NBA Finals, Game 5: Double Down
San Antonio 114, Miami 104
San Antonio leads series 3-2
Coach Pop’s response to Miami inserting Mike Miller into the starting line-up and going small (and, by extension, playing faster) was to double down and go even smaller and even faster. You want to play small? Well, paraphrasing Danny Green, our smaller is smaller than your smallest.
The story of the game will be Manu Ginobili’s throwback game. And it should be. He was glorious. He hasn’t been as bad these playoffs as most have been making out. While his scoring has been way down, his playmaking and passing have been mostly good to great, with the occasional clunker game thrown in. But his primary role on the team now is as back-up PG, secondary playmaker, and controller of the offense when Tony is not in the game. Scoring is mostly a bonus, as long as his shooting isn’t killing momentum and offensive possessions.
But tonight he had it all working. The playmaking, the scoring, the hustle, and, most importantly, the heart. Manu’s importance to the Spurs organization and cultural identity can not be overstated. On a team with living legend Tim Duncan, he is the most popular player deep in the heart of Texas. And much as Wade did in Game 4, Manu was able to put it all together for at least one more Finals game, finally living up to his end of the Big 3 bargain.
So that’s a fantastic story. And any Spurs fan watching tonight’s game should be truly beaming from seeing our guy put it all together in such a crucial game. We expect nothing less from Manu.
But the story of the game for me is not only the downgrade to (and acceptance of) almost complete small ball from here on out, but the adjustment of pushing the ball right back down Miami’s throat. Many smart people might think that upping the speed only plays into Miami’s favor, what with two of the greatest open court finishers ever on their team. But San Antonio essentially pulled a Miami on Miami: constantly pushing off makes and misses, never allowing the vaunted defense to set, pressure pressure pressure.
The dirty little secret: this is the way San Antonio always wants to play! And it worked. The great thing about this series is that, despite some surface differences, these two teams are built very similarly and want to play the same way. So rather than countering in the opposite direction, the Spurs doubled down.
And by all accounts, outside of Wade and LeBron, the Spurs hold all the advantages here. Our roster favors this type of play, allowing plenty of minutes to Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Green, and Leonard, our five best and most important players. Plus, there are plenty of minutes for Neal, Bonner, and Diaw in this style of play. Everybody on the roster can contribute on both ends (most importantly, in shooting and scoring), and Miami can not say that. So suddenly the Heat bench seems to be shrinking, while the Spurs bench and rotation is locked in.
And two things have really fallen into place beautifully: Diaw and Splitter. After a horrible Game 2 and a DNP-CD in Game 3, Diaw has emerged as a HUGE plus in this series. He is our bridge between big and small, and he can play the 4 alongside Duncan in “small” line-ups. Why? Because, all fat jokes aside, he can really guard LeBron. It seems counterintuitive, but Diaw is the one guy LeBron can not bully with his size (OK, a few more fat jokes here). And Diaw’s foot speed is deceptive for a man his size. There was one play where LeBron tried to drive past him from the elbow into the low block, and just literally couldn’t get around him. So he pulled back and took a 12-foot jump shot that missed. Going from a lay-up to a jump shot is always a win against James.
And while Splitter’s playing time has been seriously curtailed with the move to small ball, his role is almost more valuable: he must spell Duncan for about 4-6 minutes each half. The lasting memory of Splitter in these playoffs will be his rejections at the hands of the heat, but in all honesty, he has been playing solid defense (a must when spelling Duncan), and his offense has been steady. Tonight he provided some huge points off the bench, and kept the offense churning with his pick and roll game and confidence around the rim.
So while the Spurs have 3 bigs they feel comfortable playing, Miami is really down to 1: Bosh. After losing his starting position, Haslem has had two really rough games. Anderson has disappeared from the rotation. And no other big is playing. Miami is scrambling for answers and reliable players, and the Spurs know exactly who they are and exactly who is going to play, and when.
Your move, Miami.
Before we start talking Game 6, let’s also point out how marvelous Tim and Tony were tonight. Manu and Green will steal the headlines (holy Danny Green!!), but Parker was brilliant all game, getting to the rim at will, scoring, and passing. Poor Norris Cole is going to have visions of Parker dancing in his head for years to come. (One key tweak from the Spurs: going away from straight pick and roll to just letting Parker or Manu take their man one-on-one, eliminating the Miami double team up high, which triggers their frantic and brilliant swarming defense.)
And Tim was just steady as ever. Great defense, solid offense. Whenever the Spurs needed to calm things down, get a score, they put it in the post to Duncan, and more often than not, good things happened.
OK, we’ll talk one more time about Ginobili. Late in the 3rd quarter, Miami was closing in, and cut the lead to 1. The Spurs closed on a 12-1 spurt, effectively putting the margin they needed to win the game between the two teams. In that spurt, it was pure vintage Ginobili: some crazy drives and lay-ups, one-of-a-kind passes for back-breaking buckets, and just sensing the moment and controlling it the way only a handful of players can. More than anything, that’s the Manu we needed back.
For one night, we got it.
The way this series is going, anything is possible in Game 6. Sheesh. The Spurs now have two shots on the road to close out the series. While much is made of the Heat’s crazy record after losses, know this: San Antonio has not lost two games in a row all playoffs either, and really dating back to December. The Spurs have closed out all series on the road these playoffs, losing only twice all post-season on the road. Now Miami must beat them twice in a row, and double their road losses for the playoffs.
All of that being said, we do not want this to go to Game 7. Game 6 is our best shot. It’s time to reverse the trend and give the Heat two losses in a row, and capture our fifth title.
5 for 21.
Go Spurs Go.
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