The blocked layup. The jump-pass turnover. The airballed three-pointer. The most emotional jarring piece of the whole affair was that he looked exactly like the Ginobili we’ve seen a thousand times before. But when the penultimate moment of each possession came, screaming for his patented magic, the spell fizzled.

It was a little like seeing your dad cry for the first time. Every interaction up until that point is revealed to have been saturated with naivete. Your dad is not just a dad, because “dad” is nothing more than a cultural archetype. Your dad is a human being with a full range of emotions, with a unique mix of strengths and flaws just like any other member of our species. But what looks identical, now has a new dimension. Where people, places and things were once pleasantly and placidly flat, there is now depth to deal with. It’s an understanding that you can’t shake, and it reflects the past in an entirely new light.

In watching these professional career arcs pass before our eyes we are sometimes blessed with a revealing moment of humanity. It could be a moment of authentic celebratory joy, a stomach-turning off the court incident or, as in Ginobili’s case, a tragic failure. This was not a failure of effort or decision-making, it was the failure of a man reaching for what had always been there and coming up empty-handed. There is a new complexity now to Ginobili’s public face. Whether or not this is the end, we won’t have the luxury of watching him pass before our eyes as a two-dimensional caraciture, Zorro in a jersey.

The Little Things

quinn.anya | Flickr

Any storyline you could possibly want could be transposed onto this series. LeBron battled the memories of the 2007 Finals sweep by killing the Spurs with his midrange jumper. Dwyane Wade powered through his injury and willed the team to victory. The Spurs are too old to compete.  The Spurs are a hardworking and disciplined team, sometimes to their detriment. The Heat bought their championship. The Spurs choked away Games 6 and 7. Vogel shouldn’t have sat Roy Hibbert. T-Mac is an albatross. Birdman! And so on.

We’ve assumed since the end of last season that the Heat were going to repeat as champions after mopping the floor with the Thunder after five games. They’re the best, and we’ve known they’re the best, however frustrating that may have been or continues to be. But just because we had that assumption doesn’t mean that it played out like we thought it would. We thought that the Heat thought that they were entitled to a title. But they played great basketball in two back-to-back seven-game series. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to earn it, even if we thought they’d get it anyway.

But I guess there has been one narrative rolling around in my head that I want to get out. The Heat were assumed to be invincible. And even though they eventually won the title, we saw that they’re not. There are real questions about their long-term success that are based mostly in Wade’s health and Bosh’s ability to contribute consistently without being taken out of a game. They’re not invincible, and they’re title window is finite. But those questions can come later. Now we should celebrate the fact that we just witnessed one of the best-played series in NBA history; I mean, it’s certainly the best series I’ve watched.

To me, last night’s game wasn’t about battling demons or defining legacies. No one choked, and no one willed themselves above anyone else. Thirty players and two coaches were ready to go last night–as they have been for the past two weeks and seven preceding months–and they went at it. Shots were made because passes were crisp. Shots were missed because defensive rotations were on point. Turnovers happened because sometimes your hands get super sweaty when you’re sapping all of the adrenaline in your body. And the game of basketball was played by two teams that can really play basketball. This quote from Shane Battier before Game 7 about this series at Eye on Basketball (H/T: PAPA BEAR) says it all:

“It’s gone back to the little things,” Battier said. “It’s gone back to the little things. It’s about transition defense. It’s about ball-you-man basketball. It’s about boxing out. As crazy as it is with the chess pieces being moved all over the board, the things that are deciding this game are the things you learn playing kiddie ball at the YMCA. That’s what makes it exciting for the basketball purists. As sophisticated as it is, it’s really about basketball plays.”

I mean, yes. Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. Great execution? Check. Great defense? Check. Even (though at times unpredictable) refereeing? Check. Lack of hard fouls that are clearly the byproduct of frustration? Check. Commitment to the system that got you to this high a level? Check. A possibly different winner had this been a shorter or longer series? Check.

A few weeks ago I wrote, “I just wish basketball could be about basketball.” After watching last night’s game and this series over the past two weeks, my wish definitely came true.

Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It

“Listen, I was always a guy that said for a player to be on a championship team that didn’t contribute, how can he feel like he deserved that ring?” McGrady said. “But look here, man, I’m in that situation and I tell you, my career has been something, especially after my injury. It’s been tough, and I can’t do nothing but appreciate this opportunity.”

via Tracy McGrady’s quest for one championship before the end of his career – Grantland.

“Deserved” is a tricky word. It’s often accompanied by discussions of fairness and equity. Laughable conversations, really, ensconced in a universe that’s chaotically biased toward entropy on the one hand and a foreboding omnipresence on the other, constantly reminding just how much the deck is rigged. Randomness begets destiny begets probability; the fickle fates tear asunder that which is deserved and that which is parceled to the victors. The spoils are won. To argue whether they’re deserved is the gloss of the silver medalist.

Yet that probabilistic fatalism is tricky, too, particularly when applied to team sports. So many things matter, to the point that everything matters. Everything that matters, though, is subject to the same muddying effects of uncertain outcomes played out just once. A jumper only happens once; never again will those exact same circumstances exist. A series may take place over seven games, but every moment is an event that blinks into existence to remind us just how lucky we are, then gives its dying breath to the next fleeting gorgeosity.

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs deserve to be here tonight, because neither of them deserves to be here tonight. Or at least, they simply deserve to be here to the same degree that they were able to control the outcome of their seasons. If the ball bounces but once, and a championship can ride on that bounce, all a team or a player can do is put themselves in the best possible position to win. It’s process — that word that won’t go away, that word that defines these teams, that word that looms over everything as the legacy that threatens to outlast even the majesty of the game. It’s the trust that were one to simulate any of these events 10,000 times, the optimal strategy would win out in the end, knowing full well that only one of those scenarios can ever really come true, chosen seemingly by divine providence (or the universe’s largest bingo hall barker).

Even the favorite, then, has the potential to be the universe’s underdog, an overqualified ring-bearer for championship teams, foil to dynasty and legacy. The upside to the travails of time is opportunity en masse; given enough pressure, that barrier to result has every chance of surrendering to the weathering nature of practiced persistence. But it also has every chance of withstanding all that willful application has to offer. Many players simply never win a title, regardless of their legend; Robert Horry became a Roman deity by hitting a parlay on a series of 65/35 bets at best. Windows in this league close with the fury of a sudden summer’s storm. Dynasties-to-be flame out and unstoppable behemoths meet their David. Matchups conquer talent, and chaos has no rival. To be plain, things happen in the NBA — peripheral, fringe events that make the Wow! signal look sustainable. Were it not for gruesome injuries and shattered dreams, this might be Game 7 of a Thunder/Bulls series, with talk of legacy giving way to glimpses of the future and positional revolutions set to evaporate old notions of what a point guard should be. The Spurs and Heat seem to be the best two teams in the league this year, but there was no guarantee we’d get to see them prove it, just as there’s no guarantee that Kawhi Leonard, for all of his precociousness and preternatural performance will make it back to this stage. Coaches and teammates retire. Bad decisions get rewarded; good deeds are punished.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the team and everyone involved will be deserving, undoubtedly — and yes, that includes you, T-Mac. San Antonio and Miami earned every bit of their accolades, and they did as much as they could to weigh the odds in their favor, tenth of a percentage point by tenth of a percentage point. Through incomparable adjustments and sheer force of talent, these teams put the fates to work in their machinations. But they aren’t the only ones who might have deserved to be here. Let us not forget those who fell before the razor’s edge of probability’s sword. Their processes and doomed battles against the tempest of results shouldn’t be lost to the ravages of time. To recognize that Tracy McGrady deserves every bit of this championship is to celebrate those who might otherwise stand fit to be sized for new jewelry.

Image by alshepmcr via Flickr

There Is No Headband

Photo by martha sarah on Flickr

LeBron James’ headband didn’t matter in the Heat’s victory in Game 6. But it also didn’t not matter. Any attempt to quantify and compare LeBron with and without headband via numbers is a fool’s errand; the sample size is too small, the panoply of variables too titanically staggering. There’s just nothing concrete to hold onto there, but it doesn’t mean we can’t gather together an understanding of it. LeBron’s headband exists at the nexus where adherence to tradition collides with the need to navigate an ever-shifting landscape based on instinct, where a primitive desire for order and repeatable outcomes runs headlong into the need for a contingency plan. James came to two roads that diverged in a yellow wood and he took the one less traveled by. Simple as that.

