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June 2013

The Doctrine Of Duncan

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Growing up, I was raised as an only child by a single parent. My mom and dad got divorced when I was young and I have lived my entire life with my mom. Given the hell I put her through growing up and how she still succeeded in parenting me, I am convinced that single moms are the most incredible people on the planet, somehow capable of playing the gentle motherly role while possessing the ability to act as a stern fatherly figure when the situation calls for it. The way she handled all that life threw at her with her head held high was inspiring; always putting on a strong face even in the toughest circumstances. I may call her “mom,” but she is much more than just that.

And then there was one day when that reliable rosy attitude was overtaken by the bumps and bruises of being a single mom. That one day when the struggles of everyday life were just too much, the burden too heavy, to not give in to a moment of weakness. That bad day at work, that day the bills came in. Whatever it was that got to my mom that day, it will forever be etched in my memory as the first day I saw her cry. Seeing that the strongest person I knew was capable of being brought to tears, that she was capable of being broken down, if only for a moment, was saddening.

This is the same feeling I got when I watched Tim Duncan’s press conference following Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Duncan is the rock of the San Antonio Spurs organization, the person that can be relied for a soothing directive in the worst possible times, the leader that always kept his composure. Duncan is the definition of a statuesque persona, someone who virtually never shows his expressions, always keeping his most exuberant and his most morbid thoughts and feelings hidden beneath the surface of his stoic face.

So when Duncan sat down at the podium and faced the media, folks like myself tasked with getting to the bottom of the big man’s feelings after such a heartbreaking loss, for the first time ever, I saw the Big Fundamental as a crestfallen and dispirited man.

As if the disheartening way that the Spurs had the title ripped from their hands wasn’t enough, seeing their leader, their protector, showing a crack added insult to injury for San Antonio fans. Just minutes after such a painful loss, there was Duncan on the verge of tears, showing that he wasn’t the robot he has been made out to be over the past decade, that he was just as human as us, that he was capable of feeling pain and emotion. Gone was that stoic statue, and it was replaced by a sensitive soul.

After Game 7, it was easy to feel sorry for Duncan, a true gentle giant, after seeing him miss a shot he could make in his sleep with the game on the line. It is that shot that will deprive Duncan of sleep from now until eternity – a hook shot over an undersized Shane Battier that caromed off the rim with less than a minute to go and the Spurs down two. Much worse is that Duncan’s post-game emotions likely included his realization that this series may have been his final shot at another title, and that he may never get the chance to redeem himself on that stage again, a stage he had previously been undefeated on.

Despite the four banners Duncan has already hung in the AT&T Center, he’ll never be able to shake the nightmare finish that he had to the 2013 Finals, when he failed to score in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 6 and missed several easy looks in Game 7. Pat Riley once said that there is winning, and there is misery, and the best of competitors dread defeat more than they adore winning, so Duncan may very well live in misery for years until he’s able to escape the memories of those final six quarters.

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But once Duncan is able to look past the 2013 Finals, he should be able to take solace in the fact that he has accomplished more than just about anybody in league history. I view Duncan as one of the five best players of all-time, and the Bill Russell of this generation of basketball, both in terms of success and how they went about attaining it. For every season that Duncan has been in the league up until LeBron’s last couple of seasons, it was obvious that there was not a player in the league you’d rather play with or rather have as your captain than Duncan. Nobody was more reliable and nobody as good as Duncan was as committed to his team’s success over his individual accomplishments.

Duncan is incredibly unselfish and yet also more than capable of dominating a game with his own scoring. The fact that Duncan seemed to find the perfect balance between those two facets of his game every time his teammates evolved around him should not be overlooked. That Duncan has constantly shifted the way he plays to best complement those around him speaks to how marvelous a teammate he is, as does how seamless the transition was when Gregg Popovich recently decided that the offense would be better off with Tony Parker as the key cog and Duncan has the secondary option.

Duncan’s chivalrous style is right in line with the way that Russell is chronicled in NBA lore. Duncan is a more physically gifted offensive player than Russell, which is why Timmy has also been a dominant scorer during his career, but he never plays the role of a mercenary gunning for his own stats; Duncan always plays within the flow of the offense, picks apart defenses when they double him and pounds the rock when the situation calls for it.

Selflessness is not the only quality that Duncan shares with Russell, of course. Both are viewed as peerless defensive players that patrolled the paint better than any other bigs of their eras. Neither player exhibited the kind of highlight reel blocks that you’ll find on SportsCenter today; rather, Russell popularized the possession saving block by keeping his swatted balls in bounds while Duncan has racked up swaths of rejections without leaving his feet. Both players were also tremendous rebounders, experts in the monotonous art of terminating defensive possessions, and understood the craft of positioning and the importance of precise rotations.

Perhaps more important than anything Russell or Duncan did on the floor or any of the historic accomplishments that they compiled over their illustrious careers is the way that both players affected their teams off the court. You’d be hard pressed to find two other players in league history that were as universally viewed as Hall-of-Fame players and Hall-of-Fame people as Duncan and Russel, true leaders in every sense of the word.

At halftime of Game 6, I was certain that Duncan would be retiring after the next 24 minutes as a five-time NBA champion. Instead, the Spurs suffered some cruel twists of fate in the final seconds of that game and the Miami Heat took Game 7 to win their second title in a row.

Now I’m not sure what the future holds for Duncan, who will be 38 years old next season. Though Manu Ginobili looked like a shell of himself this post-season, I still think the Spurs are a top-four team in the West next season pending the free agency decisions they make. With the addition of a true back-up point guard and perhaps a Tiago Splitter replacement, the Spurs could probably go for another 50-win season. Then again, the West should be more competitive next year with the return of Westbrook and Kobe, a potential Howard-to-Houston scenario and the forming of the Los Angeles Celtics, so the Spurs would likely have a tougher path to the Finals than they had this year.

Whatever decision Duncan makes – whether he returns for one more year or retires on the heels of one of the greatest Finals ever – the league will be better for it. Either we’ll get to see a 38-year old Duncan defy the odds once again while he posts another 22+ PER and helps lead his Spurs to a 17th consecutive post-season, or we’ll see one of the best players of all-time begin his journey to the basketball pantheon as a Hall-of-Famer.

While Duncan will be tormented by that missed hook and that flubbed bunny for many years to come, likely running through those same emotions he showed during his press conference last Thursday as he tosses and turns at night, one thing’s for sure:

Tim Duncan will forever be the rock of the San Antonio Spurs.

And one crack – a crack, by the way, caused by one of the few players that could ever call Duncan a peer – is not going to change the fact that Duncan is a legend, a player with more championships than 26 NBA teams, a player as benevolent as he is dominant, as passionate as he is phlegmatic, as ruthless as he is caring.

A player, who is much more than just that.

Legendary

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As basketball fans, we don’t want the way we view the careers of LeBron James and Tim Duncan, two of the 10 best players of all-time, to come down to a 21-year old Kawhi Leonard making a free throw or Mario Chalmers banking in a buzzer beating three from 40-feet.

We don’t want the way that history looks back on some of the greatest players of our generation to be decided by Boris Diaw making a wide open shot or Chris Andersen pulling down a key offensive rebound. We cringe at the sight of Manu Ginobili, one of the game’s most exhilarating and respectable competitors ever, making crucial blunders as his body can no longer keep up with his mind. We can’t stand the thought that the legacy of James or Duncan will be monumentally impacted by one single game, during which a player like Shane Battier or Danny Green can have as much to do with the result as any of the Hall-of-Famers on the floor.

As someone with nothing invested in the outcome of last night’s game seven, even I could barely stand the tension created by the magnitude of the moment, with each and every shot having a chance to be the one that goes down in history. Each time LeBron or Wade or Duncan or Ginobili made a mistake, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, because I feared for their sakes the kind of emotions they would have to deal with for the rest of their lives if any given mishap proved fatal. Mistakes made by my favorite athletes still eat at me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who actually had a say in the outcome.

