I’m so embarrassed.
Before game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I used my superior basketball intuition to make a bold claim:
“With this said, at this point I think I favor San Antonio in a possible Heat/Spurs final. Allowing Pop over a week to prep for Miami when the Heat are at their absolute worst? Giving rest to the Spurs’ stars? Miami’s psyche which must be damaged at this point? Yikes.”
Looks pretty good, right? You would think that I’d be feeling pretty smart after last night’s Spurs victory, but here’s the problem:
I panicked. After seeing Miami overwhelm Indy, and hearing all the talk about how San Antonio “HAS TO BE RUSTY,” I couldn’t convince myself about the Spurs anymore.
I knew the Spurs would be extraordinarily well prepared, I knew they would get the looks they wanted out of their offense, I knew Duncan would have a distinct offensive advantage inside, and I knew Tony Parker would be able to run wild against the Miami backcourt. I also knew that Miami was much more athletic than the Spurs, and would use their athleticism to blitz everything, rotate early, and force the Spurs’ role players to make tough offensive decisions. I knew Wade was showing signs of life, and I knew that LeBron James would be his usual, freakish self.
And all of that happened! The only thing I got wrong was who would actually win. Make no mistake about it, the Spurs stole this game. I’m not saying they didn’t deserve to win, but Miami clearly controlled the majority of this game. Let’s break down game one in a little more organized way:
Why San Antonio Should be Pleased
All of their sets worked – The Spurs got into just about every offensive look they wanted, especially Tony Parker screen and rolls where the screener fades to the short corner, sprinting Parker curls into midrange handoffs, and baseline drift penetration for weak side corner jump shots. On nearly every single possession, San Antonio had the matchup, movement, or concept they were looking for.
There was no answer for Tim Duncan – When things got sticky during the second and third quarters, the Spurs briefly went into “2003 Mode” and operated almost exclusively through Timmy with very positive results. Duncan brought out his vintage back-to-the-basket game and made Miami’s big men look outmatched defensively. He was also hitting his midrange jumper somewhat and was able to bother Miami around the rim just enough to slow down the Heat’s attack.
Manu Ginobili looked fresh – Manu had the most to gain from the Spurs’ nine day layoff, and his rest showed last night. He was able to get into the lane, split pick and rolls, and his jumper had a little more pop to it than it had against the Grizzlies. Ginobili didn’t shoot all that well, but if he can give the Spurs this kind of effort throughout the series, San Antonio will be in good shape.
Why San Antonio Should be Worried
They got nothing out of their bench – The Spurs played 10 guys, but besides Manu’s thirteen points, the bench bunch were largely ineffective: Matt Bonner kept finding himself with the ball in the lane, which is a terrible, terrible thing; Boris Diaw looked too slow defensively to justify him being on the floor; and Gary Neal struggled to find his shot. If the Spurs want to win this series they’re going to need more from the bench, otherwise Parker and Duncan will wear down very quickly.
Miami was uncharacteristically bad in the fourth quarter – Although we’ve seen some shaky play from the Heat at the close of games recently, Miami hadn’t looked that bad in a fourth quarter all year. The Heat had controlled the game up to that point, and the Spurs were fortunate that they were able to build the advantage they did late in the game. I wouldn’t expect Wade and James to combine for six points in the final frame again, so San Antonio will have to do more to get ahead earlier in the game if they want to continue to win games.
Big minutes for the old guys – Because the bench was so bad, Duncan and Parker combined for 77 minutes in game one. That might be fine coming off an extended rest, but I doubt these two keep up the same workload for the entire series. Coach Popovich will have to find a way to get them rest at some point.
Why Miami Should be Pleased
Their defensive rotations worked – Although the Spurs got into their sets nearly at will, the looks they got were not of the usual quality they are used to. Miami rotated early and often to counteract San Antonio’s sets, and they were able to disrupt some of the rhythm that Parker and co. can usually create. By using their length and athleticism, the Heat made things difficult, especially on the Spurs’ big man dives from the high post. Miami can key on their defensive success from game one and look to build on that moving forward. Now they just have to make it harder for the Spurs to get into the sets to begin with.
Ray Allen was a factor – Allen came in and shot the ball well, punishing the Spurs for losing him on a few possessions. By forcing San Antonio to stretch out and guard him, Miami gets wider attacking lanes for Wade and James. If the Heat are to have continued offensive success in this series, they’re going to need players like Allen, Battier, and Mike Miller to hit shots, so Shuttlesworth’s performance in game one was a positive sign.
The Heat started to get the foul trouble they wanted – Miami was able put the screws on the Spurs early by getting Duncan and Kawhi Leonard in foul trouble. Duncan is the Spurs’ only real interior threat on either side of the ball, and Leonard as we know is San Antonio’s main “Bron Stopper.” For whatever reason, the Heat went away from attacking these two in the second half, and the Spurs were able to take control. Miami proved in game one that they’re capable of exposing the Spurs’ lack of depth, and they need to continue this to win.
Why Miami Should Be Worried
LeBron didn’t seize the moment – In perhaps the least impressive 18/18/10 performance in NBA history, LeBron never really took control of this game. He seemed somewhat passive, and deferred to his teammates a bit too much. For Miami to win this series, I think James needs to average about 25 points, and can’t attempt more than three three-pointers a game. Last night he abandoned the block very quickly and settled too much on the perimeter. Miami better hope that was a conscious choice and wasn’t dictated by oh, I don’t know…
Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green did what Paul George could not – When James tried to work through the post last night, both Green and Leonard were very physical and aggressive with him, and thus were very effective. George was a little too soft with LeBron in the Indy series (which is why LeBron looked like Olajuwon), but Leonard and Green are both tough enough and long enough to bother James. If ‘Bron can’t create enough of an advantage to demand a double team, Miami’s offense could be in serious trouble.
The Spurs missed A LOT of shots – Kawhi Leonard was 0/4 from three, and every single look was wide open. Danny Green was an effective 4/9, but his five misses weren’t off by much. Gary Neal was only 1/5, and his looks were all clean too. So were Ginobili’s 3 misses (he was 2/5). If San Antonio had been hot, this could have quickly turned into a blowout. Strangely, although the Heat controlled most of this game, they were fortunate to only lose by this much. Miami better stop letting the Spurs get clean corner threes, or they’re cooked.
What to Expect
Coming into game one, this may have been the most mysterious finals matchup in a long time. Neither team had ever played each other at full strength, so there was very little evidence with which to predict this series. However, both were able to do much of what they wanted in game one, with the Spurs simply out-executing the Heat down the stretch.
With game one out of the way, we now have a sense of what’s going to happen for the rest of the series. While each coach will have plenty to adjust, I would expect similar strategies from both teams. Look for Miami to mix up their pick and roll defense a little more, forcing Parker to read the defense rather than just splitting the blitz. The Spurs are going to have to chase the Heat off the three point line better than they did in game one; if Allen and Miller are allowed to get going again, they’ll be in trouble.
Although it might sound like hyperbole, game two is a must-win now for Miami. Heading to San Antonio down 2-0 would basically be a death sentence, and the Heat know this (or at least they’d better). I’m anticipating a game-seven level of intensity from James and company.
Prediction – Miami comes out of the gates fast. The Spurs whittle the lead away, but come up short in the fourth quarter. Justin Bieber arrives at the game with a Spurs hat on, but when the Heat go on their early run he switches back to a Heat hat. Final score, Miami 105 – Spurs 96.