In the long-standing tradition of reducing basketball to a binary, one might mistake the Spurs' 36-point fourth quarter in Game 1 as some sort of defensive implosion by the Heat. The numbers would seem to corroborate that claim: Miami allowed San Antonio to hit 14 of its 16 shots (a daunting 87.5 percent) in the fourth, including all six of its long-range tries. Of the four turnovers the Spurs committed in the frame, three were relatively unforced and could easily have resulted in even more points. And of the two misses the Heat did force, Tim Duncan rebounded one in a possession that ultimately ended in a back-breaking Kawhi Leonard three-pointer.
Those surface-level indicators do not reflect well on the Heat, but they ignore one all-important distinction: Within that 36-17 fourth-quarter explosion, the Spurs played 10 minutes of perfect offense, leading to a Game 1 win. To extend that triumph as some indelible failure on Miami's part misses the point entirely.
Take, for instance, this sequence several minutes into the fourth quarter, when the Heat still led 86-82:
As Tony Parker negotiates a pick-and-roll with Duncan on the right side of the floor, he winds up stringing out the sequence laterally rather than creating any actionable penetration. That in itself is optimal given how resourceful -- and lethal -- a threat Parker is after getting deep in the paint. Miami is able to deny him that space by way of a standard soft trap, which Chris Bosh executes effectively here. After walling off Parker's drive, Bosh dances back in recovery to Duncan, attached just enough to discourage a pass and force the action elsewhere.
The ball then rests with Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio's worst passer on the floor. Gauging that, Dwyane Wade sneaks over from the weak-side corner (where Manu Ginobili idles) into the restricted area, guarding against the possibility of a quick setup for Duncan. Leonard is successfully warded off that possibility, and attempts to reset the ball through Parker at the top of the floor. The only problem: Leonard's hesitation to throw the entry to Duncan inspired Parker to cut as a means of clearing the area, leaving Leonard's reset pass to skip toward the halfcourt line. Boris Diaw recovers the possession just barely, and the ball finds its way back to Parker. He accelerates towards Leonard as the shot clock dwindles, using his teammate as an impromptu screen in the process. Somehow, that's enough to break free; Norris Cole, who had been guarding Parker, stops dead in his tracks on the Leonard semi-screen, presumably because three of his teammates are positioned to defend the paint. It's Bosh who ultimately steps up to take away Parker's lane to the rim, though in doing so he leaves Duncan free for a pump-fake finish.
This was not poor defense. Miami took away the first action and impeded the second, forcing a near turnover in the process. The help was on-point. San Antonio's shooters were zoned up and contained. Yet the scramble of this sequence, in which Parker found some basic order beneath layers of chaos, caused the slightest slip and surrendered a brief scoring window. End scene with the Spurs finding a way, as is custom.
That very possession, though, brought about a worse end than a Duncan score. After coming up hobbling on the play prior, LeBron James checked out of the game with an incapacitating leg cramp and would not play a single defensive possession the rest of the way. The most dynamic and versatile piece of the Heat D -- the primary element that allows Miami to maintain its frenetic, high-pressure style -- was gone. That the Heat couldn't then stop the most exacting offense in the league only affirmed what we already knew to be true: San Antonio is overwhelming, and James is utterly essential to all that Miami does and can do.
So came the flood. First the Spurs ran a pick-and-roll for Ginobili and Duncan on the left side of the floor, which drew Rashard Lewis (in for James) up to pressure and then recover:
An easy score was prevented on the initial roll, though Duncan does manage to seal Lewis on the outside and position himself for an interior feed. The preemptive help comes, as it should, from Dwyane Wade in the weak-side corner. Diaw exploits Wade's absence splendidly by hurling a cross-court pass to Danny Green over the top, resulting in Green's first made shot of the game. Given Miami's personnel in this situation, what else could really have been done? Duncan was the more pressing threat and was defended accordingly, with the risk of this outcome accepted implicitly. Wade was still the most sensible option to help, even if Diaw was then able to then set up Green for a big basket.
"[Green] has a way of shaking free when you're concentrating on other guys," Erik Spoelstra said post-game. "Thats what makes him dangerous. Two of his threes were off of other actions and the last one was a specific play for him. He made us pay for that."
That last, set play Spoelstra mentioned was yet another flawlessly executed possession that left the Heat without much recourse:
Two-man action between Ginobili and Duncan had provided the backbone of the Spurs' offense throughout the fourth quarter to this point, but what started as a dribble hand-off between those long-time teammates here was merely prelude for a Green three. The choreography was outstanding: The Ginobili-Duncan sequence triggered Miami's pick-and-roll defense at the same time that Green set a post screen for Diaw, temporarily freeing both Green and Duncan as their respective defenders tended to their schematic responsibilities. Ray Allen (who was assigned to Green) didn't do anything more than touch and go with his help on Diaw, but by then it was too late. Again: What could anyone have Allen and the Heat do?
On nights like this, the unbreaking precision of the Spurs leaves even the stingiest of defenses without answers. Even after defending the pick-and-roll relatively well, Ginobili will ace an improbable pass to compel a breakdown. In the case that the defense is somehow in position to prevent that lapse by catching the rotation inside, Duncan can then re-route the possession to an open shooter. Defensive orchestration is fundamentally an act of concession, and never is that more apparent than in watching an opponent -- even one as terrific as Miami -- fend against the tactical zip of San Antonio's ball movement.
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