At 2-2, there's plenty of need for both teams to adjust in the NBA Finals. There just isn't a lot of time left to do so.
If you had only one word to describe Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals, "apprehensive" would be a perfect choice.
The San Antonio Spurs made them feel that way by packing the paint and daring them to launch long twos or deeper threes (prayers for Wade), which was a legitimately risky gamble, but one that paid off to the tune of a blowout victory.
In Game 4, James and Wade responded with individual offense that was downright hostile, attacking the Spurs from all over the floor. There was no fear or tentativeness when they left their feet to launch a jumper; more importantly, neither would be denied on drives to the basket.
Here are a few adjustments both teams should make in time for Game 5.
Dealing with Small Ball
The first and most obvious "adjustment" (if you even want to call it that) Gregg Popovich needs to make for Game 5: Treat Wade like an All-Star. The Spurs opened Game 4 defending one of basketball's all-time-greatest shooting guards with Tiago Splitter—tactically, the move made some semblance of sense, being that Splitter guarding the sharp-shooting Mike Miller would be a certain nightmare.
But in hindsight, it appears Popovich may have poked a bear with a stick. (When Boris Diaw began the third quarter on Wade, Popovich was no longer poking the bear, he was hurling rocks at it.)
Thanks to their ferociously aggressive team defense (and some brilliant individual work from Chris Bosh), Miami was able to stay small throughout the entire ballgame, playing James at power forward for nearly all his minutes. Bosh didn't log a single minute with another one of Miami's "traditional" big men (Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen or Joel Anthony).
The Heat could afford to do this because, when focused and in the mood to do so, Wade and James can rebound and box out like madmen. That's exactly what they did in Game 4.
On the other side of the floor, Tim Duncan and Splitter shared the court for a measly three minutes. However, Duncan did log nine minutes beside Diaw, and in those nine minutes, San Antonio outscored Miami by 17.4 points per 100 possessions while grabbing 28.6 percent of its own missed shots.
Moving forward, if Miami plans to stick with its smaller units, San Antonio has two logical options:
- Remove Splitter from the starting lineup, replacing him with Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal or even Diaw.
- Don't do that and hope Splitter and Duncan can rekindle some of what made them such an effective duo in the regular season.
Why stay big?
On offense, the Spurs would be able to make James work, both in the post and as a roll defender on the pick-and-roll. Diaw posted James up on a couple of occasions in Game 4, and since wearing James down is the only long-term way to defeat him, it might be worth a try in extended minutes.
If not that, Matt Bonner could get burn at power forward, but he'd likely find himself defending Mike Miller or Ray Allen on the other end. Replacing Splitter with either Ginobili or Neal would make San Antonio super small and give the Spurs even more trouble on the glass.
Miami's Swarming Defense
The Heat were consistently awesome with their back-line rotations whenever San Antonio hit the rolling big man on a pick-and-roll. (Hey look: Wade just stole another basketball from Splitter!)
Here, we have multiple examples, most involving poor Tiago Splitter catching the ball in motion, then immediately suffering a severe anxiety attack as the likes of Wade, James and Miami's remaining pack of wolves descended upon him for a feast.
In each of these clips, we have Splitter setting a high screen for Ginobili, rolling into the paint as his man doubles the ball, then catching a pass mere feet from the rim and looking straight to the corners for a spot-up three-pointer.
Wade is a disruptor in all three sequences, and should San Antonio run this play again in the series (it probably won't), Wade will be licking his chops in anticipation.
So, how can San Antonio combat this?
A couple of ways. One is by running more pick-and-rolls using Wade's man as the screener, forcing him high and into a role he isn't accustomed to playing. Here's Kawhi Leonard coming up to set a screen for Tony Parker, dragging Wade in the process.
As the play unfolds, Wade and Norris Cole have a collective brain fart (a common theme with Miami's on-ball pick-and-roll defense throughout these finals). Instead of doubling Parker, as Cole believes Wade is planning to do, for whatever reason, Wade begins to drift back toward Leonard, who's wide open at the top of the arc.
This creates the sliver of driving space Parker needs to attack, and he does.
Another way to beat Miami's aggressiveness is by having Wade's man cut off the ball, whether it be Leonard, Danny Green or whomever.
Here, Wade looms in the weeds as Duncan and Parker execute a pick-and-roll on the left wing. For whatever reason, his man, Leonard, is nearly standing out of bounds as he springs into action for the steal.
To be fair to Duncan and Leonard, Wade's steal attempt couldn't have been timed better, but it won't always be this perfect. In the future, Leonard needs to already be cutting into the paint or free himself near the rim on the baseline.
On this particular play, Ray Allen would've been the next man to rotate over had Leonard cut and Duncan found him with a pass. That means two points for San Antonio.
Resurrect Manu Ginobili
The third wheel of San Antonio's Big Three, Ginobili has been dreadful in these finals. In Game 4, he scored five points on five shots in 26 minutes.
If the Spurs are to win two of their season's final three games, they'll need him to be more of a scorer, and thanks to Miami's trap-happy defense, those opportunities might have to come off the ball.
The Spurs haven't run Ginobili off too many screens in this series, but in the few instances they have, it's worked, with either James or Wade running smack-dab into a Duncan screen as an open three-pointer goes up.
But it isn't only on offense where Ginobili is struggling. His defense away from the ball has regressed to dangerous levels. Where is he looking in the picture below as his man, Wade, runs by him on the baseline for an eventual easy lay-in after a pass from James?
Revisiting the small-ball issue for a second: Should Popovich feel the need to start Ginobili, it might kick-start a crucial cog while also affording San Antonio a more convenient matchup from the opening tip. He's extremely important to the Spurs, and right now he can't play any worse. Starting him should be something San Antonio seriously considers.
LeBron James/Dwyane Wade Pick-and-Roll Action
The Heat have fewer adjustments to make after Game 4 because they won it convincingly. But that doesn't mean they don't have any adjustments to make at all.
Their pick-and-roll defense at the top is rec-league embarrassing at times, and had Tony Parker been 100 percent (he played only 13 minutes in the second half and missed all four of his shots), they would've had difficulty handling his pushy play down the stretch.
On the offensive end, Miami spent most of the game attacking early in the shot clock, with a good chunk of its possessions containing no more than a single pass. If jumpers aren't falling or San Antonio chooses to go big and pack the paint with a group of massive arms, that offense will look silly.
Here's a play the Heat ran with success in Game 4, and they should go to it even more in Game 5. It's a pick-and-roll with James screening for Wade below the free-throw line. In this particular sequence, James actually slips the screen, creating mass confusion for Ginobili and Green, and allowing Wade enough space to make perhaps his biggest play of the game.
Before going to the pick-and-roll, James patiently surveyed a flurry of activity on the weak side involving Allen, Mario Chalmers and Haslem—the three of them setting screens for each other and running around in what may have simply been a diversion from the eventual pick-and-roll the entire time.
If Miami runs more plays like this—featuring its two best players in positions where both can make the defense work extremely hard to stop them—it'll be tough to beat in Game 5.
Wade and James were aggressive in Game 4, displaying less of the mindset that "San Antonio needs to make X and Y adjustments to slow them down" and looking more like an entity that can't be stopped when it's rolling. But there's no guarantee both will play that well again, and heading into Game 5, the NBA Finals hinges on it.