The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat did basketball proud on Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The series opener was a nice composite of the most likeable qualities of two really good basketball teams. Neither San Antonio nor Miami was the very best version of itself, but that wasn’t the result of selfishness or poor execution or anything other than the fact that the game is challenging when you’re playing the best competition.
A good number of missed shots came off well-executed actions, and some of the best shots -- in fact, the best shot -- were scored against incredible defensive efforts. Tony Parker’s improbable, leaning bank job came a second after he was literally on one knee against the Heat’s best pressure defense of the night.
When Parker put the Spurs up by six points earlier with three and a half minutes to go in regulation, the bucket was the result of the nastiest of crossover dribbles against a pesky Mario Chalmers. Parker skidded left, rose with the ball and nailed the well-contested jumper.
And when the Spurs went up seven on Danny Green’s big 3-pointer just before the 2:00 mark, it was after a series of passes when the ball went side-to-side and back again in a span of two seconds.
We didn’t see any transcendent individual performances in Game 1. Parker led all scorers with 21 points, and none of the high-volume guys on either side shot better than 50 percent from the field. But we saw Parker square off against LeBron James in the game’s final minutes, the Heat go point-less down the stretch and, of course, Parker’s bank shot, which will occupy a place in the constellation of bright NBA Finals moments.
Let’s play seven.
Pick-and-rolls with Parker and Tim Duncan are mainstays of the Spurs’ offense, but certain risks arise when the Heat blitz Parker (or any ballhandler when Duncan is the screener) while playing small. By doing so, the Heat effectively put one of their perimeter players in a rotation to pick up Duncan, and that can be dangerous for Miami.
At the two-minute mark of the first half, Shane Battier didn’t stand a chance as Duncan rolled hard to the basket after Chalmers and Joel Anthony trapped Parker off a pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. Battier tried to station himself between Duncan and the basket, but Duncan was too big and too deep and drained an easy hook shot from about 5 feet out.
This represents a huge opportunity for San Antonio in the series. If the Spurs can keep the Heat scrambling in defensive rotations during small-ball, Duncan should have some stellar looks at the basket against much smaller defenders, so long as Parker can make the pass out of the trap. This might once have been an issue for Parker, but it has been years since he couldn’t move the ball against pressure.
The Spurs weren’t successful on every possession -- Mike Miller was ready and waiting for Duncan when the Heat blitzed Ginobili on an angle pick-and-roll with about 4 minutes to go in the third quarter -- but they generated a number of good chances for Duncan, both for himself and as a playmaker, and on the offensive glass.
Why blitz, then? Because laying back means Parker is looking at open jumpers from 18 feet. In theory, it’s a shot Miami can live with, but when Parker is hitting from the floor or has an unobstructed view of the entire floor with options everywhere, it can debilitate and demoralize a defense. Trapping also produces the brand of chaos that fuels the Heat's break. That said, at some point, the Heat might want to mix in a few defensive calls that diverge from their primary coverages.
Had the Spurs guards hit a few of the wide open 3-point attempts, we might be speaking more poetically about the Spurs’ offensive performance, and with good reason. A bad possession was a rare event for San Antonio, per usual. A primary reason all their stuff works even without conventional athleticism or explosiveness are the ball skills and speedy decision-making of Duncan.
On the game’s fourth possession, Duncan caught a pass at the top of the circle from Parker on his right soon after Parker attacked off Duncan’s high pick. Nothing fancy or unusual or overly aggressive, just basic work in the half court. The ball doesn’t stay in Duncan’s hand, not even for a second. He instantly moves it along to Danny Green on the weak side, far too quickly for Wade to close on Green effectively.
It’s the sort of possession that makes the game look so easy, because the tasks appear so simple -- short pass, short pass, long shot. And they are simple. Most teams at any level can follow that sequence, but how many of them can beat the Spurs’ time? Wade was even cheating that far off Green, but that’s why the speed at which Duncan operates as a decision-maker is so important. The margin between Green being pressured and Green being wide open is determined in the time it takes Duncan to act.
Boris Diaw works well in this capacity, too. In the second quarter, he found Green in the corner out of a baseline trap. A little later, Diaw drove from the right corner along the baseline immediately off a swing pass when he saw Chris Bosh trying to close at an awkward angle from higher up the floor -- another quick decision that yielded a couple of points.
Most big men in the game take a split second, some longer than others. Duncan and Diaw take almost zero time, one reason the Spurs can get shooters wide-open looks with half the shot clock still remaining.
Most matchups have pretty obvious implications with regard to pace. It’s generally easy to say, “Team A wants to get out and run, while Team B wants a slow-it-down, grind-it-out affair.”
But how fast does San Antonio really want to play? The Spurs generally benefit from a jolt of speed in the game, but the Heat’s fast-and-early game is a different animal than anything else in the league, and that’s where the Spurs can get hurt, and did several times in the first half, when Miami moved into its stuff at a brisk speed.
The best example came with about 3:35 remaining in the second quarter. Wade caught the ball on the move in a half-court set on a corner cut off a down screen from LeBron. Wade collected, dribbled, stepped and soared, the result very close to an and-1 when Green fouled Wade at the rim. The pace was crucial for Wade in the first half because he didn’t have to score against a set half-court offense every trip down, something he had trouble doing against Indiana.
The biggest beneficiary of the Heat’s first-half focus on early offense was James. How did James catch Duncan out on an island midway through the first quarter? Merely by pushing the ball off a miss. The Spurs’ transition defense is as attentive as any in the league, but it’s not always easy to find your man when the stream is running.
A few minutes later, LeBron did the exact same thing to Diaw. Off a long miss by Ginobili, James rushed the ball up and keyed in on Diaw like a predator. James pulled up, slowed down the action so he could let Diaw marinate a little longer in isolation. This is LeBron at his very best: Single-handedly controlling everything from the speed at which nine other guys are going to move and even the pitch of the crowd. Once James had Diaw alone, LeBron backed up virtually all the way to half court before revving the engine, then bulldozing left. The layup at close range missed, in no small part because Duncan disrupted the shot near the rim, but the Heat would gladly simulate that possession 23 times and call it a quarter.
LeBron is looking to do this off the ball in early situations, too. Off a Duncan miss late in the first quarter, James found himself out on the perimeter and a short jog back down the court. He immediately found Diaw, who was back guarding the paint, and posted him up 12 feet from the basket. James caught the entry from Ray Allen, turned, drove, met Duncan again at the rim, but this time James drew the foul, Duncan’s second of the quarter.
“We’re going to miss some shots,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said during a huddle in the second quarter. “I don’t care. But I care about the transition, all right?”
Had the Heat gotten the same number of opportunities in transition after halftime as before, they probably would’ve won Game 1. Instead, things tightened up and the game became a skills competition. Advantage, San Antonio.