There’s no magic to it. It’s basketball. It’s not that complicated. — Gregg Popovich
Over the course of the NBA Finals, the lineups on the floor have become progressively smaller. In Game 1, Udonis Haslem and Tiago Splitter started while Matt Bonner and Chris “Birdman” Andersen came off the bench. In Game 4, Erik Spoelstra took out Haslem for Mike Miller. In Game 5, Gregg Popovich responded in kind, taking Splitter out for Manu Ginobili. Bonner and Birdman, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found. The result has been beautiful basketball: two skilled teams playing 4-out for 48 minutes.
Both San Antonio and Miami are built to exploit the geometry of the floor. They attack defenses all 94 feet. If you let up on either team for a second, the ball can find its way to someone spotting up for an open corner three, the most dangerous shot in the game. When their offenses are clicking, all five players are moving in unison to create an open shot for a good shooter. The ball flows freely around the court. This is what coaches mean when they talk about The Way The Game Was Meant To Be Played.
While there hasn’t been a close finish since Game 1, it hasn’t been for any lack of dramatic back-and-forth action. In the playoffs, every stretch of the game is crunch time. And with both teams going small, any lack of offensive execution can snowball quickly. When either misses shots or turns the ball over for 4-5 minutes, it gives the other too many chances for run-outs and transition 3’s. It’s two boxers in the middle of the ring trading wild overhand punches. Eventually, someone connects.
In Game 5, the Spurs landed the first blow, with a 12-0 run in a 3-minute stretch at the end of the first quarter. The floor spacing of the Heat was terrible: Haslem, Norris Cole and Ray Allen around Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Allen is the only guy San Antonio doesn’t feel comfortable leaving open outside of 15+ feet. LeBron and Wade started missing long two-point shots because there was no room on the floor, while Parker treated Cole like a turnstile on defense.
Miami was able to make a comeback, but they had expended too much of their energy getting back into the game. You could see it by the end of the third quarter, when LeBron and Wade were missing a number of easy shots at the rim in transition. The Spurs didn’t win the game in that 3-minute stretch at the end of the first, but they did remove almost any margin of error for the Heat. In this series, it only takes one false move to dig yourself into a pretty deep hole.
San Antonio essentially played flawless offense on Sunday. They scored 114 points on 60 percent shooting, with an offensive rating of 119.4 per 100 possessions. All five of their starters had at least 16 points. That’s hard to do against a bad team in the middle of December playing the second night of a back-to-back, much less against the defending champions on the biggest stage of the sport. Were it not for their 18 turnovers, the Spurs might have had some truly jaw-dropping point totals.
Much of the credit for that will go to Popovich and his offensive system, but as he’s said in a million times, there’s nothing all that complicated to what he’s doing. The Spurs run pick-and-rolls with a lot of movement on the weakside of the floor. A good portion of their game is played in semi-transition, which is probably the “purest” form of basketball, with players reading and reacting in space and flowing into open shots rather than running set plays.
At a really basic level, it’s just having a lot of shooting on the floor. If defenses have to defend four players all over the three-point line, they are too spread out to effectively help each other. If they don’t respect a player’s outside shot, they can pack the paint. There are ways to score when there’s traffic around the basket, but it’s much easier to make plays when there is space in the middle of the floor. Any coach can look like a genius with LeBron or Tony Parker operating in space.
With enough space, even a marginal player can look like a superstar. Danny Green was the No. 46 pick in the 2009 draft and he was cut three times in his first two years in the NBA. Now, he’s averaging 18 points on 66 percent shooting from three in the Finals and is one of the front-runners for series MVP. It’s no slight on Green to say there are players just as talented as him in Europe. How would Wayne Ellington, his more celebrated teammate at UNC, have done in Green’s role in San Antonio?
If a player can’t consistently stretch the floor, he can become a liability quickly. There just aren’t many places you can hide a player who can’t shoot against modern defenses. In four-out basketball, either you are a center or a three-point shooter. As a result, anyone can look mortal without a jumper. The Spurs realized they didn’t have to play guys who could run with LeBron and Wade; they could just play shooters who could give them three feet of cushion.
In the modern NBA, a non-center who can’t shoot is becoming an endangered species. The old cliche was that the game slowed down in the playoffs, but the reverse is happening these days. Neither team could afford to play this small in the regular season. With floor spacing so crucial in the Finals, defensive liabilities like Gary Neal and Miller can be hidden in ways that offensive liabilities cannot. In the nine minutes Haslem played in Game 5, the Heat were -20.
The lesson for young basketball players is clear. If you want to play basketball at the highest level, you had better be able to shoot the ball. It doesn’t take a ton of athletic ability to be a good shooter. It just takes good mechanics and a strong work ethic. Shooting is as important to basketball as hitting is to baseball. No one’s calling up minor leaguers to the show who can’t hit. If you’re in the D-League and you’re not shooting three-pointers, you’re doing it wrong.