Blueprint for Miami Heat to Defy History, Bounce Back in NBA Finals

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Blueprint for Miami Heat to Defy History, Bounce Back in NBA Finals
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The news isn't all bad for the Miami Heat.

Sure, their 113-77 shortfall against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals was the third-biggest final deficit in league championship history and easily the worst for the Heat since their Big Three came together in 2010. But Miami will live to play another day, and as we've seen in these Finals as well as in many prior, the failures (and successes) of one outing don't necessarily carry over to the next.

Otherwise, the Heat probably wouldn't have gotten stomped after playing the part of the bully in Game 2.

And sure, history isn't on Miami's side. On 13 previous occasions when the finals have been tied at 1-1, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to take the series 12 times.

That's a troubling trend for Miami to overcome, to be sure. However, in this day and age of advanced statistical analysis, a sample of 13 (and now 14) instances is still rather small.

To that end, the past isn't always predictive, and historical trends tend to shift over time. Case in point: Before 2004, no team had swept the middle three games of the finals since the NBA switched to the much-maligned 2-3-2 format in 1985. Since 2004, though, three teams—the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the Heat in 2006 and 2012—have closed out their respective championship chases at home, despite being the "road team" in the series.

And if we're talking history, let's not forget that much of San Antonio's success in Game 3 stemmed from unprecedentedly hot shooting performances from Danny Green, Gary Neal and (to a lesser degree) Kawhi Leonard. The chances of those three combining to shoot 15-of-22 from beyond the arc again range between slim and none. 

That being said, the forces of history are beyond the Heat's control. They haven't lost back-to-back games since January and have followed up their five previous playoff losses with five resounding victories, by an average of 21 points per outing. If Miami's going to turn this series around, it'll have to grab ahold of its own destiny—and play its own game—from here on out.

How can LeBron James and Co. do it?

 

Rotations, Rotations, Rotations

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Like everything the Miami Heat do, their quest to overcome yet another massive obstacle (i.e. the Spurs) must begin on the defensive end.

For the most part, the Heat have done a much better job of blitzing the Spurs' ball-handlers and forcing turnovers since Game 1, in which San Antonio gave the ball away just four times. The usually sure-handed Spurs coughed it up 17 times in Game 2, and though they cut that number down to 13 in Game 3, they still looked somewhat vulnerable in that regard and yielded an unsightly 17 points off those turnovers.

But Miami's aggressive, trapping style of defense can (and sometimes does) do more harm than good if those players not at the point of attack aren't hustling and rotating properly to back up those who are applying pressure.

This is especially true against a team like the Spurs, whose offense thrives on smart, quick passing to cutting bigs and a plethora of three-point shooters.

San Antonio exploited Miami's high-energy defense all too easily in Game 3. It's one thing for the Spurs to get good looks off extra passes. It's another for the Heat's perimeter defenders—most notably Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller, who, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, shrugged his shoulders in reaction to some of his missed assignments—to be caught flat-footed and out of position to help time and again.

To counteract this, Erik Spoelstra may want to consider granting more minutes to Shane Battier, who's aged anything but gracefully in these playoffs but whose defense acumen still far outpaces Miller's.

As mentioned earlier, San Antonio's role players will be hard-pressed to keep their fingers ablaze, NBA Jam style. But if the Heat don't get their act together soon—be it with shifts in the rotation or shifts in energy and attitude—they're liable to get burned again in a big way.

 

(Don't) Pray for Tony Parker

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Much of the Spurs' torching of the Heat's defense came after Tony Parker left in the third with what turned out to be a Grade 1 (read: mild) hamstring strain. Parker will play in Game 4, per The Associated Press on ESPN.com, though there's no telling how effective he'll be. 

Parker relies so much on his signature quickness to succeed, and having a hampered hammy of any kind will likely hinder that.

Which comes as good news to the Heat. So many of their struggles defending San Antonio's shooters have stemmed from their concerted (and often failed) efforts to contain the Spurs' All-NBA point guard. He's darted around opposing guards, run Miami ragged through several pick-and-rolls and even made LeBron, arguably the best defensive player in basketball, look foolish on a several occasions.

