If this NBA Finals can be presented as a collection of beautiful mind games, we’d have to give the advantage to veteran San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
But any tactical advantage shouldn’t be defined as a simple chess match. In chess, it’s brain vs. brain, without intervening variables. The pawn, for example, doesn’t compromise the strategy of the aspiring Bobby Fischer by rotating too late for his next destination.
So, for Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, making adjustments and expecting the implementations to yield victory can be as dicey as making a weather forecast.
Does this suggest strategy hasn’t been a factor in San Antonio’s 3-2 lead? Hardly. But before we take a look at how big thinking has impacted this really fun showdown between two very good teams, please at least notice the questionable-execution-of-game-plan elements.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that what has occurred in each Heat-Spurs game has not been replicated in the next game. That has more to do, however, with performance than sage adjustments.
For example, in Miami’s three Finals defeats, LeBron James has missed 37 of 59 shots from the field; he shot 51 percent (44 percent from 3) against Paul George and the stingy Indiana Pacers.
What makes these Finals performances even more confounding is the seeming uncertainty as to how James should attack the Spurs across specific interludes. While Scottie Pippen is busy pointing out how James is superior to Michael Jordan, he might be wise to realize that MJ never had trouble figuring out what his role was for a particular game or sequence within a game.
Anyway, Miami — and Spoelstra — also might be sitting a lot prettier if point guard Mario Chalmers had made more than 31.7 percent of his shots through five games. And we can be pretty sure that Spoelstra never pulled aside Chris Bosh before a game and said, “OK, only get one defensive rebound tonight.”
While the actual efficiency of his players often makes it seem that Popovich is taking him to the tactical woodshed, Spoelstra actually tends to overthink things a bit.
For example, when the Spurs began this series by playing off of James and Wade, loading the paint for the drive and accepting the consequences of the Heat’s perimeter attack, Spoelstra reacted by changing his lineup and rotations. And this affected Miami’s defensive efforts against a team that has multiple options for generating consistent offense.
In the last two games, tough-guy veteran Udonis Haslem has played less, and galvanizing energy provider Chris “Birdman” Anderson hasn’t played at all. The attempt at going small and creating more space on offense wasn’t exactly parlayed into buckets by new starter Mike Miller, who had been providing scoring punch off the bench with Ray Allen.
And with one less floor-spacer on the second unit, Norris Cole has encountered tighter driving lanes.
Moving out Haslem and Anderson did create more basket-attack opportunities for the Heat, because Popovich responded by having 6-foot-11 Tiago Splitter and 6-9 Boris Diaw guard Wade in Game 4. Pop’s decision helped resurrect Wade’s emotional investment in this series, boosted his confidence and has turned him into a crucial player again.
That’s not much of a taking-Spoelstra-to-the-woodshed moment for the San Antonio coach.
Popovich rallied by going small, too, inserting the slumping Manu Ginobili into his starting lineup to have a go at Miller. The Spurs also were instructed to play at an ultra-fast tempo against a team that thrives in transition.
This seemingly suicidal maneuver worked because Spurs point guard Tony Parker can get from Point A to Point B like a jet, and it limited San Antonio’s work against a set Miami half-court defense.
Heat defenders, on their heels while attempting to stall the drives of Parker and Ginobili, were late identifying the post-transition whereabouts of San Antonio sniper Danny Green and the versatile Kawhi Leonard.
The ball movement and dead-eye shooting of the Spurs also provoked Spoelstra into going away from a frequent tactic of blitzing ball screens. And instead of going under screens and then losing Parker for good on the re-screen, Miami has been switching. Faced with bigger, slower defenders, Parker is able to get into the lane to score consistently.
The Spurs have ball-screened less often for Parker when Splitter is on the floor as Duncan’s backup. Instead, Parker simply has been winning one-on-one battles off the dribble or running James through off-ball screens when Spoelstra has LeBron check the San Antonio point guard.
While Spoelstra has struggled to slow down the Spurs in the odd-numbered games, this has more to do with how universally difficult it is to corral the fastest player with the ball on the floor (Parker) than any presumed lack of coaching knowledge.
The first suggested Game 6 adjustment we’ve heard is putting Allen in the starting lineup instead of Miller. Although this would help, it also would limit Miami’s bench productivity. We understand that normal second-unit rotations are out the window now, but Miami would be better served by using Haslem and Anderson in their normal roles.
This would allow Bosh to not be pinned on the post attempting to stop Duncan. (He can’t.) Sure, the 3-point spacing might suffer a bit, but it might return anew if James and Wade simply take an aggressive posture toward being begged to take mid-range shots.
Spoelstra also could help James take advantage of Leonard or Diaw or anyone else by playing two-man basketball with LeBron on the weak side of the floor and using misdirection involving Wade on the strong side.
Having LeBron as a cutter — with assistance from off-ball screens -– could be devastating.
And when the Spurs have the ball, it would help the Heat’s efforts if defenders stayed at home against corner jump shooters on dribble penetration. Having Anderson on the floor more often would provide rim protection on those occasions.
But there’s a pretty good chance that every Heat defender already has been told to stay attached to Green.
Their coach will seem a lot smarter after Game 6 if they remember to actually do it.