Being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals is not great to say the least. Especially when two of the three remaining games (potentially) are on the road and you just got whooped twice in a row at home in embarrassing fashion.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, and only eight teams have done so in playoff history, the last being the Phoenix Suns in 2006.
Tim Duncan just passed Magic Johnson for most double-doubles in NBA playoffs history. Kawhi Leonard has ascended and is officially a star. Boris Diaw looks like he’s going for a max contract this summer. The Spurs broke the record for best shooting percentage in a half and joined the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers as only the second team in Finals history to win back-to-back games by 19 or more points, per Elias Sports Bureau.
It’s safe to say that the Spurs Machine be hummin’.
And they’re just better at basketball than the Heat right now.
In Game 4 it was not only the Spurs offense that killed them, but the defense too. The Spurs don’t guard or rotate on to Dwyane Wade or Rashard Lewis and don’t particularly care about what Chris Andersen is doing. They did a wonderful job making everything difficult for the Heat and executed the game plan to perfection. The whole night it looked like this:
The Spurs have been blatantly ignoring Lewis the whole series, and while he has shot the ball well, Thursday night things finally started to turn around. San Antonio made a bet that they won’t be beaten by Lewis shooting 3s and wouldn’t overreact to him making and taking as many as he wanted.
That game plan has worked perfectly. Wade has also gotten a similar treatment; when Miami runs a pick and roll into the lane the Spurs never care about making a rotation to him on the 3-point line. Since Wade doesn’t shoot 3s, he’s forced to make the next pass and that’s an easy rotation for the Spurs since they can just “skip” Wade when making their usual close-outs to the 3-point line.
LeBron James has been really good, averaging 27.5 points and 7.3 rebounds on 60.0 percent shooting from the field and 61.1 from 3. If you can’t even give yourself a chance to win with numbers like that, something is seriously wrong. Everyone except James laid an egg in Game 4.
On the other end the Heat just can’t defend the Spurs. The Heat have always had a bit of a “weakness” in their pick and roll schemes. When they trap the pick and roll, if you are able to make the pass to the big man short rolling to the foul line there’s a 4-on-3 situations open. It’s just for a second and only elite passing big men can take advantage of it. The Spurs have three of them; Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Duncan are all experts at the best read quickly enough so that Miami isn’t able to scramble back into position.
Here is an example where Splitter catches the ball near the elbow after Birdman doubles Manu off the screen. Splitter slips it and Shane Battier has to rotate to him. Ray Allen needs to stop the big-to-big pass to the cutting Matt Bonner on the baseline, leaving Patrick Mills wide open for a 3 that he makes off of Splitter’s pass. You can’t guard that (literally, the foul line pass off the trap and you are done. It’s over). The Spurs are just hammering the Heat with plays like these.
Splitter, Diaw and Duncan have enough repetitions of this scenario after playing Miami two years in a row and will make the correct play every single time. The Spurs are fantastic at making that pass also. The double team hasn’t bothered Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or anyone else so far.
It just looks like Miami has run out of those big wings or bigs who can make these rotations and contest passing lanes. Mike Miller is gone and the group of Allen/Battier/Lewis and Andersen look a step slow and unable to execute the aggressive schemes Miami has thrived on. This season was the first in the Big Three era where the Heat ranked worse than seventh in defensive efficiency; they were 11th. Some thought the Heat were just coasting, but there were real signs that it was much more than that.
The Spurs are just scoring whenever they want out of stuff like this and have an offensive rating of 119.2 in the series. That’s a ridiculous number. To put that in context the Clippers had the league’s best offensive efficiency at 109.4 this season.
The difference between the Spurs in the Finals compared to the regular season Clippers is larger than the differential between the Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks, who ranked 25th in offensive efficiency. That’s nuts.
What in the world can the Heat do?
As I showcased earlier a little (but greater detail can be applied), the Heat don’t have a game plan right now that can beat the Spurs. What they do right now is inherently flawed against this San Antonio team that just picks you apart if you have even one weakness.
We can spout all the sports cliches we want about how “LeBron can will his team to victory” and “The Heat need to come out with a sense of urgency.”
I don’t care how much of a sense of urgency you have, you can’t make some of the rotations or teleport to those shooters on the weakside when the ball swings around. The Spurs are forcing literally impossible rotations for Miami’s schemes. You can get hot–win a game by everyone getting hot–but in all likelihood you won’t win three playing like this.
The Heat under Erik Spoelstra notoriously hate adjusting to their opponents. Rick Carlisle and Mark Cuban talk all the time about how they knew the Mavericks had a chance to beat the Heat after Game 3 of the 2011 NBA Finals, when they were down 2-1, precisely because they realized the Heat weren’t adjusting well to what the Mavs were doing.
That’s not going to cut it this time. This Spurs team is better than any opponent they’ve every played before.
It’s time for Miami to go on the offensive and do some out of the box stuff. For example: Miami’s bigs except for Bosh have become borderline unplayable, when Bosh sits just play all guards and wings and put LeBron at center and go ultimate small ball. Change your pick and roll coverages to contain penetration at the foul line instead of trapping the ball handler (in my opinion the best way to play Tony Parker), or switch everything.
Despite Game 2 being the only game where neither team reached 100 points, it was actually a pretty efficient game offensively. Miami dominated the parts where the pace slowed down and were able to pull out the win down the stretch.
Gregg Popovich always talks about how the Spurs need pace to score, which is true, and even though Miami wants to run in transition maybe you can find something in slowing the game down?
The point is that the Heat are in a desperate need to find something that works, and they need to find it now. It’s hard to change your entire identity this late into the season, but there is precedent for teams giving the Spurs trouble when forcing unexpected things to happen: The Mavericks switched absolutely everything and took the Spurs out of their usual ball movement and rhythm and were pretty close to beating them in the first round. Even in Game 7 when the Spurs blew out Dallas, the Mavs started Dirk Nowitzki at center in the second half and went all offense after being down by 29 points at the end of the second quarter.
It worked for about eight minutes and the lead was cut down to 14 (they ended up losing by 23 after the “shock value” wore off but hey, you take your victories where you get them)! The Thunder were able to take two games in a row after Serge Ibaka was miraculously healed. His rim protection really changed that series.
The point here is that whether you choose to switch everything, change coverages, play LeBron at center and just ultimate small ball it or whatever else you can come up with now is the time to do it.
The Heat have to be proactive and make San Antonio react to what they are doing. That’s how they can become the aggressor in this series once again. You want to dictate the terms and make the other team think for at least a second: “Wait a minute, what the heck is going on?”.
It’s going to be a tall task for sure, but there is a chance, even if it’s a relatively small one.
Stats per NBA.com