Friday, June 21, 2013

We Were All Witnesses To A Great Game, Series, And MVP Performance

I need to own up to it.  Or, in today’s apologizing-while-not-apologizing parlance, I’m owning it: I said the Miami Heat would sweep the San Antonio Spurs.  I was so wrong … well, not the Miami winning part.  But instead of in four games they won their second straight National Basketball Association title in seven games, seven glorious, spine-tingling, corpuscle-jumping, “damn, did you see that???” games.

Bill Simmons, who has been very impressive as a studio analyst these NBA Finals, was right in noting that Game 7’s usually are sloppy.  Early on there were a lot of missed shots, mishandling of the ball, general unsteadiness and, surprising to me at least, a lack of energy for a final game of a series with a championship on the line.  But it was nevertheless close throughout the game, and in the second half both teams cut down on the mistakes and increased the shot-making and thrilling moments for basketball fans.  This was not a perfect game, but there will be turnovers and blown plays in every game.  What we saw Thursday night was the best Game 7, in any sport, in a long, long time.

Two big keys for the Heat.  The first was LeBron James, obviously.  After overcoming his own shortcomings in Game 6 with some big points in the fourth quarter and overtime to win that thriller, he tied Boston Celtics great Tommy Heinsohn for the most points scored by a member of a winning team in an NBA Finals Game 7 with 37.

Ironic that James helped the Heat win the game (and earn his second consecutive Finals Most Valuable Player award) from outside.  That was Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s game plan: Don’t allow James to drive to the rim.  That worked for the first six games, for the most part; he averaged only 8.2 points outside the paint, including 7-of-24 from three-point range.  But his jumpers just rained down Thursday night; 9-for-20 from outside, including 5-of-10 threes, for 23 of his 37 points.  After Heat losses in the Finals (and always after Heat losses in the Finals), people were looking at James not dribble-driving and wondering, “What’s happening with LeBron?”  He was just as passive in Game 7 as he was after defeats in Games 1, 3 and 5; the only difference was that the jump shots he had to “settle for” because the Spurs packed the paint went in.  And when he can score from outside, what could San Antonio do?

The other big contribution came from Dwyane Wade.  His inability to mesh with James when both were on the court – the negative +/- numbers of Wade in combination with James and other teammates thrown around on ESPN’s coverage of the game may signal a turning point for the use of “advanced metrics” in sportscasts – convinced me that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had to separate the two.  The best scenario for this busted-up Wade was to redirect his energies as a defensive stopper.  (Zach Lowe, who wrote up an excellent microscopic breakdown on how Game 6 was so great, showed that Wade, while hobbled in Tuesday’s game offensively, earned his keep on the defensive end.)

On Thursday, however, he became what he envisioned for himself when he coaxed James to South Beach; a very effective and dangerous #2 scorer.  He scored 23 points and hauled down ten rebounds in 39 minutes and was only a -2 on the floor.  Wade still is capable of stretches of brilliance; everyone points out his 32-point performance in Miami’s Game 4 win, but he poured in 25 and had ten assists in the Heat’s loss in Game 5.  This was the perfect time for Wade to be an asset, not a liability.

I shouldn’t forget the X Factor: Shane Battier.  Role players of the home team have to come up big, even moreso when the opponent is so formidable.  He had 18 points by going 6-of-8 from three-point range and led all players with a +12.  He made up for Ray Allen, who went scoreless, and Chris Bosh, who also went scoreless but had his hands full with Tim Duncan down low.

I have seen some unsophisticated people say that the Spurs choked.  That’s not just wrong, that’s unfair.  People want to get on Duncan for that blown lay-in and tip-in – including Duncan himself, who said after the game, “Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”  He did too much, both in the game (24 points via a bevy of moves, 12 rebounds, four steals) and in his entire career (this is the first time in five trips he and the San Antonio Spurs franchise have lost in the NBA Finals) to be criticized, let alone defined, by that mistake.  Besides, even if he did tie it, there were 46 seconds left in the game; there was no reason to believe James would not hit that dagger jumper to make it a two-point game instead of a four-point game, and San Antonio could have lost anyway.