Of course, if you were to ask the Heat how they felt about the possibility of Parker not playing, they'd probably trot out some old, tired trope about how they'd rather beat the Spurs fair and square than with help from the injury bug. But luck hasn't exactly been on Miami's side (see: Wade's knee, Chris Bosh's ankle).

More importantly, there's no shame in beating a beat-up team, especially when the player in question (Parker) has done such a number on Miami's defense. Parker's abilities to penetrate, deliver crisp passes to his bigs on the interior and set up shooters on the perimeter have combined to turn the Heat's frenetic tendencies on defense against them.

Hypothetically speaking, less Parker—or even a slower Parker—means fewer defensive breakdowns, fewer clean looks for the Spurs and a greater probability of victory for Miami.

 

...In a Box

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Heat haven't exactly been stout up front, either. 

Granted, a team that so often professes its preference for playing small is bound to concede something on the boards against a team that starts two guys as tall as Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter in the middle. But the extent to which the Spurs have pounded the Heat on the offensive glass in this series is, quite frankly, alarming.

According to NBA.com, the Spurs collected just 20.5 percent of their misses during the regular season—a mark that was beaten to the bottom only by the Boston Celtics. That paltry number made sense, considering San Antonio's concerted effort (much like Boston's) to get back in transition at the expense of second-chance scoring opportunities.

The Spurs have stuck with this approach in the finals, as Couper Moorhead of HEAT.com noted after Game 1. Yet, San Antonio's offensive rebounding percentage has skyrocketed to 30.5 percent, per Zach Lowe, which would've ranked fourth in the NBA during the 2012-13 campaign.

Some of this can be attributed to the Spurs' superior size, smarts and penchant for three-pointers, which so often lead to long caroms. But much of the blame rests on the shoulders of the Heat players, including LeBron James, who've done a poor job of boxing out San Antonio's best rebounders.

That is, if you can call letting Leonard doubling his rebounding average, from six per game during the regular season to 12 in the finals, and allowing a 37-year-old Tim Duncan to collect seven offensive rebounds in one game "boxing out."

It's bad enough that the Heat are letting the Spurs get such good looks the first time around. The last thing Miami needs is to surrender multiple opportunities per possession to San Antonio's fleet of three-point specialists.

 

Be Aggressive! Be Aggressive!

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we've harped on the travesty that was Miami's "defense" giving up 113 points, it's time to turn our attention to an offense that generated a season-low-tying 77 points (on 40.8 percent shooting) of its own.

Let's face it: LeBron has looked timid—or, rather, the Spurs have made him look timid. He's shot just 38.9 percent from the field (23.1 percent from three) in the series and failed to top the 20-point plateau three times in a row for the first time since Games 3 through 5 of those dreaded 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

That's not entirely coincidental, either.

As ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst pointed out, the Spurs have employed a defensive game plan that, in some ways, is similar to what the Mavs used to stifle James two years ago. The Spurs' defenders have sagged off LeBron while outside the paint, inviting the four-time MVP to beat them from the perimeter. And when James has ventured inside, San Antonio has been quick to send help—oftentimes off the hobbled, brick-shooting Wade—as Couper Moorhead breaks down here.

LeBron would certainly help his own case by hitting more of the mid-range jumpers that he takes and, in turn, forcing the Spurs to play him closer.

He missed 12 of his 14 attempts from outside the paint in Game 3, many of which were wide-open looks. Per ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required), James has hit less than a quarter of his shots from outside the restricted area in these finals, after nailing better than 40 percent of them—and taking fewer of them—during the regular season.

It'd also be wise of LeBron to attack the interior earlier and more often than he has, to trust his instincts rather than slow things down and overthink the game.

The fact that James failed to get to the free-throw line in Game 3, for the first time since 2009 and just the second time in his playoff career, points to a player who's settling too often and playing right into Gregg Popovich's plans.