To begin to see this, it’s helpful to see how professional basketball players work in different ways from most people. Their job is, first and foremost, creative in nature. Although they are in some sense following the order put in place by their coach, players—especially at James’ level—are primarily problem solvers. The framework gives them roles and rules, but they have to maximize those roles, stretch those rules each and every time they go out on the court under diverse circumstances often designed to thwart their creativity.

Furthermore, they are asked to do it with consistency while living a lifestyle that demands near-constant travel and physical wear and tear. And yes, the monetary compensation is often lush and can lessen the impact, but they’re still people, and people in a situation with little consistency crave it. While you or I might long for excitement to shake up our repetitive daily schedules, players establish routines, rituals and habits in order to control their world as best they can. Eating the same meal, taking a nap at a specific time, never wearing the same shoes twice, always wearing the same shoes exactly four times before switching: these things bring a measure of stability to an inherently unstable existence.

But they only work so long as they feel like they work, if that makes any sense. They are not, after all, things like ingraining a repeatable jump shot motion in practice or conditioning drills. They are not things that will improve a player’s game regardless of how a player thinks about them. But when it comes time to create, to empty your mind, how you think about something matters a great deal. When that process isn’t working, it can be difficult to get down at the root of what’s wrong. It can be easy to start out-thinking yourself, to over-think. When it’s possible to change a controllable, external pattern—a reliance, for instance, on a particular piece of headgear—it can force a kind of mental reset, a return to primal things that the ritual has suddenly gotten in the way of.

The headband had nothing to do with James’ shooting problems in Game 6. But ditching the headband after it got knocked off might have had everything to do with letting him get past whatever undiagnosable problem he was having. A player as thoughtful and multi-faceted as James can struggle with being given too many options. We saw the Spurs use that to their advantage by backing off of him, by allowing him to survey the court while limiting his options, by letting him take good but not great open shots. The result was an often tentative James who was picking his way around the problem of how to get himself going.

Ditching the headband had very little to do with the headband and everything to do with the often complex and deceptively frail way we jury-rig how we do things to how we understand how we do things. It can be hard to let go of that structure, composed as it is of rituals and totems we hold dear, but LeBron deciding to forego his headband in order to shake things up in ways he likely didn’t even understand was the living epitome of one of my favorite aphorisms: “When the horse you’re riding dies, get off.”

Legacy: The New “L” Word

Photo courtesy of  JP FRENAY/Flickr

Before game four of these 2013 NBA Finals, the question was posed to me on Twitter if this was a make-or-break game for the legacy of LeBron James. The question struck me as peculiar since basketball is a team game and it’s incredibly difficult-if-not-impossible for one player to carry a team and odd that one game could override a larger body of work. On the surface, LeBron’s 39% shooting percentage in games one through three — a likely result of the Spurs’ defensive effort — was worthy of an eyebrow raise. However, whether it was his 12.3 rebounds per game, 6.3 assists per game or 2.0 turnovers per game in that stretch,  LeBron found other ways to contribute to the team while he tried to find his rhythm.

And this one game was supposed to define LeBron’s career from this point on, overriding four MVP awards in five years, three consecutive Finals appearances (which very well could be four appearances in five years dating back to Cleveland), and a championship? I don’t think so.

The truth is that when the Heat have lost games in these Finals (save for game one) they’ve been careless with the ball, gotten beat on the boards and left shooters open. When they’ve won, they’ve protected the ball, rebounded, and got to the line– all things that help you control the flow of a game. The bigger determinant of the Heat’s success in these Finals has not been whether or not LeBron has been good enough, but whether or not the team as a whole is willing to do the little things like exert the effort to crash the glass, make the proper defensive rotation or focused enough to cut down on careless turnovers.

At any rate, how did our protagonist/antagonist fare in his big legacy game? Oh, 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists with just two turnovers on 60 percent shooting. It’s funny because even though many would have viewed a poor performance in this game as a stain on his legacy, there was no widespread clamoring that his legacy was now given a boost for his performance. Perhaps this meant that it had no effect on it and something that his critics would feel is something he should always do, making his showing something to be expected. Which in some ways is an odd form of roundabout praise masquerading as absurdly high standards of near-perfection because they’re still acknowledging LeBron as a great player.

