After two games in the NBA finals, the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat have established their blueprints for victory. The Spurs’ offense hummed with productivity in Game 1 and point guard Tony Parker was nearly flawless in his command of his team’s pick-and-roll attack. But the Heat adjusted, and in Game 2 they disrupted the Spurs with their thieving hands and dazzling athleticism.
The Heat also discovered a way through the Spurs’ conservative but effective defense. Game 2 made clear why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has so vocally praised LeBron James’ intelligence in the news media. Though James again struggled to score, finishing with 17 points, his versatility allowed him to dissect the Spurs’ defense as the screener in pick-and-rolls.
This is a departure from the regular season, when James typically conducted the offense from the dribble. But with opponents loading up defenders against him, coach Erik Spoelstra has increasingly moved James off the ball, where he is harder to track. During the Heat’s incredible 33-5 run in Game 2, from the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth, James assisted on three 3-point shots by rolling to near the free-throw line, drawing the defense while receiving a pass, then whipping the ball to a shooter on the opposite side of the court.
Add this pass to the list of basketball plays James makes better than anyone else. No one combines his accuracy and timing with raw pace — the ball simply arrives earlier. And because James hits his shooters right in the chest, they can take advantage of the extra time.
On one Mike Miller 3-pointer, James hurled a bullet over the top of a double team by Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard with enough zip to whiz past another Spurs defender and hit Miller right in the numbers in the opposite corner. With quick-shooting teammates like Ray Allen and Miller, who shot 6 for 8 combined from behind the 3-point line in Game 2, James’ passing forces opponents to reconsider notions of what makes a Heat shooter “open.”
Moving James off the ball is easier when Mario Chalmers plays well. Two seasons ago it would have been unfathomable to imagine Chalmers, who led the Heat in scoring Sunday with 19 points, commanding the offense with James and Dwyane Wade on the court. But Chalmers’ improved decision-making and playmaking skills gave Spoelstra the option of moving the two Heat wings all over the court.
“Just the way we’re being defended, our guards, our point guards both have to be very aggressive,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody has to be a live option. When we’re at our best you’re not necessarily sure where the ball’s going to end up.”
With the Heat attacking from every angle, the Spurs’ defenders often found themselves out of position.
It was not unlike the way the Heat defense fared in Game 1 against the Spurs’ ball movement and spacing. Early in Game 2 the Spurs found many of the same quality opportunities, and shooting guard Danny Green converted three open 3-pointers in the first quarter. After playing in the Spurs’ system for two full seasons, Green has an excellent sense of when his shots are coming, and he understands how to drift to open spaces where his teammates can find him. But even as Green splashed home 3-pointers, the Heat defenders were clearly more prepared and aggressive — a word both teams used ad nauseam to describe the Heat after Game 2 — than they had been in Game 1.
Those two qualities — preparedness and aggression — go hand in hand for the Heat. When they know where the play is going, they can make the most of their team speed and quick hands. In the first quarter alone, the Heat stole the ball three times by anticipating where the Spurs guards wanted to pass the ball on pick-and-rolls.
“They do such a good job of moving the ball and executing with precision that you have be great, and early,” Spoelstra said. “And sometimes that’s not enough.”
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Bothered by swarming Heat defenders in the lane, the Spurs shot a better percentage from beyond the 3-point line than from right in front of the basket. The Heat will live with the Spurs finding space to shoot from deep if it means they force 16 turnovers and limit Parker.
“Turnovers are the biggest thing, and it starts with me,” Parker said.
The Heat curtailed Parker’s driving opportunities by going under more ball screens and by anticipating his attempts to draw fouls on drives. But though the Heat emphasized forcing Parker to shoot, they mixed up their coverage to keep him off balance. With Parker, their offensive captain, struggling, the Spurs were left rudderless and ultimately overwhelmed by the ferocious Heat defense.
It is tempting to view Game 2 as a response as decisive as James’ fourth-quarter block of a shot by Splitter. But just as there is always the next play on the court, there is always the next game in the series, and there is no guarantee that events from one will determine the outcome of the next.
Parker has been through the playoff ringer, and he knows the losing team often plays harder and smarter in the next game. “It’s always easy to bounce back after a loss,” he said. “Now it’s our turn to see how we’re going to handle our loss and how we’re going to respond.”
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The Spurs are likely to play sharper at home and show the Heat some new wrinkles in their playbook. Perhaps more important, the Heat have not consistently played with the aggressiveness that routed the Spurs in the second half. Signs point to a long series.
Speaking on the ABC broadcast, the former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was unwilling to declare the Heat had claimed an advantage that could carry them through the series.
“Every game is an identity unto itself,” Van Gundy said. “People talk about momentum. There is no such thing game to game.”