But, at the same time, even as fans, we die for those moments. As unfair as it is for a series as competitive and as even as the 2013 NBA Finals were, for everything to come down to one game gives us some of the most glorious and gut wrenching moments of our lives. You stomach the absolute desperation for the moments of unparallelled glee and elation. You try your hardest to distance yourself from the outcome, but in the end, you just can’t help but invest every emotion you have in your team, knowing that you’ll either be at the top of the world or at the bottom of the pit at the final buzzer, with no inbetween.

Spurs fans are lucky to have experienced that top of the world feeling four times during the Tim Duncan era. They have gotten to tag along for one of the best runs in NBA history with Duncan carrying them to so much success, so many peaks with so much brilliant basketball along the way. In game six, it appeared as if his career would have a fairytale ending, but a few bad bounces and some brilliant shotmaking from the Heat pried the fifth ring right off his finger. No amount of prosperity can make up for the heartbreaking feeling that game six gave the Spurs, and when the game’s best player was given a second chance at his second ring, he didn’t let it slip away.

James has played some unbelievable basketball in his 10 year career, but the 4-time MVP has never been better than he was in last night’s game. It’s hard to keep track of how many games have been deemed “legacy” games for LeBron, but it’s pretty clear that a game seven in the NBA Finals is as high stakes as basketball gets. And James, constantly derided for not being able to come through in big moments, delivered an all-around performance for the ages, perhaps the most dominant individual performance we’ve ever seen in an NBA Finals, Michael Jordan included.

James scored 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting last night, knocking down five of his 10 three-point attempts while getting to the line eight times. When factoring in those long-range shots, the only time someone has had a comparable game as scorer on the Finals stage was Jordan in the “Shrug Game,” but that was in a game one and a blowout; this was in a game seven, with each of those shots coming in big moments. Of course, scoring isn’t the only thing that makes LeBron great; he also had 12 rebounds and four assists in this game. James was making plays for others, often times collecting the hockey assist anytime the defense overcommited to him, and rebounding like a true big, allowing the Heat to play small the whole game without getting killed on the boards.

And then there was the defense. Oh my was that impressive. Not only was LeBron running the show offensively and rebounding like a mad men, he also defended Tony Parker as well as humanly possible. Parker may be the toughest player to guard in the entire league when you factor in his own individual abilities and the kind of physical punishment the Spurs put you through by making your chase him around the court on screens and put you in quick hitting pick-and-rolls, but there was James, not giving him an inch of separation, preventing him from ever really getting going in the final two games of this series. Parker wouldn’t make excuses for himself, but it’s clear something wasn’t right with him health-wise; that said, you still have to credit LeBron for doing the lionshare of work on Parker, who went 9-of-35 (26%) in games six and seven.

The best part about LeBron is that he isn’t Michael Jordan. He hasn’t forced himself to mimic somebody that others want him to be; he’s been more than happy to just be himself. And that’s great if you are a basketball fan, because James is some unique physical monster that somebody created in a lab. It’s hard to believe that James was just a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, lucky just to have made it out of high school, before becoming a two-time NBA champion; a mad scientist, one hell bent on creating the perfect basketball player, conjuring up James by giving him elements from all of legends – Magic’s vision and passing, the Karl Malone’s chiseled and brute physique, Pippen’s grappling defense, Kobe’s work ethic, Dr. J’s athleticism and, yes, Jordan’s scoring ability – seems like a more likely explanation for his existence.

Forcing LeBron, as well as Dwyane Wade, to hit perimeter jumpshots is a common gameplan for stopping the Heat, but you will never see a team execute that gameplan as effectively, precisely and as beautifully as the Spurs did in this series. Gregg Popovich designed brilliant help schemes, Kawhi Leonard played incredible individual defense on James, and Duncan toed the backline as expertly as he ever has, often times forcing the game’s best perimeter threat to change his shot or pass the ball when they met in the paint. The Spurs had the perfect blueprint to limit James, but at the end of the day, any defensive gameplan involving LeBron will put you at his mercy, and in game seven he broke the process by beating San Antonio with his outside shot. The Spurs decided they would live with LeBron taking jumpers, but they died by it in game seven.

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With one minute left in the game, Manu Ginobili chased down a loose ball after Shane Battier missed a three from the top of the key. As Manu grabbed for the ball, Dwyane Wade came flying towards him, diving to save the possession. Manu collected himself and pushed the ball up to Danny Green as James gambled for a steal. Wade and James’ failed effort plays left the Heat defense in scramble mode, and with 50 seconds left, Ginobili entered the ball into Duncan on the post with Battier on his back.

At the time, the Spurs were down 90-88, but they had a perfect mismatch on the block with a small forward guarding their best player, one of the five best of all-time, on the block. Duncan took one dribble towards the lane, brought the ball up and got a wide open hook shot over Battier; it caromed off the back of the rim. But the play wasn’t over, Duncan still owned a size and length advantage over Battier and had realized his shot was off, so he bounced back up off the floor for a putback attempt. He’s never had a cleaner look at the rim, with the ball suspended in mid-air and his hand coming up to tip it in. With the proper amount of touch, Duncan could have tied the game and changed the landscape of the Finals. Instead, he rushed his motion just a bit, and the ball went wide of the rim.

A disgusted Duncan violently wiped the sweat off his face with his jersey on the way up the floor. Once he was back on defense, he crouched down and slammed the floor in frustration. Never had Duncan made such a crucial mistake in a deciding Finals game, and he seemed to realize that one shot – a bunny, an easy tip-in – may have decided who was crowned the 2013 NBA Champions.

“So many little things that could have gone our way in the last play or the last two plays to win it,” Ginobili said after the game. “There’s such a fine line – such a fine line – between being celebrating and having a great summer, and feeling like crap and just so disappointed.”

On the rebound, Miami called a timeout to set-up a potential game-clinching play. The Heat came out of the timeout and gave the ball to their Hall-of-Famer, their all-time great. With LeBron handling up top, Mario Chalmers rushed up to set a screen as the shot clock wound down. James came off the screen, Parker showing hard and bumping him a bit off path. James picked up his dribble and stopped dead in his tracks near the right elbow. He hesitated for a second – a dramatic pause prior to the biggest shot of his life – and as Kawhi Leonard leaped at him to contest, James calmly released the jumper, sealing the envelope on everybody’s Finals MVP ballots, as well as the lips of all of those who have criticized his big game fortitude, with a swish.

When asked after the game if it was too soon to be proud of what his team accomplished, a despondent Duncan replied: “It’s a hard question to answer right now.”

I’ve never seen Duncan so affected emotionally by the outcome of the game. During my brief time covering him and the many years that I’ve watched him, you come to expect him to be that stoic and statuesque presence at the podium, always their to squash any feelings in the room. But this time, he was crestfallen, only mustering verbal pauses before taking a second or two to clinch his forehead and gather his thoughts.

“To be at this point,” Duncan said, seemingly fighting off tears.

“With this team,” he continued, on the verge of an emotional breakdown at any second, with thoughts of what he had gone through with his teammates over the course of this season and all he had accomplished with Pop, Manu and Tony over the years clearly seeping into his mind.

“In a situation where people kind of counted us out, it’s a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7.”

Though Duncan can always look back on what he was able to do during his career, the memories of his mishaps from this series will never elude him.

“Game seven is always going to haunt me,” he says, citing his own missed opportunities down the stretch as the horrors.

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About thirty minutes later, it was LeBron James’ turn to take the podium. He walked onto the stage, a smile on his face, a stogie in his mouth and the Finals MVP trophy in his hand, and sat down.

When asked of his plans now that he’s a two-time NBA Champion and a two-time Finals MVP, James said he’s ready to say “I do.”

“I got a wedding coming up,” LeBron said. “And it will be an unbelievable wedding now that we’ve won. I might have called it off if we lost.”

With the odd bounce of a ball, a random hot streak from a role player and an untimely regression for another, so many tremendous players making tremendous plays and seven unbelievable games of basketball, legacies and lives were changed forever.

