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LION FACE/LEMON FACE 6/21/13: GAME 7

Good things come to those who wait. From October through June we collectively watched 1,314 games of NBA basketball this year. Some were good, and some were bad. Some were awful, and some were downright legendary.  All of it culminated last night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s the game that every kid in their backyard dreams of playing in growing up, and we got to witness it in all of its sweet, sweet glory last night. This is the hardest Lion Face, Lemon Face column I have ever had to write not just because it’s the last one of the year, but because if I had my pick, both teams would have won last night. The fact that there was a winner and loser, heroes and goats, lion faces and lemon faces absolutely kills me. But what has to be done has to be done, so let’s get to it.

Lion Face: LeBron James

Big time players make big time plays in big time games. In the NBA, there is no bigger game than Game 7, and in today’s NBA, there is no bigger player than LeBron James. LeBron was absolutely sensational tonight delivering a Game 7 performance that will, or at least should, put together the debate on whether or not he’s “clutch” or not. In between Games 5 and 6, parody site Sports Pickle re-ran a post that they had previously developed titled “Pocket Guide For Criticizing LeBron James in Any Situation”. It poked fun at the numerous lines that fans and media alike could use in order to create a no win scenario for LeBron that was designed to be used no matter what kind of performance he turned in during the course of a game. The second statement on that list read “If LeBron has a big 4th quarter and leads his team to victory…say ‘Big deal. It’s only the regular season. Let’s see him do it in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.’” LeBron’s line in the fourth quarter alone last night? Just your casual 9-5-2-2 line including an absolute dagger 19 footer with 27 seconds remaining to push the lead to 92-88 and finally ice the series for Miami. Mission: Accomplished. He ended the game with 37 points and 12 rebounds; the 37 points are the most points ever scored in a Game 7 Finals win tying Boston’s Tommy Heinsohn in 1957 so you can go ahead and give LeBron both a championship ring and a Tommy Point for last night’s effort.

Lemon Face: Manu Ginobili

It’s never a good sign when you get a text in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals from a friend asking you what the record is for turnovers in a seven game series. While Ginobili, 22 turnovers through the seven games, didn’t come close to matching Charles Barkley’s in the 1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals v. Milwaukee (37 turnovers!), it sure felt like the ones he did make came at the most inopportune times in the ball game. Last night, he turned the ball over four times, all of them occurring in the final period of play, including a brutal attempted jump pass on the baseline with San Antonio trailing by 4 with 23 seconds remaining which once and for all finally extinguished any hope that the Spurs had of making a miracle comeback of their own.  While it would have been a fairy tale ending for Manu’s career to go out with a title, instead he is left wondering just what went wrong in his final games.

Lion Face: Kawhi Leonard

In a game featuring at least 6 future Hall of Fame inductees, it was Kawhi Leonard (and as I am contractually obligated to mention, his catcher mitt sized hands) who stole the show for San Antonio last night. Any lesser player would have crumbled after missing a critical free throw late in the potential championship winning Game 6 but the 21 year old Leonard responded with a monster 19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7. As Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker fade into the twilight of their careers, the future in San Antonio continues to appear bright with Leonard leading the way.

Lemon Face: Chris Bosh

I know he played solid defense. I know he came up with seven rebounds including corralling Duncan’s missed tip-in that would have tied the game, but to put up a goose egg in the points column in Game 7 of the NBA Finals? That’s true Lemon Face material. God help him if Miami would have lost that game because I don’t see any possible way he would be on the Heat roster next year if San Antonio won and shut him down like that. Miami still faces a decision this offseason on whether or not to trade Bosh, but it will be excruciatingly difficult to break up a team that has reeled off two consecutive titles.

Lion Face: Shane Battier

We may never see the adage that role players tend to play great at home and are dicey on the road more than this series. After earning a couple of DNP’s in the Indiana series, Battier turned in scoring lines of 0, 3, 0, 2, 7, and 9 points through the first six games of the series. Coming into last night, he has hardly thought of as an X Factor. But fittingly, in a series that proved to be as difficult to predict from game to game as any other we’ve ever seen, Battier responded with an NBA Jam style hot hand shooting display knocking down six threes in eight attempts on his way to the biggest 18 point game of his life. For the second straight year, the Heat rode to a title in a championship clinching game thanks to one of their shooters going unconscious from beyond the arc. Last year it was Mike Miller’s 7-8 from long distance, 23 point game that proved to be the difference in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. It one of those nights where you in the first half he was going to have a Lion Face game, and he didn’t disappoint. Between his insane three point shooting and cerebral interviews, who could have guessed that a guy from the most hated college in America playing on the most hated NBA team could be, dare I say, likeable?

