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Gregg Popovich, after politely greeting Dwyane Wade, typically swarms him with multiple defenders.
Draw the fouls
Part of what makes LeBron James and Dwyane Wade so effective on the court is their ability to draw contact and get to the free throw line. Part of what makes Tim Duncan and the Spurs so effective on the court is their ability to stay out of foul trouble and keep opponents off the charity stripe. Something will have to give on Friday night. The Spurs rank second-lowest in the NBA in opponent free throw rate (the proportion of opponent free throw attempts to field goal attempts). It’s a critical ingredient of their stiff defense this season, and that department won’t be hampered much by Tony Parker’s absence. Duncan is at the center of it all, averaging a career-low 2.0 whistles per 36 minutes while posting one of his highest block rates in his Hall of Fame career. As a superb help defender, Duncan will need to rescue his teammates more often than normal Friday night, as Wade and James make it a priority to wreak havoc off the dribble. Keep a close eye on Duncan’s mobility in the paint. If the 34-year-old is slow to help, the Heat will almost certainly look to exploit it and get some extra freebies at the line.
Here's the Heat's first defensive imperative: Don’t let Manu Ginobili beat you. The Argentine may not be a point guard, but his playmaking abilities rival any perimeter player in the league. The Spurs will rely on him to break down the Heat’s typically airtight defense and open up the floor for the Spurs' sharpshooters to do their work. Pay particular attention to how the Heat defend the Ginobili pick-and-roll. On a normal night, defending teams like to have their big men show hard on the pick-and-roll to wall off Ginobili’s penetration. That strategy opens up the screener to dive to the rim early and call for the ball from Ginobili. But LeBron James, with the length of a big man, can deter those passes and make it hard for Ginobili to dish it out to Duncan, Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner for a jumper or hit DeJuan Blair on his way to the rim. The Spurs' pick-and-roll game with Ginobili -- and how the Heat defend it -- could be the deciding factor in the contest. If Ginobili flourishes, the Heat may not be able to recover.
Get out of their heads
Over the past week or so, the Heat have blown sizable leads to Chicago, New York and Orlando -- the last of which was far and away the most devastating. The Heat played a nearly perfect first half. Their scorers were in an incredible rhythm and their defenders were lightning quick to the ball. Leading the Magic by 24 points with nine minutes to go in the third quarter, the Heat were outscored 50-23 the rest of the way. For the Heat, this propensity for blowing big leads has become an elephantine problem. Ask someone not to think about elephants and they'll think about elephants. Ask the Heat not to cough up a big lead -- a trend that started in November, when they allowed Utah to storm back from a 22-point deficit to win -- and what should be an easy victory becomes an elusive, painstaking burden of closing out games. Assuming the Heat are able to establish a substantial lead of any size against the Spurs in San Antonio, it's imperative that Miami methodically puts the game away. Beating good teams when it matters is hard enough as it is. Having an elephant on the court makes it even harder.
James, Wade vs. Spurs defense
Gregg Popovich, as much as any coach in the league, subscribes to a stay-at-home defense. Help can be dispatched as needed, but Pop likes to rely on strong base defenders who can handle their business and don't compromise the Spurs' balance on the floor. That said, he will deploy strategic strikes against the league's more potent scorers -- guys like James and Wade who can break down defenders one-on-one. In past seasons, Popovich has blitzed Wade and James with multiple defenders. This season, that's a more difficult proposition because the two superstars share the floor. To compound matters, Popovich no longer has a Bruce Bowen -- a defender he can trust to handle an assignment like James and Wade singlehandedly out on the perimeter. As mentioned above, it's essential that James and Wade keep the pace up -- not just in transition, but also in the half court. The Heat are quicker than the Spurs, but if they insist on pounding the ball into the hardwood and trying to take individual defenders off the dribble, they'll get beat. But quick cuts, sharp slips and decisive actions will allow the Heat to use their speed against a slower (but extremely smart) Spurs defense.
Dealing with Duncan
Since Duncan became the cornerstone in San Antonio, the Spurs have had one of the most difficult plays to defend in basketball. It's a set that has carried them to championships. Duncan gets an off ball screen from the left corner from one of his wings, which produces a mismatch. With Duncan now being covered by a small guy, the rest of the Spurs fan out along the perimeter as the point guard delivers Duncan an entry pass into the post and allows him to go to work. As he's grown older, Duncan isn't nearly the focal point of the offense as he used to be -- and hasn't played more than 35 minutes in a game since New Year's -- but his presence can still beat a good defense on a given night. The Spurs don't have an offensive system so much as they have a series of pragmatic actions designed to cross up a defense. Working a mismatch for Duncan on the block is still a big part of that blueprint. The Heat's tight help defense typically makes smart decisions, and they rotate from the baseline as fluidly as any team in the league. At least 15 times Friday night, Duncan will get the ball where he wants it down on the left block, often against a smaller defender. How will the Heat respond, especially if helping means leaving Matt Bonner, Manu Ginobili or Richard Jefferson open from long range?
Thanks to 48 Minutes of Hell, the TrueHoop Network's Spurs blog, which contributed to this post.