AT&T CENTER--During All-Star weekend, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich called it "serendipity" that the Spurs crossed paths with LeBron James in the 2007 NBA Finals before the reigning MVP reached the height of his powers.
With the Spurs testing their playoff legs through a brutal stretch of their season, Popovich hardly considered avoiding the reigning MVP on Easter Sunday to be the Spurs good fortune.
"It happens all the time in the NBA, we've all seen it before. No matter how good a team is, no matter what the team's record is, there will be to some degree a letdown mentally," Popovich admitted before the game. "It's hard to define it, all coaches try to fight it, so I won't know a damn thing until we get out there on the court and see if we respond the way we should respond."
Without LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers on the court the San Antonio Spurs failed to produce the competitive response required to beat the defending championons. And though there was little new to take away from the game itself, the Heat's victory sans James and Wade provided three important reminders:
1.) Chris Bosh might be a quasi-franchise player, but he's still a formidable cornerstone largely overqualified as a team's third option.
2.) The San Antonio Spurs are hardly the only team with a well-implemented system capable of sustaining in the short term without key players.
3.) Manu Ginobili, struggling or not, is still an important component of this team.
Because Chris Bosh failed to lead a poorly constructed Toronto Raptors team to the playoffs, it's easy to forget he carried better iterations of his team to the NBA's second season with his underrated defense, sweet shooting stroke, and slipper drives.
Throughout the first quarter Bosh riddled the Spurs' defense with long jumpers, both in pick and pop and face-up scenarios. Bosh's jumpers are of the variety the Spurs defense generally conceded to big men, but when he began consistently knocking them down--even hitting two of three three-pointers in the first quarter--it spread the Spurs defense thin and opened up other scoring avenues for his teammates.
It was Bosh who hit the game-winning jumper, a three-pointer off the secondary break from the top of the key that was mildly contested by a recovering Duncan.
"He's a heck of a player, number one, but he's also a hell of a shooter," Popovich said. "He knocked down a big shot, Timmy contested it and he hit a big shot to win the game. Give him credit."
The play was made possible by a questionable call two possessions earlier. With Kawhi Leonard running step-for-step with the Heat's Norris Cole, Cole appeared to trip over his own feet as he attempted a spin move and was rewarded with two free throws to bring the Heat within one in the closing minute.
Given an opportunity to setup a play, the Spurs opted to run a pin down to get Duncan the ball on the elbow. A quick decision by Udonis Haslem to switch onto Duncan forced the Spurs center into a difficult shot.
As the Heat rebounded, rather than allowing the Spurs defense to set itself with a timeout, the Heat pushed the ball. As Ray Allen came off a screen, Splitter left Bosh to double, leaving Duncan caught between Haslem and Bosh.
"I saw Haslem rolling to the basket and got sucked in a little too far," Duncan said. "Chris got time to get his feet set, he shot the ball well early--obviously from three--and made another one. It was a hell of a play on his part."
The Spurs have survived a string of games going down to the final possessions, and basic probabilities dictated that eventually one of those shots, calls, or loose balls would eventually go against them.
The Spurs lost simply because they failed to do their work early. Just as fans have praised the Spurs' system for carrying the team without its superstars, the Heat's system is both well-crafted and executed. LeBron James was absolutely right in noting how both teams feature a plethora of shooters that also double as intelligent passers.
Even without James or Wade, the ball moved swiftly around the perimeter, upgrading from good shots to great ones. Especially in the corner. The Heat found open three-pointer after open-three pointer, connecting on 12-of-28 (42.9 percent). The low point total (88 points) doesn't reflect the work done, merely the relatively slow pace the game was played at and their inability to rebound.
It was the Spurs inability to create pace that ultimately did them in. In half court settings the Heat managed to bottle up the Spurs basic pick and roll attacks with traps and hard hedges that cutoff Parker from his most desired options. Even without James, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Heat managed to stick to their schemes and string out the Spurs pick and rolls, forcing long cross-court passes that allowed the defense to recover.
When the Spurs found success, it was getting the ball to Duncan in the middle of the court (17 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists), allowing one or two short passing or driving lanes to open up before the defense could recover; or finding Kawhi Leonard (17 points, 11 rebounds) with a quick ball reversal, allowing him to work the baseline for a series of dunks, reverse lay-ups, and three-pointers.
It was something the Spurs didn't execute often enough as shooters missed open three-pointers and Parker struggled to turn the corner and find the middle of the defense. This is where Ginobili's creativity and playmaking, even in light of his recent struggles, would come in handy.
"They did a great job on pick-and-rolls all night long. Without Manu, Tony is the guy who has to generate things for us and they pretty much took him out with all their double teams and hard hedges," Popovich said. "We didn't generate offense anywhere else except through Timmy. They did a real good job of it."