LeBron James says he and his Miami Heat are ready for what's probably the biggest game of his life. Tim Duncan says he and his San Antonio Spurs are "ready to rock" and resume the pursuit of his fifth NBA championship after a gutwrenching defeat in Game 6. But are you ready?
Well, you better be, because after Thursday night, we're not going to see the NBA for a little while. And after a 2013 NBA Finals that's had dramatic endings, remarkable runs, historic performances and brilliant execution by two excellent teams, we might not see basketball this good for a looooong time. Let's savor it, together, and rip through a Game 7-appropriate number of questions to consider heading into tipoff.
1. Will Erik Spoelstra give his most successful lineups longer looks in Game 7?
The Heat coach has mixed and matched a bit in the Finals, with 10 different five-man units grabbing at least 10 minutes of floor time and 43 different units trotted out overall. Of the nine comprised of starters and rotation players — the immortal Joel Anthony-Shane Battier-Norris Cole-James Jones-Rashard Lewis group's seen 11 total minutes of mop-up duty — five have either played the Spurs just about even or been significantly outscored, and four have outperformed San Antonio in a major way.
All five of the even-or-worse groups feature Dwyane Wade. Three of the four in the other camp don't.
The prizes of the latter group, as I've discussed a couple of times in the Finals, have been lineups built around James at power forward with one big man and three shooters. James-Chris Bosh-Ray Allen-Mike Miller-Mario Chalmers has outscored San Antonio by 19 points in 15 minutes of floor time. The same group with Chris Andersen in place of Bosh has been even better, topping the Spurs by 26 points in just 14 shared minutes. The James-Allen-Miller-Andersen foursome with Cole at the helm has worked, too, albeit less remarkably, outscoring the Spurs by four points in 20 minutes.
All these groups have hit at least 60 percent of their shots from the floor on 20 or more field-goal attempts, too — the samples are obviously incredibly small, but these lineups sure seem to get good looks and knock them down with amazing regularity.
And that makes sense. The terrifying long-range shooting of Allen (60 percent from deep in the Finals) and Miller (78.6 percent in the series) forces San Antonio wing defenders to stay close or pay the price, allowing James and Chalmers tons of room to operate out of the pick-and-roll, whether the screener is the Birdman:
Or Chalmers, who set an off-ball screen for Bosh to help bring Duncan out of the paint, then set a ball screen to momentarily slow Kawhi Leonard and give James a driving lane that results in a Ginobili foul (and even then, only because Ginobili commits the cardinal sin of abandoning Miller in the strong-side corner to help on the drive):
Chalmers' ball screens can also force San Antonio defensive switches that put a small (here, Tony Parker) on James with LeBron in a position to post up or drive, which got him to the line here:
And when the 1-4/4-1 screen game is the primary action, Birdman can be dangerous lurking in the "Bird Box" on the weak side, as we saw on this Cole/LeBron pick-and-roll from Game 3:
Ditto for James high post-ups against switches or cross-matches, like this one that resulted in Andersen foul shots in Game 4:
These groups can stretch the Spurs' defense, pester the Spurs' offense and — because of the multipositional defensive versatility of James, Miller and Chalmers — match up against a variety of different San Antonio fronts. And while an active, committed, hard-rotating, not-overhelping Wade can be a very beneficial defensive presence, the top two Wade-less lineups with Chalmers at the point have choked out the Spurs' offense, too, holding San Antonio to 28.9 percent shooting and a 2-for-11 mark from 3-point range, and forcing 13 turnovers in 29 total minutes.
When Chalmers doesn't stink — a very important consideration, duh — these lineups not only work, they incinerate. If Chalmers doesn't seem to have it early on Thursday, then Spoelstra can go with more conventional stuff, or explore the no-point-guard lineups he trotted out with some success in San Antonio. But with 48 minutes standing between the Heat and either a second championship or a loss for the ages, Spoelstra has to at least consider taking a significantly longer look at combinations that have been far and away his most productive through six games.
2. Will we see less of Wade?
Of course, doing so would mean more minutes without Wade, and it remains to be seen whether Spoelstra A) has the stomach for that and B) actually believes that Wade-less units will give the Heat a better chance to win. (It's important to note that the last time I wondered about curbing Wade's minutes, he responded with his best all-around game in at least three months. I guess what I'm saying is: You're welcome, Heat fans.)
Still, as we've seen throughout the Finals, the Heat just don't generate the same sort of offensive spacing with Wade on the floor, meaning that if Wade's not attacking like a demon and knocking down the open shots San Antonio will gladly give him — which is to say, if he isn't Game 4 Wade — then Miami lineups featuring LeBron as the focal point and Wade as a secondary piece are less attractive offensive options than those with LeBron plus shooters.
Through six Finals games, lineups featuring James without Wade are dominating the Spurs, scoring like the most efficient offense in history while limiting San Antonio to sub-Wizards-and-Bobcats numbers — those groups are outscoring San Antonio by an average of just under 43 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAwowy.com. Lineups featuring Wade without LeBron are also killing the Spurs, besting San Antonio by just under 14 points-per-100, albeit in fewer minutes. Lineups featuring both James and Wade together, though? They're scoring like a bottom-10 offense, defending like a 30th-ranked D and being outscored by nearly 16 points-per-100.