Lemon Face: Danny Green

For as good as Shane Battier was as a role player, Danny Green was equally as bad for San Antonio. For a stretch during the first five games, it appeared that we were headed for one of the most unlikely Finals MVPs of all time as Green was turning three point attempts seemingly into layups by breaking the record for triples in an NBA Finals just five games into the series. At this point in the series, Cavs fans and other NBA fans alike were quick to criticize the Cleveland organization wondering how they could possibly let a player like this slip through their grasp. Well, now we know. Unfortunately for Green and the Spurs, the clock struck midnight on his Cinderella story sometime between the end of Game 5 and beginning of Game 6 as he would go on to shoot a ghastly 10.5% from the field (18% from 3) over the course of Games 6 and 7 in Miami. Even despite how cringe worthy poor he was last night, he nearly changed the complexion of the game just over midway through the fourth quarter. Following a Manu Ginobili three pointer that cut Miami’s lead to 85-82 with 4:20 to go in the game, Green stole Dwyane Wade’s entry pass and launched a 3. A make would have tied the game as part of an 8-2 run in the course of 45 seconds and conceivably could have changed the complexion of the game. Alas, it was not to be as the shot missed, and the next score came a couple of possessions later from Shane Battier who knocked down a 3 and pushed the lead to six. We’ll always have Games 1-5 Danny Green. We’ll always have Games 1-5.

Lion Face: Mario Chalmers Shot

The Spurs were set to head into the fourth quarter with the lead. They would have been 12 minutes away from only having to match the Heat point for point in order to win the title. And then Mario Chalmers happened. It gave the Heat the lead and the momentum heading into what proved to be the final period of the NBA season. In a game where we got the entire Wario AND Mario Chalmers experience, this was one of the biggest shots of Chalmers’ career.

Lemon Face: Tim Duncan’s Shot

GIF via @SBNationGIF

Tim Duncan could retire right now with four championship rings, $200+ million in salary earned throughout his career, and the title of Greatest Power Forward Ever to Play the Game, but you can bet that he is going to be rehashing that missed tip shot in his nightmares for the conceivable future. With a chance to tie the game at 90 with under one minute to go in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Duncan missed both a hook shot and the subsequent tip in. Eons from now when people are browsing Wikipedia version 1239.1 on their super computers, they are going to see on the surface that this turned out to be an eight point game and, without reading a game story, not fully recognize that we were that close to having a tie game in Game 7 with each team having only a couple of possessions remaining to decide a champion.

Lion Face: NBA Fans

If someone had told you that this Finals would produce four games decided by double digits, including a 36 point blowout in one of those games, and yet it would still prove to be one of the best and most memorable Finals we have ever seen, how confused would you be? Your allowable answers are A) Very B) Really and C) Extremely. Luckily, that’s exactly what we got over the course of the past couple of weeks:  two teams that threw absolute haymakers at one another for seven straight games. For the rest of our lives, we’ll remember these Finals for Tony Parker’s incredible shot to put away Game 1, Danny Green going absolutely bananas in San Antonio, Ray Allen’s shot from the corner and Miami incredible comeback in Game 6, and LeBron James’ ultimate Game 7, but the chess match that was engineered on a game to game basis between these two teams was just as exciting. The constant adjustments needed on both ends to even get a result where no team through six games had won consecutive contests was incredible to watch. It was an honor and a privilege to watch that basketball series for seven games, and I think we all, Miami fans excluded, wish that it could have gone at least seven more.

From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of all NBA fans, thank you to the Heat, Spurs, and NBA for giving us this series. It was, as Zach Harper and Tim Bontemps described on their Eye on Basketball podcast earlier this week, the equivalent of basketball porn. And thank you all for your constant support of us here at Hardwood Paroxysm throughout the season. It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in a Panera Bread at lunch putting the finishing touches on my 15 Footer game preview for October 30, the opening night of the year. Time flies when you’re having fun, and we had a whole lot of fun here over the past eight months. Can’t wait to do it again next year.

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

History in a Bottle

In which Jared and I try to comprehend Game 6. 

Jordan: Jared. Help me put into words what I saw Tuesday night. I’ve seen some pretty good games over the years. I was at the Chesapeake Arena when Kevin Durant and Kevin Love dueled into double overtime, each one answering the other’s three-pointer as if they were the easiest shots in the world.

As the lone Kansan at the University of Connecticut in 2008, I cried out in agony and later victory after KU improbably came back and won the National Championship (the same game, by the way, that injected now-Heat point guard Mario Chalmers with his inextinguishable confidence). I’ve watched Boston ride Ubuntu back from 24 points down, and I’ve seen the Mavericks ride Dirk Nowitzki’s flowing, golden luscious locks and his one-footed turnaround to a championship.
But Tuesday night…it almost defies explanation, or reason. You may think this to simply be me at my hyperbolic best, but I assure you, I am still mesmerized by game 6. So please. Tell me. What did I see?

Jared: WAIT. Were you AT all of those games? If you were, that’s pretty unbelievable. If you weren’t, well you just misled me you sunuvabitch.

