Towards the end of the third quarter in game two, everything was set-up for a nice, neat, and incriminatory narrative to explain another Heat loss. After nearly two seasons of waiting, LeBron James had finally handed us a game where he was so uncharacteristically bad and, even worse, seemingly passive that it felt like the 2011 Finals against Dallas again. When we are the ones who control when and where a big and defining spot is, based on the result of course, it is easy to point out failure, and LeBron James was failing right before our waiting eyes.
But this was not the LeBron James from 2011, who repeatedly failed to impact games in which he struggled mightily against the zoned-up, “stop LeBron penetration at all costs” style defense when he initiated the offense at the top of the key. And this was not the same Erik Spoelstra, who more or less threw his drowning star an anchor two years ago with his failure to adjust to the LeBron-crippling Dallas defense.
This was, however, the very same Mario Chalmers, who’s perception of himself as the best basketball player on any court he has ever walked on (despite having played with the likes of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh for three years) has remained unchanged since his days dominating the Alaskan high-school basketball circuit. The combination of the now versatile off-ball capabilities by James, Spoelstra’s willingness and capacity to adapt and adjust, and the perpetual fearless arrogance that makes Chalmers both awful and magnificent helped shift the narrative from embarrassing failure to reaffirming triumph with one giant, pick-and-roll driven run.
Despite what the media would have led you to believe, if the Heat had lost, LeBron James’ poor performance had much more to do with how excellently San Antonio was defending him than whatever contrived narrative the media would have concocted (“LeBron James is just too scared of Danny Green”). The Spurs kept denying James the ball in the post, and even after what seemingly took a Herculean effort to establish position, this is what he faced all night:
Kawhi’s defense on James was deservedly lauded all game but the neutralization of LeBron came from a team effort. Look at how the Spurs are defending James on this play:
1) They load the strong side with four guys to deny him early post position and make him give up the ball to Miller.
2) After getting the ball back from Miller, Parker swipes at the ball and takes away LeBron’s ability to take Leonard off the dribble.
3) The Spurs now load up the weak side, denying passing lanes to Miller and Allen behind the line and the baseline cut by Andersen.
4) Parker finally doubles and LeBron is forced to pass it to Cole for a three and even though it’s open, that’s a win for the Spurs.
San Antonio kept doing just enough to get either a body in front of LeBron or a swipe at the ball to let him know they’re there, but not enough to cede him a passing lane.
When he was driving from the top of the key it was the same thing. San Antonio had the perfect balance of positioning and footwork to send three bodies between LeBron and the rim while giving him no weak side passing lane. What initially looks like almost cowardice on James’ part to keep out of the paint was a San Antonio defensive scheme that had an insanely high degree of difficulty and yet was repeatedly pulled off.
Miami’s offense stayed afloat with a great game from Bosh and solid three-point shooting but it was clear that the half court game was being stunted when LeBron handled the ball. So Spoelstra decided to open up the offense in other ways, by using LeBron as the screener in pick-and-roll.
I touched on how effective LeBron can be as a screener last series against Indiana, mostly how he’s just really good at setting screens and how you can’t afford to switch a point guard onto him. But it goes doubly so for a team that is helping so much on LeBron (something the Pacers refused to do) like the Spurs are. The Heat ran at least six Chalmers and LeBron pick-and-rolls at the elbow starting from the end of the third quarter till the middle of the fourth and the Spurs had no answers for it.
This doesn’t work unless Chalmers becomes a real threat at the rim and forces the Spurs to make tough choices about switches and doubles when LeBron is setting a pick. The play shown in the clip above is just the latest in a running theme where Rio is getting to the rim by beating a backpedaling defender off the dribble and this serves as the last straw for the Spurs defense. Danny Green anticipated the Chalmers’ drive but can’t play too far off LeBron because he is a quick pass from Chalmers away from good post position.