It's a funny little bit of evolutionary irony, isn't it? Many of us spent most of the first year of the Big Three experiment deriding the Heat's inability to move too far beyond "LeBron and Dwyane take turns" as an offensive system. And now, after the total reinvention of the Miami offensive system around pace-and-space principles that leverage James' floor vision, Wade's devastating off-ball cutting and Bosh's ability to play inside and out, it actually seems like splitting up the two All-Star wings might be a better strategy, at least in terms of minute allotment and rotation staggering. And since you'd expect James to play as close to the full game as Spoelstra can reasonably manage without James dropping to a knee and sucking wind on the court, increasing the stars' separation would seem to mean giving Wade more breathers than he might like.
Health, of course, could also come into play. Wade promises to be good to go despite compounding the bone bruise in his right knee with a stiff and swollen left knee following a Game 6 collision with Ginobili. But if he comes out for Game 7 not only seeming to once again lack the explosiveness to attack the basket and appearing eager to settle for jumpers, but also a step slow in tracking the likes of Ginobili and Danny Green and unable to provide the sort of frantic back-line rotations and passing-lane clogging that Miami needs, then Spoelstra's choice might become clearer.
3. How much will we (and should we) see of Udonis Haslem?
Of similar, if lesser, import is how Spoelstra handles the Birdman/Haslem quandary. When Spoelstra made the choice to replace Haslem with Miller in the starting lineup for Game 4, and Popovich followed by starting Ginobili in place of Tiago Splitter in Game 5, the coaches ostensibly ensured that the series would be decided on the basis of which team's small-ball units would carry the day. (Except that Pop cheated in Game 5 by using Boris Diaw as a gap-bridging four. He's a clever one, that Pop. You can take the coach out of super-spy training, but you can't take the super-spy training out of the coach.)
With room for only one big at a time, Spoelstra parked Andersen on the bench throughout Games 4 and 5, preferring Haslem's superior post defense to Birdman's activity for the non-Bosh minutes at the five. After Haslem had a fairly unremarkable Game 4 and a fairly disastrous Game 5, though, Spoelstra dusted off the Birdman with positive results. While Andersen struggled at times with Duncan in the post, virtually every post defender in NBA history would've struggled with the Duncan of the first half of Game 6, and Andersen was instrumental in the fourth-quarter run that got Miami back in the game, finishing with four rebounds, three steals and some frenetic defense in 14 1/2 minutes.
Given that, and given how well Birdman has performed in the aforementioned lineups that it would seem like a good idea for Spoelstra to revisit, you'd think the coach would once again roll the dice with what worked in Game 6 and — as tough as it is to downgrade a player who's been as integral to the Heat franchise as Haslem — line up another DNP-CD for the rough-and-tumble four-man. And yet, there was Spoelstra at Thursday's shootaround, saying it's "likely" Haslem gets some minutes in Game 7.
Which minutes, how many, with whom and against whom could be pivotal, because Miami can ill afford to go away from something that works only to wind up with another "-20 in nine minutes" performance. Loyalty's a beautiful thing, but there might not be a spot for sentimentality in a tightly contested Game 7.
4. Can San Antonio again make Miami pay for making a more concerted effort to stick to Spurs shooters by going down low?
After Bosh's famed pronouncement that NBA Finals record-setting sharpshooter Danny Green wouldn't get open from 3-point range in Game 6 — a promise he kept on the game's final possession — Green and his teammates responded by saying that if Miami chose to stay in his hip pocket, they'd give up something else somewhere else. They also responded on the court by pounding away with Duncan, looking for the surefire Hall of Famer on two early pick-and-rolls, continuing to involve him in play action and putting him to work on the block, where Bosh, and later Andersen, had to handle him one-on-one with prospective Heat helpers focused on shutting off the 3-point line.
That, as you might remember, worked out well for the Spurs:
But after that sensational throwback 25-point, 11-for-13-shooting, eight-rebound first half, Duncan quieted down, scoring just five points on 2 for 8 shooting after halftime, and failing to hit a field goal after the 4:31 mark of the third quarter. Part of that was due to sterner defensive work by Bosh, in terms of hustling on rolls to deny the ball:
And more physical one-on-one positional defense on the block:
And part of that was due to Andersen covering a lot of ground and really good, fast, chaos-creating help defense behind him:
And part of it, probably was due to the fact that Duncan had exerted a ton of energy in that first half, and had less of it as time wore on in a game in which the 37-year-old big man played more than 44 minutes for the second time this postseason, which is only the second time he's cracked 44 minutes in the last four years.
While Duncan, Pop and everyone else associated with the Spurs suggests that fatigue won't be an issue, the history of older players the game following a big performance should have Spurs fans feeling a bit jittery entering Game 7, according to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal:
Recent history suggests it'd be a stretch to expect a similar display. That's because no player 35-years-old or older outside of Michael Jordan has been able to string together two 30-point playoff games on one day's rest or less in the past 20 seasons.
