For a 15-point semi-blowout, Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals came as about as intriguing as these things get. What with stellar play on both ends mixed with curious turnover problems, a broken air conditioning unit, and the NBA’s greatest star having to leave a two-point contest with just minutes to go after his legs failed him.
With all that chaos in mind, we look to three things to watch in the hours before Game 2 tips off on Sunday evening.
San Antonio’s turnovers vs. San Antonio’s ball movement
Miami likes to take chances defensively, as well they should. The Heat don’t run with the most unorthodox small ball lineup that we’ve ever seen, but it’s not far off, and certainly borderline unprecedented for a championship contender – much less four time Finalist and potential three-time championship squad.
Miami has the luxury of several top-flight perimeter defenders alongside the inferiority of forcing poor Chris Bosh to act equal parts center and power forward at times defensively, and as a result the team will try to chase you out of initial options on the perimeter while hoping to take time off the shot clock. San Antonio’s ball movement – all those extra passes and spread out shooters at each position – would seem like the perfect counter to this sort of defensive attack, but in spite of what turned into a one-sided win in Game 1 on Thursday, these teams have played each other to a just-about draw over the last two seasons. For all of San Antonio’s flourishes, this was still a one-possession game when LeBron James sat down for good with just four minutes to go in the contest.
Part of that had to do with San Antonio’s turnover issues, an unfortunate byproduct of endless movement and boundless creativity. The team ranked near the middle of the league in turnover rate during the regular season, seemingly an odd place to be for such a highly-regarded team, one replete with what you’d think were careful and capable veterans.
Miami doesn’t have to force San Antonio into another 20-odd turnovers to pull out a win, but if the Heat does encourage overpassing, if it does bait the Spurs into making one pass too many, and if it does turn some of those expected miscues into the “touchdown” sort of transition play that Indiana was too often burned by in the third round, the Heat could swipe home court advantage before the weekend is through.
The free throw battle
When Miami shot twice as many free throws as the Indiana Pacers in Miami’s Game 4 win over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, Pacers swingman Paul George immediately took to the podium to lament the “home cooking” that purportedly handed 34 free throws to the home town team.
Miami pulled no such kvetch out of its own pocket when San Antonio doubled the defending champs up on the line in Game 1, despite the literal fact that San Antonio’s AT&T Center nearly cooked Miami’s quadriceps muscles into oblivion with an unfortunately timed (for all of us) air conditioning unit failure. Heat guard Mario Chalmers was in foul trouble after a series of poorly-conceived bouts of perimeter aggression, and Miami could not utilize what should be their superior athletic gifts in order to take in free points at the line.
This is by design. San Antonio has long sought to keep their opponents off the line while still competing defensively, and only four teams were better at this than the Spurs were during the 2013-14 regular season. San Antonio also ranked dead last in free throws attempted on the other end, though, with only Tim Duncan averaging more than 3.6 per game. The Spurs like to fool you with misdirection (some of the pick and rolls they run involve the two players that will have the least amount to do with the scoring action that results) and extra passing, but rare is the play that sees a fooled defender respond by grabbing a Spur at the rim and sending them to the line – no, these Spurs want a clean score after putting in the work.
Twenty-two free throws is not a massive amount, and it’s only two more than San Antonio’s league-fewest 20 regular free throw attempts per game. Miami can’t afford to halve a number like that and win. They’ll have to cook something different up in Game 2.
Presumably, we’ll get to watch LeBron James more often in Game 2, the reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP infamously had to leave a two-point game late on Thursday after cramping up, only to watch as his Heat were outscored 16-3 with LBJ on the bench.
James fell victim to leg cramps, and thankfully in the modern era those who were misinformed about James’ toughness or the science behind these sorts of things were summarily shouted down. LeBron plays at about the same height and weight as Karl Malone, but we also ask him to dance around the perimeter as John Stockton once did, while throwing in a good bit of Jordan-esque rim rattling along the way. Just as Yao Ming’s feet couldn’t handle his versatile offensive game, pitched at 7-6, it’s very possible that once or twice a season LeBron James’ ridiculous frame might betray him while he works as some amalgamation of the greatest players ever to play all five starting positions.
While working deep into June for the fourth year in a row. With an Olympics thrown in. In 90 degree heat. After scoring 25 points in his previous 33 minutes of play. He’s probably lucky he doesn’t severely cramp up more often, if we’re honest.
It was an entirely different scenario, but the Spurs will be more than ready for what the Indiana Pacers should have expected (or, quite possibly, expected but couldn’t be bothered to care about) as LeBron entered Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. James played just 24 minutes in a Game 5 loss, registering just seven points along the way, before busting out with a 11-point first quarter in Game 6 to set the winning tone, understanding that any fluke (be it fouls or muscle flare-ups) could get in the way of a needed win.
Indiana should have know what was going to hit them, and didn’t come prepared to compete. San Antonio? They’re an entirely different beast, and they’ll be ready.
LeBron’s a bit beastly himself, though. “Ready,” in this instance, may not be enough.
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