When things looked precarious for the Miami Heat in the second quarter and LeBron James’ stat line looked pedestrian by anyone’s standards, it became throwback night:
What was going on? Was he being too deferential? Not sufficiently assertive? And was this lack of assertiveness actually a lack of resolve and the symptom of a deep character flaw?
How we miss you, 2011 C.E.
A combination of factors were at work, but to the extent there was a problem, it was far more rhythm than resolve. Unsatisfying as it sounds, there were a lot of possessions that simply didn’t end up in LeBron’s hands.
The defense of Kawhi Leonard also has to be cited, as it clearly bothered LeBron more than occasionally. The best example came toward the end of the third quarter, when Leonard recovered from a Mario Chalmers screen and quickly caught a driving James and deflected his pass for a turnover. He played on LeBron’s right shoulder fearlessly all night. When James held the ball, Leonard gave him a little space but was hyper-alert to potential closeouts.
But there were plenty of good opportunities all around for Miami, and the Heat -- often James himself -- frequently chose the one that happened not to be LeBron.
Dwyane Wade and James orchestrated a pick-and-roll with just less than four minutes to go in the first half, right about the moment of the game when LeBron’s limited level of involvement in the offense went from a peripheral plot point to a major storyline. Together, they forced a defensive switch by San Antonio.
The immediate expectation would be to empower James, who was eight feet in front of the basket one-on-one against Danny Green. But just when it seemed like Wade blew it by not finding LeBron, Wade bounced into the lane against Leonard, rose and flicked the ball at the rim over Leonard.
It was an obvious opportunity for LeBron, but there’s no faulting Wade for not giving it up.
James drew Green again on a switch the very next possession, and James shot a 17-footer directly over Green. It was a shot he hits at a decent clip but didn’t fall.
A couple of possessions later, James ran directly at Gary Neal in transition off a Spurs miss. He bullied Neal into the lane just beneath the basket and established position. But Wade either didn’t feel like he could lob a pass inside that would have cleared Tim Duncan, who stood between Wade and James, or felt he had some real-estate opportunities of his own to exploit. Either way, Wade drove the lane, lured Tony Parker away from Chalmers on the strong side perimeter, then dished to a wide-open Chalmers for the 3-pointer.
Just as James made his approach to the paint while leading a break in the third quarter, he kicked the ball out to the arc and rang up the hockey assist on Ray Allen’s trailing 3-pointer.
A minute later, James jump-stopped in the paint on a drive, saw Mike Miller wide open and gave it up again for a teammate’s open 3. Then followed a James laser to a cutting Wade for an easy layup and a dish to Wade again on the break when Wade settled for an awkward runner. The Heat went to a successful Wade-Chris Bosh pick-and-roll off a subsequent inbound.
In the Heat’s final possession of the third quarter, James’ sturdy screen for Chalmers took Parker out of the play, allowing Chalmers to drive to within five feet of the basket for the floater and the foul. A pass of medium difficulty to James would have resulted in a high-percentage shot but probably not one better than Chalmers’.
And the Heat first mounted a 15-point lead after James took control of the left block against Manu Ginobili, got the pass, saw an immediate double-team and whipped a pass along the baseline that landed in Miller’s hands in the right corner for an open 3-pointer.
Time and again, James hunted mismatches and dragged the unsuspecting victim into the post, and there was a classic example of how quirky the game was for LeBron as he tried to get on track down low.
With a little less than five minutes left in the third, James dragged Green onto the low left block and got an entry pass from the left sideline. This is one of Miami’s corner-post sets run for James at the spot on the floor that best allows him to be a true triple threat. But just as he started to go to work, Duncan was whistled for defensive three-seconds.
So, yes, by both conventional and LeBron standards, he had an unremarkable first three quarters. There were definitely uncharacteristic moments. Having his shot blocked at the rim by Green wasn’t one for the reel, and he failed to convert on the break after Green performed the aerial version of pulling the chair out (opening the door to the plane?) on LeBron, throwing the shot attempt off.
