Monday, 17 June 2013

3 keys to the 21-2 run that gave the Spurs a huge Game 5 win over the Heat

Since Tony Parker's final-seconds heroics in Game 1, every game of the 2013 NBA Finals has been decided by a monster second-half run. In Game 2, it was the 33-5 (or 35-9, if you prefer) bolt that gave the Miami Heat a series-evening blowout. In Game 3, it was four separate post-intermission spurts — 7-0, 11-0, 13-0 and 11-0 — fueled by historic 3-point shooting that put the San Antonio Spurs back on top.

In Game 4, it was a Dwyane Wade-and-Chris Bosh-led 14-4 fourth-quarter rip that turned a tight game into a breezy 16-point win. And in Game 5, it was a monstrous 21-2 storm that saw the Spurs hit eight of 12 tries while the Heat missed eight straight shots to turn what had been a 75-74 Spurs lead with 3:05 left in the third quarter into a 96-76 San Antonio advantage with 8:51 remaining in the fourth.

"Once we got it back to one, we felt that we had weathered the storm," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. "Then we missed a couple of shots that we normally are accustomed to making, and then it just snowballed down the hill from there. And we couldn't control it."

So what happened during that six-minute, 28-second stretch? Here, in no particular order, are five pretty big reasons why the game tilted entirely in San Antonio's direction and sent the Heat back to Miami in need of elusive back-to-back wins — which is pretty funny, when you think about it — to save their season and win the title:

Manu went nuts. It was his first start in more than a year and his finest game in perhaps even longer, and Ginobili was especially excellent in the late third and early fourth.

He worked defenders Ray Allen and Norris Cole for nine points (and a lovely assist to Tiago Splitter) in just 5:04 of floor time, and while you can quibble about the defense if you want, by and large this was just a matter of Ginobili doing evil things to the Heat on an array of tough drive-and-hang floaters with both hands:

The stellar performance at such a pivotal point in the game sparked the 18,581 fans in attendance to serenade the venerated reserve with chants of his name, which the 36-year-old Argentinian legend said after the game he really appreciated.

"I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me, and I was being able to attack the rim, get to the free‑throw line, and make a couple of shots," he said. "So it felt great when I heard that — to feel that I really helped the team to get that 20‑point lead, it was a much‑needed moment in the series."

Boris Diaw played good defense on LeBron James. No, for real. On paper, the league MVP would seem like a matchup nightmare for the Spurs' slightly pudgy, not-super-swift-of-foot third big man. This is especially true when you consider that some of San Antonio's most ardent fans have taken to calling Diaw "The Land Walrus." That is not a moniker that inspires a ton of confidence when it comes to stopping the best basketball player in the world.

And yet, there Diaw was, shuffling his feet to keep James from blowing past him on moves toward the paint. There he was, getting a hand in James' face on short jumpers in the lane. And there he was, bodying up on the baseline to keep LeBron from turning the corner for a layup and forcing him into a short jumper. All told, James managed just one point on a split at the free-throw line in the six minutes he was checked by Diaw, missing all four of his field-goal attempts.

To some degree, this seemed it might have been a matter of suboptimal decision-making by Miami — while we've been clamoring for James to work out of the post more often this series, the 6-foot-8, let's-call-it-250-pound Diaw has the bulk and strength to anchor against him there, so he may have been better served trying to draw Diaw out to the perimeter and take him off the bounce.

And Diaw didn't do the job 100 percent on his own — check out how tuned-in the San Antonio defense was when James would make his move toward the middle, with all four Spurs helpers having a foot in the paint, Tony Parker digging down from up top and the other three defenders all ready to converge:

Still, the credit goes to the man in the arena, and Diaw's defensive work in this critical stretch might just force us to take Parker's skills as a talent evaluator more seriously.

"Boris is a pretty good defender — he looks awkward, but he gets the job done," Parker said of his close friend and longtime French national teammate. "I think it gives a different look for LeBron [...] I think Boris, we have confidence in him that, for a couple of minutes, he can do a good job."

And do it irrespective of whether or not he really knows what he's going to do — asked by Grantland's Zach Lowe after the game if he had a specific plan for guarding James, Diaw just said no and laughed. Still, plan or no plan, Diaw and the Spurs wound up with the last laugh on Sunday.

Nobody else from Miami could get free either. The Heat managed only four non-LeBron shots during the run — Dwyane Wade had two not-very-good shots blocked/deflected by Ginobili and Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter got a piece of a Ray Allen driving layup attempt and Shane Battier chucked a half-court heave at the end of the third quarter. They also had a pair of awful turnovers leading to empty possessions — one when Chris Bosh couldn't handle a good pick-and-roll feed from James, the other owing to both a bad dump-off pass by Norris Cole and poor hands by Udonis Haslem, which pretty perfectly encapsulates the rough nights of two players who were a combined -34 in 15 total 1/2 minutes of floor time.

The two cough-ups called to mind Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's post-Game 4 comments about the deflating effect of turnovers on an offense:

"Because it's not just [that] you gave them another possession; people forget you lost your possession," Popovich said. "You might have scored one, two or three points, or four, I guess in rare situations. But you didn't score, and the other team oftentimes — especially the better the team you play, like Miami — you turn it over and they're going to score. It's basically a dunk or a layup at the other end of the court. So it's always a swing of four points, at least, and that's what really takes its toll."

In this case, those two miscues cost Miami two chances to answer San Antonio baskets, helping turn a seven-point lead into a 12-point lead by the end of the quarter that would only increase after the start of the fourth. More than that, though, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes, the six-minute slog (much of which came with Wade and Bosh on the bench) was emblematic of a Heat issue that's persisted throughout the playoffs:

But here's the thing: with Wade and Bosh sitting, and with a fairly offense-deficient line-up on the court with him for most of the run, LeBron didn't really have any better options than to try to drive on Diaw. Who on the court was LeBron supposed to run even a pick and roll with? Haslem with LeBron as the ball handler? That's a recipe for getting trapped. Cole with LeBron as the screener? That's a recipe for a Cole pull-up. [...] the game as a whole was a microcosm of the Heat's postseason: stunning defensive struggles and total mystery as to which non-LeBron Heat scorers will step up.

Wade (25 points on 10 for 22 shooting, 10 assists, four turnovers), Allen (21 points, 4 for 4 from 3-point range) and Bosh (16 points on 7 for 11 shooting) were generally quite helpful in this regard. But in perhaps the most critical moments of the season, they were either unable or unavailable to offer a lift, all but dooming Miami to a 3-2 deficit.

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