NBA Finals, Game 1: The Beauty of the Matchup

The most thrilling mano-a-mano moment in the NBA is when LeBron puts his head down and attacks Roy Hibbert at the rim. It’s an electric clash, one the entire arena can see coming a beat or two before it happens, and one LeBron grew more comfortable initiating this season.

But the most thrilling team-versus-team battle in basketball is the Spurs’ gorgeous whirring offense against the Heat’s frantic defense. You can spout off an all-caps rant about cramps without bothering to learn any of the science, and it was just sad to see the world’s best player removed from what should have been an epic Game 1 of an epic series, but there was a basketball game, and the focus here will be on basketball.

San Antonio’s first two playoff opponents, Dallas and Portland, were overmatched, and they responded by playing an ultraconservative scheme, sticking like glue to the Spurs’ perimeter shooters and conceding the middle of the floor.

The Thunder have the athletes to hit first against San Antonio, but they’re a less polished version of Miami, and Serge Ibaka’s injury derailed the early part of that series.

Miami isn’t as hyperactive and trappy as it once was, but even its dialed-back scheme is aggressive by the NBA’s general standards. As fancy as the Spurs’ offense looks, it’s really just a well-choreographed series of different types of pick-and-rolls — standard high pick-and-rolls in the middle, sideline plays, and various high-flying dribble handoff jobs for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

The Heat mix up their defense, but the principle remains the same against almost all pick-and-rolls: Two Heat defenders attack the ball handler, and a third defender leaves his assignment to clog the lane on a big man rolling to the rim. The Heat dare to leave Spurs shooters open in ways that are unthinkable for teams like the Mavs and Blazers:

CHALMERS

The Heat want you to move the ball. They encourage it, even though “ball movement” is regarded as a fundamentally good thing. If an opponent swings the ball around, it means it has abandoned its first and second options in order to seek out something else. The shot clock dwindles, the Heat defenders fly around in perfectly synchronized rotations, and the ball ends up in the hands of a role player who isn’t as qualified to do anything with it under pressure:

But the Spurs are equipped for the fight. Their role players have gradually grown more comfortable doing adventurous stuff with the ball, and the front office has filled the roster with smart and skilled guys capable of pumping-and-driving — of keeping the machine rolling.

They have also gotten smarter about mixing up the way they attack Miami, and specifically about moving the chess pieces around so the lead ball handler has a convenient release valve on every pick-and-roll. And that release valve is seldom in the same spot on consecutive possessions.

Here’s Danny Green cutting over from the weak side to the strong side under a Parker–Tiago Splitter pick-and-roll, an unusual cut that absolutely flummoxed Miami last season:

Dwyane Wade is on the case this time, and there is no juicy open 3-pointer for Green. But it doesn’t matter: Green can still act as a safety valve for Parker, and he’s good enough at making quick moves now that he can pump-and-drive by Wade. He pulls that trick, then finds Marco Belinelli open in the opposite corner for a triple.

Why is Belinelli open? Because his man, Ray Allen, had to ditch him earlier in the possession and dart into the middle of the paint to clog up Splitter’s rim roll:

RAY

The Spurs are brilliant at running pick-and-rolls that aren’t necessarily designed to generate scoring chances for either of the two guys directly involved. They know how the Heat’s defense is going to respond to any initial puncturing, and which non-involved Spurs will come open as the Miami defense changes shape — and when.

Here’s Belinelli finding a driving lane on a similar action about 90 seconds earlier:

Same general idea: The pick-and-roll draws Belinelli’s guy (Allen again) into the paint, and the ball finds its way back to Belinelli with Allen’s balance compromised. Boris Diaw acts as the release valve here, and he’s up high instead of in the corner, where Green was on the other play. Again: The Spurs mix it up.

Diaw is a crucial player in any series that requires the Spurs to find an extra dash of ballhandling. It would not be a surprise if he replaces Splitter in the starting lineup at some point, perhaps as early as Game 2. (By the way: The photo of Diaw on the NBA’s official stats site still shows him in a Bobcats jersey. That says a lot about Diaw’s place in the league before San Antonio rescued him.)

It’s not just Diaw’s combination of handling and passing that makes him valuable in this series; Splitter is a dynamite passer in his own right.