Anyway, I honestly don’t know what we saw on Tuesday. It was mesmerizing. It was beautiful. It was just basketball, man. I can’t even pick out a “best” thing about the game. There’s just too much. Duncan’s first half. LeBron’s fourth quarter. Ray’s three. Parker’s three. The whole headband thing. Bosh’s block(s). For fuck’s sake I almost forgot about Kawhi’s dunk on Mike Miller in all the ridiculousness of the second half, and that literally made me jump off my seat when it happened.

It’s weird to know you’re watching history as it happens. Once the Heat started coming back and eventually tied the game and took the lead, the feeling that rushed over me was surreal. I knew I was watching the end of one of, if not the best game of my lifetime. I’m still not sure how to reconcile it. It seems to reactive to give it the top spot the day after, but I don’t know how else to convey the sheer awesomeness of what we watched. I actually don’t even know if watched is the best word for it; we – all of us watching – experienced it, together.

I said last night on Twitter I want to figure out a way to bottle the game up and distill it so I can get drunk off it the rest of my life, and I don’t at all feel like that’s a crazy thing to say. I want to bring a recording of that game with me wherever I go, so I can flick on the last 15 minutes at any point I want. Of all the games I’ve watched, this is one of the very few my favorite team hasn’t been a part of that gave me a feeling like that.

I guess that’s all a long-winded way of saying what you saw was a brilliant game of basketball between two ultra-talented teams that no one who watched it – whether in the arena or in the comfort of their home – will ever forget. Honestly, that’s part of why I wanted to do this. I want to get thoughts down on paper so when I go senile in 50-60 years, I have recorded proof that I definitely watched Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

Jordan: It’s not a crazy thing to say at all. But it’s not just the game that I want to bottle. As you said, this was something we experienced, not just watched. Try as we might, we can’t recreate that experience, which is just about the only bittersweet aspect of the entire game.

Tuesday’s game, to me, was a microcosm of the entire series. All along, these teams seemed to be so evenly matched. Even the blowouts never really felt like blowouts. Or, rather, they did, but it wasn’t one good team dominating another. Think about the major themes of this series so far, and how present they were in Game 6
Adjustments
It’s been a bonafide chess match (hi there, sports cliché!) between Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich, two of the best tacticians in the game. Last night, in the first half, Duncan was terrorizing Miami’s defense, particularly Chris Bosh. Spoelstra adjusted, and Duncan’s brilliance faded. Likewise, the Heat tried some new misdirection plays, and the Spurs switched defensive tactics accordingly.
By that same token, however, we also saw adjustments that went wrong, the most glaring of which has to be Spoelstra re-inserting Wade when Miami’s offense was humming like a fine-tuned tank without him (I’m sure you have a few things to say on the subject). Then, there was Gregg Popovich maybe outthinking himself by taking out Duncan for the possession that led to Ray Allen’s game-tying three pointer.
Stars
Tim Duncan’s first half was a moment of brilliance. Methodical, calculated, dull brilliance. Duncan’s never been a flashy player, which I surmise may play a part in his longevity, but the lack of flash doesn’t make it any less of basketball artistry.
LeBron James’ fourth quarter was thrilling, captivating, and maybe even a little terrifying. He wasn’t cold and distant like game six against Boston last year. There was fire, no there was a fucking inferno roaring within James.
Manu and Wade have had one good game apiece in this series, and last night’s game showed us those good performances were the outliers.
NARRATIVES (proven, disproven and created)
Narrative: LeBron can’t do this on his own, he needs to give the ball to Wade.
Narrative: LeBron is a choker (this, for some reason, still persists)
Narrative: The Spurs are boring
Narrative: The Spurs don’t get enough attention or praise
Narrative: If Miami loses, this “experiment” was a failure
Narrative: This could be one of the best series of all time
I’m sure I’m missing quite a few themes, but these were the ones that stuck out the most. Maybe that’s why it’s still so hard to process this game. It was so packed from all angles – tactics, narratives, history and so forth – that we’re not even done fully experiencing it.

Jared:  I want to start with the Duncan/Bosh match-up, because the 180 from first half to second half was really amazing. Duncan played one of the great halves in basketball history in the first half of Game 6. It was truly spectacular – a throwback treat that, like most of the rest of the game, I will never forget. Duncan had largely had his way with Bosh in the post for most of the series (I’m pretty sure ESPN Stats & Information tweeted out at halftime that Duncan was shooting 62% against Bosh to that point in the series), but the first half was the first time he just eviscerated the guy. Bosh looked utterly helpless.

