Although last year’s Game 1 is near the top of the list of dramatic outcomes, Game 1 of “The Rematch” stole the show. The storylines resulting from the cramping, the air conditioning, and Danny Green‘s 11 point fourth quarter provided a weekend full of debate.
Let’s start with LeBron James, the guy that headlines these NBA Finals.
Cramping up in the fourth quarter, ultimately missing the final 3:59 of the game, James couldn’t be on the floor for the deciding moments.
Understand something: Never have I been the one to defend LeBron for anything. In today’s world, we all have that “sports hate” toward some teams, and players, that is COMPLETELY separable from a player’s personality. Many, including myself, have been hard on James through the years when he came up short.
Not this time. And those who bring up Michael Jordan‘s flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals obviously want to make irrational comparisons. Throw a little context on this situation, and realize cramps are completely different.
Not only does your body lock up, but running at a full sprint is nearly impossible. Last time I checked, you can run with the flu. Sure, you might vomit the next trip down the floor, but at least you’re physically able to do it.
Even ESPN’s medical doctor, Mark Adickes, explained after the game that getting back on defense after that made layup (while cramping) was next to impossible.
It’s an ironic situation.
Yes, Kobe Bryant walked to the free throw line after tearing his Achilles tendon and sank two shots. Yes, Bryant and Jordan are much tougher players than LeBron when it comes to injuries. However, in this situation, the pundits have to put themselves in James’ shoes and first understand what cramping feels like.
Then, there’s the extreme heat that swarmed the building in the second half.
Do you remember the old Boston Garden, and how sweltering hot it could get when the Celtics had an intense game? I mentioned it in a piece earlier this season, discussing how Larry Bird‘s mentality switched into a dangerous mode in the 1984 Finals.
Temperatures eclipsed 90 degrees for Thursday’s Game 1, and it’s not something these players are used to in the NBA. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker told the media after the game that it’s nothing they’re not used to, playing overseas. Duncan, who came from the Virgin Islands, said it was close to the worst conditions he’s played in. Some guys were affected more than others, LeBron obviously being atop that list.
Throughout the game, you could hear James telling teammates “I can’t breathe” and then “I’m trying to fight through it, dog.”
Was the air conditioning shut off intentionally by anyone associated with San Antonio? I wouldn’t like to get silly and think these Spurs need to stoop that low for an advantage. They’re a first-class organization, one that wants LeBron and Miami at their best while they take them out. It was just a failure in the air conditioning unit, and loads of attention will be on fixing the issue before Sunday’s Game 2. The AT&T Center rarely suffers these kind of setbacks, and hopefully it’s the only encumbrance these Finals have in store.
Through the harsh air conditions, the Spurs’ ability to connect on offense shouldn’t be shrugged off, by any means, just because James didn’t finish the game.
When James hit the bench late in the fourth quarter, San Antonio was due for an explosion. Mr. Green was there, after setting an NBA Finals record last year with 27 3-pointers made. James’ first substitution, just under the 8:00 mark, had Miami’s defense all out of sorts with him on the bench. Green nailed two triples in back-to-back possessions, which gave San Antonio a two-point lead and forced Miami to respond. One missed layup by Wade on the ensuing trip, and a run-out by Green, led to the 5-year Carolina Tar Heel slamming down a fast break dunk.
Dwyane Wade has built up a reputation of being a top-notch defender at the shooting guard spot, and that’s undeniable. But how do you not have the discipline to stay true to opposing shooters late in games? Green was given entirely too much room to operate, regardless if he hadn’t made a field goal prior to this:
On the first 3-pointer (above), Wade slides a few steps over to the left once the ball is swung to the weak side. Ginobili’s pass to Diaw — which is barely considered the weak side — draws all the attention. Wade, for whatever reason, is more attentive to Diaw and Parker, who are covered at the perimeter by Cole and Allen. Chris Andersen had to step out on Ginobili to prevent a shot, meaning Wade had the corner shooter (Green). I don’t care — and I’m sure Erik Spoelstra doesn’t care — if Green was 0-of-50 from downtown before this.
There’s six minutes left in a tightly contested Finals game, and you have to respect any shooter on the floor. The smallest mishaps allowed San Antonio to take advantage, and gave them the lead.
