As Game 4 began, Tiago Splitter was assigned to defend Dwyane Wade.
That’s how bananas the 2013 NBA Finals were, and that was only halfway through the series. Splitter wouldn’t stay in the game for very long, but his brief spell guarding Wade was just another small thread in what eventually became a grand tapestry of crazy. The first game was decided on a lunging, leaning rim-bouncing shot at the end of the shot clock, and from there we saw massive yet exceptionally well-played blowouts, record-setting three-point shooting, a Dwyane Wade Game, a Manu Ginobili Game, a shoeless three-pointer, LeBron James playing without a headband, a Ray Allen Miracle, Shane Battier’s shot emerging from a Lazarus Pit and all sorts of missed layups and uncharacteristic turnovers from both sides.
Battier, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony would all fall in and out of the rotation. Mike Miller would become a starting power forward. Tony Parker, Wade and Ginobili would all finish the series with efficiency ratings in the negative, yet all three were vital to their team’s successes.
Each game was its own beast. But one year later, the Splitter incident is still revealing. So dedicated was Gregg Popovich to a particular strategy, he responded to a Miami starting lineup change by electing to have a seven-foot center defend one of the best shooting guards we’ve ever seen.
Why? He wanted to keep Wade and James out of the paint at all costs.
While San Antonio’s strategy wasn’t particularly surprising to anyone who had seen the Spurs dismantle the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals sweep, it was nevertheless fascinating to watch a defense treat James and Wade as if they were Rajon Rondo circa 2008 – particularly after James had just completed a regular-season campaign over the 40 percent mark from three for the first time in his career. Whether it was Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw or Tim Duncan, the defender would sag off James and Wade, all but conceding a jumper were it not for a token arm raised in contention.
“They gave him the mid-range jumper, conceded that early on,” Battier said of James. “It was a change from the Indiana series last year. It was like, ‘Woah, that shot’s there.’ We didn’t get anything conceded to us against Indiana. So, there was an adjustment period.”
And if the HEAT tried to use screens to create more functional offensive space, the San Antonio defender deliberately drifted underneath the pick, again allowing an in-rhythm jumper should the offensive player desire to take it.
“Their commitment to going under on pindowns (screens) was surprising,” Battier said. “They really committed to it to the point where [we were like], ‘You guys are really going under that down screen?’ [That’s] an area where most teams would have a faint heart to try and do that in a game, but they did it for pretty much the entire series.”
For observers, the natural response to seeing this strategy was to say that James and Wade should keep attacking the basket no matter what. Easier said than done, of course, as even though the Spurs would concede a certain shot – as you know, one of the least efficient shots in the game – they wouldn’t concede straight isolations. As the man with the ball stared into the heart of the defense from the perimeter, he would often see his defender, a help defender and a third man, out of any typical defensive position, ready to strike.
It was a wall, and upon any attempt to penetrate the exterior that wall would come alive and pinch the ballhandler.
The Chicago Bulls can stay home on shooters and let Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson deal with things on the move in the middle of the floor. The Pacers can park Roy Hibbert in the lane and use their athleticism to deter drives while recovering quickly to the perimeter. But the Spurs’ multi-pronged approach was on a different level, and it worked. Miami’s attempts at the rim dropped by two per game in the series, and their mid-range attempts grew by almost a full six shots a night.
By the time the 2014 rematch begins on Thursday, all of this could be ancient history. Popovich could devise an entirely new scheme and leave us all playing catch up once again. But it isn’t likely that he’ll shift the team’s focus on a macro level away from preventing shots at the rim, so until we’re proven wrong this is the tactic both us and the team should expect.
“I expect it,” James said of the defensive scheme. “But I go in with the mindset to try and help our team win.”
How do James and Wade do that, then? How do they help the team win?
While James said late in last year’s series that he had to get into the film room, see how the Spurs were defending him and begin to trust in all the work he’s put into his jumper, that doesn’t mean he only started taking the conceded jumper late in the series. There were plenty of mid-range shots to go around throughout. What may have changed over those seven games may have been something a little less tangible.
As much as we would like it to be true, players cannot calculate efficiency in real time. James doesn’t have a Robocop visor telling him, second-to-second, which shot is slightly above average and which shot is slightly below. The mind can be trained to approximate that sort of data processing, but ultimately players have to feel their way around the court. A confident shot is more likely to go in than one being second guessed, and while it’s tough to go back to the tape and place a confidence index on each shot being taken, some shots do look smoother than others – as James’ did in Game 7.
“When [James and Wade] get out there and they sink that low, they’ve got to take the shot,” Ray Allen said. “That’s just what the basketball game is telling them to do and you keep going back and forth. We’re almost playing into their hands a little bit because they’re exhausting them on the pick-and-rolls, but they’re capable of shooting the ball and if they can shoot the ball regularly and consistently and knock it down, then it’s going to change the defensive coverage.”