And then the second half started and somehow everything flipped. Bosh was everywhere. He was fronting the post with such tenacity, rotating like a mad man, blocking shots, snagging boards, playing passing lanes, darting out at pick and rolls, just doing it all. It was a marvel. One of the most dramatic half-to-half shifts in performance I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of dramatic shifts… let’s take a look at some numbers I tweeted last night courtesy of NBA.com/stats

1. LeBron was 5-17 [in Game 6] with Wade on the floor. 6-9 with Wade off the floor. -19 in 33 mins with Wade. +18 in 16 mins w/o Wade.

2. 7 restricted area shots in 16 w/o Wade minutes for LeBron. 3 in 33 minutes with Wade.

3. Heat O-Rtg [in Game 6] with LeBron + Wade on court: 92.0. Heat O-Rtg with LeBron + no Wade: 143.3

4. Oh and Heat D-Rtg [in Game 6] with LeBron + Wade on court: 112.2. Heat D-Rtg with LeBron + no Wade: 72.7

5. Let’s go for the full series now. O-Rtg/D-Rtg with LBJ/Wade: 100.8/112.7 … O-Rtg/D-Rtg with LBJ/NO Wade: 131.7/89.5

6. Full series LeBron with Wade: 35-90 (38.9%), 17-32 in RA. Without Wade: 20-37 (54.1%), 13-14 in RA. 194 min w/ Wade, -56. 62 min w/o, +48.

Yeah… D-Wade, not so much with the helping the team while sharing the court with LeBron. Look, obviously Spo is not just going to bench Wade for the entire game, nor should he. But the dude needs his minutes cut dramatically. The Spurs are ignoring him on the perimeter like he’s Tony Allen or Chris Duhon, for crying out loud. And the whole thing where the Heat run out of timeout plays for him has got to stop. No. Just no. I mean, I want the Spurs to win because Pat Riley is the antichrist, but for the sake of basketball, Spo needs to chill with that shit.

The LeBron-Miller-Allen trio with take your pick of Cole/Chalmers and Bosh/Birdman lineups need to get on the floor more. The spacing is worlds better, and in small samples, the defense is too. It’s just time. It’s not an indictment of Wade’s career that he isn’t the Wade he used to be. He’s clearly hurt. The Spurs clearly don’t respect his outside shot. His defense is hit-or-miss at best. It’s time for a change in tactics.

The tiny adjustments made by both coaches throughout the series have been fascinating. Miami abandoning traditional lineups to go small-ball full time resulted in the Spurs mostly doing the same, depending on how you categorize Boris Diaw. After a conference finals that included big-all-the-time teams in Memphis and Indiana, it’s interesting that the Finals have shifted back to wide open small ball. I love it. The “death of the center” stuff is overblown – they really just have different responsibilities now than they used to, both as a function of rule changes and style of play, but seeing both teams play perimeter oriented attacks for the back half of this series has been pretty awesome.

Speaking of, man did the Heat shut down San Antonio’s three point game last night, huh? Chris Bosh wasn’t lying when he said Danny Green wouldn’t be open. Green’s 1-7 performance and general disappearing act for much of the game may have permanently knocked him out of Finals MVP contention if the Spurs eventually win, which is crazy after the shooting display he put on in Games 1 thru 5.

As to your NARRATIVE NARRATIVE NARRTIVE BLAH BLAH BLAH point: I’m so happy that the game was so amazing that it knocked all the narrative bullshit on its ass. No one’s talking about who was clutch, who choked, any of that garbage. All everyone cares about was how freaking good the game was. I actually stopped taking notes at midway through the fourth quarter because I didn’t want to miss anything. Good lord it was fun.

 

Jordan: My point wasn’t that the narratives weren’t discussed, more that they were present. Narrative is good, it’s important. It creates intrigue and drama, taking the game above just a pure X’s and O’s analysis. Of course, not all narratives are created equal, nor do each of them hold equal weight. We saw as much last night.

The more concrete angles, such as this possibly being one of the best series of all time, were mostly proven right, while the other, tired and outright wrong ones, such as LeBron’s penchant to choke, were swiftly, as you so eloquently put it, knocked on their asses. What was so great about last night, and you touched on it, was that the story didn’t dominate the action. The game itself was theater enough, and all of those aforementioned sub-plots played out as the game wore on without us needing to continuously bring them up. So captivating was the game that the discussion rarely deviated from the action at hand.
Oh, and it wasn’t just San Antonio’s three point game Miami shut down last night. Tony Parker, in both the 4th quarter and overtime, was 2-of-8. Granted, those two makes were the two most important ones, but Parker was downright EXHAUSTED heading into the extra frame, (he missed all four of his attempts), and there’s little doubt that’s due to James’ physical play.
Another performance unfortunately overshadowed by both the loss and a missed free-throw: Kawhi Leonard. He has been phenomenal in the playoffs, on both ends of the floor. He struggled last night against James on defense, especially when the Heat went with their shooting line up, because he didn’t have any help when LeBron went down low. But he was the second best player on the Spurs last night, and maybe the third, at worst fourth, best player overall. He is the embodiment of the Spurs system and process, and yet another microcosm of a larger theme of this series.
One other thing I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned: Doris Burke has mastered the Pop interview.
Jared: So many people were talking about how LeBron would get tired guarding Parker that they overlooked how exhausting it is to be guarded by LeBron. TP looked like he was about to keel over by the end of the game. Being hounded into a 6-for-23 by the best player on the planet will do that to you.