As criminal as it for history to change on such an unpredictable whim, and as tough as it is to see a legend like Duncan miss out on a defining moment with uncharacteristic blunders, I walked away from game seven feeling that the best player on the planet – a legend himself – earned everything that was given to him.

And that’s a perfect way for one of the best series ever to end.

Lighting The Fire

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You hate to think that in game six of the NBA Finals, with your team trailing in the series 3-2 and fighting for its season, that some players still need something extra to get them going. You’d like to think that having a championship at stake, a championship that could greatly affect your legacy, would have players digging down as deep as possible in an attempt to pull out a victory for himself, his teammates, his fans, his city. You’d like to think that silly things like a headband or a yellow rope wouldn’t play a factor in an elimination game in the NBA Finals.

But perhaps some players are just wired differently. Perhaps some players need something more than a championship to play for. Perhaps some players don’t have total trust in themselves, and need to be reminded of their powers every once in a while. Perhaps for some a headband or a yellow rope can change your mindset. Perhaps “some players” is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

James is the most obvious culprit of the bunch, if only because we’ve seen him be curiously tentative in several big moments, as he was to start game six. But things seemed to change for LeBron in the fourth quarter. After starting off the period well, cutting San Antonio’s 10 point lead to four in the blink of an eye, James found another level within himself to help lead Miami on an unbelievable fourth quarter run.

As James went up for a putback slam on an errant Mario Chalmers jumper with nine minutes left in the game, his headband got caught on the net on his way down, falling to the court as LeBron sprinted back on defense. I don’t want to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off, but please allow me to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off.

LeBron rid himself of a lot of self doubt when he won the 2012 title, but it still seems like he has times when he prefers not to miss the big shot, instead creating looks for others; those looks for his teammates are usually great ones, but occasionally James makes a mistake by passing rather than attacking himself. At the end of the third quarter last night, James was 3-of-12 from the field and was once again putting on an oddly passive performance in what can easily be deemed one of the biggest games of his career. He was still playing solid defense, rebounding and passing, but the Heat needed him to get going as scorer to open up chances for himself at the rim and at the line as well as high efficient spot-up looks for his teammates.

Losing that headband in the heat of the battle and then deciding that the game was too important to look for another one to put on gave us LeBron at his most genuine. James has received just as much flak for his receding hairline as he has for his play over the past few years, and he’s clearly sensitive about it. So for him to be on the floor on the biggest stage of his life, without that trusty headband, was big, so much that pundits from all over began to wonder if this was going to be “the headband game.” As stupid as it sounds, perhaps the headband was the last trace left of LeBron’s insecurity, and playing without it finally allowed him to just be himself.

“I’ve never seen him play without his headband that long,” Wade said. “He got very aggressive. He really got to the paint and and he was going to give everything that he had, and he did. He had an unbelievable fourth quarter for us.”

No matter how outlandish that theory sounds, there’s no denying that James was a changed man post-headband. With a naked foreheard and his home fans imploring him to strike during every timeout, literally screaming at him to be more aggressive, James transformed into the dominant MVP he was during the regular season.

LeBron was demanding the ball on post-ups, making aggressive moves towards the basket, comfortably stepping into his shots. Then there was an end-to-end sequence that will be remembered forever if the Heat win game seven. With a little under seven minutes left in the fourth, James came over from the weakside to reject what would have been a wide open Tim Duncan lay-up, raced the ball up the floor, curled around a screen and met Duncan in the paint. After having lost this tussle with Timmy several times before in this series, James gave Duncan a headfake, thrusting the ball in the air as if he was going up, getting Duncan to move just an inch away from the rim, allowing James to sneak under him for the bankshot.

The Heat would take the lead on the very next play, and it seemed as if Miami had made a miraculous comeback to force a game seven. All of that changed in an instant, though, because with this series, you can’t expect any narrative or trend to last more than five minutes.

Miami seemed in control with a three point lead and 1:39 remaining, mostly because of James’ resurgent performance but also because the Heat defense was stifling the Spurs, refusing to give them any good looks off from three-point land. At worst, Miami would still have a one-point lead the next time they touched the ball. So what happened? After Miami defended him perfectly for 20 seconds, Tony Parker decided to launch a stepback three in the face of LeBron, and it went down, tying the game. On Miami’s next possession, Parker snuck into the paint and stole a pass from Mario Chalmers; Parker then dribbled up the floor, came off a pick, stopped on a dime in the paint, spun around and launched a floater to give the Spurs a lead with less than a minute left. All of a sudden, the Spurs were about to be crowned NBA champions.

No more than 20 seconds later, this much was clear to everybody. After two LeBron turnovers and a few Spurs free throws, San Antonio was up five with half a minute left. Heat fans were leaving the arena, those remaining had looks of disbelief on their face and about two dozen security staff members surrounded the court, waiting to prop up the yellow rope for San Antonio’s trophy presentation.

But just as the Spurs started to taste that celebratory champagne, the Heat big three all caught wind of that feeble yellow rope. Apparently, it was that sight that made the Heat collectively realize that San Antonio would be partying on their home floor if they didn’t pull something crazy out of their hats in the 11th hour. And that’s what they did.

“I saw the rope,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said. “Everybody saw the rope.”

“I got pissed,” Chris Bosh said.

“When they brought out that yellow rope,” Wade said. “And you know you’re not the one that’s going to celebrate, we kept fighting and believing. We played to the last second.”

“We seen the championship board already out there, the yellow tape,” James said. “That’s why you play the game to the final buzzer.”

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Honestly, is that rope going to stop a crazed fan from getting onto the court? (Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

Thanks to some timely missed free throws from Kawhi Leonard and Ginobili, as well as some mind boggling substitutions by Gregg Popovich (taking Duncan off the floor for two defensive possessions), the Heat completed the comeback. Duncan’s absence was key because both of Miami’s made threes in the last 20 seconds came off of offensive rebounds; the first loose carom leading to a LeBron James triple and the season saving board by Chris Bosh leading to Ray Allen hitting the shot of his career to tie the game with five seconds left.

Second life was given to the Heat when Allen drained that triple, and their defense went on to dominate the overtime period. LeBron locked up Parker, Wade had a couple of key defensive rotations on the backline and Bosh was absolutely tremendous, providing help in all of the right places, often times defending two or three actions directly on one play while still having to guard against some indirect actions. While it wasn’t as glamorous or as sustained as their game four performance, the defense they played in overtime was one of the big three’s best collective efforts. As Duncan, Parker and Ginobili seemed to wear down, the Heat found a reserve tank deep inside themselves and gutted out and extremely tense five minutes of basketball to force a game seven.

And how fitting was it, given what he said before the game and how many key (yet unnoticed) plays he made down the stretch, for Bosh to finish the game the way he did?

Down three with 1.9 seconds left, the Spurs drew up a play to get Danny Green a look on a flare screen in an attempt to tie the game. Allen was tasked of sticking with Green on the play, but Tiago Splitter set a good screen, freeing up Green as he faded to the corner. But there was Bosh, the man who proclaimed prior to the game that Danny Green would not be open in this game, tracking him every step of the way, standing right in front of him when he caught the ball and cleanly rejecting his shot to end the game.

As the buzzer sounded, Bosh let out a loud roar, tossing the ball across the building as the American Airlines Arena erupted.

There would be no trophy presentation last night.

But at least now I am sure of something for the first time during this series: somebody will win the NBA Title on Thursday night. And I can’t wait to find out who it will be.

Still Got It

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ginobili

When Manu Ginobili’s illustrious and Hall-of-Fame NBA career comes to an end, perhaps as soon as next Thursday, he will have a career as a high school physics teacher waiting for him if he wants it. I mean, who could demonstrate the laws of motion better than a player who constantly bends space and time with fathomless passes? And during his off period Manu could swing on down to room 122 to show those Geometry students a thing or two about mastering angles and trajectory.

Or perhaps Ginobili would be better off as an optometrist, or, better yet, a therapist, so he could help others see the things that aren’t in plain sight; that three-point shooter raising from the corner to the wing on the weakside or that annoying habit you have when you eat dinner that really bothers your spouse.

