On the first day of training camp, Gregg Popovich screened the entirety of San Antonio’s Game 6 overtime loss to Miami in the 2013 Finals. He wanted the team to “park it” and forget about any lingering doubts: Kawhi Leonard’s missed free throw, the offensive rebounds or a play that would have made a difference had it unfolded otherwise. If the process behind the 2012-13 season was solid than they would live with the outcome.
From that moment onwards, there was no hangover that could jeopardize the season. Now, as the rematch approaches, the hard fought loss has galvanized Spurs’ resolve and narrowed their focus. The Heat can vividly recall their close call and are not content with the status quo. Both teams will be revisiting the series in order to use it as a tool to improve their performance.
San Antonio Spurs
After clinching the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan announced that “we have four more to win. We’ll do it this time.” With home court advantage and a few adjustments, the Spurs are capable of living up to that guarantee. Duncan acknowledged that the squad was happy to play the Heat again because “we’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.”
Paint Touches: San Antonio victories are usually contingent upon points in the paint and inside-out passing. The offense is so efficient because it is consistent; post ups, screen and roll plays, drives and transition scores are all high percentage options. Throughout the Conference Finals, Tim Duncan was a force inside and he took ownership of Game 6 in overtime.
Since Spurs guards may struggle to drive past the Heat’s swift defenders (Norris Cole, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James) so post entries are another way to penetrate the paint. Post up possessions for Duncan and Diaw can lead to baskets on their own or free up room for teammates when they draw the defense. Both players are selfless enough to kick the ball out to a shooter or dish the ball to a cutter if it is the best play for the team. Miami may have to dial back some of their ball pressure if San Antonio’s big are successful in finding the open man.
Outside Shooting: Although OKC briefly forgot the concept and learned another harsh lesson, elite teams understand that they must stay at home on Danny Green and the rest of his sharp-shooting teammates. San Antonio is like a machine with a thousand parts moving synchronously but defenders who are athletic and aware can stay with them. After setting the Finals record for made three point baskets by Game 5 last year, Green found that his usual cuts were not as fruitful.
Green boasts an Offensive Rating of 110 when his team wins, compared to 83 when they lose, and his True Shooting Percentage is eighteen points better. During the final two games of last year’s finals, his numbers were 51/28.8% and against Miami in two regular season games in 2013-14, 67/37.5%. Nothing will be easy so it is incumbent on Green’s teammates to assist him to get open. Something as simple as Boris Diaw and Green executing a football-like wide receiver pick play as Kawhi Leonard dribbles near the sideline is sufficient to create enough room to shoot.
Popovich is a master strategist who coaches a disciplined team. Tiny adjustments in a play act like a magician’s sleight of hand and catch an astonished opponent off-guard. Undoubtedly, he will have something up his sleeve for this grudge match.
Bench Scoring: Oklahoma City may possess younger and better top end talent on their roster but San Antonio’s depth was a key reason that they won the West. A playoff opponent can game plan for a few primary options so the more tools that are available, the higher the odds of success. One of the most versatile tools in that toolbox is Manu Ginóbili, ballhandler/slasher/defender/shooter extraordinaire. In 2013, he was inconsistent and Spurs bench edge evaporated as the series progressed. They won Saturday night because their bench outscored the Thunder 51-5 and they’ll need timely contributions to outlast the mighty Big 3.
After he was inserted into the starting lineup of last year’s Game 5 to provide a spark, Ginóbili could not sustain that level of intensity, turning it over twelve times in the final two games. He appeared unable to perform what he was formally able to and erred as a result. Against the Thunder, Ginóbili provided leadership, scoring and tenacity off the bench. He seems to be healthy and confident and drove the Spurs’ offensive engine during the series-clinching game.
Defense: Over the playoffs, Leonard has defended a range of athletes, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He kept Durant away from the basket and forced him off-balance during a critical possession towards the end of regulation Saturday and sprinted back for a spectacular block against Westbrook in overtime.
Leonard possesses the length and quickness to guard LeBron James and after the experience last year will likely prove to be even more poised. He is one of the few Spurs who can convert a turnover into a basket as quickly as Miami. Most of his teammates are positioned in the paint and sound rebounders but Leonard is a defensive catalyst who gives Miami something to think about.
Passing: Down the stretch, the ball must make the plays instead of the Spurs themselves. I’ve felt that the crisp ball movement that defines the team at its best stagnates somewhat against the Heat. Perhaps respect of their opponent’s defensive prowess morphs into an unspoken fear. The ball sticks slightly: the team had six less possessions in the 2013 Finals compared to the regular season and the Assisted Field Goal Rate dropped thirteen percent.
When San Antonio spaces the floor, moves without the ball, comes towards the pass and trusts that they will get it back if they give it up, they can defeat Miami’s pressing defenses.
