The San Antonio Spurs are 48 minutes away from the fifth NBA championship of the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era. The Miami Heat are 48 minutes away from either hosting a Game 7 for back-to-back titles on their home court or facing an offseason of blistering criticism for what will be perceived as its Big Three once again shrinking on the grandest possible stage. The stakes of an NBA game don't get much higher than this.
Tuesday's Game 6 is going to answer a lot of questions — here are five that've been rattling around my head for the past two days. Feel free to weigh in on them or share your own big questions in the comments below.
1. Will LeBron James silence his critics?
That'll never happen. Never. Ever. Not in a million years. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever. And definitely not after they caught wind of those sneakers.
Even if James shows out and the Heat come back from a 3-2 deficit to win this title, and another, and another, and another, it still won't be enough. It'll never be enough until he has more rings than Jordan — just ask Kobe — and even if he someday gets there, it'll never be enough because he didn't do it the same way, with all that passing and deferring. And while I enjoyed reading Will Leitch's suggestion that a loss could prove liberating for LeBron, that's a pipe dream, a fantasy, an impossibility. As neat a thought experiment as it is, another Finals loss will not spare James from the Jordan comparisons and let us just appreciate him for him; it will just put more oxygen in the lungs of those determined to shout about how invincible James isn't. The outcome of Game 6 can't silence anything. It can only turn up the volume.
Still, it'd be cool for Heat fans if LeBron played real well.
James' history in potential elimination scenarios suggests he will — he's averaged 31.5 points (the highest mark in such games in NBA playoff history), 11 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 4.5 turnovers in 11 career playoff games in which his team's season would end with a loss, shooting 46.4 percent from the floor and 72.1 percent from the free-throw line (on nearly 12 1/2 attempts from the stripe) in just over 45 minutes per contest. Considering he's put up 21.6 points per game to date in the Finals and been held under 20 three times, playing to his back-to-the-wall averages would probably please Miami supporters.
But individual accomplishment only matters so much when your season's on the line, and James' teams have experienced middling results, going 5-6 in those attempts to stave off elimination. His Heat teams have won their last three, though — Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, and Games 6 and 7 of the 2012 Eastern finals. And yet, when we think of James and elimination games, many of us cast our minds back to 2011, the first year of Miami's Big Three experiment, when the Heat couldn't stay alive on their home court in Game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks and the criticisms of James' passivity and inability to "win the big one" grew louder than ever.
At times in this series, James has resembled the somewhat unsure finalist of two years ago. At times, he has looked much more like the best-in-the-world beast who's won an NBA title, two Most Valuable Player awards, a Finals MVP and Olympic gold in the past year. Which form he takes on Tuesday could go a long way toward determining — not determine by itself, he said, suggesting you take another read of recent pieces by Henry Abbott and Tom Ziller — whether this series goes the distance or whether, for the second time in his career, James watches the Spurs hoist the O'Brien on his home floor.
"I have to come up big, for sure, in Game 6," James said Sunday. "But I believe we all have to play at a high level in order to keep the series going. So me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge."
And we look forward to seeing how he answers it, for better or worse.
2. Will Erik Spoelstra change his starting five again? If so, how?
Gregg Popovich's decision to juggle his lineup by going with Manu Ginobili from the tip paid off handsomely in Game 5, as the formerly struggling Spurs guard got off to a great start (seven points and four assists in 7 1/2 first-quarter minutes) and the San Antonio offense started clicking right from the opening possession (a foot-on-the-line Manu J, naturally). On the other hand, the encore performance for the Heat coach's adjusted starting five didn't go quite as well as its debut.
While a Miami unit that featured floor-spacing shooter Mike Miller rather than defense-and-rebounding power forward Udonis Haslem scored 29 first-quarter points on 61.1 percent shooting in a great and aggressive start to Game 4, that same group sputtered to a 19-point, 6-for-20 opening to Game 5. It also failed to create the sort of defensive havoc (two Spurs turnovers leading to zero Heat points) that had previously helped kickstart the Miami transition game, when six Spurs turnovers created seven Heat points in the first 12 minutes of Game 4. (Apparently, Miller didn't have what Spoelstra called after Game 4 "as impactful a zero‑for‑one game as you can have in The Finals" the second time around, despite similarly missing the only shot he took.)
The final question of Spoelstra's post-Game-5 press conference dealt with whether the Heat coach would elect to put Miller back on the pine and go back to his original starting lineup in Game 6. His brusque answer: "We'll see." Apparently, a return trip home and a day off brightened the coach's temperament. Asked the same question during Tuesday's shootaround, he reportedly smiled and said, "We'll find out," which — like Pop's pre-Game-5 "Maybe" — would lead you to believe that a change is gonna come. Should that change really be a move back to the original starting lineup, though?
You can understand Spoelstra looking for a more defense-oriented group after watching the Spurs flambé Miami to the tune of 60 percent shooting and an offensive efficiency (119.4 points per 100 possessions) that looks down piteously on phenomenal, league-best units like the regular-season Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. And you can understand the thought that going big early might prompt Popovich to counter, matching size with size by swapping Ginobili for Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw.