Or maybe Manu will seek out a career as an artist; after all, he’s illustrated countless masterpieces on the 94 by 50 foot hardwood canvas that the Spurs have provided him with.

Ginobili’s adaptable and resourceful personality will present him with many new vocations to pursue when he’s done with basketball, but no profession would be more apt than a career in theater.

Forget the delightful aesthetics of Manu’s game that make him a treasure to watch, it’s his flair for the dramatic and his infatuation with the big stage that suit him so well to act scene-by-scene as well as he plays quarter-by-quarter. Of course, it’s hard to tell how compelling Ginobili’s performances would be without Pop acting as the screenwriter, his script filling the arena with anticipation on Sunday night, but all that matters is that those two combined for another classic in game five, and now the Spurs are one win away from another fairytale ending.

It all started with Gregg Popovich offering a buoyant “Maybe” when he was asked if his starting line-up would stay the same for game five. At first, I thought this meant that Gary Neal, who replaced Tiago Splitter just 47 seconds after the tip in game four, would be inserted into the starting line-up to match Miami’s smallball attack. But as the game crept closer and closer, there was more and more chatter around the AT&T Center that it would be Ginobili getting the start and not Neal.

Starting Ginobili has been Pop’s trump card over the past two seasons. When Oklahoma City came back to tie the 2012 Western Conference Finals, Pop started Ginobili in games five and six, and though the Spurs lost both of those games, Manu played extremely well and helped the team match the Thunder’s production, at least until they brought their own Manu into the game. With Miami going small and winning game four, Popovich saw last night’s game as an opportunity not only to even the playing field when it came to floor spacing, but also get Ginobili going early in the game.

Once I heard Ginobili would start, I knew exactly how game five was going to play out. After playing four of the worst games of his playoff career, a dejected Ginobili was injected into the starting line-up, hearing a thunderous “Manu” chant when his name was announced last amongst the Spurs starters. For the past two days everyone had been wondering when vintage Manu would make an appearance, and it didn’t take long for him answer the call.

“I think that first shot was huge, because that was not even a play for him,” Tony Parker said after the game.

No, it was not. The first play call of the game for the Spurs was a down screen for Tony Parker on the left block after which he would spring to the left wing and flow into a side pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan. But Ginobili was handling up high, and he decided that Parker wasn’t quite open enough on his cut, waving him off before moving into his own pick-and-roll roll with Duncan. The Heat switched the pick-and-roll, putting Chris Bosh on Ginobili. Manu strung out his dribble for a second or two before stepping back, creating an inch of space before rising up and launching a long jumper over Bosh. Money.

San Antonio’s next play was also not meant to have Ginobili decide the outcome, but Danny Green snuck into the paint on a backcut and Manu riffled a pass to him for the easy lay-up. The next time up the floor the call was a straight post-up for Tim Duncan on the left block, but with Bosh overplaying him and the help defense too far away, Duncan popped his eyes out, his way of telling of Manu to throw him the ball, and once again, Ginobili delivered a picture perfect pass, allowing Duncan to throw one down. Next possession, another Duncan post-up was called, this time on the right block; Miami’s defense succeeded in preventing the entry pass on this try, but the Spurs reversed the ball, eventually finding Ginobili on the left wing, where he had an angle on Mike Miller and drove to the free throw line, drawing the foul.

If you’re scoring at home: the Spurs scored eight points on their first four possessions, with each point coming as a direct result of Manu Ginobili’s work. Later in the first, Ginobili would add a three-point shot to his total. Ginobili wouldn’t be heavily involved in the action again as a scorer until later in the game, a sign of his mortality, but his ability to control the game showed once again in the final minutes of the the third quarter. With the Heat down just four, Manu delivered another spurt that took the Spurs to another level.

manuTo get things started with 2:21 left in the period, Ginobili drives baseline past Ray Allen, floating it in with his left hand, plus the foul. It is now when the fans decide to indulge in another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant as he steps to the free throw line. Ginobili responds by taking it to the Heat in semi-transition on the next play, crossing over, leaning into Norris Cole and flipping in another close range shot. Then, on what seems to be a lost possession, Gary Neal kicks it to a stagnant Ginobili in the corner, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. Manu catches, takes one step inside the arc and tosses it to Splitter on the roll for the wide open lay-up.

Off a Heat turnover, Ginobili operates a high screen-and-roll with Splitter masterfully, toying with the defense by the rejecting the screen, twirling around, and then rejecting it again, finding himself wide open from deep. It doesn’t fall. Looking to redeem himself, Ginobili calls an isolation for himself to end the quarter, driving hard to his right on Cole before floating one off the glass as Udonis Haslem flies over to help. It goes.

After struggling to fit in during the first four games of this series, Ginobili played game five about as perfectly as he could have. He finally found the perfect balance between being aggressive and making all of the right plays out of pick-and-rolls and on isolations. It’s a more difficult transition than you’d think, especially for someone who has too much pride to eagerly admit he’s not his old self, but those problems were all solved last night. Manu scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting while dishing out 10 critical and marvelous assists and posting a game high +19, expertly shifting from aggressive scorer mode into selfless teammate mode, putting on whichever cape he sensed his team needed him to wear at a given time. With the Manu tile finally in place, the Spurs big three finally hummed in unison, with Parker putting on a teardrop show and carving up Miami’s defense while Duncan notched his umpteenth “quiet” double-double with stellar defensive play in the paint.

For a series that has been so wildly unpredictable, you could see this Ginobili performance from a mile away. Ginobili may have been doubted by outsiders, but his teammates and his coach never lost faith in him, and the decision to start Manu and to put him front and center in their last game of the season in front of the home crowd really got him going.

“I needed it,” Ginobili said. “I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me, and (tonight) I was able to attack the rim, get to the free‑throw line, and make a couple of shots.”

“It felt great when I heard (the Manu chants),” Ginobili continued. “To feel that I really helped the team to get that 20‑point lead, it was a much‑needed moment in the series. I was glad to see it happen.”

During the break between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd starts up another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant, this one lasting about a full minute. On the first possession of the fourth, a clearly exuberant Ginobili calls for a screen from Splitter, using it as a decoy to set up his move. As Splitter arrives, Manu sprints from the top of the key to the left wing, stepping back and launching an awkard fadeaway three over Mario Chalmers. It’s an airball.

This is the Manu Ginobili we all know and love; you put up with the blunders – the errant shots, the devastating fouls, the head scratching passes – because when it works – the no-look dishes, the pick pocket steals, the sweet touch from deep, the mind-numbing creativity – there’s nothing more pleasant, nothing so slick. And Manu may have made up for a lifetime of blunders last night, because, with one more win, the Spurs will be NBA Champions once again.

And now Ginobili will be able hold that title with glee, knowing his team didn’t win in spite of him, but, in part, because of him.

Time For Manu To Be Manu

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As Dwyane Wade went back in time to deliver a vintage Flash performance in game four, many wondered when the same would happen for the Spurs’ dynamic shooting guard, the player that has won them so many big games with his supreme shotmaking and paranormal playmaking.

It has been a nightmare NBA Finals for Manu Ginobili, who has been hampered by injuries this post-season and thus looked like a shell of his former, brilliant self. Ginobili is averaging just eight points per game on 35% shooting in this series, including just 19% shooting from beyond the arc. While he is still making solid plays for others out of pick-and-rolls, Tim Duncan suggested after game four that Ginobili is overpassing at this point, trying too hard to make the unselfish play as Miami dedicates two defenders to him anytime he comes off a screen.

Unbelievably, Ginobili has been the Spurs worst player this series, playing a major role in all of San Antonio’s worst line-ups over the first four games. The Heat have outscored the Spurs by a stunning 22.8 points per 100 possessions when Ginobili has been on the floor, according to NBA.com/Stats. The Spurs have scored a little over seven points per 100 possessions more with Ginobili on the bench and their defense has been 34 points per 100 possessions worse with Manu on the floor.