Alternatively, LeBron’s “legacy” is likely no different than any other great player in the history of the league in that he’s needed help from his team to put them over the top. We’ve seen this happen all throughout history how great teams need their role players to step up from time-to-time, just as Rick Barry told me last week. The Spurs are no exception to this as they called on Boris Diaw in game five to successfully defend the best player in the league or have leaned on Danny Green while Manu Ginobili has slumped, who has emerged as a legitimate front-runner for Finals MVP. That’s right; not Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, but Danny Green! And Green is really the next in the line of role players such as Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, and even Shane Battier last year who stepped up when their team needed them to.

I play the game because I love it. I love the competitive side of it. Once I’m done, you know, you guys will write my legacy and say what I’ve done for this game, but that’s not for me to worry about right now.

LeBron James – FoxSports.com (6/5/13) 

The only way this legacy thing really matters anyway is if it matters to the players, which it doesn’t. LeBron admitted as much before the Finals and he’s not the first player to come out and say so. As fans we like to believe that these things matter as much to the players we attempt to rank, but they don’t. They speak the same things about enjoying playing the game and competing rather than worrying about their place in history. While analyzing the game is a part of the fun, overanalyziation takes away from our ability to appreciate what we see from great teams and players while we’re still able to watch them. Maybe that’s where we should take a cue from them to sit back, relax, and just enjoy the game ourselves. If we’re able to do this tonight, we’ll be able to truly appreciate the Spurs adding another championship to one of the greatest extended runs in NBA history and a great team digging deep to save their season should the Heat claim victory.

San Antonio’s Small Ball Adjustment

While the Miami Heat laid enough eggs in Game 3 to make the world’s largest midrange jumper omelette, the San Antonio Spurs deserve all the credit in the world for leading the 2013 NBA Finals. They’ve been better in both schematics and execution, and one adjustment in particular is striking. For much of the series, and in Game 3 specifically, the Spurs have committed to spreading an aggressive, swarming Miami defense to its breaking point by playing as many shooters as defensively palatable.

The Heat, of course, are most associated with lineup flexibility. Their ability to go small with multiple 3-point shooters is celebrated, but this is still a team that plays a fairly traditional starting five. Yet it’s the Spurs who’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift the rotation as necessary, going back to their second round matchup with Golden State. Against the Warriors, San Antonio ditched their usual combination of Duncan and Splitter in the face of a smaller opponent unleashing a barrage of jump shots; the standard Spurs starters played just 14.2% of the total minutes in the series. When their playoff path turned to Memphis, San Antonio doubled down on their bulkier lineups, with the starters playing over 25% of the available minutes.

All of that has given rise to an NBA Finals that’s blended both of San Antonio’s gears when the Spurs have played their best ball. They’re destroying Miami with their starting unit, which is outscoring the Heat by 20.1 points per 100 possessions, and they’re letting that squad run rampant for nearly as many minutes as in the previous round. With Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh against the Spurs starters, San Antonio has been able to stuff the paint and dare Miami to take lower efficiency midrange jumpers. The Spurs aren’t lighting up the scoreboard with the starters, posting an atrocious 92.7 offensive rating — by comparison, the league-worst Wizards’ offensive rating was 97.8. But their starters are smothering the Heat (and allowing the Heat to smother themselves) to the tune of 72.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.

If San Antonio and Miami went starting unit versus starting unit for 48 minutes, the Spurs would be on their way to the most convincing sweep in Finals history. In Games 1 and 2, though, the Spurs largely gave that edge back when the Heat went small. San Antonio floundered with various combinations of Diaw, Splitter and Duncan on the court against Miami’s shooters. A conservative approach to Miami’s top gameplan simply didn’t cut it; while Diaw is by no means an awful shooter, he’s more proficient operating from the elbows than the perimeter, and his presence on the offensive end enabled the Heat to more readily rotate to cover shooters left open by their aggressive traps.