The second 3-pointer, on the next possession, was just ludicrous on the part of Miami’s defensive pressure. At times, the Heat can help way too much, and it ends up costing them. When LeBron is on the floor, the defensive execution is more stiff, and harder to get looks. It’s not just because James is a top five defender in the game today, individually. It’s more because he’s a vocal general out there on the floor, and will yell at guys to get where they need to be.
On Green’s second trey, the rotations were all out of wack:
As you see in the play, coming down the floor, Rashard Lewis picks up the assignment of Diaw. Green does a fabulous job of cutting through the lane while receiving the pass from Ginobili. Cutting keeps the offense flowing, and ensures the ball stays on the move. Lewis is forced to slide over and stay in front of Green. It’s all over from there.
Notice how Diaw automatically spaces the floor, by moving to the right corner. It basically makes Ray Allen commit to the perimeter, since Diaw is a 40.5 percent outside shooter this postseason. What happens when Diaw puts the ball on the floor to create something else?
Chris “Birdman” Andersen packs the paint, and Miami hasn’t grasped just how crisp of a passing team San Antonio is:
Watch the play again. Who’s supposed to pick up Green on the switch? I’ll tell you. It’s about communication, and a collective team effort to decide what to do when your defense breaks.
With LeBron on the floor, the defense bends at times …. but never breaks. Whether it’s Lewis or Andersen, someone has to at least look at Green when he leaves the lane after the cut. All the attention is focused on Diaw dribbling into the paint, and the result is 5,000 feet of space for Green to read a book, wipe the dripping sweat off his forehead, and eventually take a shot.
Off the pick set by Duncan at the start of the play, Wade has a tough defensive responsibility. He has to keep Manu in front of him, as he does pretty well here, in the midst of not giving Duncan space for a mid-range jumper. Nobody sticks to Green, and it’s what gave San Antonio a two-point lead (90-88).
Opening the perimeter was the part San Antonio worked all game to do, and they used pick-and-rolls to do so.
Really, what team is better at forcing teams to react to the pick-and-roll better than Popovich’s Spurs?
With LeBron on the floor to start the fourth quarter — before the cramps — San Antonio was still setting the Heat up for disaster. Tiago Splitter, a guy that’s thrived under Popovich since coming over from Brazil, is one that already knows how to be patient in pick-and-roll situations. Here, he sets a screen on Allen and knows he has the best passing two-guard (Manu) that will make a play for him:
Upon receiving the pass on the roll, Splitter draws FOUR Miami defenders into the paint, with James just one step outside as well. Splitter finished the bucket, and continued to cut the deficit for the Spurs. But, the spacing along the perimeter, if Splitter decided to dish out, was tremendous for the Spurs.
By setting Miami up with these pick-and-rolls to begin the fourth, San Antonio really had the Heat scrambling to make decisions defensively. By the time crunch-time was in full effect, the light turned “Green” for the shooters.
Another instance came on the very next Spurs’ possession, which ended with an And-1 for Splitter, and got the crowd believing it was time to take advantage:
After cutting off Ginobili’s drive off the screen, Chris Bosh is late getting back to Splitter on the roll. It creates a clean look at the rim, regardless if a little touch foul was called. LeBron’s memorable block on Splitter in Game 2 last year was on a face-up dunk attempt with the Brazilian thinking he could overpower James at the rim. In this instance, with Splitter able to change the shot and finish with the left hand on the opposite side, it’s hard for James to do anything. The lack of energy to go up and contest it could also be a factor. It was only three minutes later that James had his first visible cramp.
Sometimes, we just forget how mind-blowing San Antonio’s facilitating proves to be. That’s actually a good thing. It allows us to be stunned each and every time they put on these performances late in games, and that’s great for basketball fans, and aficionados.
The lost thought in Game 1 — through all the storylines — was Tim Duncan‘s monstrous night. 9-of-10 from the field, finishing in traffic, and always making the right play could describe The Big Fundamental’s game on Thursday.
While the notion that San Antonio would win this series was rested on their strong bench, always remember that this is a star’s league.
What other team-driven star is still putting on a Finals clinic at age 38?