Ginobili is not the only one of the Spurs’ big three to play below their standards in this series, but he is the lone member of the trio that has played horribly. While the Spurs have proven that they can win games without Ginobili playing like his old self over the past few years, there’s no denying that San Antonio reaches its peak whenever they have Manu giving them another efficient scorer from the perimeter to go along with Tony Parker. Ginobili averaged 23 points per game on 60% shooting in the first two games in last year’s Western Conference Finals; in games 3-6, Ginobili averaged 16 points per game on 44% shooting. Not surprisingly, the Spurs won the first two games and lost the rest.

Against this Miami Heat team – particularly one that may have discovered the blueprint to beating the Spurs in game four – San Antonio is not going to be able to win two of the next three games if Ginobili doesn’t play better than he has in the first four games of this series. The problem is that Miami’s aggressive pick-and-roll defense is designed to get the ball out of Ginobili’s hands, and their combined length, athleticism and basketball acumen has made it tough for Ginobili to find even an inch of space to get a shot off when coming off of a screen.

When the Heat play with the same amount of precision defensively that they did in game four, Manu is not going to have as much success as a ball-handler as he’s accustomed to. Knowing this, it may be better for the Spurs to find Ginobili shots as a spot-up shooter. Ginobili has been oddly hesitant and uncomfortable launching shots over the outstretched arms of Miami’s defenders, so getting him clean looks off of Miami’s rotations could finally allow him to see the ball go in the basket.

One action that the Spurs could try is a staggered screen up high for Tony Parker, with Ginobili and a big acting as the screener. San Antonio used this set to bend Miami’s aggressive defense in the second half of game four, with Danny Green being the recipient of two wide open looks off the play. With a big man diving to the rim drawing one of Miami’s help defenders and the subsequent screen-and-roll drawing two more, that spot-up shooter is left open for a second or two. Here is the play in action.

Adding in some plays that will get Manu the ball in secondary actions and as a spot-up shooter is one way of getting Ginobili going, but there is no easy answer. During a conference call yesterday, Popovich said that improvement from Ginobili isn’t all about something the playcalling.

“It’s simplistic to say, what are we going to do to get him going?” Pop said. “He’s going to get himself going or he won’t. He knows that he’s got to play better for us to be successful.”

Pop is correct in saying that Ginobili will either play better or he won’t, but there are some better ways to get him the ball against a team with the kind of athletes and scheme necessary to contain him. Miami has made it a point to get Wade the ball in different spots to get him going, and the Spurs need to adjust to get Ginobili more efficient touches.

Though Ginobili has struggled in the first four games of this series, it wouldn’t be smart to count him out completely. Even as he has struggled with his shot, Ginobili has still made a positive impact for stretches, especially during game three when he picked apart the Heat with his passing. Manu is one of the best competitors in league history and has way too much pride to go out like this; of course, pride doesn’t make shots, but you can bet he won’t stop trying to make an impact just because he’s been off lately.

As Dwyane Wade proved in game four, aging stars are capable of dialing back the hands of time for just a night, and a throwback performance from Ginobili in game five may be enough to swing this series back in the Spurs favor.

How The Heat Ramped Up Their Defense

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The biggest difference between game three and game four of the 2013 NBA Finals was quite obviously the play of the Miami Heat big three. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had their best combined scoring outing as a trio in their three-year post-season run and their aggressiveness and confidence offensively was too much for the Spurs to handle.

But looking deeper, the involvement of those three players on the defensive end may have been just as important as their offense contributions. While we generally don’t view defense as equally important to offense from an individual perspective, the collective defense that the Heat played in game four was tremendous, and it had a ton to do with the individual brilliance of James, Wade and Bosh.

Let’s take a look at a few key areas where Miami’s aggressive defense hurt the Spurs.

Side screen and roll coverage

No defensive adjustment was more obvious than the way that the Heat handled San Antonio’s side pick-and-rolls in game four. While it may not have been a true adjustment from game three, seeing as the Heat simply didn’t execute may of their defensive coverages in that contest, the difference in their attention to detail when guarding one of San Antonio’s staple sets was very impactful in the outcome of the game.

First, let’s take a look at how Miami defended the side screen-and-roll between Parker and Duncan in game three.

Mike Miller rotates from properly from the weakside to stop Duncan from getting right to the rim, but he has no chance guarding Duncan one-on-one, as he is forced to do here. You can see in the still below that Bosh is late in getting over to Duncan to trap, allowing the Big Fundamental to get an angle on Miller for an easy lay-up. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard is wide open for the dropoff/offensive board, too. This one photo tells you all you need to know about how hard the Heat played in game three. While that is ridiculously frustrating, that’s a different story for a different day.

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Now let’s take a look at how Miami defended those side pick-and-rolls last night.

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Look at the difference in the help that Bosh is giving in this still from the fourth quarter of game four.

Bosh has already corralled Manu Ginobili and forced the pass and has made the extra effort to get to Duncan ASAP to double him on the baseline. Tiago Splitter is actually doing a good job fighting off Wade to get inside position to burn Battier for helping on Duncan, but the combined length and agility of Bosh and Battier make life hell for Duncan, who has no wiggle room and no clear sightline to make a perfect pass. The result was a poor pass that Splitter ended up saving, but by the time Green had the ball in the corner on an iso, the Heat had already won the possession (Green then turned it over, by the way, which was followed by Wade’s beautiful eurostep slam over Gary Neal).

Here’s another example from later in the fourth.

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I bet Mike Miller, a man whose bones are as fragile as my mom’s Fine China, appreciates having a bit of help in stopping one of the best post scorers in NBA history in one of his favorite areas. Duncan is even farther out in this example than usual, and he has no good options. Any pass to Neal or Leonard will be intercepted by James or Chalmers, and Cory Joseph is not a threat to burn Miami from deep. Duncan ended up lobbing a pass way across the court to Joseph that sailed too far, resulting in a turnover. That’s how Miami drew it up.

Making Green and Neal drivers

After allowing one of the greatest shooting displays in league to take place against their vaunted defense, the Heat came into game four determined to make Neal and Green beat them from anywhere on the court besides behind the arc. The duo still made six threes, but Neal was hitting some crazy deep pull-up shots that Miami will live with and I’ll touch on Green in a moment.

The Heat had their wing players run at Green and Neal like crazy, completing conceding the blow by/drive to two players who haven’t crafted efficient off-the-dribble games just yet, trusting that the help would be there from the backline (and my God was it almost always there). When the help was there, this made Neal and Green rely heavily on floaters.

Here is Miller running hard at Green in the second quarter in an attempt to make him put the ball on the floor.

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Miller is beat here, but that’s Miami’s scheme. They are trusting Wade to bother Green’s shot a bit and for the rest of the Heat players to crash the boards hard to keep Leonard off the offensive glass.

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Here is a play a little later in the second quarter where the Heat execute their side pick-and-roll coverage perfectly followed by running Green off the three-point line and forcing a very awkward floater.

Running really good three-point shooters off of the three-point line seems like something you should do to begin a series, but it’s better late than never, and Miami has figured out that Green and Neal as drivers is a LOT less scary than anything else the Spurs can throw at you.

Picking on poor Tiago Splitter

Splitter looks a lot more like the guy who got benched in the Western Conference Finals last year rather than the player that showed so much improvement during the regular season (and even against Memphis). Athletic teams that can go small simply make for a horrible match for Splitter, as his game on both ends of the floor is made less effective when the players he is guarding are much faster than he is.

San Antonio loves to get Splitter rolling down the middle of the lane on high pick-and-rolls, but look how the Heat take that away from him while making it look so easy.

Miami’s trap leaves Splitter open on the dive, but that defender from the weakside corner has snuck over to make Splitter’s life a living hell once again. This time it’s Wade poking the ball away from an unsuspecting Splitter and getting an easy steal.

And there’s LeBron picking on Splitter again, this time channeling his inner Nostradomus and making the picture perfect read on the pass that Splitter wants to make to Kawhi Leonard in the corner, literally ripping the ball from the Brazilian’s hands. What’s worse is that all of these Splitter turnovers are wasting what are some of basketballs most beautiful passes from Manu Ginobili.