And Kawhi, man. I don’t think enough can be said about how good that dude is. He’s just a Spur. That’s the best way to put it.
Re: Doris, she’s the best, isn’t she? She knows how to ask questions, which is more than you can say for a lot of the people “asking” “questions” in the post game pressers. And Pop always seems to actually give her answers, which is nice of him. How does she get so lucky?
Jordan: It’s because she knows the game, and I think Pop has a certain, yet still grudging, respect for those who know the game.

But back to basketball. Game 7 now looms large on the horizon. Will it live up to the drama of Game 6, or will it be more like Miami’s Game 5 victory in the finals last year, where the came was over after the first half. In a series that has given us everything from blow outs to nail biters, it’s impossible to know what to expect, much less what will happen. All we know is that, by the end of the night, we’ll have a new NBA champion crowned.
Regardless of what happens, we should consider ourselves lucky. Perfect moments, and in this case, perfect games, are rare in life. We got one on Tuesday night.
Photo by tom.keil via Flickr

Six Games of Misdirection

Gareth Morgan | Flickr

Welcome to another back and forth conversation. In this edition, Steve and Amin try to make sense of a Game 7 blowout win by Miami, the mystique surrounding Game 7s, team synergy, the strategies in the Finals, video games, and children’s television.

Amin: So last night, the Heat demolished the Pacers. There was no terrifying LeBron performance we all assumed was coming, nor was there any sort of “shrinking in the moment” by Indiana. It was a good, ol’ fashioned team-on-team butt-whooping. Miami played better defensively and offensively as an entire team, and they defeated Indiana… and it wasn’t close.

After six games see-saw games where we saw two ridiculously evenly-matched teams, I can’t help but be a little bit letdown. Why was this game a blowout? It reminds me of the seven-game series between the Lakers and the Rockets (the McGrady and Yao-less Rockets, if you remember) in the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals where the two teams went back and forth against each other until LA wiped the floor with Houston in Game 7.

In these two series, I’m assuming there’s some combination of the better team playing poorly and the worse team playing their best ball all series… but if there’s really an ability to destroy a team as LA did then and Miami did last night (and that doesn’t necessarily come down to the transcendent performance of one person), why isn’t that prevalent throughout the series? Why were we lead to believe that Indiana was as good as Miami for 6 games when they clearly were not? Was Miami saving something? Is there a “second gear” that some guys have and some guys don’t?

Bill Simmons would always talk about how KG only has one “gear,” and it’s always intense and can’t be turned off. So is this last series merely a matter of Indiana playing at that highest gear for the whole series, then Miami turning it up a notch? It’s not as though Indiana was some intricate puzzle for Miami to figure out: Hey, trap Hibbert outside the paint, blitz the ball handler, get George and Hill in foul trouble. Everyone knew Indiana’s depth couldn’t save them… so why did it take 7 games for Miami to figure it out?

Steve: To begin specifically with this Miami-Indiana series and last night’s game, I definitely felt there was an element of Indiana’s best players playing their best and playing a lot and Miami kind of forgetting how not to be the LeBron James show. Numbers bear this out: the Pacers’ starting lineup played 414 minutes in the playoffs—45% of the available minutes. Their next most-used lineup only played 35 minutes, or not quite 4% of the team’s playoff minutes. By way of contrast, the Heat have played their starters 30% of their total playoff minutes, and their next most-used lineup played 11%. Playing your starters 150% more than the other team and going to the bench half as much feeds into the notion that the Pacers were always playing in that highest gear, whereas Miami were shifting around a little more. Yet they still won convincingly in that seventh game.

Personally, what I think this speaks to more than anything else is the volatility of success in the NBA. Let’s contrast this with most people’s experience of going to work: for most people, on a good day you do a good job and on a bad day you do a bad job, but your individual contribution overall to your workplace is unlikely to be either particularly notable or disastrous. That’s not the way it is in the NBA and especially not in the playoffs. You’re probably saying, “Well, duh” to this because the idea of everyone having to be on the same page to succeed is a ripe old chestnut in sports, but there are also some twists here.

We saw that LeBron James in places stepped up—so to speak—but there was a lot of debate about whether this was the cause of or a symptom of Bosh and Wade (and Battier and Allen, more generally) being ineffective. In your regular, everyday life, there probably aren’t a lot of circumstances where you doing a really excellent job can be blamed for someone else doing a bad job, but that’s the NBA.