For the Spurs to capitalize on the lead they continued to garner with Haslem on the floor, they needed to find a way to counter the Heat’s small lineups. The Spurs tried an intermediate step, coupling Matt Bonner with either Duncan or Splitter.* It failed rather thoroughly. Miami too readily took advantage of Bonner’s defense, and the Spurs were unable to score enough to make up for the deficiency on the other end. Given those failings and in trouble of losing Game 1, Gregg Popovich went full bore with small ball, putting Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal alongside the Ancient Big 3 just over four minutes into the fourth quarter. Down three at that point, San Antonio out Miami’d Miami, playing small better than the Heat did to secure a four point victory and the home court advantage they held in Game 3.

*It’s not really going small, given Bonner’s height — call it Spaceball(s).

Going small brings its own disadvantages and problems, surely, especially on defense. It hasn’t been all gumdrops and giggles for the Spurs when they’ve matched small for small. Two of the five most played San Antonio lineups without two of the Duncan/Diaw/Splitter triumvirate have been torched through the first three games. But this strategy provides the best chance at competing with the Heat when Haslem takes a seat. Many of those defensive shortcomings disappear when your opponent doesn’t have the size to exploit mismatches, as with Miami’s small lineups. And the threat of shooters all over the court for a team willing to make the next pass is a nightmare for a team predicated on leaving players open on the back side to force pressure at the point of attack.

In Game 3, San Antonio took that to heart; after going back to Diaw and Bonner in Game 2, once again to their detriment, the Spurs sat Diaw for the entire game and used Bonner only for spot duty and to mop up things at the end. When Haslem sat for the Heat, replaced by Mike Miller, Splitter sat for the Spurs, replaced by Manu Ginobili. Through a revolving combination of Gary Neal, Danny Green and Leonard, San Antonio coupled a wide open offensive attack that pressed Miami into unusual mistakes and suspect effort with tenacious defense  that thoroughly flummoxed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company. Yes, the Heat were awful, to an extent unlike anything we’ve ever seen from this team. Yes, the Spurs shot at a potentially unsustainable rate from deep, volume and efficiency considered. Yes, variance is a wonderful thing, and teams that go small and launch a ton of threes are more susceptible to the fleeting fate of luck.

But at this rate, San Antonio needn’t consistently beat Miami at their own game. They simply need to play that game well. If they can just keep pace, their starters will put them over the hump, and we might not be going back to Miami.

Statistical support provided by stats.nba.com. Image by digitpedia via Flickr

Small Lineup and Sample Size Theater

The Spurs are making life hard on LeBron James.  Through the first home swing of the NBA Finals, the two-time defending league MVP is averaging 17.5 points per game on 42.4% shooting and 16.5 attempts from the field.  Suffice it to say, James’ individual scoring and efficiency numbers are a far cry from those he compiled during that historic regular season.

But it hasn’t mattered.  The Heat are going gangbusters offensively anyway, scoring 111.3 points per 100 possessions, a hair better than their league-leading regular  season mark.

Despite his shooting and finishing struggles, Miami’s success still begins with James.  But that’s well-established by now and hardly worth going over again, for the final means of the Heat’s offensive prowess is something not even LeBron can control: simply, whether or not open three-pointers fall.  Through two games they have been, and an unsurprising trend – touched on here after Game 1 – has emerged.

The more shooters there are surrounding James, the more successful Miami has been overall.  And sometimes, those units have performed just as well defensively as they have offensively.

As always with a sample size so small, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt.  The majority of the Heat’s 33-5 run late in Game 2 came with Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Mike Miller on the floor, for instance, obviously painting a more drastic discrepancy than would more sustained playing time.  But after Game 1, that group’s dominance as well as those of a similar structure shouldn’t have been so surprising.

Five-man units featuring both Allen and Miller were the Heat’s two best options by far Game 1.  That they saw the floor for only 16 total minutes doomed Miami looking back, especially considering the Heat’s starters – who played 16 minutes, the only group that logged double-digits – were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions as a result of their stagnant offense (87.7 ORtg).

When looking through a more magnified lens, Miami’s dependence on similar shooter-centric lineups for success becomes even more evident.  Take a look at the table below.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.16.31 AM

The presence of Allen and Miller is the key here, as evidenced by that pair leading the Heat in overall  productivity whether James in on the floor or not.  But Chalmers is of utmost importance, too, and his spark in Game 2 was the ember that ignited Miami’s huge run.  The offensive numbers are staggering, of course, but it wouldn’t matter if San Antonio exploited these lineups on the other end.  But the Spurs didn’t score enough to negate the offensive binge of these pairs even in Game 1; Sunday was just further confirmation they can hold their own.

