San Antonio's swarming defense stifled Miami in Game 4. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
After the most harrowing loss of their season, the Heat regrouped, addressed shortcomings and suffered an even greater defeat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Spurs were essentially unsolvable on Thursday. No adjustment from Miami could have taken away all of San Antonio's scoring options or compromised its defense, which seems lost in the breathless praise of Gregg Popovich's system.
This beautiful, airy offense deserves that celebration and more. It would be a shame, though, if the Spurs' defensive triumphs were buried by that acclaim. In its 107-86 victory, San Antonio held Miami to 17, 19 and 21 points in the only three quarters of consequence. Miami's offensive efficiency in those 36 minutes was 89.8 points per 100 possessions -- far below even the 76ers' NBA-worst mark (96.8) in the regular season. This was a true unraveling. The Spurs tugged at all the right strings until an opponent that ranked second in regular-season efficiency and first in postseason efficiency (entering Thursday) fell apart.
There was no great secret to San Antonio's stout defensive play beyond the fact that this team remains, through every step of every rotation, on balance. The foundation is targeted concession -- an understanding of what the Spurs are willing to surrender. The level of calculation involved is evident every time a defender wanders from Rashard Lewis to help bother LeBron James, a trade-off that has served San Antonio well throughout this series. What kills the Heat is when so many players earn the Lewis treatment, as was the case in much of Game 4:
The Heat can overcome one defender sliding toward James, but when none of Lewis, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or Shane Battier/Toney Douglas/Udonis Haslem (in cameo) really demand attention on the perimeter, the entire operation stagnates. Miami doesn't actively want to isolate, yet it has been pushed that way more frequently because its ball movement never gets started. Every Heat player is defended only when he is activated as a threat. In Ray Allen's case, that demands a dedicated trailer at all times. In Wade's, defenders have more flexibility because of his lack of three-point shooting. Watch Danny Green here as he turns his head and leaves Wade in the left corner:
This defensive freedom has allowed the Spurs to play Boris Diaw whenever they like. He's spent significant stretches guarding Wade without much difficulty. When a stocky, 6-foot-8 power forward can defend a slashing, 6-foot-4 shooting guard credibly, the Heat's ability to control the matchup game vanishes. No team does small ball better than Miami, but if opponents are never forced to go small -- which for the Spurs would mean having to play Kawhi Leonard at power forward -- the Heat's advantage is nullified.
All of which props up Diaw as a unique defensive weapon in this series. His nonexistent vertical leap leaves him with almost no rim-protecting influence. You'd never know that from Diaw's work in Games 3 and 4, however, largely because the Spurs have structured their defense to mitigate athletic disadvantage. Diaw isn't relied on to defend the basket on his own because so many of his teammates (including two all-world defenders in Leonard and Tim Duncan) are often lurking nearby.
Even when Diaw has to defend Wade off the dribble, he gets plenty of help:
Leonard shades in from the corner to remove a lane to the rim. Green steps over to give Diaw a back line. Even Tony Parker digs down to show briefly in front of Lewis before recovering back to Chalmers -- a maneuver intended to make Wade hesitate. Wade hits the shot anyway, but great defenses can live with a contested, contorting runner.
With the Spurs able to provide so much positional help, the misdirecting off-ball screens and dribble hand-offs in the Heat's early offense become far less useful. There's no reason to overreact to a cutting Wade when the lane is clogged, or stay attached to Chalmers, Cole or Lewis as they move around the perimeter. San Antonio's defenders stay locked into the primary action, largely as an appraisal of the threats that matter most: James, Allen and Chris Bosh beyond the three-point line and any penetration. Even a clumsy, forced drive by Allen is enough to essentially draw a triple team:
Even when the Heat have found the open shooter in these situations, the Spurs' close-out choreography has been splendid. Often a defender who was zoning up the weak side scrambles out in time, forcing a Miami role player to make a move. Worse yet for the defending champs: When defenders haven't quite reached the shooter in time, the Heat haven't converted enough shots to damage San Antonio much. Take a look at this shot chart from the Heat's first three quarters of Game 4, sans James:
Oof. That's 2-of-8 shooting (25 percent) from three-point range and 5-of-19 shooting (26.3 percent) in the restricted area -- the two zones most crucial to Miami's offensive efficiency. There is no means for victory in a shot chart like this one, which is why a Miami team lacking alternatives fell into reluctant stagnation. James, who scored 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting through those same three quarters, can still manufacture points for himself. Without the help of even vaguely threatening teammates, however, James' anchoring offense has limited worth. Some player beyond LeBron has to capitalize or create against pressure lest the Spurs eat them alive.
Wade is typically the one to answer that call, and he may yet in Game 5 after a 3-for-13 performance on Thursday. If not, San Antonio's defense tightens, its offense overwhelms and Miami's season reaches its unsatisfying end.