There were so many layers involved in Tony Parker's acrobatic dagger to clinch Game 1 of the NBA Finals that only a full breakdown could really do it justice.
With about 18 seconds remaining and the San Antonio Spurs leading the Miami Heat 90-88, the Western Conference champs could ice LeBron James and company if they could make it a two-possession game with a late field goal.
The Spurs trusted their All-Star point guard to create a scoring opportunity, and needless to say, it did not go as planned. It was the type of broken play that only a great player could execute so calmly—to stay under control and trying to identify a hole in the defense as every avenue is blocked off.
"Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession," is how James described it following the 92-88 Heat loss, an apt description of the nuances of the play; Parker's process had its problems, but his execution and results were spot-on.
Let's take a step-by-step look at the instant classic play to discover how something so disjointed turned out so beautifully.
The Simplest Start
It was the matchup we were all looking forward to heading into the NBA Finals: LeBron James manning up on Tony Parker in a crucial late-game situation.
James and the Heat have studied Gregg Popovich's offense, so they knew they were going to have to contend with multiple screens if they want to get a stop. Between Parker's speed and those obstacles, the Spurs were hoping to compromise Miami's defensive spacing and create one last open look.
For all the madness that followed, Parker's prayer began as your garden variety pick-and-roll—nothing less, nothing more.
A Risk and a Missed Opportunity
With 10 seconds on the shot clock, Parker followed a Kawhi Leonard pick left, but LeBron did not follow. Under usual circumstances, the Heat would try to trap the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll situation, but Parker had proven too quick and too adept at finding the open man to risk it late.
Instead, James sticks to Leonard following the pick, trusting Mike Miller, a creaky yet willing defender, to stay in front of the lightning-quick point guard. Parker did not try to take Miller off the dribble, so that gambit worked out for Miami.
In fact, San Antonio's screening action happened so quickly that Parker missed the opening he had against Miller.
With only Danny Green in the left corner and everyone else on the right side of the floor, Parker had a clear lane to the hoop if he took Miller left. As long as he could get position on Miller, a drive would have either led to a close-range shot or a kick-out to an open Green.
Logic at Work
As always with the Spurs, there was a method at work in Parker's decision-making.
Rather than attack Miller and that lane, Parker waited for a second pick, this time from Tim Duncan. Again Miami switched as Miller followed Duncan inside on the roll, leaving Chris Bosh to contest Parker outside.
That's the matchup San Antonio wanted. It pulled Miami's biggest defender out of the paint and made him chase one of the fastest players in the league. It wasn't actually the best option available on that possession, but it was a sound strategy.
The Best-Laid Plans
Parker then drove right against his ideal matchup with six on the shot clock, but the Heat defense knew just what to do to bottle him up.
Bosh was ready to slide his feet and use his length to stay in front of Parker as best he could, combining with a Dwyane Wade help-defense swipe to disrupt the dribble. By the time he reached the baseline, Parker was more focused on retaining possession than attacking the rim.
The Heat pick-and-roll D held again, leaving Green open beyond the left arc but outside of any passing lane Parker could hit. With four seconds left to put up a shot, the Spurs' window to produce an open option was rapidly closing.
Now the Trap
That's when LeBron left Leonard on the block to double Parker on the baseline. While the point guard had exploited traps all game with his downhill quickness, he could not get around James' and Bosh's length down low, forcing him to curl back toward the perimeter.
Bosh switched onto Leonard inside as James continued to hound the ball. At that moment, Miami had beaten the Spurs' pick-and-roll; San Antonio had forced an undesirable defensive switch, but the Heat's reserved yet opportunistic help on this play reestablished their preferred matchup.
The Fall and the Stop
About 20 feet from the basket and with two to shoot, Parker fell down.
It was a clean play—Parker initiated contact trying to create space and lost his footing on the recoil, somehow maintaining his dribble in the process.
At this point, the possession was improbably still alive, but Parker had nowhere to go. Though he kept his possession, he could not get around James while on one knee. With no time for a better option, Parker rose back to his feet but gave up his dribble.
All Luck and All Skill
Give Parker all the credit in the world for what happened next, both on his part and James'.
As Parker stood, LeBron swiped at the ball again to try to end the play there, but Parker spun toward the baseline to avoid it. That's when James lost positioning, leaping to challenge him rather than getting back in front of him.
With LeBron in the air, Parker had just enough time and space to go under, leap forward, clutch in the air and release the midrange J with just a fraction of a second to spare. The shot hit glass, bounces off front rim twice and drops in.
It took video review to confirm Parker got it off in time, but the awe that play inspired needed no ratification. Ultimately, the shot did count and San Antonio clinched the win in Game 1, destining Parker's heroics to the annals of NBA history.
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