It’s that Diaw can do all of that from behind the 3-point arc, while Splitter is largely confined to the area below the foul line — the same territory where Tim Duncan thrives. The Heat’s defenders behind the Spurs’ pick-and-roll have less distance to travel when the Spurs have Splitter and Duncan on the floor. If Duncan sets the pick up high, Splitter’s guy can just slide a few feet across the paint to muck things up. Duncan scores here, but it’s a tough look, and the Spurs have to go through a ton of high-risk gymnastics to produce it:

Even though the Heat played small for almost the entire game, Splitter’s defender is generally a taller human — Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier, both smart and feisty defenders.

Splitter and Duncan played just eight minutes together in Game 1, and the team’s offense was a disaster during that span. Splitter perked up in the second half as the center in a small-ball lineup, and he also played 10 effective minutes alongside Diaw.

The Spurs’ most-used lineup in Game 1 was the one I featured in my preview: Parker, Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Diaw, and Duncan. That group outscored the Heat by 22 points in just eight minutes, and Gregg Popovich will likely use it more going forward; Leonard got in early foul trouble last night, and the stupid temperature issues screwed up everyone’s rotations.

Popovich quietly slid that lineup to the front of his cupboard this season. It logged just 58 minutes in the regular season last year, and just 33 in the playoffs — including a paltry four total minutes in the seven-game Finals against Miami, per NBA.com. Pop used that group for 193 minutes in this regular season, and it has already piled up 90 minutes over the playoffs. It features San Antonio’s two best defenders and two best ball handlers, and there is no safe place to hide Allen. The Spurs used it for twice as many minutes in Game 1 last night as they did in the entirety of last year’s Finals.

If Diaw is the guy surrounding a Duncan-centered pick-and-roll, standing 30 feet from the hoop, the Heat typically have to send help from a 3-point shooter along the sideline. That’s bad for two reasons: That helper has more distance to travel, which in turn makes the job just a bit harder for every other Miami defender on the Heat string. And that player is a few inches shorter than Lewis/Battier, making for an easier finish if the Spurs manage to find their big man rolling.

Good luck asking Allen to stop Duncan here:

That clip is indicative of how difficult it is to separate bad defense, great offense, and the effects of last night’s ridiculous air conditioning blunder. That play is from the fourth quarter, and it features some pretty soft Miami defense as Ginobili starts things off. Wade doesn’t really do anything, dying on Duncan’s pick and just standing there. Chris Andersen saunters along with the Mad Argentine, but he’s a step below where the Heat would like him, and Ginobili has an easy line of sight to Duncan.

The Heat don’t really blitz ball handlers like they used to in 2012, when they nearly ruined Linsanity by chasing Jeremy Lin all the way toward half court. But they still slide with those ball handlers at the level of the pick, and if they’re going to win this series, they have to put enough pressure on Ginobili and Parker to at least make those initial passes tough. Ginobili needs to see four arms in his face here, and he sees none.

By the way: Watch that play again, and it’s entirely possible the Heat would prefer that Lewis, standing near the foul line, make a complete rotation off of Diaw instead of forcing the shorter Allen to scramble all the way from the corner:

RASHARD

But everyone was exhausted by this point, and the Spurs make those choices difficult in the moment. Leonard’s dagger triple came on a set piece designed to force Miami to rotate a little guy into the paint — a Parker-Duncan side pick-and-roll with Diaw higher on the floor than any other San Antonio player:

The Spurs double down on the confusion by having Diaw set a pin-down screen for Leonard, and the Heat get completely lost.

Ginobili was brilliant all game, no-looking and jump-passing his way to 11 glorious assists. The fundamental rules of basketball have never applied to him. The Heat cannot let Ginobili operate with such clear vision up high. He will eat them up:

What a nice little play. The Spurs know exactly how Miami will rotate here: Lewis will leave Diaw to help on Duncan, and if Ginobili finds Diaw — the release valve — right away, Lewis will have to rush back at him. That will trigger a second rotation from the other side — Wade’s dash to the middle, which results in a foul on Duncan. This is San Antonio as grand puppeteer, thinking three moves ahead.

The Heat won a lot of these battles, by the way; Wade nearly swipes this one, and they forced 22 turnovers. The upside of having little guys run in to help on big fellas near the rim is that those little guys are good at stealing the ball. And the Spurs will presumably have a functioning arena for Game 2, allowing everyone to play their normal minutes; the Heat’s defense was fine with LeBron on the floor.