The closest thing I know of in my personal experience is regular gigging with a band or touring. For lack of an un-business-speak word, so much relies on the synergy of everyone’s collective energies in that situation. When you’re clicking it can be great. And when one person is dogging it, it can make you say, “Fine: If you’re going to mail it in, I’m going to work even harder to make this show great.” And then you can have a great show, but the overall thing flags because the collective energy isn’t there.

Also, to get kind of statistics-y on you, Amin, because I know you love it, I think things that are relatively inconsequential in our everyday lives—how much sleep you got, travel, how the weather affects you, what you ate for breakfast—can be amplified geometrically in players’ lives in the playoffs, creating a much greater variance in their performances and, as a result, an even greater variance in the consequences of that variance. In the playoffs, there are just too few games for these little bumps in players’ individual play to even out the way it can in the regular season.

But am I just letting the Heat off the hook talking about emotions and what they had for breakfast? The playoffs are supposed to reveal the heart of a champion, right? Is that what we got in Game 7? It sure didn’t feel like it. And the Spurs play very differently than the Pacers: their starting lineup has only played 19% of the team’s playoff minutes so far. Do the Eastern Conference Finals tell us anything about what we’ll see in the Finals?

Amin: I think there is a lot to what you said about both the lineup data and the collective synergy. Indiana’s “best” lineup is its starting lineup. Playing that lineup too much can result in fatigue by the last game of the series, and it can cause the rest of the rotation players to be a rusty and lack a bit of cohesion when placed in the lineup. Plus, you get yourself in a tricky situation as a team when you rely on your 5 best guys all the time–and there’s a substantial talent drop-off to your next unit–and your best guys get in foul trouble. If that happens–which it did last night–you’re kinda screwed.

As for the collective synergy, we’ve seen biochemical data analysis that supports the theory that players feel each others’ presence. With that kind of mutual support, coupled with the energy of a home crowd, coupled with the added mental push that other lesser-performing players might have forced upon themselves, and you’ve got a lot of chemistry forming on that court. Miami had science on its side. And maybe they had a balanced breakfast, too.

And while we may think that Game 7s are supposed to “reveal the heart of a champion,” history doesn’t necessarily support that. Here’s every Game 7 since 1947 (113 total). The mean win differential is just above 10 points; the median is an 8-point win. That’s a 3-5 basket difference (or 10, if it’s all free throws). That’s a lot of possessions to chalk up to a one team out-willing the other, and not just one team being substantially better than the other. Miami’s 23-point win last night was the 9th biggest differential of all time. While there are many other games with smaller differentials, 10 points is still 10 points. That’s bordering on blowout; it’s definitely “not close.” Without scrolling through thousands of lines of play-by-play data, I’m going to assume a few of those games were closer and got a little more inflated through end-game free throws. But still, they were out of reach.

Game 7 (h/t Basketball Reference)

So is it always the case that the better team is exhausting the lesser team by Game 7 so they can blow them out? If so, then as you say, San Antonio’s minutes allocation is much more balanced, giving them many looks they can throw at Miami. Then again, do we judge Miami’s performance in the next series by their general performance in the first 6 games, or do we use Wade’s and Allen’s much-improved contributions from last night as the jump-off point for the next series? Should we think “less” of Miami’s inability to play a full series of how they played last night, or should we think “more” of them for being able to rise to the occasion? I don’t really know either way. Offensively, Wade and Allen definitely helped last night. But the things that drove the win home, at least to me, were the blitzing/trapping of the pick-and-roll ball-handler, the trapping of Hibbert outside the paint, and the foul trouble of the primary defenders against Wade and LeBron.

If Miami can keep Tony Parker from initiating the offense by trapping him, the Heat should win, right? If they get Leonard, Ginobili, and Green in foul trouble, the Heat should win, right? If Duncan has to shoot 20-footers and Splitter can’t get into the paint, Miami should win, right? What’s to stop Miami from playing defense like that?

Steve: I think that both Miami and San Antonio will show greater flexibility than the Pacers ever could. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are what we thought they were, and we’re not going to be crowning their asses, possibly because of it. If the Eastern Conference Finals had been two dudes playing Street Fighter II on the couch, the Heat would have been the guy picking Ryu, then Guile, then E. Honda, then Dhalsim—sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always tinkering and trying to find an edge. The Pacers were the guy who was just like Chun Li, Chun Li, Chun Li, Chun Li. They would fire up that Hyakuretsu Kyaku and that was pretty much it. I mean, consider how when Hibbert went out last night with five fouls in the third everyone on Twitter was just like, “Game.” There was no question of them going small or if Mahinmi could hold the line. It was over.

I expect the San Antonio-Miami series to be more chess-like, especially since I don’t think we should be prepared for the rest of the Heat players to play like they did last night for every game. Eventually inconsistency becomes its own kind of consistency, so I’m prepared for Miami to blow at least a couple of these games. I still think the Heat win the series, but I could still see it going seven games and ending like the ECF did, simply because the thing that could keep the Heat from being better is the one thing they can’t seem to control: themselves.