One San Antonio counter: The double high screen-and-roll

The Spurs showed off a double high pick-and-roll look in the second half to counter Miami’s aggressiveness and it worked a couple of times. The reason the play works is because they have the big man set the first screen and dive into the rim, drawing a defender, while Parker comes around the second screen and gets trapped by two players, leaving Green wide open for a three. If that third defender sticks with Allen, then the responsibility falls on the baseline defender to slide over and help, but that would mean leaving Kawhi Leonard open in his favorite spot; as you can see, Miami isn’t the only team whose spacing causes major problems for the opponent.

Here’s the double high screen in action.

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With Parker turning the corner and getting into the paint, his drive and Duncan’s roll have sunk three defenders into the paint, leaving Green wide open from beyond the arc.

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Here’s the play in real time.

The Spurs have run this set a lot for Matt Bonner during this post-season, and adding Green as a screener is a great wrinkle that can really bend Miami’s aggressive defense. I’m sure will see more of this going forward in the series.

***

Whether or not Miami can keep up this intensity for another 48 minutes on Sunday night is a valid question, but they proved that the schemes in place are effective when the players exert themselves to execute them. And that may make the Heat the only team in the league that can say that they’ve found a blueprint that can take way even half of the looks that the Spurs love to search for.

Heat Big Three Finally Arrives To The Finals

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There was one sequence during the Miami Heat’s 109-93 game four victory over the San Antonio Spurs that perfectly summed up the game.

It came during the fourth quarter, which is when the Heat started gaining firm control of things. There were eight minutes left in the game and the Heat were up seven following a beautiful Dwyane Wade floater. The Spurs came down the floor and ran one of their staple plays: a side screen-and-roll between Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Manu executed the play well versus Miami’s trap, finding Duncan open on the roll to the baseline, where Timmy was met by Shane Battier on the help before Chris Bosh came over and gave Duncan a hard double team. This was something that the Spurs saw a ton of last night, as Miami’s defense was suffocating any space the Spurs created, particularly anytime that Duncan got the ball on that baseline.

Miami’s double on this particular instance restricted Duncan’s movement and his passing lanes, and he missed what would usually be an elementary pass to Splitter underneath the basket, with the ball caroming off Splitter’s finger tips. Splitter didn’t give up on the play, though, and saved the ball from going out of bounds by tossing it to Danny Green. In game three, Green probably would have calmly released the corner three over Ray Allen, but the Heat made a smart adjustment in game four, forcing Green and Gary Neal to beat them on the drive. Green got down into a triple-threat position and began driving baseline before he was walled off from the paint by Allen and Battier. As a player unfamiliar with creating off-the-dribble, Green made a risky pass to Ginobili on the wing that was stolen by Wade, who was waiting in the weeds for that exact play.

Wade caught the ball with some momentum and blew past Ginobili, getting to halfcourt with only Gary Neal in sight. Neal had a couple of feet on Wade and was darting at angle in an attempt to cut him off. In game three, Neal may have been able to deter Wade’s journey to the rim or perhaps he would have swiped at the ball to force a turnover. But on this night, with everything going Miami’s way, Wade would flashback to his days as Flash, pulling off a vintage Wade move, eurostepping past Neal’s body and into the paint while simultaneously gathering the ball above Neal’s head. Once Wade had brushed off Neal, he threw down a monster slam, gritting his teeth on his up the floor.

It was a microcosm of the entire evening. The Spurs executed their offense the way they want to against Miami’s initial traps, but the Heat’s backline rotations were just flawless for the majority of game four, forcing the ball out of the hands of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan and making Neal and Green beat them as drivers and not jumpshooters. Miami’s swarming defensive philosophy is a high risk-high reward system that can lend itself to very bad beatdowns if the effort and attention to detail isn’t there (we learned this in game three), but a 2-1 deficit brought that next level intensity out of the Heat once again, and they just gobbled up the Spurs offense in the second half while forcing 18 turnovers for the game.

Bosh was so key in this. As the Heat shifted to a smallball line-up, Bosh was left as the lone big on the floor for Miami for most of the night, and his help defense on drives and pick-and-rolls was unbelievable. Bosh, who finished with 13 rebounds and finally had a good shooting game (20 points on 8-of-14), was as tuned in defensively as he has been in a few weeks. People forget this element of Miami going small, the fact that they still have to protect the rim with a nominal power forward that was once thought of as a bad defender. But give Bosh a ton of credit, he’s put in the work to become a much better defender and his ability to anchor the paint with four perimeter players around him is a big reason the Heat were able to win the title in 2012, and a big reason they are back in the hunt for the 2013 title.

And there was Wade, finishing off that play as he did so many others on this night: with the athletic grace and vitality that made him such a special player in his prime. While LeBron James was the game’s leading scorer and certainly answered the call to be more aggressive in this game, it was Wade’s offensive contributions that helped take the Heat to another level. Wade talked a lot about stepping into the mid-range shots that the Spurs were conceding to he and LeBron with confidence, and both players did that last night. It’s not that surprising for James, who has become an elite shooter, but it was shocking to see Wade comfortably taking those outside shots and making a few, bad knee and all. And when the Spurs sagged off of him when he didn’t have the ball, Wade made cunning cuts on the baseline to find good looks at the rim.

Wade also had a lot more burst in the paint than we have seen from him in this series, and he was able to finish baskets at the rim for the first time in what seems like forever. Given that the Spurs had previously declared that part of the court off limits for Miami’s stars, it was huge for Wade to wiggle his way into the paint so often. After shooting just 16 shots in the restricted area in the first three games of this series, Wade took 12 shots at the rim last night and converted on 10 of them. In addition to his old school eurostep dunk over Neal, Wade also had some really pretty finishes with contact and over size. Wade finished with 32 points, six rebounds, six steals and four assists; as pundits like myself wondered if Wade still had it in him to perform at this level, Flash made an appearance to show us that he still had it in him.

It was, as LeBron said, the kind of game that let’s you know that you’re still one bad man.

Speaking of James, he also stumbled upon some rhythm in this game. After the first few minutes of the first quarter, I was starting to believe that James was going to play another tentative game, as the Spurs jumped out to a 15-5 lead with LeBron not touching the ball on most plays. But Erick Spoelstra must have said something during that timeout – perhaps he ribbed James for listening to Imagine Dragons in that Beats by Dre commercial – or maybe that was when LeBron personally decided to ditch the team first attitude for a stretch, because he was a different player for the rest of the night after that.

After scoring just one point in the first five minutes of the game, James ended up with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the final seven minutes of the period, putting him well on his way to the 33 points on 60% shooting that he finished with. During that late first quarter stretch was the first time that I saw LeBron constantly pushing the ball in transition after Spurs misses, which allowed James to get to the rim with ease for fastbreak lay-ups, something we haven’t seen the Spurs concede until last night. It was simply a matter of James deciding to put his head down and attack the paint despite the bodies by the rim, and he may have finally realized that he can finish over almost anybody most of the time.

You could tell that James had found his zone in this game because of his confidently he was stepping into his shots off pick-and-rolls. He wasn’t taking a couple of seconds to think about what the Spurs were offering anymore, he was taking whatever they would give him instantly, knowing he could make them pay. After struggling to find his mid-range stroke in the first three games, James shot a ridiculous 7-of-9 from 16-23 feet in game four as he finally discovered his shot. I doubt that Wade will be able to offer up another high volume scoring game by way of the jumpshot, but James getting in rhythm with his outside shot takes his game, as well as the Heat’s overall attack, to another level, and could spell danger for the Spurs.

We had been wondering when the Miami Heat’s big three would show up to these 2013 NBA Finals, and they were nearly too late. But Wade, James and Bosh all played tremendous games last night and it came just in time to steal back homecourt advantage without digging themselves too big of a hole. Now it’s time to wonder when San Antonio’s big three will finally arrive in unison, as Parker has been spotty, Duncan has been quiet and Ginobili has been straight up depressing (it hurts watching such a fierce competitor like Manu go out like this).

