Two games in, and this series has yet to disappoint.
During the time of year when trailers have spoiled most plot points of major motion pictures almost half a year in advance, the sequel to Heat vs. Spurs is living up to the hype despite the hype being little more than, ‘The last one was really, really good’. There are no scripts that have been rewritten umpteen times in order to attract the proper money-spending demographic. There’s no studio meddling, insisting on big, noisy, computer-generated battles to finish things off. No love interest. No ink-colored quest you first read on the page twenty years ago. Just ten men and a ball telling a new, evolving story which trumps anything showing at your local metroplex for thrills, chills and pulse-pounding action.
But this is no popcorn-fare. For the second year in a row, we’re getting treated to a silver-screen epic.
With many Miami HEAT playoff series, you can boil things down to a couple unique factors. Can the Knicks or Bobcats beat the fronting of Carmelo Anthony and Al Jefferson? Can the HEAT navigate the treacherous waters of a Tom Thibodeau defense? Can the Celtics and Pacers consistently counter Miami’s smaller lineups by moving the ball and getting their big men catches in the paint? All crucial aspects to advancing in the playoffs year after year, but there’s often little depth beyond those adjustments. More often than not, the HEAT just have to play their game and play it well.
There is no one thing against the Spurs. There is only everything – with complexities that rarely make it past test-audiences.
Let’s talk about a few of them.
THE ONE WHERE THEY DEFEND THE ARC
Tony Parker hasn’t taken more than 80 threes in a single season since 2005, but he’s the key to keeping the Spurs off the three-point line. Despite averaging just a tad under 30 minutes per game for the first time since his rookie season and missing 14 games, Parker had the fourth-most assists on drives in the league, per SportVU logging (dribble attacks that begin 20 feet out and get within 10 feet of the rim). He can break down just about anyone on the perimeter, keeps his dribble alive so well that he is model for young guards like Norris Cole and with little flair or pizzazz, Parker routinely finds open shooters once the defense collapses into the paint.
He is, for the HEAT and every other defense, a problem – whether he’s finding shooters himself . . .
Or his kickout passes are leading to one of San Antonio’s nine hockey assists, almost double what they averaged during the regular season, in Game 2. . .
Through two games the Spurs are shooting 25-of-51 from beyond the arc, which is the stuff of comic books. But they aren’t just falling into those shots haphazardly. Sure, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili have each hit a well-contested shot or four, but it’s the defense over-committing to the ball and/or the paint that has been hurting the HEAT the most. Open shots are death no matter who you are, and they almost spelled doom for Miami in consecutive games.
Until the end, that is.
There are three things the HEAT can do to limit San Antonio’s jump-shooting efficiency. The same is more of a universal truth for Erik Spoelstra’s defensive system: rotate to the open man, which Chris Bosh does exceptionally well here as Chris Andersen returns to cover Tim Duncan in the paint.
“With their three point spacing, the way they move the ball, you just have to try to make as many plays, as many efforts every single possession,” Spoelstra said. “More efforts than you're normally typically used to making at present.”
The second thing is more matchup-based, which includes matchups that the HEAT can force. In the interest of preserving energy, Spoelstra isn’t going to have LeBron James defend Parker all night. But when he does, and when James can use his size and speed to limit Parker’s penetration, the HEAT can limit the rotations they have to make. Basically, if James, giving Parker a little cushion, can stay in front of the ball, then Miami’s help defenders can trust James’ ball containment and stay home on shooters.
It doesn’t only have to be with the James-on-Parker matchup, either. Similar to how the HEAT went away from highly-aggressive blitzes against pick-and-rolls in the Indiana series because it was giving Indiana exactly the spacing they wanted, staying home on shooters despite a dribble attack – a somewhat Thibodeau-ian principle, with regards to how the Bulls trust Joakim Noah to secure the paints – forces the Spurs into more one-on-one matchups.
Either try to score yourself, or kick the ball out and reset the offense, the HEAT seem to be saying. We aren’t giving you any predictable open looks.
“It's how we have to score,” Gregg Popovich said. “We can't put it in somebody's hands and have them create everything for us. It's got to be a group effort and we didn't do that.”
Shutting down the drive-and-kick, along with generally better and more precise, helped limit the Spurs to 1-of-6 shooting and just one assist in the final four minutes before an assisted Ginobili three just as the buzzer went off. And the one assist the Spurs did get during that timeframe came when the HEAT did collapse the paint because Chris Andersen had switched – something Miami did more and more of as the game wore on – onto the perimeter and tried to recover into the paint.
As for the third thing the team can do to limit San Antonio threes? Pick up shooters in transition – something the HEAT didn’t do very well during that back-breaking run to end Game 1, but something they, and in particular Dwyane Wade, took responsibility for. After his barrage three days prior, Danny Green only took three shots from downtown in Game 2, and each one of those was well-contested.
