Danny Green and Gary Neal have been sparkplugs or San Antonio. (Photo credit)
What can role players do for you?
Through the first three games of the NBA Finals, Danny Green, Gary Neal, and Kawhi Leonard have scored as many points (130) as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Let that sink in for a moment.
We've seen a disturbing trend over the past few years, one we've widely accepted as fact. The only way you can win a championship is by having a “Big 3.” The most notable example is obviously LeBron and Bosh joining forces with D-Wade to create a super team in Miami. Although the Heat won the title last season, it took them longer than they expected to conquer the NBA world.
Remember, the Heat began the 2011 season with a 9-8 record. How could the “Big 3” lose any games, let alone be just over .500 seventeen games in? Because three isn't always enough to beat five. Injuries to key role players clearly hurt them, but they got past their initial struggles and cruised to the NBA Finals where they met a deep Dallas Mavericks team.
Miami’s big three was no match for the red-hot Mavs squad led by a determined Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs were able to win the series, not just because of their dominant duo of Dirk and Jason Terry, but also due to the huge impact of their role players. A mix of experience and energy, peppered with timely hoops, allowed Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson (and to a lesser extent, Ian Mahinmi and Peja Stojakovic), along with their stars, to deal out punishing haymakers to the star-studded Heat team.
Why couldn’t a trio of LeBron, D-Wade, and Bosh (Reptar) claim their first of “not 1, not 2, not 3,” titles like they promised? It’s because that’s all the Heat were — a big three. The Mavs had a TEAM compiled of 9 or 10 very capable guys who provided their own unique and necessary contributions. Their interchangeable parts kept the Maverick machine running steadily throughout the game.
The Heat, however, faced a glaring problem: they lacked depth. More specifically, they lacked role players. Beyond the Big 3, they didn’t have a reliable source of production. The team consisted of the one dimensional and streaky James Jones, the not-quite-mediocre Joel Anthony, a young/inexperienced Mario Chalmers, injury plagued Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, and a list of the early 2000s greatest hits headlined by Mike Bibby, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier, Juwan Howard, Eddie House, and Jamaal Magloire. The self-proclaimed South Beach saviors were no match for the Dallas Mavericks. Three guys just aren't beating nine.
In 2012, the Heat learned from their mistakes, providing LeBron and D-Wade with a much better supporting cast. The Heat acquired Shane Battier, adding him to the list of a healthy and efficient Mike Miller, a rejuvenated Udonis Haslem, a greatly improved Mario Chalmers, and newcomer and energy guy Norris Cole. LeBron was stellar during the regular season and in the playoffs.
However, his partners in crime, Chris Bosh and D-Wade, got banged up. Chalmers, Battier, and Miller in particular, stepped up big time for the Heat. Chalmers consistently provided offense, while Miller and Battier couldn’t miss from downtown in the Finals. I literally don’t remember seeing either of them miss. I’d call Miller and Battier the dagger bros. of the 2012 postseason and Finals. The Big 3 had turned into the Heat, and thus Miami emerged as the 2012 NBA Champions.
This year, the Heat have added even more pieces to their championship puzzle. The acquisitions of Ray Allen and Chris "Birdman" Andersen helped lead the Heat to a dominant 66-win season, including a ridiculous 27-game win streak, the likes of which were compared to that of the fabled 1971-1972 Lakers, who won 33 games in a row. The Heat are built to be an NBA champion. They’ve got three All Stars (although D-Wade and Bosh aren’t what they used to be), including one mega star, and a solid set of role players who fit well with the team.
Their adversaries in this year’s finals, the San Antonio Spurs, have a similarly constructed team. Two superstars in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, and perennial All Star Manu Ginobili (who is showing signs of his age). The Spurs also have probably the best 4th-9th players in the league in Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw (which, by the way, is not only determined by overall talent, but how well they fit with the team).
Coming into the Finals, I thought that whichever team’s role players had a bigger impact would win the series. With superstars, you know what you’re going to get; with the rest of the team, it is up to them to positively contribute as much as they can.
In Game 1, Tony Parker stole the show, putting on an MVP-worthy display in the fourth quarter, hitting big shot after big shot. His ten points in the final period, including the two coming off of his miraculous broken play, where he stumbled, fell to one knee, kept his dribble, grilled a burger, read the newspaper, faked the best player in the world out of his shoes, and banked in an off-balance (dagger) shot with one-tenth of a second remaining on the shot clock and five seconds left in the game, helped seal game one for the Spurs.
Parker, along with Tim Duncan, received much (if not all) of the credit for the Spurs victory. However, there were two crucial turning points for the Spurs that gave them the lead, and kept it that way for the remainder of the game.
