Role players emerging as key pawns in Finals chess match

Monday June 10th, 2013

With openings for LeBron James limited, Mario Chalmers led the Heat with 19 points in a Game 2 win.
Greg Nelson/SI



MIAMI -- That block. Did you see it? San Antonio's Tiago Splitter went up for a dunk, and by the time he landed, he knew he would have to grow a beard, change his name and move to a country without YouTube.

LeBron James can be that good, even on a night when he was ... not that good. He rose up and blocked Splitter's slam. It was athletic. It was an amazing show of strength. It was almost ruthless. And it didn't really affect the game -- the Heat led by 19 points in the fourth quarter when it happened -- but it did define the game.

The Heat outscored the Spurs 33-5 over a nine-minute stretch, spanning the third and fourth quarters of Game 2 of these Finals. That block was the exclamation point in the middle of it. This was the kind of performance that makes you re-evaluate everything you saw before it.

Watch: LeBron rejects Splitter's dunk attempt in fourth

Are we really watching a battle between two evenly matched teams? For all of Game 1 and most of Game 2, it seemed that way. And then, suddenly, it didn't. And maybe the most telling moment of the game was not LeBron's block itself, but what immediately followed it.

Chris Bosh got the rebound. (I'm not joking here -- that actually happened.) And then ...

"We took off," Ray Allen said. "We just scattered. I'm on one side, Mike [Miller] is on the other."

While Splitter ran off to forge a passport, Allen drained an open three-pointer. He and Miller combined to make 6-of-8 three-pointers for the night. This is how the Heat are designed: James opens the bank vault, and his teammates stuff their pockets with hundreds.

That effectively ended one of the most bizarre NBA Finals games I can remember. The Heat arrived with a clear mission: In coaching terms, they wanted to cut the head off the snake, and in this case, the head was Tony Parker. San Antonio's point guard had dominated Game 1 without committing a turnover. The Heat threw all sorts of defenders at him in Game 2. He finished with five baskets and five turnovers.

The Spurs have employed a similar philosophy against the Heat: frustrate the star, and take your chances with the other guys. And as a result, the NBA Finals turned into the three-point shooting contest at the All-Star Game. Danny Green made all five of his threes for San Antonio. Allen and Miller and Mario Chalmers made theirs for Miami.

The teams shot better from three (51.2 percent) than from two (43.4 percent), and it actually made sense. The threes were open and the twos were not.

And then came that nine-minute stretch. The Heat were just relentless, like an NFL defensive coordinator saying, "To heck with it, we're blitzing 11 guys on every play," which is totally what I would do if I were an NFL defensive coordinator. It worked. The Spurs made two shots, missed nine and committed five turnovers. Meanwhile, the Heat flew to Mars.

What does this mean for the rest of the Finals? Well, the Spurs got their split in Miami, so in a sense they won. But teams that get blown out in a Finals game usually lose in the Finals.

Mostly, we have a feel for how the series will go. As Bosh said, "This is the kind of series, I don't think they're going to really let [LeBron] get going." The rest of the Heat have to take advantage. Bosh adjusted by taking mid-range shots instead of threes in Game 2. He can be a frustrating player because he doesn't use his size advantage, but Bosh is still extremely skilled and a good teammate. His play was critical in Game 2.

Essentially, we have two Finals games being played simultaneously: the outside-shooting game by the role players on each team, and the stars trying to overcome defenses stacked against them. Miami has the biggest star, and Allen insists that the Heat can focus on Parker without giving guys like Green open looks.

"If you look at a lot of the shots that he hit early, it was a guy or two falling asleep," Allen said. "We did everything we wanted to do, but attention to detail had to be taken up a notch."

That was a typical Heat comment -- Miami players forever insist that what they do is what matters, not what the opponent does. They might be right. Game 3 is Tuesday night, which gives us a full two days to watch that blocked shot repeatedly.

"We're gonna be seeing that over and over," Bosh said.

He paused.

"And over, and over, and over. For a long time."

Poor Tiago Splitter. We'll miss him.

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