But I have a hard time believing Pop's going to be scared away from a unit that worked so brilliantly in Game 5 by the likes of Haslem, and such a move working would seem to hinge on Haslem being able to rediscover the baseline stroke that helped beat the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern finals while returning to bothering Tim Duncan on the low block. Those things are certainly both possible ... but, I mean, Spoelstra went away from that unit for a reason.
The Haslem-James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh-Mario Chalmers group had been outscored by more than 18 points per 100 possessions in 43 total minutes over the first three games of the Finals, according to NBA.com's lineup data, and was scoring at an abysmal rate of offensive efficiency that would have ranked so far below regular-season-worst teams like the Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats as to be considered one of the worst offenses of all time. It's also not exactly like Haslem has covered himself in glory in his reserve stints, either; while he did well to make his only shot and grab five rebounds in 10 minutes in Game 4, the Heat were outscored by 20 points in his nine minutes of floor time in Game 5.
That swap, by itself, doesn't seem like an especially compelling answer. So what, then? Maybe replacing Miller with the resurgent Ray Allen, who's fresh off a 21-point Game 5, showing a little extra spring in his step off the dribble and shooting 64.7 percent from 3 in the Finals?
Perhaps — Allen-James-Wade-Bosh-Chalmers outscored opponents by more than 30 points per 100 possessions in 112 regular-season minutes, after all. But that group hasn't been nearly as good in the playoffs, getting outscored by just under two points-per-100 in 59 postseason minutes, and is nearly 13 points-per-100 below par in 21 minutes against the Spurs in the Finals. And despite holding up better than expected in brief defensive stints against Paul George in the Indiana series, Allen's a pretty glaring defensive liability who doesn't figure to substantially improve that group's chances of deterring San Antonio dribble penetration, sticking to shooters on the perimeter or making crisper, faster help rotations to take away open shots.
More likely, Spoelstra and his staff are considering an idea also suggested by Hot Hot Hoops' Matt Pineda — the reinsertion of deposed starter Shane Battier. The Duke product's ability to space the floor while also defending power forwards so James didn't have to was a big part of the Heat's regular-season success, but his awful postseason shooting led to his benching late in the Eastern finals and his de-emphasis through the first four games of the Finals.
Defensively, this makes sense — Miami's allowed fewer points per possession with Battier on the floor than off it in the Finals, and as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, the Heat's defensive rotations and help have been better with Battier in the mix than with Miller in the fold. But if Battier still can't make San Antonio pay for ignoring him on the perimeter by draining a couple of 3-pointers, Miami could still lose the offense-defense tradeoff of swapping Miller for Battier. The hope, if you're a Miami fan, would be that making a couple of 3-pointers in Game 5 (albeit in six tries) gets Battier going.
There's risk involved with every possible decision Spoelstra can make here — it'll be interesting to see which direction he chooses.
3. Will Danny Green keep getting open in Game 6?
Not according to Bosh, whose comments from Tuesday's shootaround were relayed by NBA.com's John Schuhmann:
“He has a knack for shooting, but he won’t be open tonight,” Chris Bosh said after the Heat’s shootaround at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday. “We’ll see how he shoots it when somebody’s always on him.”
Bosh said that the Heat don’t have to make any adjustments to defend Green better in Game 6 [...].
“It’s just doing what we do,” Bosh said. “Last game, we didn’t do what we normally do. Guys were open and made shots.
“They move the ball too well to have defensive lapses. So we’re going to have to trust what we do.”
And do it a hell of a lot better than they've been doing it, you'd reckon.
There are definitely things Miami must do defensively to keep a tighter leash on Green. More attentive off-ball defense — e.g., not totally ignoring a shooter in the corner to allow him to shuffle from the corner to the wing or vice versa while you watch the ball — would represent a great start, as would Green's man staying connected to him on his baseline cuts from one corner to the other.
Ditto for retreating Miami defenders making identifying Green a top priority in any transition situation, and refusing to overhelp on ball-handlers in half-court settings when Green's the shooter in the corner (especially the strong-side corner). Under-control closeouts and hellacious, on-time help rotations would be a plus, too.
As we saw in Games 2 and 4, these are all things Miami can do; that they haven't throughout much of this series has had to do, in part, with what ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz right called "smugness" by a Heat team so comfortable at relying on its ability to flip the proverbial switch that it's declined to provide consistently top-flight, 48-minute focus even in the championship round against a dynamic and disciplined opponent. A very large part of it, though, owes to that dynamic and disciplined opponent.
The Spurs have repeatedly taken advantage of Miami's breakdowns with the proper pass, the well-timed backscreen and, when the ball lands in Green's hands, the confident rise-and-fire. Also, more than that, they deserve an awful lot of credit for creating those breakdowns, whether with dribble penetration by Parker and Ginobili, aggressive attention-drawing post-ups, strong screens and hard rolls to the rim by Duncan, or smart ball movement by any of a number of Spurs players willing and able to make the right pass at the right time.
