Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Matters for Game Seven

Wow. Last night’s Game Six was one of the most entertaining basketball games I have ever watched. I’m not going to lie; I was pulling for the Spurs, but regardless, I was riveted. The game featured almost everything one could hope for: Tim Duncan playing like it was 2003 and absolutely destroying Chris Bosh and the Birdman; Miami finally coming up with a defensive scheme that was able to cool down Danny Green (although he still got WIDE open twice); Kawhi Leonard continuing his breakout as perhaps San Antonio’s most critical and versatile player; the Heat’s three-point shooters coming to life; LeBron James having a monster fourth quarter, particularly when Dwyane Wade was on the bench; Tony Parker’s fourth-quarter heroics; and the best three-point shooter in NBA history nailing the tying basket with just seconds left in regulation. And there was so much more!

This was only the second game in the series where the outcome was in any kind of doubt into the fourth quarter. Since Parker’s crazy buzzer-beater in the series opener, the Heat and Spurs have basically traded haymakers, with different parties being responsible each time for the big punches. LeBron awoke in the fourth quarter of Game Two and demolished the Spurs with some of his most brilliant all-around play, the kind that reminds everyone just how awe-inspiring and unique a basketball player he is. Gary Neal was only the most conspicuous gunner during the Spurs’ Game Three barrage, and Game Four saw Wade and Bosh finally play two good halves of basketball alongside LeBron. Game Five turned into the Danny Green show. But last night was different. But will Game Seven live up to the rest of the series?

As everyone has pointed out over the past couple of days, the last team to win a Game Seven on the road was the Washington Bullets in 1978, a good five years before I was born. And the Spurs sure looked like they poured everything into last night’s game in an effort to close out before a potential Game Seven; will they, specifically the older players like Duncan and Manu Ginobili, have enough gas in the tank physically to compete with the younger Heat? I think they will. I don’t believe that there is a team in basketball, and perhaps in any sport, better at putting a bad game behind them and moving on to the next one. And for all of the talk about their age, they rely heavily on guys like the 21-year-old Leonard and 25-year-old Green. I believe that they will show up to play. I don’t know if Duncan will be as good as he was in Game Six, but I also don’t think that Ginobili can be as bad. Sure, he sounded despondent after the game, but Ginobili is still one of the fiercest competitors in the league night in and night out (a major reason in why he has been injured so often and appears to be at the end of his rope as a viable NBA player).

For San Antonio to recover from their disappointment and win the title tomorrow night, I think they need a few things to happen. At least two of the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili trio need to have good games, and they have to get positive contributions from all three. On the surface, it would seem that Duncan and Parker are the best bets to perform well, while perhaps the best that they can hope for from Ginobili is something along the lines of “11 points, 6 assists, 3 turnovers.” Duncan has mostly had his way with anyone that Miami has thrown at him, and there’s really nothing that the Heat can do with him one-on-one; neither Bosh nor Andersen are strong enough to guard him effectively once he catches the ball in position. That means they need to help, and with San Antonio’s small lineups, that means helping off of a shooter. As for Parker, if LeBron is his primary defender for long stretches again the Spurs may have to entrust more ball-handling responsibilities to Ginobili and pray he stops coughing up the rock, or utilize the excellent passing of Boris Diaw to move the ball into optimum scoring position more often.

It’s become abundantly clear that Leonard is now a reliable force for the Spurs on both ends, and in fact would be a very worthy choice for Finals MVP should the Spurs win. Think about it. He has played the most minutes, averaged a 14-10 with two steals per game while guarding either LeBron or Wade virtually all of the time he’s on the floor, and his ability to help and recover has been absolutely critical to San Antonio’s team defense thus far. But he needs help from at least one of the other shooters, whether it be Green, Neal, Ginobili, or even a cameo from Matt Bonner (mostly useless unless the Heat go big for stretches with Bosh and either Haslem or the Birdman). And that’s it. The other options on the bench are Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph, and a three-levels-beyond-washed-up Tracy McGrady. Yikes. Basically, the Spurs can’t win if they’re a collective 5-18 (one each from Green, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, and Neal) behind the arc.

Miami, meanwhile, does not exactly have a cakewalk if they hope to repeat tomorrow night. For starters, they (specifically LeBron and Wade) absolutely HAVE to quit whining to the refs during live-ball situations. It’s annoying to watch two stars bitch like this, but they also need to realize that every time they indulge in their whining, the Spurs are playing 4-on-5. Save it for dead balls please, the refs during live-ball situations. It’s annoying to watch two stars bitch like this, but they also need to realize that every time they indulge in their whining, the Spurs are playing 4-on-5. Save it for dead balls please, gentlemen, and get your ass back on defense. The basketball fan/coach in me absolutely hates when they do this; the part of me that’s cheering for San Antonio laughs at every easier transition opportunity they give the Spurs.

The Heat also need the same Mario Chalmers to show up two games in a row, which is no sure thing. Chalmers is one of the most inconsistent players in the league, and he’s been proving it in these Finals. In Miami’s three wins, Super Nintendo is shooting 15-27 from the floor. In their three losses? Try 5-25. So he’s been basically three times the shooter in Miami wins. And with Chalmers, you generally know which version is showing up before the first TV timeout, because given the current Miami starting lineup opponents are going to help off of Chalmers before they help off of anyone else (except Wade behind the three-point line). If he strokes his first couple of shots, his defender will be less willing to help off of him, which will open more driving lanes for LeBron, and thus better shots for everyone else. If he bricks a couple early on, the Spurs will feel more confident clogging the lane and letting his irrational confidence come into play, meaning that there’s at least an even chance that Spoelstra or James scream at him in a timeout and he gets yanked for Norris Cole, a slightly inferior option. Chalmers also needs to be at least serviceable defensively, and not allow himself to get torched by Parker, Neal, or Green.

Speaking of shooting, Miami turned in a Spurs-esque 11-for-19 from long range and still only won by three points. Most of that came from the role players: Chalmers was 4-5, Battier 3-4, and Mike Miller canned both of his, including one with only one shoe on. Allen and LeBron’s threes, meanwhile, were the only ones each of them hit (although both were enormous, obviously). Miller has barely missed in the Finals (11-14), but Battier, Chalmers, and Cole have all been fairly cold throughout most of the series. If the threes don’t fall tomorrow night, Miami could be stuck with LeBron playing hero ball against a mostly packed-in defense.

But I think the most interesting strategy as relates to Miami’s chances is what to do with Wade late in the game, particularly if the Heat need to play catch-up. People have been harping on it all series across the internet and airwaves, but it’s true; in his current physical state and against San Antonio’s defense, Wade helps Miami most in those situations when he’s on the bench. The Spurs rightly have zero respect for him as a shooter, and for most of the series he’s been scoring his points because his defender has ignored him to be ready to help on more dangerous options. The bulk of Miami’s furious comeback last night came without Wade on the floor; he only re-entered with under four minutes to go, and the game was basically even from there on out. Will Spoelstra have the stones to bench Wade in Game Seven if it helps the Heat? I think that the game could turn on that decision.

Anyway, San Antonio is not out of it just because they fumbled away last night’s chance to lock up the title. These are two great, well-coached teams, and I think that this seventh and final game is going to be just as hard-fought. I hope that the Spurs win, but more than anything else, I just want to see a great basketball game.