The next Spurs possession, the one after that James score to make it 92-88, is a bit more troubling.  Manu Ginóbili was the point man.  Tony Parker, the best player for the team this series, was, for some reason, on the bench, replaced by Gary Neal.  After having an awful Game 6 Ginóbili turned in a redemptive performance Thursday, scoring 18 points on .500 (6-for-12) shooting with five assists.  But all four of his turnovers happened in the fourth quarter in a game where the Spurs were consistently behind but only by a beat.  Ginóbili took the dish from Duncan in the blocks to the baseline, where the Heat switched quickly, as they have all game and all season.  Ginóbili recklessly tried to lob it back to Duncan, where it was quickly pilfered by James.

San Antonio proved me and everybody wrong; not only did they have the means to stand toe-to-toe with the almighty Heat for seven games, I’m convinced they still have one good run to a championship left in them.  But two questions linger after this bitter defeat.  First, should Ginóbili be replaced in the Spurs’ “Big 3” by Kawhi Leonard?  He had an announcement party these Finals, scoring 19 and bringing down 16 boards.  Didn’t it seem like he grabbed every Spurs defensive rebound?  Could the swingman duplicate his incredible performance this series for the regular season?

A more important question concerns the health of Parker.  He, like Duncan, did too much to deserve any ripping for the loss in Game 7.  But he looked tired and banged up at the end of the game, so hurt and fatigued that Popovich believed the team’s fortunes were better if he stayed on the bench.  The Spurs had more than a puncher’s chance of winning the game if Parker was at 100%.  Instead, once Neal subbed for him on that play that resulted in Ginóbili’s costly turnover, he was done for the game.  And the man who made that circus shot to win Game 1 for San Antone witnessed his team go scoreless for the final two minutes of the last game of the NBA season.  Can the team depend on Parker to lead them to the Promised Land again?  Is he healthy enough to be the point guard during the regular season?

Nevertheless, this was the rare series where everyone contributed above their expected level.  Popovich may have made a mistake in not pulling the plug on Danny Green (1-for-12 shooting) earlier, but his 27 threes is the most in a NBA Finals series.  Bosh was hearing the boos and catcalls in the first half of Game 6, but his two blocks at the end of that game helped give his team a second chance.  Allen may not have scored Thursday, but his game-tying three Tuesday will enter the rapidly-increasing book of Miami Heat lore.  Mario Chalmers, largely invisible for this series, chipped in 14 points and did a serviceable job when Spoelstra put him at point guard.  Chris “Birdman” Andersen made his presence known early in the series; his slam dunks, putbacks (he was 100% from the field for the series at one point) and all-around energy symbolized the hustle the team needed to match the Spurs’ fundamentals and execution.  Shoot, Boris Diaw was the guy who defended James the best when he was struggling to hit from outside.

This series was characterized by blowouts.  As I said before, casual fans would look at that and say that one team played well and one team didn’t.  No, not really.  The best teams, playing at their best, can destroy any team.  Game 7 was different in that there really were no stretch runs.  San Antonio was usually able to score a momentum-stopping basket when inferior teams would be shuddered into paralysis as the Heat’s stingy D would turn into transition buckets.  Only when they remained behind at the end of the game did Popovich and his players go all-in for one last push.

They came up short.  It happens; a team, unfortunately, has to lose a great game because it’s a game.  But man, what a game, what a series, and let’s be honest, what a performance by LeBron James.  I differ from those who defend James on one petty point: You can still hate him for The Decision.  James was not a little boy when he decided to indulge in a media-driven spectacle.  But you have to admit that he led the Miami Heat to a second title, and chances are he’ll get a third next year.  We are witnessing this generation’s Michael Jordan.  You don’t have to like it – just acknowledge it.

Posted by WilliamSou at 5:01 PM


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