The Final Exam
By Brian Martin
The San Antonio Spurs have not played since May 27. When Game 1 of the Finals tips off on Thursday, 10 days will have passed since the Spurs last took the court in these Playoffs.
Of course that brings the Rest vs. Rust debate in the days leading up to the Finals. Will the 10 days off hurt the Spurs' rhythm and momentum they had built in sweeping the Grizzlies in the West Finals? Will the 10 days off help them recover from nagging injuries (Tony Parker's calf) and provide rest for older legs (Tim Duncan)?
One thing is for sure -- giving Gregg Popovich 10 days to prepare for a series is not a good thing for the opposing team. That's like giving the valedictorian 10 days to prepare for a final exam. He probably could have aced the test by cramming the night before. With 10 days to study, the test is in trouble.
Unfortunately for Popovich, the test in front of him is LeBron James, a once-in-a-generation talent that is the centerpiece to this Miami Heat run at defending the NBA title. The two have met before on this stage -- back in 2007 when a 22-year-old James was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in just his fourth NBA season. He and his young Cavs squad were no match for the seasoned Spurs, with the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobil and Tony Parker at the height of their powers, and were swept accordingly.
After Game 7 of this year's East Finals, James was asked about his chance at Finals redemption against the Spurs and noted that he was "20, 40, 50 times better than [he] was in the '07 Finals." Since that time James has become a more complete player that can beat a team in a variety of ways. Against the Pacers, James dominated Game 3 in the post, dominated Game 5 in the mid-range and, in Game 7, just dominated everything to push the Heat to the Finals.
The fact that James and the Heat found multiple ways of beating the Pacers is a testament to their talent and philosophy. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra preaches a pace and space system, spreading the floor and allowing players like James and Dwyane Wade to penetrate, force the defense to adjust and either score for themselves in the paint or find open teammates -- often camped out in the corners for 3-point shots.
Miami's attack features a lot more randomness, so to say, than San Antonio's does. With the Spurs, there will be plenty of pick-and-rolls set for Tony Parker, with the point guard often running off two or three screens in a single possession until the right opportunity presents itself. The Spurs can also run the offense through Tim Duncan in the middle, who's defying Father Time by earning First Team All-NBA honors at the age of 37.
Similar to Miami, Parker and Duncan are surrounded by excellent 3-point shooters that make defenses pay for poor pick-and-roll defense and late defensive rotations. While the way they create their offense is different, the two teams vying for the championship take a lot of the same shots -- the restricted area and corner 3s at a high volume, while mid-range and above the break threes are at a low volume.
Field Goals Made -- By Zone -- Totals and Percentage (With League Rank)
|Team||Restricted Area||Paint, Non-RA||Mid-Range||Corner 3||Above Break 3|
|Spurs||1,419 (8), 63.4% (5)||410 (11), 41.9% (5)||718 (20), 42.3% (2)||261 (3), 41.6% (6)||402 (16), 37.6% (4)|
|Heat||1,392 (9), 68.2% (1)||309 (24), 40.7% (8)||730 (18), 42.0% (4)||309 (1), 43.1% (4)||408 (14), 36.0% (8)|
The main outlier here is field goals made in the paint, but outside the restricted area, where the Spurs made 101 more shots during the regular season. A picture of Tony Parker's patented floater immediately comes to mind. And the numbers bear it out. The Spurs made 89 of 146 floating jump shot attempts this season. Meanwhile, Miami was one of the league's worst (ranked 25th) at defending the paint outside the restricted area, allowing opponents to shoot 40.3%.
Evidence of San Antonio's well-oiled machine is the fact that they rank near the top of the league in assists. During the playoffs, the Spurs have the highest Assist Percentage (60.2% of their baskets were assisted) and best Assist-to-Turnover Ratio (1.96 assists per turnover). During the regular season, the Spurs ranked third in Assist% (64.1%) and second in AST/TO Ratio (1.71). They assisted on 57.2% of their two-point field goals, the fourth best mark in the league; and assisted on 90.5% of their three-point field goals, third best in the NBA.
On the other hand, the Heat ranked 14th overall in Assist Percentage at 60.0 percent and assisted on 52.2 percent of two-point shots (ranked 19th) and 86.6% of three-point shots (ranked 10th). These numbers point toward more isolation plays and one-on-one opportunities for Miami.
The Spurs are among the league's best at protecting the rim, holding opponents to 57.4% shooting within the restricted area. And while they do not have a 7-foot-2 rim protecter like Roy Hibbert for the Heat to contend with in the Finals, the combination of Duncan and Tiago Splitter has provided similar protection to that of Hibbert and David West for Indiana. Opponents shot just 50.9% in the restricted area against the Duncan/Splitter combo, compared to 50.8% for the Hibbert/West duo the Heat just faced in the East Finals.
The Heat don't overpower anyone with size. Instead they use their superior athleticism to swarm and trap opponents and force turnovers and bad shots. The Heat defense is aggressive; they want to force offenses out of their sets rather than reacting to what their opponent is trying to accomplish.
Miami is at its best when its defense is wreaking havoc, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets in transition (usually dunks that end up on SportsCenter). During the regular season, the Heat ranked third in points off turnovers (3,976; 18.6 per game). The Spurs ranked 10th (17.4).
The biggest question coming into the Finals is how will the Spurs defend LeBron James? Will they run double teams at him? Will they go one-on-one and double selectively? Can they get the ball out of his hands and force other players to beat them, such as Bosh and Wade (and his injured knee), who both struggled in the last series?
