By John Schmeelk
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What should really scare the Miami Heat is that Sunday night should have been a win for them. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 66 points and shot a combined 25-of-53. They even got a big game from a fourth player, Ray Allen, who scored 21 points off the bench and shot 7-of-10 from the field and 4-of-4 from behind the arc. The Spurs turned the ball over 18 times and the Heat just 13. The Spurs were good from three, but not otherworldly, shooting a percentage just over 40 percent, while Miami hit more threes and shot a better percentage.
How the heck did the Spurs win?
They shot 60 percent from the field. It’s really that simple. The Heat neutralized the Spurs’ offense in part in Game 4 by chasing them off of the three-point line (the Spurs attempted only 16 threes) and forcing them into more two-point shot attempts. The Miami strategy was similar in Game 5 (Spurs only shot 9-of-22 from three), except the Spurs did a far better job of converting those shots that were closer to the basket. In Game 5, the Spurs shot 33-of-48 from two-point range, a ridiculous 69 percent. In Game 4 they only hit 23-of-54, a 43 percent clip. That was the difference in the two games, and it came about because of a smart adjustment made by Gregg Popovich.
First, unlike the stubborn Mike Woodson, Popovich adjusted to Miami’s lineup change by also going small, starting Manu Ginobli and giving more time to Boris Diaw instead of Tiago Splitter. The move clearly spurred better play from Ginobli, who had been awful so far in the series. It gave the Spurs another shooter on the floor and a playmaker to challenge Miami’s other adjustments. It gave the Spurs another player besides Tony Parker who can not only create his own shot, but also create for others. If Ginobli plays like that the rest of the series, it will be very hard for the Heat to beat San Antonio.
The Spurs get their three-point shots off of their pick-and-roll plays. When teams hedge or trap, it forces rotations off the ball that inevitably open up a shooter, thanks to San Antonio’s ingenious play design and player/ball movement. The Heat tried to neutralize that by switching more high screen-and-rolls, making those off-the-ball rotations unnecessary. The Spurs got the ball in the hands of guys like Parker and Ginobli, and created mismatches by forcing Miami switches on those pick plays. Those two made plays by going to the basket, as did their teammates who they often found on drive-and-dishes. The Spurs simply finished better around the hoop than they did in Game 4. Throw in efficient post play from Tim Duncan, and the Spurs’ offense was clicking on all cylinders.
With every single defensive adjustment that Miami has thrown at San Antonio, Popovich and his team have countered and figured out a way to score. The question remains whether Erik Spoelstra and his team can figure out a way to slow down a Spurs offense that looks ridiculously efficient right now. In their wins, Miami has used a lot of high-intensity ball pressure to force Spurs turnovers that in turn give the Heat easy baskets. It has been their best weapon all series and all postseason long. They are going to have to rediscover that for both of their games in Miami if they want to win this series.
Will home court be the cure?
During the regular season, the Heat were only slightly better defensively on the road, but in the playoffs they have been significantly better at home, with a 96.9 defensive rating versus a 103.6 on the road.
Miami’s offense has been good enough, but I wonder if Wade’s miracle comeback can be sustained for two more games, especially with just one day off between them. With the pressure on, the Heat are probably going to need at least one “all-time great” caliber game out of James for them to win the last two remaining games and close out this series. So far, the Spurs have figured out how to make James look like a mere mortal. He’ll need to figure that out before this series is over. He is the star in this series, and he has not yet had a signature game.
I thought this series would be 3-2 in favor of the Spurs heading back to Miami, but I was wrong about one thing: This series is really all about the Heat. When they play their best ball on defense and offense, it’s pretty obvious that they are the best team on the court. But, as has been the story all postseason long, they do not do it consistently. They need to bring their best game two more times if they want to beat the Spurs, who will take advantage of every one of the Heat’s mistakes. The Heat looked like they could be an all-time great team during their winning streak, but in the playoffs they have shown that their faults are many times simply results of inconsistent effort, especially on the defensive end. With Wade’s miracle knee, their offense is clicking again, but on Sunday night that still wasn’t good enough. Even if they aren’t an all-time great team, they can still be a championship team. They just have to play their best basketball, something that they have not been able to do so far this series and postseason.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything on the Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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