NBA Finals 2014

Spurs smash the Heat: Woeful Wade holds the key for Heat’s future


Game 5 started exactly as the Heat wanted.  LeBron James came out hooping.  He ended the first quarter with 17 points, but only scored 3 in the second – 11 total in the second half – as the Heat simply lacked the answers for the tough questions asked of them by the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard paced the Spurs and was a deserved choice for finals MVP – even though he hardly contributed to the first two games – as the Spurs ran out 104-87 winners.

The Built vs Bought myth

Built vs Bought.  The Spurs vs the Heat.

The huge billboard in central Texas emphasizes the perception that this is an NBA finals matchup between two teams that are constructed differently.  That is partially true – no two teams are constructed in the same way as there is no perfect formula for success in the NBA.  It is not, however, a simple case of the Spurs being a team that has been “built” playing against a “bought” Heat team.  Firstly, you can’t buy a team in the NBA.  There’s a salary cap.  There are “cash considerations” involved in trades, but these are far from the transfer fees of football clubs like Manchester City or Chelsea.

What has happened in San Antonio is the creation of a system of basketball and the recruitment of players who fit that system.  We shouldn’t forget the extraordinary luck that the Spurs had in putting together the cornerstone of their franchise.  In December 1996 David Robinson broke his foot and missed the remainder of the season.  The team also lost Sean Elliott for most of the season with injury.  The Spurs ended up 20-62, the worst record in franchise history and enough to secure the top pick in the 1997 draft, which ended up being Tim Duncan.  Duncan averaged 21 pts and 11 rebounds a game as a rookie.

The Spurs were immediate contenders with Duncan on their roster.  From that point on, they had to be more discerning with the players they drafted.  From last year back to 2002, here are the players the Spurs have drafted: Livio Jean-Charles, Deshaun Thomas, Marcus Denmon, Cory Joseph, Adam Hanga, James Anderson, Ryan Richards (British player), DeJuan Blair, Jack McClinton, Nando De Colo, George Hill, Goran Dragic, James Gist, Tiago Splitter, Marcus Williams, Giorgos Printezis, Damir Markota, Ian Mahinmi, Beno Udrih, Romain Sato, Sergei Karaulov, Leandro Barbosa, John Salmons, Luis Scola, Randy Holcomb.

Some of those names will be familiar to those of you who are big Euroleague fans.  The Spurs can spot a player, that’s for sure, even if that player doesn’t end up on black, silver and white.

Let’s compare that to the current Spurs roster (with how they arrived at the Spurs in brackets):

Jeff Ayres (free agent), Aron Baynes (free agent), Marco Belinelli (free agent), Matt Bonner (trade), Austin Daye (trade), Boris Diaw (free agent), Tim Duncan (draft), Manu Ginobili (draft, then overseas), Danny Green (free agent), Damion James (free agent), Cory Joseph (draft), Kawhi Leonard (trade), Patrick Mills (free agent), Tony Parker (draft), Tiago Splitter (draft, then overseas).

The current Heat roster (with how they arrived at the Heat in brackets) is:

Ray Allen (free agent), Chris Andersen (free agent), Shane Battier (free agent), Michael Beasley (draft, then reacquired as free agent), Chris Bosh (trade), Mario Chalmers (draft), Norris Cole (trade), Toney Douglas (trade), Justin Hamilton (free agent), Udonis Haslem (free agent), LeBron James (trade), James Jones (drafted, then reacquired through free agency), Rashard Lewis (free agent), Greg Oden (free agent), Dwyane Wade (draft).

Free Agents: Spurs 7, Miami 9

Draft: Spurs 5, Miami 2

Trades: Spurs 3, Miami 4

So the Spurs have more players that they’ve drafted on their roster of 15, whereas Miami has more players that they’ve acquired via free agency.  Let’s quickly look at Miami’s recent draft history, working backwards from 2012 when they traded Arnett Moultrie to Philadelphia: Norris Cole (acquired), Latavious Williams (traded away), Da’Sean Butler (acquired), Jarvis Varnado (acquired), Dexter Pittman (acquired), Robert Dozier, Marcus Thornton (acquired then traded away), Darnell Jackson (acquired then traded away), Michael Beasley, Stanko Barac (acquired then traded away), Jason Smith (traded away), Wayne Simien, Matt Freije, Pape Sow (traded away), Dorell Wright, Jerome Beasley, Dwyane Wade, Rasual Butler, Caron Butler.

That brings us back to 2002.  Not exactly a cast of stars there, although Miami hasn’t tended to draft for itself.

The key difference between the teams is the fact that Miami traded for 4 of its current roster, the Spurs traded for 3.  Other players have arrived at the teams by means which could be described as “building”.  In particular, two of those trades – for LeBron James and Chris Bosh – are the two that lend themselves to the “built vs bought” narrative.

In truth, this isn’t a battle of built vs bought.  No NBA matchup is.  A more accurate portrayal of the series is that it is the battle of team hoops against individual hoops.  The Spurs are the classic “greater than the sum of its parts” team.  The Heat are the classic “star power” team.  Right now, the Spurs are edging it.

Kawhi is back, Mario still missing

A career high 29 points from Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to an initially-emphatic, latterly-narrow victory over the Miami Heat in game 3 as the Spurs reclaimed home court advantage.