Who will show up? Will Ginobili get back on track? Will Parker be healthy? Will LeBron keep it up? Does Wade have another big time performance left in the tank?

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Wade said. “See you Sunday.”

Yes, you will, Dwyane. Because this series is way too eccentrically entertaining to miss.

No More Magic, Time For An Exorcism

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While tonight’s game is not win-or-go-home, if the Miami Heat spot the Spurs a 3-1 lead with one more game in the San Antonio with the trophy up for grabs, you can safely begin to crown the Spurs the champs. What’s worse for the game’s best player, LeBron James, is that a loss in this Finals would give his reputation a major hit. Though Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have yet to show up to lend a helping hand, James’ inefficient and tentative performance in the first three games of this series has made him a flagpole for criticism, and a lot of it has been deserved.

As I’ve said before, three losses in the Finals would be catastrophic for LeBron’s legacy. Though NBA legend Magic Johnson has four Finals loses on his resume, he also has five championships, an amount of respect from every kind of fan that LeBron will never have (which affects how we view him) and played in an era when it was much easier to make it back to the Finals for financial and talent reasons.

While he’s no longer universally hated, the majority of folks still don’t root for James, so he’s constantly belittled anytime he does wrong, and he will have to have an overwhelming amount of success to impress most. LeBron is already criticized for having to join up with other super powers to compete for titles, so not only is his one title discussed with a blemish, he’s on track to lose twice in the Finals with stars on his side. Of course, with the way that Wade and Bosh are looking right now, it appears as if this will be the last time this Heat team gets to the Finals, meaning James’ chances of winning more rings may come down to the rosters that the Cavaliers or Lakers can put around him in 2014. Oh, and the only time Magic has been attacked on social media is for his announcing career, while each missed shot or turnover by James causes a virtual uprising like no other. Like it or not, Twitter may play a bigger role in shaping a player’s legacy than anything else in today’s age.

So LeBron sits in a very familiar situation to the one he was in last year in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were up 3-2 with game six on the Garden parquet and a trip to the Finals at stake. James had been playing well prior to game six, but because his team wasn’t winning, he was getting all of the blame. LeBron heard all of this and came into that game six with a look on his face that we haven’t seen since. He showed no emotions, choosing to channel all of his energy into his play. He offered up what was likely the best performance of his career, finishing with 45 points and 15 rebounds; James drilled jumpers, bullied his way on the blocks and dominated the Celtics from the opening tip, keeping his team alive in the chase for the title.

Judging by his play in the early part of this series, a 30-point effort would be a massive improvement, let alone a 45 point game, but that isn’t necessarily the point. The difference in James during that game six was his mindset; he appeared to have ditched the Magic Johnson part of his DNA for a game, looking for his own shot first, and if that first shot wasn’t there, he probed even more to find another look for himself.

USATSI_7299346_154512334_lowresLeBron has played the first quarters of these NBA Finals in a way very similar to what Kobe Bryant tends to do in high intensity games: he comes out looking to get his teammates involved, figuring that the best chance to get them going is during the game’s initial minutes. The difference is that when Kobe plays passively in the first quarter, he has absolutely no problem flipping the switch and turning into the scoring menace that has won his team so many games. LeBron doesn’t have that switch, or at least he hasn’t displayed it very often. If James is going to dominate a game by scoring, he needs to do it from the tip, because once a defense disrupts his rhythm, it starts to get into his head. And if there is any area where James truly falls short of greats like Kobe or Jordan, it would be his mental fortitude and self-confidence when things start going south. A missed shot never bothered MJ or Kobe, whereas LeBron seems to lose faith in that aspect of his game at the first sight of a bad stretch.

LeBron is so great that he can dominate games even without his shot falling – like last year’s Finals where he dominated the Thunder with his passing and post presence – but San Antonio’s brilliant defensive scheme has put him in a position where the only way he can kill them offensively is with a steady dose of outside shots. They have essentially put a “No Trespassing” sign at the free throw line and surrounded the paint with athletic bodyguards that can deter LeBron from getting to the rim, which is why game three was the first game in nearly five years in which James didn’t get to the free throw line. San Antonio is also going way under – like comically under – on all screen-and-rolls, daring James to hit those outside shots, and LeBron has yet to smoothly step into a jumper, always taking a couple of seconds to think about the shot, hesitating rather than taking it in rhythm.

While most folks still perceive James a poor outside shooter, he shot 40% from three this season and 46% on mid-range jumpshots, which are elite level numbers, particularly for a player that can do so many other things. But James isn’t playing with the same confidence that he had during the regular season, and with that his percentages have come crashing down. Advanced stats have found the mid-range shot to be the most inefficient part of the game, which is why the Spurs’ gameplan is so good, but if they are going to continue to beg a very good mid-range shooter to take wide open shots, it’s on LeBron to begin decisively taking those shots with assurance.

James has vowed that he will play better in tonight’s game, and he has the talent to tie this series up at 2-2. But unless he comes into game four with the same mindset that he had in game six of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat will be all but toast in yet another NBA Finals.

Green, Neal Scorch The Heat

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When Danny Green stepped up onto the Spurs’ newly minted media scaffold, this one built in a chilly corner on the event level floor of the AT&T Center to accommodate the additional media that the Finals stage brings, he didn’t know what to do. A Spanish writer raised his hand so that the moderator would call on him for the first question, but Green took it as a friendly wave and awkwardly shot back a smirk. After a minute of deafening silence, a nervous Green tried to kickoff the conversation, letting out a quick “What’s up?” to the crowd of reporters.

Green had never been on that stage before, or any other like it. As a player that has been waived three times during his career – twice by the Spurs and once by the LeBron-era Cavaliers – and has had his confidence sapped by ill-timed shooting slumps in the past two post-seasons, Green is just happy that he got another chance from the Spurs. His lack of composure in rough and crucial times, specifically when he shot 4-of-23 from three in the Western Conference Finals last year, made him a bit of a liability to a coach like Gregg Popovich, someone whose fundamental principle is to stick to the process no matter the result.

But here we are, a little over a year after he had the worst shooting stretch of his life against the Thunder, and Green is now a legitimate candidate, if not the favorite, to be the 2013 NBA Finals MVP. According to Popovich, it took a pair of stern and wise head coaches – Pop and Green’s college coach Roy Williams – that cared for Green’s development as a player and as a person giving him a call this off-season to preach to him about remaining confident in himself no matter how many shots he missed.

Confidence is now the least of Green’s problems. The 25-year old shooting guard has been unconscious from the outside in the Finals, his fortitude growing with each and every shot release, and he’s even expanded his game to include a couple of off-the-bounce pull-up threes that found nothing but net. Through three games, Green is shooting an implausible 16-of-23 from three point-range, including his 5-of-5 outing from deep in game two and his 7-of-9 performance from beyond the arc last night. When you go to a game with guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the floor, you expect to be wowed in some way, but never did I think that my jaw would be on the floor because Danny Green was putting on one of the best shooting exhibitions in NBA Finals history.

Due in large part to Green’s game high 27 points, the Spurs blew out the Heat 113-77 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

The Spurs probably don’t win game one without Green’s four threes and last night’s game would have been closer if it wasn’t for his second half explosion. When you throw in the absolutely phenomenal defense that Green has played on LeBron James, both in man-on-man situations and as a help defender, I believe he’s been the most valuable player for the Spurs in this series. With Parker, Ginobili and Duncan all struggling offensively, Green has stepped up and is currently the leading scorer in this series at 18.7 points per game, which, I’m sure, is how we all saw this series playing out.

Just about the only thing that has been more surprising than Green’s emergence as much more than a role player in this series was Gary Neal emerging as much more than a role player in game three. While Green gave the game it’s grand finale, it was Neal that put on a fireworks show in the first half. Neal had 14 first half points, including 4-of-6 shooting from downtown, and he played a key part in the most important sequence of the game: the closing minutes of the first half.

