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NBA Finals Game 1: Temperature Related Pun

By Jeff Koch on June 6, 2014.

Miami 95, San Antonio 110
Spurs lead series 1-0

I think I’m professionally obligated to title this post with some sort of word play about the heat (get it, the Heat?) and the temperature. My three favorites were: “Meltdown”; “Burning Man”; and, “Men On Fire”. I’ll let you decide.

Before we get to the game, a word about LeBron and the cramping. I confess: I like LeBron. I like the Heat. Spoelstra is a great coach, a no-nonsense no-excuse type like Pop who is always well-prepared. Bosh is a wonderful interview and a fine player. They have similar roster construction to the Spurs–Battier would have been a genius Spur years ago. The team plays with passion and energy and professionalism, and are a close parallel to the Spurs.

And while LeBron has had missteps, he is a wonderful player and fierce competitor. He is intelligent and thoughtful and a great teammate. The cramping “issue” is ridiculous. To think that LeBron wasn’t hydrated is silly; to think it’s an indictment of his conditioning seems equally absurd. Cramping isn’t an either/or thing. A cup of gatorade and a banana isn’t a 100% guarantee that cramping won’t happen. Playing in extreme conditions (the NBA Finals and abnormal heat) can spark it. Just because it didn’t happen as severely to any other player means nothing. It likely could have.

And cramps aren’t something that can just be played through, particularly the kind of cramp that it appeared James had. We all saw him helped off the court. I remember a particularly camera angle after the play had stopped, and it was from behind James looking out on to the court. It looked like there was a grapefruit in his left calf. This is what cramping does: the muscle contracts and freezes. I was playing Ultimate one summer day in Austin at a tourney. My team had only brought 7 players, so every player had to play every point. I was essentially the ‘point guard’ of the team, and had been running quite a bit that day. In the last game of the day, as I was chasing down a frisbee, I kicked out with my left foot, felt my calf cramp, landed on my right, and then collapsed to the ground as my left leg wasn’t going anywhere else. My calf was completely locked up, and I had to limp to the sidelines and wait about 20 minutes for it to unlock. That shit happens; it happened to LeBron last night. This is no indictment of anything about him.

It’s also not an excuse. The Spurs found some things that worked, and they were going to win that game in the 4th with or without LeBron. Perhaps the difference might have been 7 instead of 15, but the Spurs were overwhelmingly the better team in the last half of the 4th quarter.

And now a note on the Air Conditioning, and then I swear we’ll get to the game. It was an unusual circumstance, and perhaps a bit unfortunate. But every player suffered the same conditions, and both coaches made obvious adjustments in rotations and playing time because of it. I think it’s a non-factor as concerns the outcome of the game. (Except maybe for Duncan, from the Virgin Islands, who probably felt comfortable for the first time on a basketball court.) The one part I think it played in the game was allowing a lot of the sloppy turnovers from both teams. Not only mental and physical fatigue, but overly sweaty hands and arms leading to the ball slipping and errant passes. Players from both teams seemed to throw some passes that went to places they had no intention of the ball going.

The biggest difference in the heat, in crunch time, was that Miami’s offense seemed to settle for isolation plays and jumpers, whereas the Spurs continued to run their offense and break down that Miami defense. The floodgates eventually broke open, and suddenly the Spurs’ O was set free, and San Antonio closed the game on a 31-9 run, turning a Heat edge into an even game into a last-minute blowout. Every player was visibly gassed; the Spurs fought through it better and were rewarded.

As for the game itself, man, what a game. This did not feel like a Game 1. It felt more like a Game 5, where the series is even, but a real upper-hand was at stake. Plus, these teams already know each other so well from last year’s Finals, we’re already into second and third adjustments. (Many people affectionately refer to it as ‘Game 8′, but that implies the Heat already had a one-game advantage, which they obviously don’t.) Game 1 is often a feeling out game, but this was played by two teams already trying to impose wills, to control the areas that they can and to force the other team to abandon comfort zones and favorite tendencies.

I love it. I also love how clean of a game both teams play. No chippiness, no technicals, no hero ball. Just two great teams going at each other with passion, respect, and fierce competitiveness. Who couldn’t love this series?