As Tim Duncan put it, via ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:

We're guarding him with five guys. We understand what kind of player he is. He's the best player in the world, so we're respecting him as that. We're trying to make his life as difficult as possible every time he touches the ball.

Which means that it's on James to make those five guys react, rather than allowing them to dictate terms. Don't wait for the double-team to arrive before making a move. Don't pound the ball into the court until the clock is ticking down and a hurried shot is the only option.

Instead, slash to the rim and force the Spurs to defend, foul or take a charge. Go into the low post and bully the smaller, more slender duo of Green and Leonard. Get to the line and get people in foul trouble.

For all the talk about Miami's magic from the three-point line, the team's offense only works—and works best—when operated from the inside out. And as the hub of the Heat's offense, it's on LeBron to ensure that it functions as such.

He admitted—nay, promised—as much between Games 3 and 4, via Michael Wallace:

As dark as it was last night, it can't get no darker than that, especially for me. So I guarantee I'll be better for tomorrow (Game 4) for sure. I have to do whatever it takes. I mean, 7 for 21 isn't going to cut it. It's impossible for me to go 7 for 21, shoot 33 percent from the field and not have free throws. You have to figure out ways offensively that you can make an impact.

To be sure, LeBron's M.O. has long been to play within the flow of the game, to let it come to him. But against a smart, stout defense like that of the Spurs, LeBron has to turn the tide himself. He has to force San Antonio to stop him, rather than doing it himself, as Danny Green suggested was the case, via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.

 

Sending Out an S.O.S

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

That being said, James can't do it all by himself and would have a bear of a time if he tried. He'll need much more substantial support from the rest of the Heat's roster in Game 4 if he and his 'mates are to even the series at 2-2.

Such efforts naturally begin with Wade and Bosh. Those two combined to score a subpar 28 points on 11-of-25 shooting, as Wade struggled to get much traction going toward the hoop and Bosh missed a number of his beloved elbow jumpers.

Bosh figures to convert more of his bread-and-butter shots as this series goes on, so long as the opportunities are there and LeBron gets him the ball in the proper position. The bigger concern for Miami rests with Wade.

Per ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, LeBron and the Heat have been far more efficient offensively when Wade's sat compared to when he's shared the floor with James.

Part of this stems from Wade's long-standing inability to consistently hit outside shots. Without the threat of a three-pointer, Wade too often sees the Spurs defense sag off of him to better bother LeBron. The problem is only compounded when Wade cuts to the rim, as he often fails to finish over the Spurs' bigs on account of his thrice-bruised right knee.

With Wade hobbled and Bosh botching his signature shot, the onus then falls to Miami's other role players to step up. They did well in that regard at American Airlines Arena, where Ray Allen scored 13 points in each of the first two contests and Mario Chalmers led the Heat with 19 points in Game 2.

But those two disappeared in Game 3, right along with everyone other than Mike Miller, who extended his streak of consecutive three-point makes to eight in San Antonio.

This, while Chalmers went scoreless with four turnovers, Allen failed to attempt a three for the first time in these playoffs, and Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen combined for two points and three rebounds.

To be sure, it's not unusual for a supporting cast to shrink on the road, particularly in the finals. The pressure of playing for a championship outside of friendly confines can get to players who rely on rhythm and relatively rare opportunities to be productive and get into the flow of a game.

Which team will take Game 4?

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Unlike superstars, who, as Leonard mentioned to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, can always count on getting plays run for them:

I'm not getting no plays called for me out on the floor. I'm not getting no isos. So I'm a role player.

Still, that doesn't excuse the little guys from coming up so small, especially when their Alamo City counterparts are lighting the world on fire. Those who shone so bright in Game 2 for Miami will have to find some semblance of daylight in Game 4, lest LeBron be left to fend for himself.

And the Heat to fall into a 3-1 hole, out of which no team has yet climbed in the NBA Finals.

The original version of this article was modified to reflect Tony Parker's updated status for Game 4. 

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