Monday, June 10, 2013

The Heat Take Game Two Behind Lebron's Heroic Efforts

The dynamic of the NBA Finals is markedly different from other playoff series for a variety of reasons.  Obviously, with (presumably) only the two best teams in the league remaining, the quality of play is higher than ever before (as anyone who watched Game 1 of Miami/San Antonio can attest).  And with a championship ring suddenly on the line, the level of intensity of both teams is increased as well, often leading to a more physical, defense-oriented matchup.  All of this is well-known. 

But another huge factor that sometimes flies under the radar during the Finals is the change from a 2-2-1-1-1, to a 2-3-2 format.  There has been a lot of debate over the years as to whether a 2-3-2 series is of greater advantage to the home team, or the away team.  But one thing that can’t be debated is that the San Antonio Spurs put the defending champion Miami Heat up against a wall by stealing Game 1 of this series.   If the Heat had managed to lose Game 2, they would be facing three must-win games on the road in Texas.

Fortunately for the Heat, they avoided that scenario on Sunday by pummeling the Spurs 103-84 in Miami and evening the series 1-1.  In Game 2, the Heat responded to their Game 1 loss in a manner befitting a championship pedigree: with a renewed focus on defense, and a highly aggressive style of play on both sides of the ball.  Tony Parker is the Spurs’ MVP and was arguably the biggest thorn in side of the Heat in Game 1 (21 points on 9-18 shooting), so unsurprisingly the Heat came out committed to slowing down the Frenchman.  And they succeeded. 

Parker relies heavily on numerous pick-and-rolls to get to the basket (where he is most effective), but in Game 2, the Heat switched those pick-and-rolls constantly, in addition to sending multiple defenders at him each time, often succeeding in trapping the All-Star point guard along the baseline and elsewhere on the court.  We know that the Spurs system relies heavily on Parker getting into the paint and finishing, or kicking the ball out to shooters like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.  So with Parker not able to get much going, the rest of the Spurs offense simply sputtered (the “big 3” of Parker, Duncan, and Giniboli shot only 30% from the floor).

Despite that, San Antonio managed to hang in the game in the first half thanks to some hot three-point shooting,  namely from Danny Green, who was 5-5 on three-pointers.  In fact, the Spurs shot well on three-pointers overall (50%), but were an awful 30% on two-point shots.  This was largely due to the unavailability of easy shots in the paint.  The Heat defense was so aggressive, and their big men (Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen in particular) so effective at defending the painted area, that Spurs simply found no good looks at the basket. 

In the second half, the Spurs missed a few threes, and LeBron James, who had been somewhat contained in the first half (thanks largely to some solid D from Leonard), got hot.  There was no looking back from there, as the Heat took off on a 33-5 run that essentially ended the game.  Miami also benefitted from hot shooting nights from role players like Mario Chalmers (6-12), Ray Allen (3-5), and Mike Miller (3-3).    

Certainly, it will be a long series for the Spurs if those players can continue to shoot that well, but San Antonio is in a bit of dilemma as they have (justifiably) employed the strategy of packing the paint to cut off potential LeBron James forays to the basket.  That makes things more difficult for the King to score himself, but leaves a world of space for the Miami shooters.  And we know that LeBron has the vision to find those shooters when they are open.  The Spurs will have to try to find an answer to that dilemma in Game 3 (or hope Allen and/or Chalmers start slumping again).

If the first and second round of the NBA playoffs are an especially intense game of checkers, the Finals is certainly chess.  Coaches Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra are two of the most inventive and genius minds in the NBA today.  In Game 2, Spoelstra and the Heat made some adjustments that left the Spurs reeling.    But despite this blowout, the Spurs and Heat are two evenly-matched teams, and San Antonio has the benefit of playing the next three games of this series at home.  It remains to be seen what adjustments Popovich and company will make for Game 3, but there should be no doubt that next few games of the NBA Finals will be more competitive than this one was.


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