I don’t think it’s a question of everybody “wanting” it more or at the same time or anything as nebulous as all that. I remember seeing something after their Game 6 loss that said this team hadn’t been battle-hardened by coming up together or something else that seemed equally kind of misty and blockbuster movie-ish. I understand that the Spurs hold a distinct advantage in the been-there, done-that category as far as their core goes, but I think there’s a danger in saying if they lose it’s evident they’re flawed and if they win it’s evident they’re not. Was Boston in 2008 built so differently? But they won. Were the Lakers in 2004 or this year built so differently? But they lost. If we’re going to talk about the process here, if we’re going to be process-oriented, then we can’t only take things like winning or losing the championship as the barometer of success.

Amin: I think, for this finals, I agree. It’s not going to be about “wanting it more.” It’s going to be about execution of the plan and anticipating your opponent’s move before they do it. Versatility is key in this regard, and both of these teams know how to roll with the punches (or Hundred-Hand Slaps, or Hadoukens, or Shoryukens, or Tiger Uppercuts).

That’s one of the things that I really like about Spoelstra’s coaching technique–mostly because I contrast it with other coaches who don’t do it as well (Mike Brown in Cleveland specifically comes to mind). To some extent, roster depth is kind of like interchangeable parts in a machine. To another extent, different pieces of the roster turn you into different things.

For example, the standard 5 Zords in the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers were the Mastodon, Pterodactyl, Triceratops, Sabertooth Tiger, and Tyrannosaurus. When they combined, they created the original MegaZord. However, with the introduction of the Green Ranger, the DragonZord added more depth to the “Zord roster,” as it were. When the DragonZord replaced the Tyrannosaurus Zord in the formation of the MegaZord, it didn’t function the same way as the original MegaZord. It looked and acted differently. It had different abilities, different powers, different weaknesses, and different strengths. The Rangers knew when they needed to use it, and when they didn’t. In this same way, Spoelstra is able to understand that the Heat roster works in different permutations for different situations. Sure, their 5-man starting lineup is effective, but there’s no reason you can’t play LeBron at the 1 or 5 if need be.

Popovich is also capable of using his roster in different ways, but San Antonio–for better or worse–operates as a very well-oiled machine. There are different looks that they can throw at another team, but side pick-and-rolls, floor-spacing, crisp-passing, and trust that a guy’s going to be in the place where the playbook said he’d be are always going to be there.

I guess what I’m trying to ask here is this: is Gregg Popovich actually Lord Zedd? Or is he M. Bison? And how high have we set the difficulty?

Steve: Amin, I can’t believe you took a perfectly lucid and reasonable metaphor about Street Fighter II and basketball and warped it into one about the Power Rangers. Are you even speaking English? (And a side note about difficulty: I’m an old man. I stopped trying to prove anything to anyone a long time ago, so I generally always play games at the lowest difficulty level possible unless it’s just not enjoyable. I don’t want to die. I want to live! And enjoy life!)

I can see the early going of this series being a lot like the Jerry Seinfeld bit where he talks about an old married couple being like two magicians trying to impress each other. Obviously, Popovich is the real old hand here, but as you said, Spoelstra has shown that understanding of how to make a team flexible, so I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of adjustments, with each team finding things that work for a couple of possessions before the other team slides and adjusts to it.

So in some ways, I think the canniness that the Spurs showed in beating the Grizzlies will in some ways be canceled out by the canniness of the Heat’s play designs, provided that Bosh and Wade don’t completely disappear again (which is a big proviso). In the end, then, I suspect it may come down in some ways to sheer talent, and it’s hard to bet against LeBron in that situation. I guess what that means is that I think if the Spurs are in a position to finish it in 6, they may pull it out, but that if it goes 7, the Heat will take it. Sadly, it might be one of your much-maligned blowouts if so, with the Heat going all Voltron laser sword on the Robeast that is San Antonio.

Power Rangers. Grow up, Amin.

Why The Heat Waited To Attack Roy Hibbert

In the afterglow of seven exhilarating games in the Eastern Conference Finals, one question stood out: What took so long for the Miami Heat to attack Roy Hibbert in the post?

The offensive gameplan for Miami on Monday night seemed simple. Gone was the reliance on perimeter jumpers, replaced by manic drives to the rim in an attempt to loft floaters over the vertically outstretched arms of Hibbert or smash the ball past his 86-inch frame and into the poor, abused rim. More over, the frantic leaps into the lane threatened to draw Hibbert past the event horizon of foul trouble, revealing the grand black hole in the middle of Indiana’s defense that his presence covers up. And in Game 7, it worked. Exactly 50% of the Heat’s field goal attempts came in the paint, their largest share since Game 1 of this series. The more proximate attempts at the rim, coupled with the presence of more Miami players stationed around the basket, correlated with an increase in offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities.