“When we lose a ballgame, we have – whether it’s one day or two days – to get better and to learn from our mistakes,” Wade said. “When we get in that same situation – because you’re going to get in that same situation – you try not to make the same mistakes and I thought we did that tonight.”
THE ONE WITH THE DUNCAN ROTATIONS
This is a familiar issue for all Miami observers. A team with a height and size advantage attempts to take advantage with pick-and-rolls designed to get the big man the ball with space to attack. From Tyson Chandler to Kevin Garnett to Roy Hibbert, you’ve seen the HEAT take their lumps as slow help in the paint led to layup after dunk after layup. When nobody chucks the big man off his roll to slow him down and the weakside defender isn’t prepared to meet him in the paint, the HEAT can look fairly helpless against size.
But there always is, and so far there always has been, an internal remedy for those issues. Where the team might struggle in one game they’ll activate the swarm in the next, creating turnovers and forcing opponents into more deliberate post-ups if they want to get their size the ball.
So after Duncan had 12 catches within 12 feet of the rim for 22 team points in Game 1, the HEAT tightened things up and in Game 2 Duncan had only seven close touches for six team points.
“It's one of the first priorities in our defense, but against this team it's extremely tough because they spread you out, and they don't hesitate to shoot when they get opportunities,” Bosh said. “So we had to take the challenge one on one and do a better job with that, contain the pick and rolls two on two to give our backside defense more help and more opportunities to make plays.”
What separates the Spurs from some of Miami’s other opponents, however, is San Antonio doesn’t just run one high pick-and-roll after another. They’ll change up both angles and pace, patiently waiting for the right passing lane to open up. And they have the skilled personnel to take advantage.
Such an offensive approach, with big-to-big passing that would make Marc Gasol proud, is difficult to sustain over the course of a game. But it hurt the HEAT as they fell behind by seven in the first quarter because there wasn’t enough pressure on the ball.
Sometimes perfect passes are going to beat you, but going forward the HEAT will have to be more aware of the layers to San Antonio’s interior approach while maintaining the sound rotations they had elsewhere for most of Game 2.
THE ONE WITH SMALLBALL
There’s often been some confusion when it comes to Miami’s smallball lineups, in large part because it takes many forms. There’s the stretch-four lineup, made famous in 2012 when Shane Battier entered the starting lineup and defended power forwards, which the HEAT use to this day with Rashard Lewis. There’s the multi-guard lineups that Spoelstra has experiemented with more often over the past two seasons, with multiple point-and-shooting guards on the floor. Even when both Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh started, the HEAT were, according to traditional standards, playing small without a true center on the floor. Until the advent of Andersen-Bosh lineups this season, Miami has long lived the smallball life.
Their true Super Saiyan form, however, has always been with LeBron James as the true power forward on the floor. We don’t get to see those lineups very often because of how much they ask of everyone involved, but when Spoelstra dips into his bag of tricks the result is often pure, raw spacing.
Because James has added so many traditional power-forward tools to his skillset it doesn’t always matter who is on the floor with him. James has been used as a screen-setter more than ever this season, and against the Spurs all that practice at being a live player off-the-ball – not just for him but for every player on the floor – helps prevent the HEAT from falling into stretches of predictable and tiresome, for them, 25-foot wing attack from James and Wade.
But even as James is pick-and-popping or rolling to catches in good locations, having a non-shooting big man on the floor can still muck things up in the middle of the floor at times.
When the HEAT go Saiyan-small, however, it’s almost impossible to properly space the floor with a traditional defensive lineup.
And if they can attack the paint, perhaps with a point guard setting the screen and further keeping the defense from playing traditional defensive roles, then the world is James’ oyster.
If you remember Bosh’s go-ahead three in Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets – one of his 13 threes to go-ahead or tie the score in the last five minutes of the game since Jan. 1 2012 – the HEAT used the same lineup to generate that shot. With Bosh now able to space the floor from the corner, Ray Allen on the wing being Ray Allen and Wade stationed along the baseline ready for a ghost cut, its pick-your-poison time the moment James gets a step on his defender. No surprise, then, that with James playing true-forward, the HEAT were plus-11 in nine minutes.
Should the defense happen to pick wrong the first time, that choice may influence future decisions. While James was fouled on the team’s next possession as he got into the paint, watch as James fakes the pass to Bosh and Duncan isn’t able to fully commit to the help.
None of this is particularly complicated offense, but when your floor spacing is in pristine condition you might only need one or two passes to find the open look. Better yet, the small lineup and resulting spacing got Miami out of a lengthy iso-and-post stretch where they only had two assists from the five-minute mark of the third – when James was going nova – to the three-minute mark of the fourth, after which the team recorded another three helpers.
No, it isn’t San Antonio offense, with the Spurs earning seven assists on possessions with six or more passes, per SportVU, but it’s what the HEAT want. This series may be far more complex than your typical summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t mean Miami can forget about style. Winning will be in the details over the next two weeks, but whether its small or swarming, the HEAT will play with the style that got them here.
Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com, STATS LLC and Synergy Sports