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NBA Finals Game 2: The Equalizer

By Jeff Koch on June 9, 2014.

Miami 98, San Antonio 96
Series tied 1-1

Well that was dispiriting.

I truly believed San Antonio’s best shot at winning this series was 4-1, taking the first 2 at home, splitting in Miami, and then closing out in Game 5. Not wanting to be a jinx, I said nothing. But that is how I saw it going. Perhaps it was the wishful thinking of a fan, believing this Spurs team was just that much better than this Heat team. Perhaps it was me secretly wanting it to be ‘easy’ this year, to not have to sweat through such high profile losses.

But I also believe wining in 5 was the Spurs best shot. With the format change, Miami’s best chance to take the series is to close it out in 6. A 5-game series favors San Antonio and a 6-game series favors Miami. A 7-game series obviously favors San Antonio in that the game would be played at home, but nobody wants to roll those dice. So after splitting at home, Miami is firmly in control of this series. The onus is squarely on the Spurs to take a game in Miami, where, coincidentally, the Heat have yet to lose in the playoffs.

Ugh. I could barely sleep a wink last night.

But what do I know? (I mean this seriously; the answer is probably close to ‘nothing’.) It’s not supposed to be easy and the Spurs were a historically great road team. Take one game on the road and we’re right back square.

And sometimes LeBron James is just the best LeBron James imaginable, which is essentially the platonic ideal of a basketball player. When LeBron brings his A+ game (as he did last night), the rest of the Heat can play B- basketball and still get a win. And as clunky and out of sorts as the Spurs looked for much of last night, this was still a tie game with under 3 minutes to play, and a bounce here or there could have been a Spurs’ win.

LeBron is going to be great more often than not. This was true in Games 6 and 7 last year, both of which the Spurs also almost won. What’s more discouraging is 18 points from Chris Bosh and 14–14!!!–points from Rashard Lewis, mostly on 3s. There are holes to be found in both defenses, and right now the Heat are doing a better job of finding the holes in the Spurs defense and exploiting them.

I was surprised last night that Splitter still started, given the match-up disparities between the bigs on the two teams. Splitter played well in the starting line-up, particularly in his interior passing, but Miami is essentially playing ZERO bigs right now, as both Bosh and Lewis like to linger around the 3-point line. Miami really runs an inverted offense, with their 3 serving as the primary ball handler, their 4 and 5 on the exterior, and their 1 and 2 setting screens, posting up, and hitting the offensive boards. It’s one thing to have Tiago or Duncan chasing a big around the perimeter; but when they’re both doing it? That’s untenable. I really think there is a line-up change in the offing, with either Bonner or Diaw starting. (Austin Daye might be an interesting choice for some spot minutes, given his similarity to Lewis.)

Miami’s offense completely spread out the Spurs defense, opening up the holes late that allowed them to get buckets down the stretch. The Spurs offense, meanwhile, went in reverse, humming along quite nicely to start the game and then completely disappearing for critical stretches the rest of the game. After dominating the rim area for the first quarter, Miami completely shut down the lane, eliminating Duncan’s easy points. They put size on Parker (mostly LeBron), which worked out well in the Heat’s favor. Mostly, though, the Spurs stopped trusting the system, the ball stuck, the passes stopped, and everyone tried to do it themselves. The offense settled. It settled for the path of least resistance, it settled for long jumpers, it settled for good. Great is still out there, but it takes more work against the Heat.

Miami also did a great job of gumming up the game, slowing the pace. The Spurs want a lot of possessions, an up and down game. The Heat are opportunistic runners, but mostly want a slow and deliberate game. (Especially when James is on fire and can hold the ball for 23 seconds and then swish a 3.) One way to slow the game is to attack the rim on O, which leads to fouls. Whistles are the death of the Spurs’ pace. There’s a reason the Spurs are the lowest fouling team in the league, and it’s not just to prevent easy points. A parade to the FT line is a slog of a game, and a game that clearly favors Miami. (We’re not going to mention the 4 missed FTs in a row early in the 4th quarter. Basketball is such a flowing game that it’s nearly impossible to incriminate a single moment without replaying every moment that followed. FTs are easy targets because they’re seemingly static events, but even a change in score dictates different moves from each team down the stretch. It sucks to miss 4 FTs in a row. A lot of things sucked a lot worse.)

The Spurs also need to get something from Kawhi soon or this series is over. Even ‘slightly above average’ Kawhi could be enough to tip the scales. He was more solid in Game 2 defensively, but he hasn’t made a single “Kawhi” play yet in these Finals, where he made so many last year. In particular, his rebounding was critical last year, and is all but absent right now. He looks rattled and disengaged, two things that never seem to happen to him.

So now the series is 1-1, with Miami heading home to their friendly arena with a chance to take firm control of the series. On the bright side, LeBron went full LeBron, Rashard Lewis awoke from the dead, Kawhi is MIA, and the Spurs offense was fairly mediocre for most of Game 2…and the Spurs still almost won. Recency bias can wreak havoc in a series with nothing else to talk about for days between games. On the balance, the Spurs still look like the better team, facing a team with the most dominant player. Whichever team can leverage their greatest strength the most–the collective might of the team vs. the singular greatness of a transcendent player–will still most likely win this series.

It’s going to be hard.

Go Spurs Go.

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