In a purely literal sense, Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals isn't a must-win, no matter what any member of the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat tries to tell you — with the series tied at two games apiece, whichever team drops Sunday night's contest will still have two shots at staying alive and hoisting the O'Brien once the series shifts back to South Beach. On the other hand, though, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, of the 10 times the Finals have been tied 2-2 since 1985, the team that won Game 5 has won the series seven times. On balance, then, it would seem like a better thing to win Game 5 than to lose it; that much is not in question.
But there's an awful lot of stuff that is in question as we head into the matchup between LeBron James' Heat and Tony Parker's Spurs. Here are seven running through my head as I wait for tip:
1. Can Parker play full speed for the full game?
After suffering a grade 1 strain of his right hamstring in the second half of San Antonio's Game 3 win, Spurs fans were concerned that Parker would be unable to hit the gas in Game 4. The All-Star point guard promptly allayed those concerns, hitting four of his first five shots to score eight points with two assists and a steal in the first six minutes of Thursday's contest.
He looked great throughout the first two quarters of Game 4, seeming comfortable and confident, getting to his preferred spots on the floor and showcasing the absurd shotmaking ...
... and draw-and-dish playmaking ...
... that have made him one of the league's premiere point guards, scoring a team-high 15 points to go with six assists and three rebounds to help the Spurs head into halftime tied at 49. Not unlike Heat star Dwyane Wade through the Finals' first three games, though, Parker all but vanished in the second half, missing all four of his shots and going scoreless as the Heat pulled away en route to a series-tying 16-point win.
Going back over the second half, Parker's quiet play seemed to have less to do with any tentativeness or hobbled form and more to do with really good Heat defense.
Miami's guards did a great job forcing their way through the myriad screens San Antonio sets for Parker on the ball. The Heat bigs did good work in varying their coverages, sometimes showing hard to force Parker to pull the ball out and try to make a pass behind the trap (where Heat helpers were almost invariably on time and on target with their rotations) and sometimes dropping back a step to corral the ball and keep him from getting a clear path to the rim. And in the relatively rare instances where Parker was able to gain the paint, he'd find a lot of long arms between the ball and the backboard, and he didn't have as much luck finishing in traffic as he had earlier in the game.
While Miami deserves the bulk of the credit, some of the second-half struggle, to be sure, owes to the hamstring injury. Parker acknowledged after the game that he "got fatigued a little bit" after halftime, and while he didn't appear to be much the worse for wear while on the ball, he wasn't exactly threatening working off the ball in the second half.
Parker had been logging heavy minutes for San Antonio throughout the postseason, averaging just under 39 minutes per game in the second round against the Golden State Warriors and 39 1/2 minutes in the Western Conference finals against the Memphis Grizzlies, and playing 39 1/2 minutes in the Spurs' Game 1 Finals win in Miami. But he's averaged just under 31 minutes per game over the past three outings, and said at Saturday's practice he didn't know if he'd be able to go more than 30 minutes in Game 5 while dealing with the injury: "We'll see tomorrow, I guess, huh?"
He also noted that, while grade 1 is the mildest level of strain, under normal circumstances, it would've sidelined him for a stretch.
"My hamstring can tear any time now, so if it was the regular season, I would be resting like 10 days," Parker said. "But now it's the NBA Finals. If it gets a tear, it's life."
Two days of ice, massages, rest and treatment have reportedly helped, as Parker said at Sunday's shootaround that he's "good to go" for Game 5. Still, if he's unable to play heavy minutes at a high level at his customary pace, more will be required of San Antonio's secondary ball-handlers, including the struggling Manu Ginobili, combo guard Gary Neal (who's been great working more off the ball in this series), little-used backup Cory Joseph and possibly even Nando De Colo, whom Spurs coach Gregg Popovich took out of mothballs for a four-minute stretch in Game 4.
"If he can't play at full speed, others will have to pick up the slack, and they will or they won't," Popovich said Friday.
If they won't, San Antonio might be in quite a bit of trouble against a Heat team eager to earn consecutive wins for the first time since May 15 (the clinching Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Chicago Bulls) and May 22 (Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers).
2. Can Miami's defense keep forcing the Spurs into turnovers?
In Game 1 and Game 3, the Spurs committed 17 combined turnovers, leading to 25 Heat points. In Game 2 and Game 4, they coughed it up 36 times, leading to 42 Heat points. Not surprisingly, they won the former and lost the latter.