But LeBron’s results over the first three quarters weren’t worrisome or a betrayal of his powers. And assertive can mean different things. His team was performing efficiently overall, and, by a combination of chance, the appetite of his teammates and some pretty strong defense by Leonard, the individual production wasn’t there until late. It happens, especially against disciplined defenses that plug the lane before James can find a seam.
Chalmers is one of those players we rarely look at with a long telescope. It’s easy to forget he was a second-rounder out of Kansas in 2008. As the draft drifted toward the end of the first round, he was one of those potential draft-night steals, a guy who might surprise and become an effective backup NBA point guard.
Chalmers' career has exceeded those projections. He isn’t a perfect solution, but he’s one that’s been far more than adequate holding down a very serious responsibility for an elite team and doing it during the nuttiest of environments in which the people he works with yell at him a lot. He’s essentially the long, spot-up threat, the stretchiest guy in the starting lineup for a team featuring James in his prime.
In Game 2, Chalmers led the Heat in scoring and drained a big 3-pointer that re-established the lead for Miami 90 seconds before halftime. We saw in Game 1 that he can be an effective weapon if he can clear the corner on the screens from James and Udonis Haslem. Leonard can’t do much to help since he’s on James, which means if Chalmers can pick up a little speed around that turn, life becomes more difficult for Duncan or whomever is waiting.
The defense has gotten inordinately smarter, even if there are occasional groaners. The staff gave him a directive to run under screens for Parker and work with his big men to make sure they nailed the timing of the recoveries. He shined in those capacities as well in Game 2.
In Game 1, the Spurs found quality looks inside for their big men against smaller Heat defenders, the guys who have to rotate from the wing when the Heat blitzed pick-and-rolls. The Heat still ran a few blitzes on Sunday night (early), and we saw Tiago Splitter as the beneficiary when he drew Miller as the rotator. Splitter scored an easy bucket at close range to settle the Heat’s first-half run.
Blitzing the pick-and-roll is a tough full-time strategy for the Heat because they’re already pretty small behind a trap on the ball handler. Combine that with Parker’s speed, which requires the big man to hang around longer, and the Heat’s defense can get destabilized pretty quickly when that happens (as it did in Game 1).
With that in mind, the Heat began to switch some pick-and-rolls. Ideally, this strategy is less likely to put a defense into rotations, which is death against the Spurs. Initially, Miami’s switches came almost exclusively in late shot clock situations. If Parker or another guard can make a play from 25 feet with five seconds left, then so be it.
Sometimes, the Spurs did, as when Parker in the first quarter zipped past a screen from Boris Diaw just in front of the left sideline and flipped up a teardrop over a backpedaling Bosh with the shot clock expiring. Green sank his third 3-pointer of the game when Splitter gave him a screen that bought Green enough space to step back and launch an uncontested look from beyond the arc.
But the Heat accomplished much of what they wanted defensively with the switch (credit them for getting into late shot clock situations by defending for 18 seconds). Duncan missed a 20-footer over Wade with the shot clock expiring. Bosh, Haslem and James handled Parker and the guards sufficiently. The Heat were still put into their share of rotations -- many of them the result of Spurs cutters and divers -- but distances were shorter because nobody was more than a few feet from their assignment to trap Parker or pick up Duncan on the roll.
Whether it was the switch or something else, the Heat desperately needed some variance in their pick-and-roll coverage coming into Game 2. And throughout the second half, we saw the Heat’s big men give Parker a long show with Chalmers taking the long way under the Duncan screen.
A team has to mix up its pitches against San Antonio. If the new plan is a disaster, you can always ditch it, but sometimes, a competitive series demands trial and error. You have to know when to abandon the experiment (and/or be willing to cut bait early), but even the remote possibility that you can win a few possessions makes it a worthwhile gamble.