This time LeBron’s man, Kawhi, starts backing away immediately after LeBron sets the pick in an attempt to corral Chalmers while Parker hopefully is successful in going under the screen. He is not (again, LeBron is a fantastic screener) and after a bounce pass between the two defenders from Rio, LeBron has successfully shed his “kryptonian” defender (Kwahi, “the LeBron stopper”) and is finally free to get to the basket.
This is just the unfairness of having to play against LeBron James. Being the third time in five plays that Miami is going to run the Chalmers-LeBron pick-and-roll at the elbow, San Antonio knows what’s coming. Parker successfully goes under LeBron’s screen and, along with Leonard, they trap Chalmers. Rio gets the ball to LeBron out of the double and poor Gary Neal has no chance in hell of stopping James as LeBron just sidesteps him into oblivion. Kawhi does a great job recovering to cut LeBron off but the defense has already collapsed too much and Neal’s man, Miller, is wide open from three. Bang.
Other Notes from Game Two:
- Man, is Kawhi Leonard good. As stated above, his defense of LeBron was helped greatly by the team as a whole but he faired much better than even the great Paul George did bothering James down low. Even more impressive was, despite his poor shooting, his ability to make LeBron’s failure to box him out pay by cunningly whirling his way to the basket after shots to the tune of 14 total rebounds. Another thing to watch going forward is his three-point shooting. For two games now LeBron has left Kawhi open from the corners in favor of defending the paint and despite shooting 43 percent on corner threes in the regular season, Leonard has failed to make James pay going 1-7 behind the line for the series and 0-4 in the corners. It’s only a matter of time for these open looks to start falling and LeBron may soon regret his decision to keep playing so far off him.
- Danny Green was fire incarnate to start the game behind the line and the flames were mostly fanned by the Heat’s incompetence. All five of his makes came off of lazy transition defense by Wade (his aversion to effort when it comes to getting back in transition is becoming cliche at this point) or curiously lazy and/or unaware defense by LeBron (which is very uncharacteristic). I have no idea who LeBron thought he was guarding here or who he thought could possibly switch onto Green when he got to the strong side, but he lets the Spurs’ best three point shooter run baseline to an open corner without giving chase in favor of guarding…nobody.
- Tony Parker destroyed Miami in the pick-and-roll in game one and the Heat’s trapping scheme was rendered inert by excellent screening from the Spurs’ big men. Miami countered with more willingness to switch on these screens (both Haslem and Bosh did very good jobs containing both Parker and Manu when they were switched onto them) and a less aggressive, flatter trap that confused Parker into a few early and careless turnovers. More importantly, Chalmers did a great job chasing him around screens, as seen here where he expertly avoids three picks to stay with Parker on the baseline in a play San Antonio loves to run:
- Shane Battier’s minutes were once again taken by Mike Miller and barring an injury or the spontaneous combustion of Miller (likelier to happen than you think) it seems that lineup change is cemented for the duration of the series. Not only is Miller hitting the threes Battier just can’t right now, his defense has been superior as well. Miami went on their huge run off their uptick in defensive intensity and Miller was a big part of that, his rotations were crisp and he doubled hard. Despite the numerous injuries that Miller is most likely still dealing with, the fact of the matter is he is just fresher than Battier. Shane has spent the entire season guarding power forwards and getting abused by the likes of Zach Randolph and David West, all for the sake of saving LeBron the trouble of wearing himself out. That takes a toll, especially when you’re Battier’s age, and it seems he is finally feeling the effects.
- Most of the damage of Miami’s 30-5 run to blow San Antonio out was done when the Spurs went small. They threw out some variation of Parker-Manu-Green/Neal-Kawhi-Duncan/Splitter late in the third and throughout the fourth and those lineups proceeded to get decimated by Miami. Although the prevailing thought is that the Spurs can go small, their lineup data says otherwise. The Parker-Manu-Green-Kawhi-Duncan pairing had a -19.9 net rating in the 36 minutes that unit logged in the regular season and the Neal and Splitter variations of the lineup played a measly 27 minutes combined throughout the entire season. It’s extremely tempting to go small to match Miami but this isn’t what the Spurs normally do, they aren’t very good at it, and it cost them big in game two.