James appreciates that the defending champion must take everyone’s best shot:
“They’ve been preparing for this moment, we have as well. No one is entitled. This is no one’s championship. It isn’t ours, it isn’t theirs, it’s two teams fighting for it.”
The Heat will lose if they do not play to their potential and understand that they are not only playing the N.B.A.’s best team but a veteran team out for blood. James added that “like they said, we left a sour taste in their mouth.”
Outside Shooting: Recently, when the Heat have prevailed in big games it is because they have shot the ball better than the opponent — and above their own averages. James is willing to pull up and shoot if that is the best shot instead of forcing the ball and everyone in Erik Spoelstra’s rotation has been shooting well this year. Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis are the only regular players claiming a True Shooting Percentage below 54.6% (lately even Lewis has made a profound impact from long distance).
Chris Bosh has settled into a role as a confident midrange and outside shooter and other members of Miami’s rotation are defining and embracing their offensive niche. At the end of games, LeBron James feels as comfortable dishing to Bosh after he has sucked in the defense (like he did in Game 5 vs. Indiana) as he does kicking the ball to Shane Battier or Rashard Lewis on a pick and pop play.
San Antonio often defends the drive to the basket on screens by stationing the big on the elbow. Doing likewise against the Heat may open the Spurs up to a barrage of three-point shots. Against Indiana, Miami shot almost a third of their shots from long distance and converted on over forty percent of these shots. In the last two games of the 2013 Finals, Battier surprised the Spurs by making 6-12 from beyond the arc.
Like they did in the latter stages of the Oklahoma City series, San Antonio will have to avoid playing Duncan and Tiago Splitter together and focus on lineups such as Duncan and Diaw, who finished Game 6 against the Thunder, and Duncan and Leonard, who partnered often in the 2013 Finals. It’s imperative to chase Heat shooters around the court. Usually Miami plays one big who is not a threat who could be guarded by Duncan inside but the other forward must remain active.
Live Ball Turnovers: When San Antonio’s passing attack is not operating on all cylinders, there can be some awful turnovers which are converted into baskets at the other end. When OKC has beaten their rivals, live ball turnovers leading to quick baskets have always played a role. James and Wade have always been willing to push the ball in transition to take advantage of similar situations, such as steals, tipped passes and bad shots.
James and Wade not only shoot gaps and jump passing lanes but finish as soon as possible, before even five seconds have elapsed on the shot clock. The Spurs normally have a higher pace than the Heat (95.0 to 91.2) but there is no way that they can defend them at full speed. In games that they won in last year’s Finals, the Spurs shot 49.6%; when they lost they shot 41.6%. Teams in the postseason have also found that when they take a bad shot, it becomes the first pass on Miami’s fast break.
Ball Pressure: Last year, some of San Antonio’s dribble penetration was stopped or forced to the outside, which greatly reduced the quality of available shots. At the moment, Tony Parker’s ankle is questionable and Paddy Mills has played erratically so Ginóbili has been extensively handling the ball. If there is only one or two likely targets for the ball, Miami is willing to collapse and and force a steal with ball pressure and help defense.
Since they began their championship run in 2012, Miami has been a top five team in steals (the Spurs and Heat both boast tough defenses but the Spurs rely more on defensive field goal percentage and rebounding rate than turning over the opponent). It seems intuitive to state that when the ball is pressured by one or two defenders to move the ball to the post or an outside shooter but Miami’s defense is so proactive that it is easier said than done. Little things like forcing Duncan away from the basket in order to secure possession lower his field goal percentage.
Transition: During the season, Miami shot 61.3 in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, comprising just over a third of their total shot attempts. They only allow opponents to shoot 56.4%. One of the reasons for their success is their preparation. As soon as possession changes hands, whether it offense to defense or defense to offense, the entire squad begins moving their feet and assuming their new positions. Nobody gives up on defense and their remain committed to attacking the rim or finding the open man on offense. Heat rebounders have focused on early outlet passes or pushing the ball themselves, even after a missed shot.
Ball Movement: When Miami moves the moves the ball, nobody does it better. Wade and James are nearly unguardable individually but if they are dedicated to team play they will constantly have a myriad of high percentage options to choose from. The Spurs are praised for their steadfast team play but the Heat can match them if they want to. Indiana was slow to rotate but the Spurs will not stand idly by on defense if the ball stops.
Spoestra has developed a thorough playbook that suits the attributes of the players he coaches and has added wrinkles every years. Using the “Horns” set to flare screen for Allen, James or Wade has created isolations on ball reversals and Miami’s their offensive repertoire even includes some of San Antonio’s concepts, such as this play that utilizes Allen’s ability to cut along the baseline and catch and shoot (a type of shot the Spurs will remember well from last year).
Sometimes you just have to do what you do better than the other team does their thing, and certainly better than you did the last time. It’s difficult to be against LeBron James and the Miami Spurs but superior execution will enable the San Antonio Spurs to avenge last year’s loss – in six or seven tight games – and make Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s wishes come true.