James' combination of athleticism and high basketball IQ make him such a unique and difficult matchup. His first instinct is to facilitate and get his teammates involved, but he also has the ability to take over the offensive load when needed. The next thing you know, you look at the box score and see that he has 30 points and a triple-double.
Here is where Popovich will make his mark on this series: by trying to find a way to slow James down like he has done with star players during the Spurs' run to the Finals.
In the second round against the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were lighting up the scoreboard and had their coach Mark Jackson calling them the best shooting backcourt of all-time. Shortly after that statement was made, the Spurs shut down the Splash Brothers and the Warriors were eliminated in six games.
|Stephen Curry||Klay Thompson|
Thompson: Warriors' second-leading scorer in Games 1-2 (26.5), fifth-leading scorer in Games 3-6 (10.3)
Then came the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, a team that upset the top-seeded Spurs as an eight seed just two seasons ago. The grit-n-grind Grizzlies had Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol playing dominant ball in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Popovich and the Spurs shut down the Grizzlies' inside game and sent them packing in four games.
|Zach Randolph||Marc Gasol|
|First 2 Rounds||19.7||51.2%||+8.4||18.3||47.6%||+6.6|
Now he faces James and has to find a way to break his rhythm and force him to rely on his teammates to carry the burden on a nightly basis. It has yet to be done, but the Spurs have Popovich as the mastermind, not to mention a rising star in Kawhi Leonard that has all of the tools -- size, speed, length, athleticism -- to try to frustrate James. Will he be able to rise to the occasion against the best player in the game on the biggest stage of all? That remains to be seen. In the East Finals, Paul George made himself a household name by going toe-to-toe with James through the first six games of the series (LeBron destroyed him in Game 7). Can Leonard make the most of this opportunity?
On the flip side, what will Spoelstra do to try to slow down Tony Parker, who was an MVP candidate before losing a month to a sprained ankle late in the season, and has been even better in the playoffs? He will likely put James on Parker in small bunches throughout the series, but it's far more likely that Mario Chalmers will be the one running around, under and through the numerous picks set to free Parker in the Spurs offense. Mike Conley, a member of the All-Defensive Second Team, had little luck slowing Parker in the Western Conference Finals. Spoelstra and the Heat will need to be creative in how they attack the Spurs' floor general.
The biggest lesson to come out of the Heat-Pacers series was that if you can control the paint and glass against the Heat, you have a chance to beat the defending champs. That brings us to our keys to the series -- pace, the paint, rebounding and the three-point game.
Pace: During the regular season the Spurs played at the sixth-fastest pace (96.36) in the NBA, compared to Miami's 23rd-ranked pace (92.97). The pace has slowed for both teams in the playoffs (92.24 for the Spurs, 89.16 for the Heat), with San Antonio still ahead of the Heat by more than three possessions per 48 minutes.
Can the Spurs exploit the Heat in transition and get easy baskets? While the Big Three of the Spurs are playing in their fourth Finals in 10 years, there are some young guys on this team (Green, Leonard, Splitter) that can run the floor with Parker if opportunities present themselves.The Spurs have averaged 13.5 fast-break points in the playoffs, besting the Heat by 2.1 points per game.
Paint: During the East Finals, the Heat won every game in which they did the same in the points in the paint battle. They have averaged 39.5 points in the paint in the playoffs (41.5 regular season), which is just slightly behind the Spurs at 41.6 in the playoffs (44.6 regular season).
Rebounding: The Heat faced a dominant rebounding team in the last round, as Indiana led the league in rebounding percentage during the regular season and Playoffs (55.5%). The Heat and Spurs are evenly matched on the boards, both posting a rebounding percentage of 48.5 in the playoffs.
The Heat hold the edge in offensive rebounding with a 22.2% offensive rebound rate compared to 20.5% for the Spurs in the regular season. But that edge may not hold true when they face each other, as the Spurs are the superior team on the defensive glass (74.9% to 73.0%).
Three-Point Game: Both teams understand the importance of the three-point shot, especially the corner three, and perform well on both ends of the court in terms of shooting and defending from distance.
During the regular season, the Heat led the league with 309 corner threes and shot the fourth-highest percentage at 43.1%. The Spurs were not far behind, making the third-most corner threes (261) and hitting at the sixth-highest rate (41.6%).
The corner three is the most-assisted shot in the game, with 96.5% of corner threes coming off an assist league-wide. Most times it is a wide-open look for long-distance specialists such as Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Danny Green in this series. But the Spurs and Heat are among the league's best in defending the shot, closing out on shooters to make it a contested shot. During the regular season the Heat held opponents to 34.1% shooting from the corner three, the second lowest mark in the league. The Spurs were not far behind, with opponents hitting 37.1% of corner threes, ninth-best in the NBA.
So what does all of this add up to? A Finals matchup between the top two teams in the league that have never faced each other at full strength, which makes this all the more fascinating. The teams played a pair of games this season that featured one without Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green and another without James and Wade. They met just once a year ago, but that game didn't feature Wade or Ginobili. If we go back two years, there are two games that featured the Big Three for each team, but the supporting casts were drastically different.
The final exam has arrived for both teams. The Spurs are looking to win their fifth championship in the Popovich/Duncan era and win titles 14 years apart. The Heat are out to defend their first title with the Big Three of Wade, James and Bosh, something that the Spurs never did during their championship run.