The Spurs offense was performing in standard peak form for much of the first half. That beautiful motion, typically set up by a Parker drive and dish, had the Heat’s normally active and aggressive defense searching for answers. The Spurs, more than any other team in the league, understand the value of ball movement. They know that when the ball zips around the perimeter at warp speed it creates confusion in the defense and creates openings all over the floor. Isolation is nowhere to be found in Greg Popovich’s vocabulary and it is with good reason: the San Antonio Spurs do not have the talent to play schoolyard basketball.
Lebron James had an incredible game: 35 points on 14-22 shooting, a perfect 3-3 from deep and 10 rebounds. He was +11 in his 38 minutes on the court and at times it seemed like he simply could not miss. Looking at Lebron’s by quarter shot chart makes you shake your head. After not even attempting a jump shot in the first half, Lebron started taking advantage of whatever space he got around the perimeter in quarter three, going 6-7 from the field with two from deep. Lebron’s offensive dominance not only kept Miami in the game in the game during the first three quarters, it finally opened up easy looks for his teammates down the stretch as the Spurs were forced to send more help than they wanted. But the real value of Lebron is nothing that shows up in a box score. While his eye popping shooting numbers are certainly impressive, it is doing a disservice to the King to stop your analysis there.
Miami has evened this series not because of some miraculous offensive sequence that put the Spurs out of reach, like the Spurs did to them in the first game of the Finals. Instead, it was the defense of the Heat that fueled the victory. More specifically, it was a defensive adjustment that Lebron and the Heat made that flummoxed a team many consider unflummoxable.
When Lebron James guards Tony Parker, the Spurs offense is forced to completely rejigger its beautiful system. The catalyst to every pretty San Antonio bucket is a Parker drive into the teeth of the opposing defense. Parker’s deceptive speed and arsenal of creative moves at the rim cause defenses to abandon shooters around the perimeter in order to clog up the paint. Parker, always excellent at recognizing that help has arrived, licks his chops in these situations as he knows that his teammates will fill the corners and find openings around the three point line. His initial drive and dish may not always lead directly to a basket, but it forces the defense into difficult rotations that lead to more drives, more dishes, and lots of great shots from the best spots on the floor.
Down the stretch in Game 2, Lebron single handedly put a stop to the Spurs’ primary weapon. Lebron simply did not allow Parker to beat him off the dribble, happily going under screens and acting as a human wall between Parker and the basket. The biggest difference between the first and second games is obviously that Lebron was able to play the end of the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s contest. But what’s not so obvious is that Lebron’s cramps not only created a void for the Heat offensively, but that Lebron was not able to personally cramp San Antonio’s style.
With Parker essentially erased from the game, the Spurs finished the game looking very un-Spurs like. San Antonio only managed 18 points in the final period as guys were forced to take shots they were uncomfortable with and put in situations they were unqualified to handle. A younger Manu Ginobili would have made Lebron pay for this adjustment, but a younger Manu Ginobili he is not.
This late game adjustment is nothing new for Lebron and the Heat. Lebron’s defense against Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2011 still gives me nightmares as it seems both unfathomable and unfair that a man of that size should also be that quick and agile. It is impressive to watch James raise his level of play to whatever the situation demands. A truly positionless superstar, Lebron is able to affect the game in ways the NBA has never seen before. We saw against the Nets when he asserted himself on the low block and completely destroyed Paul Pierce. Tonight, it was with defense that Lebron helped Miami even the series and capture homecourt advantage.