Commentary

Spurs win by daring Heat to shoot

Originally Published: June 7, 2013
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- In the days leading up to the start of the NBA Finals, Gregg Popovich repeatedly waved off questions about what sort of mastermind game plan it would take to deal with the power of LeBron James.

"Ahead of time, to think of 50 different scenarios, I think muddles the mind a little bit too much," the San Antonio Spurs coach snorted with his trademark dismissive tone. "It's a basketball game, go play it and see what you've got."

True enough. In 2007, as has been much discussed this week, Popovich had a simplistic but devastatingly effective strategy when the Spurs first dealt with James in the Finals. He was determined to force James to beat his team then, backing off him and inviting him to defy the odds at the time by making jump shots.

What Popovich and the Spurs deployed in their 92-88 Game 1 victory was equally efficient. There were no tricks, just an elementary mission: make James' teammates beat them.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThough he had a triple-double, LeBron James could not see enough teammates who could knock down a shot in Game 1.

That's right. Popovich was betting that the team that won 66 games in the regular season and put up some of the best shooting numbers of the last decade can't do it currently. He was sending the message he didn't think Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh deserved the credit, at least right now, that their résumés suggested. And he sure didn't seem to be all that scared of the once-mighty shooting triumvirate of Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.

During the 10 days the Spurs had off after they finished their sweep in the last round, Popovich wasn't drilling his players endlessly, poring over advanced spatial analysis statistics to devise "cold zones" or dreaming up radical defensive alignments.

He was watching the Heat play games.

Quite obviously, he noticed that James' teammates -- once so supportive and well-rounded they collectively challenged one of the most untouchable win streaks in all of sports -- haven't exactly been contributing all that well.

What of the Heat's "positionless" offense that combined so-called "small ball" with tactics to "stretch the floor?" Popovich's strategy dismissed it like so many annoying questions from a pesky sideline reporter.

It has gotten to the point where Wade is lauded as a conquering hero for scoring 20 points. In the seven games against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh's shooting was down nearly 20 percentage points from the long-ago regular season. And Battier, Allen and Chalmers? Those guys shot 18-of-59 from 3-point range in the conference finals.

So the Heat wanted to "stretch" that floor by putting Bosh and those other "shooters" at the 3-point line? Go right ahead, Popovich's game plan screamed, the Spurs weren't just going to ignore it; they were going to flagrantly disregard it. They were going to "shrink" the floor, pack the paint and let those slumping, injured or doubting Heat players prove them wrong.

When James went inside they were going to send two or three men his way and make James pass it. Who cared if he was passing it to open shooters? Those guys couldn't make much against the Pacers, so who's to say they'd start making when the logo on the court said "The Finals" on it?

James got his triple-double and he rebounded like a maniac, but he was relegated to spectator over and over because the Spurs choked off his airspace. Unlike last round when he went into "Cleveland mode," that wasn't even an option because even the Most Valuable Player has trouble defeating so many arms and legs at once.

The Heat did make five of their first 10 3-pointers and the crowd was going wild, figuring the old Heat were back. Wade was getting into the paint and putting the ball in the hoop, his knee saying the last three months of eye tests didn't matter. Bosh was executing spin moves to the rim.

"One second-guesses oneself often in the meat of these games," Popovich said. "Whether you stick with a certain strategy or change it."

Popovich, though, stuck with it. He knew what he'd seen over the last couple weeks and he was going to stay with what he knew. James had to keep passing out crowds with nowhere to turn. The Heat made three of their last 15 3-pointers. Wade scored four points in the second half. Bosh bricked several wide-open looks the Spurs blatantly dared him to take in the final minute, the thought of putting the ball on the floor and challenging Tim Duncan not seeming to cross his mind.

Bosh was supposed to miss those shots. He finished 6-of-16 for 37.5 percent shooting. That was right on the current schedule: he shot 37.7 percent against the Pacers. And his 13 points were still the most Bosh had in two weeks.

"Yeah, they were collapsing the middle pretty good on us, weren't they?" Bosh said. "We have to see where their game plan is, and if our shooters are open we have to trust them and make them."

Indeed. That is what the Heat must do. Coach Erik Spoelstra was a little sluggish in making adjustments. James repeatedly got high screens and dribbled right into two and three Spurs that effectively took him out of the play with a forced pass. It would seem putting him in the post or taking him off the ball would have changed the dynamic.

The Heat will make those adjustments and eventually, it stands to reason, they will get more production from their shooters. The Spurs managed to commit just four turnovers, choking off a valuable Heat scoring resource. Miami did not reach the Finals without their stars playing like it. The Heat have little choice but to expect the worm to turn.

But Popovich is probably willing to ride this out until it happens. He saw very little compelling evidence to not to keep handing Wade and Bosh all the rope they wanted in Game 1 and continue to attempt to swallow James when he nears the basket.

"They did a good job of putting two guys on the ball ... and dared me to pass," James said. "I know my guys will be there to knock those shots down in the next game."

Popovich and the Spurs will see about that.