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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.
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.