Neal hit a three with 3:27 left in the second quarter that put the Spurs up 11, then their largest lead of the series, but the Heat answered with a 12-1 run that tied the game with 26 seconds left in the half. But then the Spurs pulled off the best two-for-one I’ve seen this season. Parker somehow got a running fadeaway three from the corner to go, salvaging the two-for-one chance by two seconds. LeBron would attack a bit earlier on the other end, though, but his foray to the rim, like all of his others on the night, was a failure, this one because of a tremendous block by Green. Duncan gathered the loose ball off the block and tossed the ball up to Parker, who quickly found Neal sprinting up the floor. Neal was so eager to get up a shot that he wasn’t even on balance when he let it fly, but on this night, balance didn’t matter. And just like that, all of Miami’s momentum was gone and they went into the lockerroom with their eyes staring at the floor instead of being happy that they withstood San Antonio’s best punch without losing any ground.

Neal is Green’s reclamation brother. Neal said that he and Green have always showed up two hours early to practice since they became Spurs, doing everything in their power to earn the respect and trust of the coaching staff. Neither was highly touted and neither was expected to do much, but by working their butts off, they put themselves in a position to succeed.

While Green was a second round pick coming out of college, Neal was not seen as an NBA prospect coming out of Towson and decided to play internationally. Neal played in Turkey and Spain before settling down in Treviso, Italy. Neal said that he was comfortable financially with his Lega Basket earnings, but in July 2010, two major events happened that would change his life forever.

First of which, Neal said “I do” to his wife Leah on July 10th, and the two immediately began planning a honeymoon to Atlantis to celebrate their marriage. It was around then, however, when Neal’s agent contacted him to let him know that the San Antonio Spurs had interest in him and wanted to give him to come in for a minicamp, which eventually led to a spot on San Antonio’s Summer League team. Neal and his wife made the decision that he should pursue the opportunity to play in the NBA, something he’d never seriously considered before, and if things didn’t work out, there was always that trip to Atlantis and a solid career playing pro ball in Europe waiting for them.

But there would be no return trip to Treviso for Neal. San Antonio’s front office saw something in the undersized combo guard that made them believe he’d work in their system, and by July 22nd he had a three year deal with an NBA team. As a shot-first player without elite playmaking ability and some poor defensive habits (as well as less than ideal size), it didn’t seem like the perfect marriage, but for all of the ups-and-downs that Neal has had during his tenure as a Spur, it was all worth it for last night alone.

Neal was 9-of-17 from the field and 6-of-10 from deep in game three, giving the Spurs 24 points off the bench; collectively, Parker, Duncan and Ginobili had 25 points last night. He’s not a perfect player, but he’s never struggled in the confidence department the way that Green has, so, for better or for worse, he will always hoist any semi-open look he gets. Last night it didn’t matter if Neal was wide open, contested, three feet beyond the arc or even driving into the lane for pretty floaters; it was all working, because he never stopped doing so.

The Spurs had a whopping 29 assists last night and drilled 16 three-pointers as a team, which is a new NBA Finals record. San Antonio moved the ball extremely well, whipping the ball from side-to-side, forcing Miami to rotate all over the floor until they left someone open for even a split second. With the Heat lacking the attention to detail that helped them succeed in game two, the Spurs turned the game into a route. As Green said after the game, the more the Heat have to move defensively, the better the chance they make a mistake, and the Spurs were making Miami move more often than a military family in game three.

When Green was asked about some of the crazy things that were occurring in this series – such as him outscoring LeBron and him getting up on the podium – he was taken aback.

“I never thought I’d be up here talking to you guys,” Green said.

Neither did we, Danny. And that’s what makes this Spurs team so fun to watch.

Heat Thriving Without Wade, Bosh

in NBA by
james

The dirty little secret of the 2013 NBA Finals so far is that the Miami Heat have been far better off when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been off of the floor. Miami’s best stretches of basketball in this series have not involved two of their acclaimed big three, but instead LeBron James and a cast of role players that fit better with his skillset and present more problems for San Antonio’s help heavy scheme.

During that 33-5 run in game two that helped Miami seal the victory, Wade played just 30 seconds while Bosh played just a tad over a minute, and neither player scored. That tear was based upon the same principles that helped the Heat win the NBA title last year: swarming defense and terrific floor spacing.

When Wade and Bosh are not playing at the all-star levels that they are accustomed to, then there’s no denying that a line-up of Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers better complements James than Wade or Bosh. Though Bosh is an adequate floor spacer, his shot has been off since the Indiana series, and he offers very little help on the boards on a consistent basis. Wade has never been able to stretch the floor, and with diminishing athletic abilities, perhaps due to injury, he’s not getting to the rim and getting efficient shots, which cramps Miami’s spacing. Allen, Chalmers and Miller are all very reliable spot-up shooters and Andersen does a good job of rebounding, running to the rim in transition and making smart cuts towards the basket that draws in the defense and gives those shooters more space.

James’ once-in-a-lifetime passing ability gives Miami the ability to run all sorts of sets that force the defense to focus on LeBron, opening up opportunities for those deadly shooters. As we learned in game two, James doesn’t even need to have the ball for that unit to operate effectively offensively; when Miami began the run late in the third quarter, they did so with Chalmers handling the ball and James acting solely as a screen setter in pick-and-rolls, giving the Spurs an unfamiliar look and forcing them into uncharacteristic defensive mistakes. And then when James started getting the ball, the Spurs began sending the help that Gregg Popovich had ordered up, and LeBron almost never makes the wrong read when someone leaves his teammates open.

Defensively, this unit made San Antonio work extremely hard for shots, and more often than not they ended up taking poor shots or turning it over during that run.

Chalmers, James and Andersen are all above average defensive players with good footspeed and excellent instincts, so when they attack ball-handlers, they know exactly where to pressure them to and where the subsequent rotations will be. Mike Miller is likely an average defender at best at this stage of his career, but the battered and bruised veteran competes very hard, and his effectiveness on the glass and knowledge of Miami’s scheme prevents him from being a liability. Ray Allen is the one horrible defender that the Heat have, but even he, by some miracle of God, has not been abused in this series; perhaps the most telling sign of Manu Ginobili’s decline was during game two when he just couldn’t seemed to get by Allen on a few one-on-one plays.

It’s not Miami’s best defensive line-up, but if Wade and Bosh continue to struggle offensively, then the monumental improvement in offensive efficiency with the bench unit on the floor makes up for the subtle drop they’ll have defensively.

Though the sample size is small, the numbers show just how much better the Heat have been with Wade and Bosh out of the game. According to NBA.com/Stats, in the 65 minutes Wade has played in the first two games, the Heat have scored just 101.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions. In the 31 minutes without Wade on the court, the Heat have scored an astronomical 132 points per 100 possessions and held the Spurs to just 91.2 points per 100 possessions. Bosh’s numbers aren’t quite as bad, but they still clearly illustrate that the Heat have been played better on both ends when he has been on the bench.

This puts Erick Spoelstra in a very interesting position. If Wade and Bosh bounceback, then the Heat can go back to relying them for 36-38 minutes a night and to give LeBron a break each half without the team completely falling apart. But without an improvement in production from those two, it would be dumb for Spoelstra not to play James alongside better shooters and rebounders for longer stretches. Of course, it’s not that simple, as things like ego and pride are involved in such a major decision as reducing Wade and Bosh’s minutes in the NBA Finals.

Ironically, two of the three coaches without enough clout to pull off such a move are within arm’s reach of Spoelstra right now. One of them (Pop) probably wouldn’t be so friendly if Spo asked him for advice, but Pat Riley may be able to lend a helping hand.

However Spoelstra chooses to handle this situation, you can bet that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what he might do if Wade and Bosh get off to another poor start. In the macro, it’s tough to replace two of the game’s most well known stars with one-dimensional role players, but in the context of this series, and with the game’s best creator there to make that one dimension much more valuable, Miami’s best chance to win may be with most of the big three on the bench.

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