This is a good time to laud Miller’s defensive intensity.  Aside from the fact his body is almost completely broken down, the reason he saw so little playing time during the regular season was because he lacked the versatility of Shane Battier on that end of the floor.  Basically, Spoelstra couldn’t count on him to to be the Swiss Army Knife the Heat need to most effectively utilize James and their overall strategy defensively.  But he’s been equally game – especially on Sunday – banging with Boris Diaw or switching onto Tony Parker, showing quick feet, strong hands and unrivaled effort.  He’s even been good for one or two high-flying rebounds a game, too.  With Battier’s jumper ice-cold, the awesome residual effect of Miller’s surprising worth on defense can’t be overstated.

This information overall placates those who hark back to James’ days in Cleveland to describe the current state of the Heat.  Miami has played far better in the Finals with Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh on the bench.  This is another good time to reiterate the sample size caveat, but it’s discouraging for the Heat nonetheless.  The red-hot shooting of reserves like Allen and Miller means the offensive ratings of Wade and Bosh would likely fall behind team average, but the defensive metrics paint a negative impact for Miami’s ancillary stars, too.  Take from that what you will, though it bears mentioning Udonis Haslem’s ratings are similar; Spoelstra’s starters, it’s clear, just don’t work against the Spurs, and that’s obvious even without digging into the stats.

So keep an eye on the Heat’s lineup combinations in Game 3.  San Antonio’s defensive strategy of clogging James’ driving and passing lanes with subtle extra help may work to limit him individually, but the Heat feast as a whole when he’s flanked by shooters coming off the bench.  Of course, that’s only true should those shots go in.  If they don’t fall going forward and James can’t exert himself as a scorer, Miami will be in trouble.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

Follow Jack Winter on Twitter.

 

The Inevitable LeBron-Slaught

LeBron James is different.

In a league long defined by the singular and defining characteristic of its trademark superstars, James is an anomaly.  His game isn’t marked by an unblockable jumper like Kevin Durant’s.  Or a patient, deft handle like that of Chris Paul’s.  And not the egomaniacal on-court fire of a Kobe Bryant, either.

James has a combination of it all, rather, the once paralyzing trait of his game that’s in the past left him aimlessly searching for answers in what should have been his biggest moments.  But he’s grown exponentially since that mind-twisting performance against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, such that James’ jack-of-all-trades basketball fabric no longer comes with the caveat that used to tear at its thread.

LeBron’s mastered it all now, which speaks even more to his mental evolution than it does his much-improved jumper or consistent defensive focus.

So as he’s supposedly struggling on the biggest stage as he did for the majority of the Heat’s game 2 Finals win, he needs not panic and neither do we.  James has always held true to his core basketball beliefs, that the whole of a team is greater than the sum of its top two or three parts.  But he’s won and lost enough now to know that it works, and that sustained process is a safer bet to success than immediate results.

James met a hard-charging Tiago Splitter at the rim without hesitation.  He fired a no-look bullet to Ray Allen in the corner seconds later with utmost confidence.  And he sprinted after Mike Miller’s pass just after and lept to finish with authority knowing it was all hardly coincidence.

He plays without the burden of public expectation weighing him down now, even if it’s barely lessened despite adding a championship to his resume last summer.  And the fruits of that realized disposition allows for that sudden dominance pulled from nowhere as it looked  on the surface like he was folding again.

That’s the scary thing for the league let alone the Spurs.  Only James is physically capable of sequences like this, and now he has the mental fortitude to summon them seemingly at will.  It’s not actually that simple, of course, but that James is free from the emotional shackles of shooting struggles or 50/50 calls certainly makes it seem that way.

You can’t quell a LeBron-slaught anymore.  It’s coming eventually now; the question is when, why and by what means.

San Antonio learned the hard way last night, and by no fault of its own allowed James to exhibit his game’s trademark after all.  That block, that pass, that dunk, and all in succession – few are the players able to make one of those plays, lesser still a pair of them and just one all three.  That defines James more than any singular skill; he lacks a specialty because he has them all.

