The national spotlight has often focused on the relative struggles of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh during the playoffs. But for the Miami Heat, there are two more critical components of winning a second straight title: LeBron James and their hyper-trap defense.
These two elements are what, when operating at peak level, make the Heat virtually unbeatable.
The first is self explanatory. LeBron is a meteor in a jersey. When all that raw kinetic energy is unleashed, it's curtains for the other team. He's that good. He's that smart.
You can't game-plan for a meteor.
So for the San Antonio Spurs, the easier way to increase their odds of victory is to find a way to confront that trapping defense.
In the second half of Game 2, when Miami started to force turnovers and disrupt all aspects of San Antonio's offense, the Heat went on a 33-5 run.
The Heat pressured ball-handlers, stifled pick-and-rolls and generally became the aggressors. The Spurs offense—normally so refined—was on its heels, hardly able to run an effective play let alone get a high-quality look.
Heat reporter Tom Haberstroh of ESPN broke down this strategy well.
Turnovers are the lifeblood of this Heat team since they lack the size to plug the paint like the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies did this season. When the Heat can blitz the opponent and create transition opportunities, it's like lighting a fuse and throwing it in a pool of gasoline.
The San Antonio Spurs held a 62-61 lead with 3:49 left in the third quarter. The Heat's defense went on a tear from then on. The stranglehold tightened its grip with each Spurs possession and, nine minutes later, Gregg Popovich waved the white flag and ripped all of his starters out of the game.
"Midway through the third quarter, we were losing every skirmish, every loose ball, every tipped ball, every broken play," Spoelstra said.
"Then it changed."
The Spurs must adjust.
Fortunately for them, there are at least two good ways that they can continue to score effectively—as they did for the first six quarters of this series—and avoid the terror of the Heat's pressure.
Spurs: The Double Pick-and-Roll to Free Tony Parker
In the second quarter, when the Spurs were still in control of Game 2, they found ways to keep the Heat defense at bay. Specifically, back-to-back possessions led to four Tony Parker points.
In the video above, we see how the Spurs ran a simple action that put them in a fantastic position.
Perhaps the best part of the play is how quickly it happens. Both the possessions shown followed Heat baskets, but even after an inbounds, Parker pushes the ball, and the Spurs start their set with 20 seconds on the shot clock.
This is the little stuff.
But it's what makes Gregg Popovich unparalleled in his profession and what keeps the Spurs offense scoring so efficiently.
Just watch how fluidly the two screens are set.
In the first play, Manu Ginobili comes from the wing to the top of the key to set a screen on Tim Duncan's man (Chris Bosh). Duncan is just entering the front court, so his momentum makes it easy to use the pick effectively and it happens so early in the clock that Bosh is caught off guard.
Duncan then screens James (who is guarding Parker), and neither LeBron nor Bosh is in position to aggressively attack Parker. He is completely liberated in space as both defenders unsuccessfully try to recover from the two screens.
Just look at how much room he has. It's ideally choreographed.
That's the other key to this play that makes it so effective. If Parker doesn't want to take that shot—and instead probe the paint or swing the ball in hopes of getting a more-open three-pointer—it is still a good option.
That's what this action creates: options.
The second set manufactures an even better shot.
This time, Danny Green sets the screen on Bosh that frees up Duncan to pick James. Bosh recovers better this time, but Duncan really bothers James, who tries to go under the pick.
Parker is too smart for that.
He sees that half the court is now open, so he drives that way and finishes easily with a floater. Again, he is already racing toward the hoop with 16 seconds on the shot clock. Even if Miami's help defenders were better positioned to cut him off, Parker could have continued his dribble and found a weak-side shooter (Green or Ginobili) for a three.
If Popovich can continue to use creative methods like this to ensure that his ball-handlers have space to operate, it will go a long way in preventing the Heat's pressure defense from having the impact it did in Game 2.
Heat: Mario Chalmers/LeBron James Pick-and-Roll
For the Heat, Game 3 (and those after) is less about adjusting. It's about recapturing the brilliance shown during their second half run. One useful set that Erik Spoelstra needs to continue to lean on is an unlikely pick-and-roll combo.
When you talk about James and the pick-and-roll, you usually think of him as the ball-handler. But during the Heat's 33-5 run, one of Miami's most unstoppable actions was the Mario Chalmers-led pick-and-roll that featured LeBron as the screener.
It was devastating.
Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports put together a great account of the Heat's big run in Game 2 and included these two videos:
Devine wrote the following:
And what's neat about the action is that if the Spurs don't know how they want to defend it (and they sure didn't seem to), it can create all sorts of wrinkles so long as you've got good spacing and reliable shooters. Enter Allen and Miller, who (as I wrote Sunday) had played really well with James in Game 1, and continued that theme in Game 2. They created 40 points in just 13 minutes of shared floor time and outscored the Spurs by a killer 21 points in that span.
On a team with Dwyane Wade, it's odd that the Chalmers/Allen/Miller/James foursome is doing so much damage. But Wade is banged up, and Erik Spoelstra is clearly fine with using what works.
The world-class shooting ability of Allen and Miller—something Wade lacks—ensures that the defense stays spaced out, which is the critical factor in the Chalmers/James pick-and-roll being effective. The defenders simply can't guard everything. And Chalmers understands the game well enough to know that he can—and needs to—score when the Spurs don't pay enough attention to his dribble.
You would think this would be a trade-off. You would think Spoelstra would be sacrificing points on the other end by having his best two shooters out there.
