finished with 19 points and eight assists but it wasn't enough to propel the Spurs
past the Heat
in Game 6. (Greg Nelson/SI)
As we stand amazed by Miami's steely resolve or rubberneck at San Antonio's squandered opportunities, it's easy to disregard all that the Spurs did on Tuesday night to put themselves within a Ray Allen wrist-flick of the NBA title. For the bulk of Game 6, the Spurs played the part of the better, more resilient team -- a bit short in the final balance, but in command for most of the second half and the final minutes of regulation.
The chance to wrap up the series and the season slipped through their fingers as Miami went on to edge out a win in overtime, but the prevailing takeaway from Game 6 and the Finals in general remains San Antonio's ability to execute team-wide beyond expectation. It's not as gripping a development as LeBron James' takeover, if only because there's nothing remotely sexy about a sense of order. Yet the Spurs' perpetual balance almost made them the victors Tuesday.
San Antonio's late-game turnovers were so stark for this very reason. As painful as those giveaways were for the Spurs, they were all the more devastating given how consistently San Antonio has otherwise handled Miami's defensive pressure. In Game 6 alone, the Spurs were able to build a double-digit lead based on their capacity to work through action after action, largely rising to the challenge of the Heat's rebuffs. Take, for example, this blanketed play that nonetheless ends in a Tony Parker layup:
There is so much pretext to this eventual basket, beginning with Tiago Splitter's screen for Gary Neal at the left elbow, and ending with Parker streaking right by Bosh and dropping in a layup with just a few seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Some of those actions were schemed and some not. But either way, the Spurs have managed to essentially program for stagnation in this series, knowing full well that the Heat's ball pressure will deny some options and complicate others. It's for that reason that Gregg Popovich continues preach the importance of the Spurs' pace. Not only does pushing the tempo after a rebound or turnover open up good looks in transition, but it allows San Antonio more time to draw out lengthy possessions and stretch out Miami's defense. The Heat can lock down most opponents if only forced to guard for 10-12 seconds, but in initiating offense sooner and including so many movements and options, the Spurs can eventually get the better of the Heat's traps and hedges with opportunistic drives and passes.
That simple concept still requires an uncommon discipline, and in that San Antonio has set itself apart from both the rest of the Heat's opponents this postseason and even from Spurs teams past. Last year's loss to the Thunder in the Western Conference finals can be blamed on a number of factors, among them the inability of players aside from Parker and Ginobili to make something out of a seemingly broken play. San Antonio struggled in 2012 whenever a supporting player had to assume a more active role in the team's process, but this year's group has thrived on those very opportunities. Kawhi Leonard, specifically, has made brilliant moves without the ball to give Parker a bailout option on his desperate drives, and he's also done well in attacking the hoop after making a catch on the perimeter:
Neal has redeemed numerous possessions with his last-second heaves from outside, but has overall offered a greater good with smart, simple drives off the bounce:
Splitter, too, got into the act, sinking a pair of hook/flip shots to protect the Spurs' lead while Parker and Tim Duncan sat:
Boris Diaw wormed his way to the rim, Leonard notched an offensive board and put-back following an otherwise stunted offensive sequence, and the Spurs on the whole fought through possession after possession that initially seemed lost. San Antonio should have come up empty on so many of its trips down the floor, but managed to forge spot points by continuing to execute until the very last second. Some of that is a reflection of a team that better understands how to prevent Parker and Ginobili from being consistently swarmed, but the roster-wide ability to come up with improbable, momentum-breaking baskets is precisely why San Antonio is still in a great position to claim the 2013 title.
These are more than the breaks of the game -- they're fruits of a shared understanding and a system of movement. The Spurs, from top to bottom, know where to be and how to most efficiently get there, and because of that they position themselves to follow through on even the most dysfunctional possessions. Even their breakdowns aren't really breakdowns, as their most hopeless drives tend to come with a last-second alternative:
They are the epitome of a team that makes its own luck, as even those fortunate twists of fate seem somehow linked to a greater process. Below, in the mad scramble to reclaim a near-turnover, the Spurs play into the chaos with a wink. Just as Parker seems to drive into traffic and a likely desperation heave, he calmly pumps the brakes and creates contact, taking advantage of a tilting defense with his own hinted distress:
The pacing of his drive is quick and frantic, but Parker has as firm a grasp of the situation as any player on the floor, and around him are teammates who are calmly and wisely shifting into bits of open space -- Duncan above the free throw line, Neal beyond the arc, Leonard to the other side of the rim. It's all extemporaneous, in the strictest sense, but reflective of a team that has drawn its own method from the muddle. That's valuable in any context, but particularly so in a toss-up series against a defense as frenetic as Miami's, and at a stage in the season where even the most well-scripted offenses tend to stall.
Call it poise, maturity, or whatever you'd like -- these Spurs won't soon be knocked off the rails, and in that they are as prepared as can be for a winner-take-all Game 7.