It can be easy to miss because they mostly don’t come in droves.  LeBron won’t hit four threes in a row, protect the rim all game long or attack it with equal consistency.  He’ll convert a lefty hook from the post, jump a passing lane for a steal, make a contested jumper and draw-kick to Allen or Miller for a three, mixing and matching as the game’s tenor dictates.

But it can all come in an unstoppable firestorm, too, and a competitive game can be over in a minute or less.

And that’s what what the Spurs are helpless to stop.  They can bully James inside, blur his passing and driving lanes and run him roughshod through screens, but they can’t prevent his wealth of skills from coming together for a few could-be game-defining possessions.  There’s no way to tell what could stoke it and thus prevent it, a block like game 2’s just as likely as a jumper, pass or even ill-timed trash talk going forward.

Now that James’ attitude is as complete as his toolshed, a stretch like last night’s seems inevitable each time he takes the floor.  How the Spurs respond to it from this point forward could well decide a champion.  What it won’t, though, is how James plays the game.

 

 

 

 

 

Team Offensive Rebounds and the Small Big Picture

“I was looking at the stat sheet and it says they had 21 second-chance points,” LeBron James said after Game 1.  “I don’t really understand how that’s possible with only six offensive rebounds.  I’m very good at math…”

Unprompted and perplexed, James continued.

“The only way you can get a second chance point is if you get an offensive rebound, right? Am I correct?” he asked a throng of media members.  “So even if you hit a three-pointer off six offensive rebounds, that’s still only 18 points.  So I don’t understand how that works.”

Taking the room’s collective silence as confirmation of his rhetorical query, James went quiet as another question was posed.  But he couldn’t let the matter rest.

“Yeah, that’s kind of weird.  I don’t understand this,” James maintained, now audibly amused.  “Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right? Yeah, okay.  That’s crazy.”

Wrong!

As ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, our own Andrew Lynch and many other insightful analysts pointed out thereafter, team rebounds can account for second-chance points, too.  And according to the league’s own play-by-play data, the Spurs collected a whopping seven offensive rebounds of the aggregate variety.  Combined with the six individual offensive rebounds that James referenced initially, San Antonio had 13 opportunities to pile up those 21 extra points.

Team rebounds, obviously, are easy to overlook.  There’s no concrete definition to be easily found; basically, a team rebound is when a shot is missed and neither team is able to gain control of the ball before it goes out of bounds.  They aren’t as valuable as conventional rebounds because they yield dead-ball situations and a chance for both teams to reset, but can nonetheless have a major impact on a game’s outcome.

Miami learned the hard way on Thursday.  It’s fair to say combining San Antonio’s six offensive rebounds with those additional seven possessions is a better indicator of the Heat’s true performance on the defensive glass than the basic box score.  Whether or not that supports the much-presumed theory that the Heat are too vulnerable in that department to play small against the Spurs as often as they’d like, though, is another thing entirely.

The shallow end is always deeper than it seems in basketball.  And considering Miami’s small-ball lineups are so important to the team’s offensive identity, this quietly influential aspect of Game 1 deserves more study and scrutiny.  Simply, if the Heat defensive rebound – by corralling the ball or forcing it out of bounds off the opponent – as poorly as San Antonio’s second-chance feast suggests, it will be difficult for Erik Spoelstra to play those sweet-shooting, space-making quintets as often as he’d like.  And in that case, Miami will have to struggle even harder to swim from the whirlpool it created by losing at home on Thursday.

The tape never lies.  Re-watching all of Game 1 to assess the means of the Spurs’ seven documented team offensive rebounds, one thing was immediately clear: they didn’t have seven team offensive rebounds.  Play-by-play analysis from both the NBA and ESPN incorrectly credited San Antonio with offensive rebounds after a Spur missed the front-end of two free throws; the same was true for Miami.  In reality, San Antonio registered five team offensive rebounds, one of which came after Chris Bosh blocked Tony Parker’s layup attempt directly into the stands.