Well, Miller and Allen aren't good defenders individually, but who cares as long as the team plays good, aggressive defense while they're out there? They were both key—on both ends—during the 33-5 outburst.
Spurs: Off-Ball Cutting
Another way the Spurs can increase their scoring efficiency is by turning the tables on the Heat's defensive aggressiveness.
LeBron is one of the best defenders in the NBA. He is strong, quick, fast, agile, smart and gifted. But in line with the Heat's mantra, he also is often on the prowl to force turnovers.
Particularly when he is on the weak side, you can often see James scanning the court, looking for signs that a weak cross-court pass, for example, is looming. His mind is always looking for a ball he can snatch and take the other way for a dunk.
As he does this, sometimes he loses sight of his man.
Particularly in the play that leads to the Green triple, you can see Norris Cole and James switching men. They seem to be employing a strategy approaching something with a zone principle. James is staying low on the weak side while Cole takes the player on the perimeter. But after some confusion, Green runs to the opposite corner and James is nowhere near the play to contest the shot.
On the next play, Leonard, too, does a good job of recognizing when James isn't paying attention to him.
This type of recognition and movement is key. San Antonio spends a lot of possessions letting Parker run a high pick-and-roll. But Miami's defense is too good for the other Spurs to just stand around and watch, hoping Parker can beat all defenders with his individual brilliance.
The Spurs need to space the floor, and that doesn't mean just standing in the corner. Selectively cutting to the rim or relocating on the perimeter will force Heat defenders, specifically James, to remain vigilant and not allow them to stalk the ball to try to force turnovers.
Some of this is just players making plays.
But if Popovich can find other ways to make the Heat pay for being overaggressive—like using the "hammer" attack when the team loses track of weak-side shooters, for example—then the Heat may have to restrain their instincts to ramp up the pressure.
And then the San Antonio offense can more easily pick apart Miami—just like it does to everyone else.
Heat: Finding Different Way to Get LeBron Post Touches
It is remarkable how savvy second-year Spurs wing Kawhi Leonard already is. Nobody can stop LeBron, but as Indiana's Paul George did during stretches of the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard has made it difficult for LeBron to get going at times.
A lot of it starts well before James gets the ball.
The best way to stop LeBron is to keep him from catching the ball in locations where he is comfortable. The more he has to work to get open, the "easier" it is to make him miss after the catch. That takes ball denial, positioning and good ol' fashioned muscle to push James just that much farther away from where he wants to be.
Late in the first quarter of Game 2, the Heat found several interesting ways to get LeBron the ball in the place he has the most clear advantage over Leonard: the post.
The first is a crafty, cut-and-dried clearout that puts LeBron in deep post position on the left block.
Notice how Mike Miller and Ray Allen at first flood the strong side. Chalmers swings the ball to Allen and then jets to the other side of the court. As soon as Allen makes the entry pass to James, he and Miller head that way as well. Spoelstra even has Allen, Miller and Bosh engage in some screening action on the opposite block.
That's all for show, though.
The action is designed to force potential help defenders to chase shooters and leave James alone to go to work on Leonard. The extra screening just adds to the subterfuge; it gives the Spurs players one more element to worry about as James operates in total isolation not 10 feet from the hoop.
Gary Neal runs over late for some useless help, but it's too late. James has an easy shot. (He actually misses it, but Bosh is right there for the tip in.)
The next play is more typical.
The Heat just stick LeBron near the right elbow and get him the ball immediately. Leonard does a good job making the catch tough, but we again see screening action on the weak side that occupies potential help defenders. LeBron has a ton of space and gets himself a really nice shot.
He again misses as Leonard contests well, but this is still what the Heat want to be doing process-wise, regardless of outcome.
On the final play, James makes what appears to be more of an impromptu cut toward the block. What's interesting here is that, after Cole gets him the ball, LeBron shows a subtle way that he is growing as a post player. Instead of trying to do all the positioning work with the dribble, he simply kicks it back out, finds better real estate on the re-post and calls for the re-entry.
This shot—a contested mid-range jumper from the baseline—is the toughest of the three early post looks he got near the end of the first quarter. But it's the only one he makes.
What strategy will have the biggest impact on Game 3?
Again, focusing too much on the outcome isn't the point.
What this shows is that the Heat and James are finding good—and different—ways to get the best player on the planet isolation looks in the half court near the hoop. Even this final shot comes from a point of strength. Leonard was on an island, and James still had his dribble.
Make or miss, a lot of good things happen for Miami when a possession can create that opportunity (like this ridiculous assist, for example).
We have yet to see a full-on James assault from the post in the NBA Finals.
Against the Indiana Pacers, we did, however.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he was a master from the block. The Pacers had no answer, as LeBron pivoted and muscled his way to the hoop time and time again, either scoring himself or kicking it out to open shooters.
It turned into a laugher, and the dominance was rooted in James' still-improving ability to work from down low.
After two games in the Finals, the Heat already look very dangerous.
The Spurs certainly controlled Game 1 and had a great opportunity to head into the fourth quarter of Game 2 in command. But we saw what the trapping defense can do. We saw how quickly the Heat can blow up a game when they start hitting threes. We saw how effective James can be as the screener in the pick-and-roll.
If he gets going in the post, too?
Man, this will be a tough series for San Antonio to win.
The Spurs and Popovich must adjust to the defense—using strategies like the double pick-and-roll and off-ball cutting. But even while they try to figure that out, they also can't let the Heat make James a major threat in the post.
The Heat have enough strengths. San Antonio can't give them another.