The ball didn’t go in consistently enough early in the series for the coverage to change, but Wade and James did seem to adopt a more balanced approach as they saw more and more of the same coverage.
“Early on, we were kind of off rhythm with it, but I thought we did a good job later on of mixing it up,” Wade said. “‘Ok, they’re giving it to me, I’m going to take it. But ok, they’re giving it to me, I’m going to take more. I’m going to try and get more. I’m going to try and get better shot for my teammates than settling for this.’
“It’s a mind game as well and you got to put on your thinking cap.”
Spoelstra exhausted just about every pick-and-roll combination in existence trying to create space for his two creators, forcing San Antonio point guards to wall off an attacking James in the paint or having James set screens and use the defense’s focus against it.
While these days it’s all part of Miami’s regular offense, the post-up is a highly important option against San Antonio just as it is against Chicago’s half-zone schemes. If the defense is going to trying to wall you off from the paint, earning good post position away from the ball can finish half the battle for you. Put simply, if the wall is the first level of the defense, a proper post-up starts things off in the second level.
We’ve spent all this time discussing San Antonio’s defense because, until Popovich makes a change, it’s the one true constant in the past year of Spurs vs. HEAT. As such, it’s one of the few places where we can, and will be able to, truly evaluate Miami’s process. With all the changes that went into last season’s series, it’s not easy sussing out the relevant information from all the small sample sizes. Did inserting Ginobili into the starting lineup work because he changed something on the floor or did he simply start making more shots? How much of Danny Green’s incredible shooting was due to poor perimeter coverage and how much of it was just incredible shot-making? Was Mike Miller more valuable when he was making shots off the bench or when he was spacing the floor, but making three less frequently, as a starter?
What we do know is that despite an evolving process against a unique defense, James and Wade created just enough results to put their team over the top. In the past, both players have improved and honed their approach with each playoff series against an elite defense. Since the ball will be in their hands the most, whether they can improve and hone their craft again may be the difference in the series.
Once again, while James and Wade figure out how to score with the ball, Chris Bosh has the unique task of balancing spacing the floor with being an active, aggressive participant in the offense. While he played some of the best defense of his life against San Antonio last year – something he carried into much of this past regular season – Bosh struggled at times to find the right shots within an offense that very much needed him to counter San Antonio’s aggressive paint-protection.
Just as the defense would sag off James and Wade, Bosh could get a mid-range shot any time he wanted just by setting a corner or elbow screen, waiting for the two defenders to build the wall and then stepping out into unoccupied territory.
But Bosh doesn’t have the ball in his hands as often as his other two teammates, and thus he has less time to feel out how the defense is reacting to him. While that’s something he tends to figure out eventually – see the previous series against Indiana – the main difference this year may again be what he does without the ball.
After missing all four of his three-point attempts in Game 1 against San Antonio, Bosh returned to spacing in the mid-range more often than beyond the arc. Now that he’s settled in to being something close to a high-volume three-point shooter, the space Bosh creates by standing a few steps out may impact whether or not Popovich can play Duncan and Splitter together and how well the Spurs can continue to wall off the paint.
Breaking down San Antonio’s dynamic and multi-layered offense is a story for another day, but there may be no team better equipped to handle Miami’s swarm. While the HEAT will again treat pick-and-rolls a little more conservatively with flat coverage, as they did against Indiana this year and against the Spurs last year, the Spurs are masters at manipulating a big man into showing on the ball one half-second too long and then turning that mistake into either a weakside corner three or, as most teams with functional big men try to do, hit their diving center in the middle of the paint.
And when the HEAT front the post, the Spurs consistently get to the same triangle passing that Miami’s uses to set up LeBron James for easy baskets.
The HEAT were still able to force a decent number of turnovers last year, since the more passes you throw the more opportunities there are to make a mistake, but it required an extravagant amount of energy and effort to do so. Fortunately for Miami supporters, that energy and effort showed up on the defensive end in a big way during the Indiana series.
What was most impressive about the Spurs, then, was how they were able to absorb the punches derived from the HEAT’s Omega Swarm only to keep on pushing forward. And that may be the story of this matchup. Pretty much everything you can say in favor of one team, you can also say about the other. What one team does extremely well, the other team can counter and vice versa. These are exceptionally talented teams, and this should be another exceptional series, complete with hundreds of little threads to pick up along the way.
“Who knows what this series is going to be?” Wade said. “Last year was an unbelievable Finals, arguably one of the best that’s been played in a while. Hopefully this year, it’s roughly the same.”
Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports