One of the things that make the San Antonio Spurs one of the great offensive teams in modern NBA history is their use of a third player (sometimes a big man) in their pick and roll coverages, something Zach Lowe touched on here after Game 1:
They (the Spurs) 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.
The Spurs do this numerous times per game, especially when they really want to get the opponent’s defense moving and utilize the abilities of Splitter’s passing below the free throw line:
The initial set up goes the Miami Heat’s way with Chris Bosh and LeBron James getting the trap in the corner. But this is where the combination of high intellect, years of training and Brazilian flare come in:
Boom! The end result is a Tim Duncan dunk off a cut. Tiago Splitter will never be renowned for his ability to score inside or having a bevy of post moves that can distort a defense, but his weird cutting and beautiful passing abilities are very valuable in helping the Spurs construct their offense when he’s on the court. He’s just one of several options that the Spurs can use as a third player, and when he’s used, the court resembles more of a triangle between him, a potential cutter and the player with the ball in his hands. Boris Diaw also helps in these situations because he can do this from the perimeter or in the post.
Splitter and Diaw, when they had their runs separately with Duncan, had a big impact in the first quarter, as much as one could have without scoring. Their passing and movement without the ball helped with the Spurs’ blistering start. They were big parts as to how the Spurs’ offense during the beginning parts of the game looked very Spursy, going 10 for 15 from the field on eight assists. It was a far cry from the 6-for-15 performance they had in the fourth quarter. The shot selection was a bit off from what you expect from the Spurs, with five of their shots coming from mid-range though Tony Parker himself took a couple of them.
The Heat deserve much credit for this. They’ve become selective in terms of dialing up their pressure defensively, but they ratcheted it up to a nine on a ten-point scale in the fourth quarter. They did a lot of switching defensively, with LeBron taking the assignment of guarding Parker after the midway part of the fourth quarter (which again highlights how ridiculously unfair it is in terms of how talented LeBron James is). They were alert, didn’t allow potential back cuts or easy passes for the safety valves that the Spurs love to use to alleviate themselves and attack opponent’s defenses. The Heat can’t do this all the time though even though their conservatism is still aggressive to teams like the Spurs for example, and it’s super hard to score on Miami when they do crank it up on defense:
This is old school Miami. Even though Diaw made a three a possession earlier from nearly the same spot, the Heat decided to double Ginobili at the top of the key. This came after San Antonio ran a dribble handoff from Duncan, which came right after a flare screen from Diaw:
The play itself highlighted how mobile Bosh and Chris Anderson are defensively by trapping Ginobili and Bosh closing out on Diaw in the corner. It helps for Bosh that Anderson’s footwork inside helped make Diaw a passer when he took it from the corner, and that Danny Green on the wings as the release valve isn’t nearly as frightening as when he makes a baseline cut to the corner for a three. Once Green puts it on the floor and tries to create on his own, that’s a win any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
It’s tough to ask a team to replicate this type of switching and helter skelter defense three more times. It gets even tougher when said team is playing in their fourth straight NBA Finals. The Heat in the fourth quarter were brilliant in their switching and negating how the Spurs pick apart teams with the third man operating in different areas on the court, but asking that type of effort is a lot, especially when you consider that the Heat are erratic with picking up back cuts and flare screens. Dwyane Wade himself was great in that regard, and we remember how he was part of how the Spurs made the Heat look silly and almost got Danny Green an NBA Finals MVP trophy last year. We could easily see the Heat slip with their switching in Game 3 and the Spurs make them look foolish. We could also see what happened in the fourth quarter as a harbinger of things to come going forward.
Game 3 is Tuesday night and through two games of this series, it’s been a worthy successor to last year’s matchup.