In fact, of the other eight 35-or-older players who've scored 30 or more in a playoff game over that span, only Karl Malone hit the 20-point mark in the second game, per Stats LLC.
If Miami again makes a point of taking away (as much as possible) open looks for Green, Leonard and Gary Neal, the Spurs will need Duncan to not only repeat his early-Game 6 performance, but sustain it in the late stages, even against increased defensive pressure. The odds of that happening aren't great, but tell me: Would you bet against Tim Duncan?
5. Was a 6-for-23 Game 6 Tony Parker's nadir, or will he again be limited by the combination of his hamstring injury and fatigue?
After Chalmers and Cole failed to provide any real deterrent to Parker's dribble penetration, shot-seeking and facilitating in Game 5, Chalmers and the Miami defense in general did a better job of staying in front of Parker in Game 6 — while nearly two-thirds of Parker's shots in Game 5 came inside the paint (and he went 9 for 9), less than half of his Game 6 tries did (and he went 5 for 10).
Just about all of his misses were short, and while he did make a couple of monstrous plays late in the fourth quarter, including this ridiculous stepback 3-pointer over LeBron, he seemed to have less lift on his jumper than he had earlier in the series. Duncan is the Spurs' bedrock and Ginobili is their soul, but Parker is the engine of everything they do offensively; this is why he's been defended so much by James in this series, why he saw even more LeBron in Game 6 (which was, in part, why he was so exhausted late in the game), and why he can expect to see even more of LeBron in Game 7.
If he doesn't have his legs, can't fire past late Miami help or get up a little higher to sneak an early pass over a Heat trap, can't explode past on-ball defenders to the rim or elevate to cash in on open shot chances, San Antonio could be in real trouble. If he's the Parker we've seen be so dominant so often in this postseason, though, the Spurs figure to once again control the pace of play and the terms of engagement with the Miami defense.
6. Forget Game 5 Manu — can Ginobili at least be Game 3 Manu?
After an atrocious Game 4, Ginobili knew he had to give more if the Spurs were to get back ahead of the Heat and hold serve in the NBA Finals rather than allowing Miami to break back and get on top in the best-of-seven series. Pop responded by putting Manu in the starting lineup, and Manu responded with his best game in ages, a 24-point, 10-assist masterpiece that breathed new life into San Antonio and made us think that the Argentinian legend might not quite be done yet.
And then, he followed that up with an absolute clunker of a Game 6, posting a career-high eight turnovers that helped spark Miami's transition attack, stifle San Antonio momentum and give the Heat hope. After the game, Ginobili proclaimed himself "devastated" and said he had "no clue how [the Spurs were] going to be reenergized" for Game 7. One good step would be tempering expectations and re-emphasizing first principles.
Manu doesn't have to be 24-point, 10-assist Manu. He just needs to be the version who bounced back from a bad Game 2 (2 for 6 shooting, one assist against three turnovers, sloppy defensive decision-making) with a sound Game 3 (seven points, six assists, zero turnovers, smarter passes). He wasn't sensational, explosive or overly aggressive; he was in-rhythm, making passes in his teammates' shooting pockets rather than in locations where they had to reach and break stride, and he wasn't being baited into trying to make heroic passes by a Heat defense that loves to turn ambition into ammunition.
After taking a night to lick his wounds, Ginobili sounded Wednesday like he understood that.
"I just got to try to do my best to forget, learn from mistakes, and have a good, solid game next to my teammates," he said. "Not about trying to score more. Just be solid and more aggressive, and less mistakes, of course."
If he can steer the ship securely when Parker needs a rest or Pop wants him off the ball to run LeBron through a half-court hedge maze, then San Antonio will be closer to safe harbor. If he's again inaccurate with his passes and telegraphing his targets in the pick-and-roll, Miami could be able to get a couple of quick and cheap buckets without having to earn it against the Spurs' set defense, which has made live miserable on the Heat all series long.
7. Who gets the basics right?
I loved this Thursday afternoon summation by Heat.com's Couper Moorhead:
Such a long year gone by, it's amazing that the NBA season might just come down to who makes open jumpers and free throws.
— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) June 20, 2013
It's worth remembering, as Henry Abbott and Tom Ziller discussed this week, that so much of what actually determines the outcome of games is luck, fate, chance and randomness. Shots that guys hit 99 times out of 100 sometimes refuse to fall at the absolute worst moment. Prayers are sometimes answered. Wade gets his first jumper to fall and all of a sudden the spacing issue's unlocked. The bucket that previously seemed canyonesque for Green suddenly shrinks. A quarter-inch this way or that, a split-second too fast or too soon, a hair's breadth separating victory from defeat.
I don't know what the hell's going to happen tonight. I don't think you do, either. But I can't wait to find out, and I can't think of a more fitting ending to a series and season that's made us question, reevaluate, revisit and appreciate the tear-your-hair-out brilliance of this game all over again.