On one hand, turnovers forced and points scored off them tend to serve as indicators of how well a defense is functioning — if the Heat are able to force miscues and capitalize off them, that usually suggests their pick-and-roll trapping, back-line rotations and early help are on point, and since those are the basic tenets of their defensive system, that usually means the opposition's in for a long night. On the other, though, they're also signposts to an offense's struggles and a critical element in any story about a defeat, because as Popovich notes, turnovers deflate an offense just as much as they bolster a defense.
"Because it's not just [that] you gave them another possession; people forget you lost your possession," Popovich said. "You might have scored one, two or three points, or four, I guess in rare situations. But you didn't score, and the other team oftentimes — especially the better the team you play, like Miami — you turn it over and they're going to score. It's basically a dunk or a layup at the other end of the court. So it's always a swing of four points, at least, and that's what really takes its toll."
The Spurs' 19 turnovers in Game 4 came in all shapes and sizes — Tiago Splitter's game-opening backcourt violation, Kawhi Leonard dribbling the ball into LeBron James' chest on a fast break, Danny Green setting a (questionable) moving screen on Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan rolling to the rim and charging into a planted and waiting Wade, telegraphed-and-intercepted cross-court passes by Green and Boris Diaw, sloppy flip passes by Parker and Ginobili that didn't find their intended targets, and on, and on. You name it, the Spurs booted it in Game 5, with many of the poor decisions, execution errors and passes thrown either a split-second too early or too late owed to the Heat being able to get back to being themselves.
"Our focus has been getting to our identity, which is an aggressive, disruptive defensive team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday.
"When they go to that next level or that next gear defensively and aggressiveness‑wise, you better be prepared for it and try to take advantage of it by moving the basketball, not playing in a crowd, that kind of thing," Popovich said. "Our two losses against them, we haven't done that very well."
"We have to understand that their identity is to play aggressive defense and they gamble and they're going to take a lot of chances with steals and blocks," Parker said Saturday. "We just have to be smarter with our decisions."
When the decisions are smarter, the ball movement crisper and the passes delivered on time, on target and ahead of Heat rotations ... well, that's when Game 3 can happen. The Spurs were far from flawless in that game, committing 13 turnovers that turned into 17 Heat points, but San Antonio's passes were quick enough and accurate enough often enough to turn the AT&T Center into a shooting gallery.
"Who gets to who more often? Sometimes the margin for error is a centimeter difference of our activity and their precision," Spoelstra said. "The way they move the ball and their execution, their precision — you have to be absolutely connected and on point defensively at all stages or not only they'll beat you, but they'll embarrass you."
If Miami gets the same level of defensive focus, commitment and execution — especially from Wade, who (as I noted Friday) was much more attentive, opportunistic and precise with his rotations on Thursday, and Bosh, who was absolutely everywhere, especially in that second half — then it's going to be awful difficult for San Antonio to get back to that embarrassment-causing offense in Game 5 without shuffling the deck a bit.
"Obviously, their defense was rotating kind of perfectly and knowing exactly what we were going to do, so you have to change things up," Duncan said Saturday. "You have to change the pace of things, the way you do things, and in that way it kind of keeps them on their toes. More than them understanding exactly what they're going to do, I think that's what we have to do in this upcoming game."
Parker's health/activity and whether the Spurs can get their precision passing game going are the two biggest things that I'll be watching for in Game 5, but as you'd expect in a game this big, there are plenty of other ones, too — here, quickly, are a few more:
3. Can Wade approximate what he offered in Game 4? As Kelly noted earlier Sunday, Wade's the offensive bellwether for this Heat team; as Bosh said, when Wade gets loose, Miami's damn near unstoppable.
Given how up-and-down (and, really, down) Wade's been for these past few months, expecting another 32-point, six-rebound, six-steal, four-assist outing would seem foolhardy, but now that we know he's capable of that kind of performance with his bone-bruised right knee, a return to the languorous misfiring of Games 1 through 3 would just be unacceptable. Whether or not his jumper's falling, Wade again needs to press the paint in search of contact, make off-ball cuts with malicious intent, stay locked in on the defensive end and rotate hard enough to spook the Spurs into mistakes. With so much on the line in Game 5, those aspects of the game are non-negotiable.
4. Can Ginobili answer his critics as Wade answered his? It's probably a bit much to ask the 35-year-old Argentinian legend to pop for 32 points, considering he hasn't done that in a little over a year. But after a subpar Game 4 (five points on 1 for 5 shooting with two turnovers in 26 minutes), a very quiet Finals to date (just 7.5 points per game on 34.5 percent shooting, and a 3 for 16 mark from 3-point land) and some head-scratching decisions and mistakes as the Spurs' secondary facilitator, any semblance of a threatening offensive game — threatening to Miami, I mean — would represent a major leap forward for the Spurs' long-venerated sixth man.