Miami were by no means awful offensively this game, scoring exactly 25 points in each of the first three quarters before a less-than-stellar 17 in the final period where the Spurs outscored them by 8.  Given the margin of victory was nineteen points, it’s fair to say that despite the 41 point explosion in the first quarter – part of a first half that saw the Spurs hit 76% of their shots (ALL shots) – the Heat were still in this game and had it back at a 10 point deficit in the 4th.  The Spurs, however, were able to counter and push their lead back towards 20.

Leonard was sensational, going 10-13 for a plus/minus of +19.  Given his average performances, hindered by foul trouble, in the first two games, the trip to Miami seems to have revitalized someone who was expected to the the Spurs x-factor these finals.  He is the youngest player to score 29 in the NBA finals since Kobe Bryant.

Leonard is one of the most intensely likable players in the NBA at the moment.  Off the top of your head and using your most irrational frame of mind, come up with a reason not to like him.  Go on…I’ll wait…

Done? Nothing? Thought not.  Leonard has overcome tremendous personal tragedy to succeed at the highest level and is in the frame for perhaps the toughest job in basketball – succeeding Tim Duncan as the face of the San Antonio Spurs.  In 2008, at the age of 16, his father was murdered at the car wash he ran, where Kawhi used to work during his summers.  Despite his huge hands and athletic frame, he was under appreciated coming out of high school and ended up at the relatively obscure San Diego State.  Basketball became his distraction.  He practiced.  He lifted.  He got bigger – often playing the 5 for the Aztecs.  He worked on his shot – and has continued to do so; he was only a 29% three point shooter in college.  He now shoots almost 50% from the corner, 40% overall, from behind the arc.

Last night he reminded everyone what he is capable of.

Meanwhile, across the floor, Mario Chalmers has been posted missing.  He went 0-5 and managed 2 free throws, which pushed him over the 10 point mark for this series.  He wasn’t good against Indiana, either – scoring 6, 6, 6, 4, 8, and 4.  Indeed, his last moderately solid game was game 2 against Brooklyn, where he went 2-3 from downtown for 11 points and added 5 assists.  He hasn’t broken 5 assists since the Brooklyn series (he had 7 in both games 4 and 5) and while that is right on his season average  – not overly surprising given he’s playing with the greatest passer in the league who often plays point-everything – given he is making no other contribution, it’s fair to say that he is killing the Heat.  You cannot afford to have mediocre point guard play against the Spurs.

He’s not alone – Norris Cole has been mediocre this series as well.  He did have 8 last night, but gave the Heat 2 boards and 1 assist in game 2.  Cole did come in during the Pacers series and provide excellent d on a number of players and therefore might offer the Heat a little more going forward, especially given the fact that Toney Douglas is clearly not in Coach Spoelstra’s thinking.

Chalmers is one of many Heat players who will see his contract expire this offseason.  He is making $4m this season – relatively speaking a bargain for a starting point guard on a two-time defending champion.  He has been integral to the Heat’s success in the past, but the Heat will be very cautious not to focus too much on what has happened in the past this offseason, particularly with so many players seemingly on the verge of retirement.

Norris Cole is even better value for the Heat – earning $2m next season with a team option for $3m the following season.  Cole is two years younger than Chalmers as well.  Chalmers does deal with the pressure of being the starting point guard on a team including three legitimate superstars in their prime (or at least at the tail end of their prime in Dwyane Wade’s case).  The problem is that he has lost all sense of his game at the worst possible time.

The most significant thing he has done these finals was throw an elbow at Tony Parker.  The Heat need more.

Game 4 prediction: Heat

TCC will be back at the NBA finals for Game 5 on Sunday!

TCC at the NBA Finals game 2

Enjoy part 2 of the video diary!

Heat steal home court: LeBron responds

We all knew that was coming.  It was close in the end, but the Spurs had no answer for LeBron James, who started game 2 very slowly but ended up with 35 points and 10 rebounds.  Conversely, Tim Duncan started with 11 in the first quarter, but ended up only scoring 7 for the remainder of the game.

The atmosphere in the AT&T Center was strange last night.  It seemed flat.  The air conditioning was most certainly fixed – local media mentioned that the San Antonio Stars WNBA game the previous night had seen supporters wearing layers – and there seemed to be an air of apprehension among the Spurs fans.  They are, and remain, one of the best fan bases in basketball (well, outside of Greece, who has the best basketball fans in the world) but perhaps a wariness had developed among supporters, conscious of the fact that they might have gone too far in their mocking of LeBron James.

James might claim to ignore social media (particularly during the playoffs) and Bill Simmons might argue that “he’s not wired that way”, focusing more on the defeat in game 1 than the criticism he received, but there is no doubt that LeBron was very much aware that the world was laughing at him.  And, like he always does at this stage in his career, he responded in the most spectacular fashion.

For a stretch in the 3rd quarter, it seemed as though LeBron had keyed in on the bottom of the net – successive jump shots didn’t trouble the rim whatsoever.  The Spurs were still very much in the game, indeed they ended the 3rd with a 2 point lead, but apprehension grew in the stands and seemed to reflect the increasingly erratic Spurs offense.  Coach Popovich criticised his players for not moving the ball as the Spurs have been known to do for years and it was a fair criticism, but perhaps some credit should be given to the Heat’s defensive strategy, masterminded by Erik Spoelstra, which dared the Spurs to beat them one-on-one, luring them into a form of the game that the Heat is more comfortable with.

Given I took the Spurs in 6, I expect them to take home court back on either Tuesday or Thursday, but they won’t relish facing the multi skilled monster that is LeBron James on this sort of form.