Yet not all was gumdrops and ponies for the Heat on their forays to the hoop.  By now, we’re all familiar with the rule of verticality; if a defensive player establishes a guarding position, he is entitled to the vertical space around him, regardless of whether or not he is in the restricted circle. It’s a fantastic rule that allows defensive players to make defensive plays at the rim so long as they’re already in position to do so. To my eyes, there’s no one better than Hibbert, a monolithic Grim Reaper set to shuffle loose your shot attempts from this mortal coil, at pushing the boundaries of that plane. Beyond his skill at and dedication to the craft, he’s established a reputation both as a player who’s very good at maintaining his verticality and as a player who’s making every attempt to use his verticality instead of trying to draw charges. As a result, attempts to drive at Hibbert, even for the very greatest players in the league, are often a 50/50 shot at the very best. Early in the game, Hibbert set the tone for such play, leaping slightly forward into the oncoming LeBron James, creating the contact and drawing no whistle. While Hibbert likely should have been called for a foul, his reputation and the borderline nature of the situation crystallized one of the largest problems in attacking the paint for the Heat. Yes, one might draw a foul on Hibbert, tacking on another star toward his final arrest at the hands of the Liberty City bench police. But one is just as likely to be ran over by a tank and have a helicopter come crashing down on top of the remains, with no whistle blown. And it’s (mostly) legal!

Like a seasoned poker pro in a heads-up tournament, then, the Heat looked to exploit any other advantages they could find, saving the higher volatility for a showdown they preferred would never come. With seven games to play and never trailing in the series, Miami had plenty of opportunities to find other ways to exploit Indiana’s defense and revert to their Flying Death Machine form. It wasn’t fear so much as it was caution, the overwhelming desire to avoid putting the game in the hands of others if at all possible. And it’s not as if the Heat completely abandoned going at Hibbert in the paint. They picked their spots and attacked when they felt appropriate, but it was apparent that challenging Hibbert was not a priority for the Miami offense. They would work to find other high efficiency chances, so long as time was on their side. They moved the ball at breakneck pace, swinging it from side to side in an effort to draw open even the slightest bit of space. They “settled” for open midrange jumpers, the kind of shots that Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh can thrive off of — if they’re falling. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and the rest of albatross company saw their fair share of open threes, threes, everywhere, nor any shot did drink. Through a combination of age, injury, proper defense from the Pacers and a healthy dash of variance, Dwyane Wade was unable to provide the necessary lift to get the Heat over a hump they couldn’t quite summit.

For all of their failings, though, Miami, had taken the chip lead over the course of the tournament. If a few cards had fallen their way, they very well might have eliminated Indiana without ever having to attack Hibbert. This wasn’t a failed gameplan, in the ultimate sense; it was rather close to working. It makes sense to go away from the strengths of your opponent, after all. Yet the Pacers were game, ready to re-raise any fancy check-raises by the Heat and able to fold a second-best hand when Miami had a monster. They’d lost ground relative to the even footing of the opening shuffle, but they were by no means in over their heads. Indiana had trusted in its process and its execution, and it shipped them right to the shore of Game 7.

When the blinds are high compared to the chip stacks in a poker tournament, the game changes. The strategies and tactics that made little sense earlier in the night become one’s best friend. Moving time, that special phase where the ever-increasing antes puts significant strain on those with few chips remaining, is a time of whirlwind aggression for those who wish to win the championship, not simply survive and move on for one more hand. These are the moments of terror that punctuate the monotony, where all one can do is make the best play possible and trust that the universe isn’t completely tilted toward the other. Skill disparities still matter, but they’re often left to the devices of probability. What seemed a last resort ages ago is now all you have left.

In Game 7, the Heat internalized that magmatic, flowing landscape and changed their approach. With just one game left, there was no longer time to pick at weaknesses, to try to seize a fortified feudal city with pitchforks and broomsticks. Instead, Miami chose to bring forth the hammer, shoving all their chips to the middle as the aggressor and letting the Pacers decide when they wanted to call the possible bluff. It was a strategy that put them at risk of elimination; if just one or two more calls against Hibbert goes the other way, perhaps Indiana is preparing to begin their match with San Antonio on Thursday. But the Heat trusted their process, even if it meant putting faith in a 60/40 proposition. They played the numbers, both on Monday and all series long. When their attempts to avoid the altercation in the middle were trumped, they showed that they can still dominate the most volatile of games. The final meeting between these two teams rewarded that aggression with plentiful free throw attempts for LeBron James and foul trouble for Paul George and Hibbert. There was no guarantee that would be the case, though. Given the sheer challenge in front of them, one can hardly blame the Heat for taking their allotted time to fully dissect the Pacers.

Photo by Earthwatcher via Flickr