With seven minutes left in the 4th quarter, Gary Neal pulled up for a heavily contested jumper from the elbow, and clanked it off the back rim. Lurking along the baseline, Kawhi Leonard slithered past D-Wade and got the put-back tip-in to fall. This gave the Spurs their first lead since the first quarter. Leonard wasn’t done yet. With six minutes to go, and the Spurs up by one, Leonard stole the ball from LeBron James, which led to a fast break ending with Tony Parker spinning around Norris Cole and finishing for the sick reverse lay-up, putting the Spurs up by three.
These two plays came at extremely crucial moments in the game, and without the put back and steal, the Spurs may not have been able to get over the hump and take the lead. Not only did Leonard display his importance during thoseplays, but throughout the game, he hounded LeBron James, holding The King to 18 points (as opposed to his playoff average of 25.7 points per game) on 7-16 shooting. Just from watching the game, you could tell that LeBron was uncomfortable offensively all night, finding it difficult to get the shot he wanted. LeBron’s struggles were due to Leonard’s superb perimeter defense.
Leonard was also a menace on the glass, grabbing 10 boards to go along with his 10 points. Not bad for a role player. Leonard’s lockdown defense, rebounding, offensive input, and two huge plays down the stretch significantly helped San Antonio take game one in Miami.
In Game 2, it was Miami’s role players who emerged. With LeBron, Wade, and Bosh doing little in the first half, Mario Chalmers began putting on an offensive display, running pick and rolls with LeBron and completing an important and-one in the third quarter, giving Miami all of the momentum. Chalmers’ play seemed to light a fire under LeBron, whose relatively quiet game got louder and louder as the quarter went on (which could be seen in the thunderous and arena-shaking (which, as a parenthetical within a parenthetical, is saying something when you remember Miami's fans are about as loud as a mime) block he had on Tiago Splitter). Ray Allen and Mike Miller were on fire from downtown in the quarter as well, further contributing to the Heat’s dominance.
Chalmers finished with a game-high 19 points, leading the Heat to a decisive victory. Chalmers, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Birdman, the key role players on the Heat, finished a combined 17-26 with 50 points. This is great production from a supporting cast, and, without them, the Heat might not have been able to pull away from a Spurs team who was playing well until mid-way through the third.
Game 3 ended up being one of the most lopsided victories in NBA Finals history. With the series tied at one, both teams looked to take control. People thought Parker and Duncan would look to bounce back since they played so horribly in Game 2. However, it was Danny Green, Gary Neal, and Leonard who led the Spurs in their eventual massacre of the Miami Heat.
Their offensive production, particularly that of Green and Neal, was outstanding. Green, a player cut by LeBron’s Cavs, had 27 points and hit 7 three-pointers. Neal, an undrafted baller who played overseas for a few years, shared the load, dropping 24 points and sinking 6 three-pointers. It was incredible to watch these two go. Three after three poured through the net and I thought Mike Breen was going to have a heart attack after how many times he had to yell “BANG.”
Leonard added 14 points and 12 rebounds, and more importantly, completely shut down The Chosen One. LeBron had his worst offensive game in this year’s playoffs, beginning the game 2 for his first 13 and finishing with 15 points on 7-21 shooting. Once again, Leonard made him uncomfortable the whole game.
The Spurs' role players clearly came to play, and they took charge in the third quarter when Tony Parker went down with, what was to be discovered later, a strained hamstring. The Spurs’ supporting cast rose to the occasion in a major way, and made up for Parker’s absence with incredible play.
Green, Neal, and Leonard’s combined 65 points and Leonard’s impeccable D slammed the door in Miami’s face. It didn’t help the Heat that Chalmers, Allen, and Birdman were abysmal, shooting 3-10 from the floor.
It seems that so far in the NBA Finals, the deciding factor in each game has been the impact of role players. Without their presence as contributing factors, the series may look completely different. If Leonard isn’t there to guard LeBron, LeBron may be averaging 30 points per game. Instead, he hasn’t scored over 20 in this series. If Chalmers doesn’t step up in Game 2, the Spurs could easily have a 3-0 series lead at this point.
You can't overstate the importance of role players in the playoffs. One alarming role player stat from this series, which I mentioned earlier, is that through the first three games, Danny Green, Gary Neal, and Kawhi Leonard have scored as many points (130) as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. The only expression I could use to describe that is "smeckeldorfed," and that's not even a real word.
Although Miami's role players stepped up in Game 2, it seems as though the Spurs’ supporting cast has had the upper hand in this series. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that they are holding a 2-1 advantage. It’ll be interesting to see which team’s supporting cast shows up the most in the rest of the series.
Just remember not to overrate teams without depth. Teams win with a solid five. Teams can even win with a big three. However, teams win championships with a big 12. That’s why I give the team with the most consistent and contributing players up and down the roster the better chance to win this series.
So, what can role players do for you? Help you win a championship.
By: Macklin Stern