The game was really hard to get a read on, as both teams took turns going on runs and then wilting. I’m sure fans of both teams were upset at varying points that the game was still close. But that’s why it was: no team could gain the upper hand. Both teams turned the ball over like crazy, but the Spurs were just throwing it all over the place. This is the ONE thing you can not do against the Heat; they are most deadly in transition. Hell, even Ray Allen went way back with a huge throw down (after totally pushing off on Belinelli). The Spurs gave up 28 points from TOs, almost 30% of the Heat points. That’s a dangerous game to play. The Heat are solid but pretty ordinary in the half-court, and it’s a good idea to keep them there.

On the flip side, the Spurs were able to play with good pace, to push the ball and get their O set up early. People think of the Heat as an athletic team–and they certainly are on the break–but in general, they want to play slow and deliberately, and they want their opponents to play slow offense to allow their defense to set its traps. The Spurs, despite the turnovers, were able to efficiently run their offense more often than not, and had plenty of schemes to break the Miami defense.

A few other things we may or may not have learned from last night’s game:

–The Spurs changed their LeBron coverage, as many thought they might. Rather than sagging way off and daring him to take jump shots, they played him tight. I think the key with guarding LeBron is to try and make him a single-minded scorer. He’s a deadly scorer, but he’s not an all-time great scorer. He’s at his best as a facilitator and complete offense puppet master, passing and moving his pawns around the court. The more the ball sticks in his hands, the better.

–Speaking of ball-sticking, Parker had a really up and down game. He looked fatigued but not hurt, so that was good. But the ball was really sticking in his hands, and he was a split-second behind in his decision making, death for the Spurs offense. Manu had a superlative game, and was the major buoy to the offense until late in the game when Parker seemed to find his groove. To me this was probably more about rust, but how Parker comes out in Game 2 is something to watch.

–The Heat bench really is down this year, and I think the Spurs have counters to exploit any Heat role player on at least one end of the floor. Of course, the Heat also missed about 426 (rough count) open 3-pointers, which is a function of dumb luck and being a year older. Still, the Spurs will want to clean that up.

–This seems like a series in which some of the deeper bench players will get some nice minutes. Both Marco and Patty had some good run in the game, each hitting timely baskets. With so much offensive focus on Wade and LeBron, there’s usually somewhere to kind of hide them defensively.

–Wade looked great, and was torching Manu’s defense. I thought Green did a better job guarding him, but both teams like to start the 2nd and 4th quarters with Wade/Manu and 4 bench/role players. This is a fascinating stretch of time to watch.

–Tiago and Duncan probably can’t play together this series (again), BUT, Tiago can play in this series. This could be a hugely important pivot from last season, when Tiago was wiped out of the rotation. He basically saved the Spurs’ ass at the end of the 3rd quarter and start of the 4th, scoring 9 straight points out of pick and roll and post-ups. The Heat are completely unequipped to guard ANY offensively gifted big, and the Spurs are now able to always have Duncan or Tiago on the floor, a scoring opportunity just waiting to happen. His minutes will be down, but they’ll be huge.

–Meanwhile, Boris keeps defying the laws of nature and gravity and being a fantastic player. I think a mistake most people make is thinking that ‘athletic’ strictly refers to strength and speed; they don’t account for hand eye coordination, grace, flexibility, lung capacity, and other physical attributes as something an athlete possesses. Boris is an athlete, and a damn good one.

–However, he can’t play 48 minutes a game. And if Tiago and Tim can’t play together, there are 48 minutes of the 4 spot available. This means Bonner can see some time and/or Kawhi will get lots of time at the 4. Both are fine options. Bonner is no worse a player than Rashard Lewis at this points in their careers, so they could essentially cancel each other out (and eat up some important minutes for Pop and the Spurs). Ironically, this could mean Matt starting again. Kawhi at the 4 is also good. Remember, this is where he really excelled in last year’s Finals.

–Kawhi had a pretty nondescript game. We’ll need more from him. I’ve noticed that he tends to float and disappear a bit when he gets into early foul trouble. It can really take him out of the rhythm of the game. His first foul last night was a moving screen–innocuous enough. But minutes later he picked up his second defending LeBron, and it set his whole evening out of whack. He needs to be very careful to only expend his fouls on LeBron.

–Do I need to say anything about Duncan other than that he’s a bad ass? Didn’t think so.

The Game 1 win was huge and hugely important. I think Game 2 is as equally important. The Spurs need to continue to protect home court, and it feels like if the Heat get a split in San Antonio, they will have control of the series. The Spurs have a history of winning Game 1s and then letting up in Game 2s. This team seems hungrier and more focused, and I expect a fight from them. But the Heat won’t be giving up an inch. What a great game it will be.

Game 2 is Sunday night.

Go Spurs Go.

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