The Spurs’ offense has always been the league’s best shot against small-ball Miami — the one team with the passing chops and collective smarts to fling the rock over and around the Heat’s frenetic system. They won Game 1 that way. I can’t wait for Game 2.

A Few Final Finals Thoughts

• The Heat need to clean up their transition defense, which killed them in last year’s Finals as well. Again: It’s hard to distinguish between poor effort and heat-related exhaustion, but Miami had some typical blips of lazy transition defense even early in the game. Like, I have no idea what Wade is trying to accomplish here after tossing this entry pass and watching a LeBron post-up go awry:

Lewis had to pick up Ginobili in the ensuing chaos, and Ginobili nailed a step-back 3-pointer over him. Mario Chalmers had to grab Leonard around the waist to prevent a run-out earlier in the game, a blatant (and uncalled) foul that reminded me of my water polo days, when defensive players behind in transition would just grab your legs and yank you backward:

GRAB

Getting out on the break is a great way to unleash Parker as a one-on-one scorer, and he took just about every chance he got to look for points that way. Miami can’t trap if there is no second Spurs player screening for Parker. About 21 percent of San Antonio’s possessions came in transition, a monster number that would have led the league for the season, per Synergy.

• Caveat: Transition defense is one of those things for which we demand perfection that isn’t really possible. It’s hard work, and sometimes guys slip up or misread a scrum that produces a sudden turnover. Even Leonard, usually diligent, admired his own jumper a few seconds too long early in the game, allowing LeBron to leak out and post up Ginobili in a mismatch.

• I thought LeBron was smart about attacking matchups that way — shedding Leonard when he sensed an opportunity to do it, and attacking Diaw when the Spurs went to that matchup. On three straight possessions in the second quarter with Diaw on him, LeBron brought the ball up the left sideline and just sprint-dribbled right at Diaw, producing a layup and two fouls. He did that same left-to-right thing a lot in last year’s Finals.

• Something always goes wrong in the AT&T Center. The wireless access didn’t work last season in Game 3, forcing the league office to send an emergency tech crew ahead of Game 4. There was a weird fly infestation during last year’s Finals; the flies almost chased Udonis Haslem out of an interview during one shootaround.

• Interesting move by Pop having Duncan defend Lewis, with Splitter taking the more threatening Chris Bosh. Both guys are perimeter shooters in Miami’s system, and so both drag their defenders away from the rim. The Spurs have concluded that Lewis is less dangerous, allowing Duncan to at least hang around near the edge of the paint, serving as a looming rim protector. The Heat ran a lot of pick-and-roll action on the opposite side of the floor from Duncan, often using LeBron as a screener, hoping to win the race to the rim against him. This is how they have attacked Hibbert for years.

They also shifted a weak perimeter defender onto Lewis when Diaw guarded James. It will be fun to see how these matchups shift as the series moves along.

• I liked Miami shifting Norris Cole onto Ginobili early in the fourth quarter, when Green was out there as a spot to hide Allen. Cole is a vicious on-ball defender and gave Manu some problems. The Heat should basically never have Allen on Ginobili, and they stuck with that matchup on a few possessions even with LeBron wasting his defensive skills on Belinelli. LeBron needs some on-court rest, and the heat issue warped everything. But this is something to watch.

• Duncan took 6.5 post-up shots per game in the Finals last season, per Synergy Sports. He took just three last night, and none was a one-on-one attack against Bosh. The first came out of a pick-and-roll, and the last two were against Lewis and LeBron on mismatches. The Spurs went all pick-and-roll and transition last night. Miami had Lewis guard Duncan on purpose for maybe one minute, and it did not work; San Antonio went right at that matchup with a set play for Duncan.

• The Spurs did not defend LeBron with the same cushion they used in last year’s Finals. They generally went over picks, not under them, and lived with James trying to attack off the dribble. We didn’t see all that many LeBron pick-and-rolls in Game 1, perhaps because the Heat anticipated the cushion strategy. I wonder if we’ll see more on Sunday.

San Antonio used the old cushion strategy on Wade, who still found gaps to score on and off the ball. I love a fun Wade game.

On to Game 2 …

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, LeBron James, Tony Parker, danny green, Dwyane Wade, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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