How many of the Spurs 21 second-chance points did they score via possessions following a team offensive rebound? Seven, a number the Heat can live with.  The bigger issue echoes James’ postgame confusion – San Antonio’s flawless success rate on misses they were able to actually grab and keep in play.  The Spurs scored 14 points via their more conventional extra opportunities, capitalizing on each and every one of their six attempts.  It’s not 21 points on six offensive rebounds, LeBron, but it’s awful from a Miami perspective nonetheless.

But it’s not their diminutive nature that did in the Heat.  Miami was small – with James and Battier/Miller occupying the forward spots – on five of San Antonio’s six offensive rebounds, and on just two of those occasions could a case be made that a bigger player next to James would have changed things.  An air-ball, a long rebound and Dwyane Wade falling asleep on Kawhi Leonard say nothing of the Spurs’ size advantage.  That’s just basketball.  Sometimes things work out for the other team.

And just as those isolated incidents swinging Miami’s direction in the future would spell an advantage for the Heat, so would likely more floor-time for the units that made them such an offensive juggernaut during the regular season.  Good thing, then, that those four caroms that ended up San Antonio team offensive rebounds had nothing to do with a size discrepancy, either.

The Heat were playing big with two traditional post players during three of the four instances in which neither team could corral a Spurs miss.  And the one time they weren’t was a missed layup in transition for San Antonio; if anything, the sacrificed girth should have helped matters.

21 second-chance points is a huge amount for any team in the NBA, let alone one like the Spurs so typically averse to offensive rebounding.  They averaged just less than half that Game 1 total during the regular season, and rank ninth among playoff teams in the same category with 12.2 points per game.  San Antonio is far too good at everything else for Miami to consistently overcome a reputed Spurs weakness proving exactly otherwise.  The Heat can’t win this series if this surprising trend continues.

But it’s crucial Miami preaches process over result with regard to the defensive glass.  It’s easy to look at the box score, have your eyes drawn to the right-most corner and surmise the bigger Spurs pounded the Heat into all those crucial extra points.  And digging a bit deeper, snap judgements come even more quickly.  “Seven team offensive rebounds! Play Haslem! Free Bird!” But size wasn’t the issue for Miami; focus, fight and the simple bounce of the ball were the real agents behind the Heat’s struggles to rein in San Antonio misses.

And against a team that’s intent on shrinking the floor to stop James at all costs, that’s encouraging news.  The long-ball is more important than ever for Miami in this series, and shooters like Miller and Battier can’t play big minutes if physical stature limits their net impact.  It didn’t on Thursday.  For the Heat to have the best chance to win Game 2, Spoelstra and company must realize it.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

Inside Tim Duncan’s Halftime Buzzer Beater

A brief peek into the mind of Tim Duncan with .8 seconds remaining in the first half of Game 1:

“…seriously, though, it’s ridiculous how badly druids were nerfed in the last patch. Blizzard is out of their minds. Boris, are you even listening to me? Blizzard is a French owned company. This matters to you, too. … S’that, Pop? …with less than a second remaining? Sure. What’s the play? Must be like a lob or a pindown or something, right?”

Trust the process.

Create space. Give Tony room to get you the ball. Laugh at Joel Anthony. Seriously, Joel Anthony? Is Erik Spoelstra trying to play a joke on me?

Okay, focus. Wade’s here, too. He’s pesky. Probably won’t affect the shot too much, but he stands to have a bigger impact than Joel F—ing Anth — I said focus, Tim!

Why am I even thinking about these guys, anyway? Trust the process. Set your feet. Square your shoulders. Bend your knees. Get at least 6 inches of lift on the “jumper,” or Tony’s going to give you so much s— about being 50 or some other s— after the game. Trust the process. It’s just math. .8 seconds is plenty of time to make the catch and shoot, as long as you trust the process. No hesitation. No fear.

Heh, remember No Fear? Man, I think I still have a dozen of their shirts in the closet at Pop’s super secret lake house. Love fishing there. Pop’s got the biggest cache of C4 from his military days and man, it’s hilarious watching Patty Mills swim around after the detonation, gathering nature’s flash-charred bounty in his mouth. He loves it.

Oh, neat. We scored. Someone must have trusted the process. Wonder if Pop will let me run a 5-man dungeon at halftime.

Maybe I’ll invite Joel Anthony. Dude probably plays a hunter.

Image by ceoln via Flickr