At this point, the Heat have to make stopping Green job one — they can't reasonably expect to win if he goes 7 for 9 or 6 for 10 from deep, as he did in Games 3 and 5. But it's not like Green needs to be completely smothered — Miami did manage wins in Games 2 and 4, in which he shot a combined 8 for 10 from downtown. They must limit his attempts and make the ones he gets harder to hit, but what can make the Spurs' offense so terrifying is that, as Green told NBA.com's David Aldridge on Tuesday, hugging a shooter in the corner just opens more driving lanes for the likes of Parker and Ginobili; as Parker said after Game 5, "You can't stop everything." The Heat must find a way in Game 6 if they hope to live another day.
4. Can Mario Chalmers and/or Norris Cole give Miami anything?
That would sure figure to help in the whole "stopping anything" department; if nothing else, the Heat's two point guards simply must be less awful than they took turns being in Game 5. Chalmers missed eight of his 10 field-goal attempts and committed a couple of awful turnovers, Cole failed to offer anything offensively and somehow managed to be a -14 in just 6 1/2 minutes, and both proved completely incapable of performing what I expected to be their key pre-Finals job: making life difficult on Tony Parker. They didn't:
It's not just a Game 5 issue, though. Chalmers was huge for the Heat at a very important time in Game 2, but he's a combined 7 for 29 (24.1 percent) from the floor combined in the other four games, generating just two free-throw attempts in just under 103 minutes while posting more fouls (12) and turnovers (11) than assists (nine). As Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix noted after Game 5, Chalmers' production was been a quiet bellwether for the Heat all year — he shot 45.4 percent from the floor and 43.8 percent from 3-point range from the line in Heat wins and just 30.6/24.4 in Miami defeats during the regular season, and the trend has held up through the playoffs (46.5/38.2 in wins, 29.3/27.3 in losses).
The splits aren't nearly so dire for Cole, whose performance was fairly consistent (if far from stellar) for Miami this season. But that's just it — after riding an early postseason hot streak in which he looked like a somewhat surprisingly reliable shot-maker, offensive caretaker and defensive hound, especially in the previous two rounds, Cole's come crashing down to earth when spelling Chalmers and tasked with checking Parker. Now he's getting cut to ribbons and shooting just 27.3 percent in the Finals, unable to provide enough of anything to stay on the floor.
It's no wonder, then, that Miami's looked its best at times with no-point-guard lineups featuring the James-Wade-Bosh core alongside wing pairings featuring two of the Allen-Miller-Battier group. Spoelstra was non-committal after Game 5 on the question of whether he'd give longer looks to those groups if his point guards struggle, in part because he understands that the flipside of eliminating faulty ball-handlers and defensive sieves is having to put another wing on Parker for longer stretches. When that wing is Allen, Miller or Battier, Parker's foot-speed advantage turns the pairing into a mismatch nightmare; when that wing is James, it only makes for a heavier, more exhausting load that James will have to carry.
Chalmers and Cole can go a long way toward ameliorating this lesser-of-two-evils choice is either (or, ideally, both) can find a modicum of confidence, consistency and rhythm in Game 6. They don't really have to be great; they just need to not suck.
5. Whither the "Birdman?"
Ever since Spoelstra made the decision to go small by starting Miller in Game 4 and stay small throughout the last two games, the ever-stylish Chris Andersen has found himself out of the Miami rotation, logging two straight DNP-CDs as Bosh and Haslem have soaked up all the minutes at the center spot. Might he get dusted off in Game 6?
On one hand, Andersen's rim protection and pick-and-roll defense (which we saw in the second half of Game 2) would seem attractive for a Miami team that's had difficulty containing dribble penetration and keeping the Spurs from scoring in the paint. Similarly, his ability to score on dump-offs and finish broken plays would appear like an asset for a Heat squad that went 15 for 29 (51.7 percent) on shots attempted at the rim in Game 5, well below Miami's regular-season (67.2 percent) and postseason (64.2 percent) averages in the restricted area.
Then again, when the Heat's offense has struggled in this series, it's been largely a result of a lack of spacing, which Birdman doesn't provide, and Haslem did a better job defending Duncan in the post than he did earlier in the series, which makes Bird a bit of a liability when he and Timmy are the only two bigs in the game. I'd guess that Andersen gets a look only if Haslem struggles, Duncan spends more time than usual off the floor, or San Antonio decides to reverse courses and play two bigs more often.
Otherwise, the Bird seems likely to be caged. If he does get a shot, though, it'd be nice to see it come with Chalmers, James, Miller and Allen — that's the group that helped author Miami's huge Game 2 run, outscoring the Spurs by 17 points in just seven shared minutes. (The unit's not so bad when you swap Cole in for Chalmers, either, outscoring San Antonio by eight points-per-100 in 20 minutes in the Finals.)
You might have noticed that all five of the questions above focus primarily on the Heat rather than Pop's squad. That's because I am a Spurs hater who doesn't want to pay any attention at all to San Antonio and how great they've been. Well, it's either that, or it's because after a scary Game 5, Miami's the team that needs to find answers to avoid elimination. Your call, really.