Spurs fans are desperate for a flicker of the pace and sharpness that made Manu a nightmarish cover as recently as Game 3 of the Western finals, when he scored 19 points on nine shots against the Grizzlies and made repeated forays into the paint to earn trips to the line, when that all-time court vision resulting in five assists with just one turnover, when the irrepressible spark caught fire and engulfed Memphis rather than resulting in self-immolation. After Game 4, Duncan suggested that Ginobili might need to let the blaze burn rather than trying to keep it under control.
"I think he's just trying to be incredibly unselfish right now," Duncan said. "I think he's trying to make the right play at the right time. He's trying to make the right pass, make the defense move instead of looking more for his own. [...] We need him to be a little more aggressive, be a little more selfish, maybe, and hopefully we can find him a way to get him to do that."
5. Can San Antonio adjust to the Wade-Bosh elbow pick-and-roll that gave them so much trouble in Game 4? I'll defer on the breakdown to Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward, but one of the key offensive differences for Miami in Game 4 was running Wade-Bosh ball screens on the elbows rather than up top with Bosh rolling hard to the basket rather than popping out for midrange jumpers. The shift leveraged Wade's passing ability, Bosh's underrated skills as a finisher around the basket and the quickness/speed advantage Bosh has over Spurs defenders like Duncan and Diaw to get the two All-Stars more looks moving toward the basket. How will Popovich respond to snuff out the action and get the Heat back outside the paint?
6. Can the Spurs create more 3-point looks? Two nights after setting a record for 3-point makes in an NBA Finals game with 16, the Spurs managed just 16 attempts from deep (a series low) in Game 4, as the Heat ran San Antonio shooters off the line with strong rotations and the Spurs ran themselves off the line with poor passing. We know Green (a scorching 19 for 28 from distance), Neal (12 for 22 from long range) and Matt Bonner (only 1 for 4 in the Finals in limited minutes, but a 44.2 percent mark from 3 during the season) can catch fire if given opportunities, but we also know that they can sometimes struggle to make the right reads and decisions when forced to put the ball on the deck by a timely closeout. Figuring out how to just let those shooters shoot without having to think will be huge for San Antonio on Sunday.
With the Heat's smaller lineup swarming shooters, space to rise and fire is tough to come by — Grantland's Zach Lowe caught a nice little staggered screen design the Spurs used a couple of times in Game 4 to get open looks for Green, and Pop's going to need to figure out some more ways to engineer some breathing room. I'm betting the Spurs will need to get back above 20 3-point attempts, and probably well over that mark, to have a real strong chance in Game 5.
7. If Miami stays small, will San Antonio continue to match? Putting Mike Miller into the starting lineup for Udonis Haslem didn't have a major effect on the score sheet — Miller took just one shot in 21 minutes in Game 4, missed it and later smiled about being a "decoy" — but it did signal a stylistic shift by Miami and create a bit of matchup uncertainty for San Antonio, who abandoned the Splitter-guards-Wade gambit after 47 seconds.
The Heat played only one big man at a time throughout the entire game — Bosh played just under 38 minutes at center and Haslem played just over 10, with James and Shane Battier splitting power forward duties, and formerly critical reserve Chris Andersen not seeing a second of floor time. San Antonio mostly matched that look, with their standard two-big lineup of Duncan and Splitter sharing the floor for just three minutes and other two-kind-of-big lineups (Duncan-Bonner, Diaw-Splitter, Bonner-Splitter) logging just a little over eight minutes of total floor time. The only two-big lineup that Pop stayed with for a stretch was the Duncan-Diaw pairing, which performed pretty well and helped the Spurs go on an 11-2 late-second quarter run.
If Spoelstra elects to keep going small with Miller in the starting lineup, Bosh at the five and LeBron at the four, will Pop similarly shift Splitter to the bench in favor of, say, Neal? (You could understand de-emphasizing Splitter at this point, considering he's shooting 38 percent from the floor and serving as the Finals' primary embarrassment magnet.) Will Pop go back to Duncan-Diaw in an attempt to, as Miller put it Saturday, "be big and small at the same time, like I said, if that makes any sense?" Or will he stick with Splitter, trusting that the 28-year-old Brazilian, who's been so important for San Antonio defensively this season, will be able to hold his own on that end while fighting through the early-series struggles he's experienced on the other side of the court?
Honestly, I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions will wind up being — this series has felt like one long, continuous subversion of all of our expectations, which is what's made it so amazingly fun to watch. Here's hoping Game 5 continues to make us all look stupid and leave us grinning like idiots in its wake.