It happened again.
Somehow, we ended up with a second straight NBA Finals pitting the San Antonio Spurs against the Miami Heat, beginning June 5. But after last year's unbelievable series, this feels less like monotony and more like The Godfather: Part II, and we've been eagerly awaiting the inevitable sequel for long enough.
The 2013 Finals became one of the most memorable series in league history.
As we enter the new and improved 2014 version, these two teams, who have played each other 11 times and counting over the past two years, have a chance to learn a little more about each other. And when a couple of squads understand one another like the Heat and Spurs do, it makes game-planning all the more difficult.
Ostensibly, the Spurs' game plan worked against Miami last season when the Heat won in seven games. It just didn't account for Ray Allen flooding the River Walk with the tears of San Antonians. But this year, the Spurs may be entering the Finals with an inherent disadvantage.
Tony Parker left the Spurs' Western Conference Finals-clinching Game 6 win at halftime and never returned because of a right ankle sprain. Now, Parker is "hopeful" to play in Game 1 of the Finals, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and if he's healthy, this is a different series.
This isn't necessarily new. Parker was hobbled during last year's Finals, as well, but with a hamstring injury instead. When the Spurs' star point guard couldn't produce up to usual capabilities, neither could his team.
So much of what the Spurs run is possible because of what Parker can do, both as someone who can get to the rim or create out of the pick-and-roll. San Antonio was able to outplay the Oklahoma City Thunder for 29 minutes as a Parker-less team, but over the course of four-plus games? That's a different story.
But now Parker is hopeful. That's the word we keep hearing. Hopeful.
So we can continue to hope as well and assume that Parker is good to go for the series. It is, after all, the NBA Finals. And if the Spurs point guard is ready to dance, San Antonio has a much better chance at executing its ideal game plan.
The LeBron Defense
The Spurs threw so many looks at LeBron James during the Finals last season but played with one consistent idea in mind: Let him shoot. And San Antonio did just that, sagging off him throughout the series. Even though LeBron has become a more-than-reliable jump-shooter, the Spurs prioritized allowing the jumper over letting him get to the rim.
It makes sense. LeBron made a completely unrealistic 80 percent of his shots at the rim during this regular season (no one does that, by the way). And when he gets some momentum going at the hoop, that's when he can best create. So the Spurs let him settle for jumpers, and if he made them, they tipped their collective cap.
Now, James knows what to expect heading into hit second straight Finals against San Antonio, as he told Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald:
They actually didn't focus on me last year. They didn't guard me. I didn't make shots. ... It wasn't much of a game plan, they didn't guard me.
On every pick and roll I had, they dared me to shoot, and I didn't make shots the first couple of games, and I just tried to stay with it, watch film and figure out ways to help our team. I started to make shots, and that opened the floor for all of us.
James made 37.5 percent of his mid-range jumpers during last year's Finals, compared to the 43.2 percent he made during the 2012-13 regular season. And remember, those shots against the Spurs were mostly open.
It wasn't just on the pick-and-roll, either, as LeBron mentioned to Goodman. It was all over the place.
These were the types of shots James routinely saw from the mid-range area:
That was a pure isolation play from James. He held onto the ball for a solid four seconds before attempting that shot. The defender, Danny Green, wasn't forced into giving him that room. It was the plan.
Last season, we mainly saw Kawhi Leonard guard James, which would stand to be true for the upcoming series as well. Leonard is the Spurs' go-to on-ball perimeter defender and just spent a series doing an unheralded job on league MVP Kevin Durant.
In the 2013 Finals, Leonard put up an admirable performance checking LBJ. LeBron shot 46.9 percent from the field and went 4-for-7 from three when Kawhi was off the court. When Leonard was on it, though, those numbers went way down. James shot just 44.1 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three.
We're talking about one of the most efficient players in the history of the game putting up numbers that were relatively subpar. And plenty of that had to do with Leonard's ability to goad James into those mid-range shots, inefficient for anyone, but especially ineffective for someone who makes so much of his living at the foul line.
When Leonard was off the floor, just 15 percent of James' points came from mid-range. With Kawhi there, that number spiked to 22 percent.
As good as Leonard is, though, last year's defense of James wasn't all on him. The Spurs changed around coverages throughout the series.
Sometimes, we saw Leonard. Other times, there was a sprinkle of Green or a dash of Boris Diaw, who showed off his versatility when he guarded LeBron quite commendably last year.
We'll probably see Leonard act as LeBron's primary defender starting Thursday night, as we should. But Diaw is still going to be an option, and if the Spurs try to force James into those impotent mid-range jumpers, they'll need to confuse him as much as they can with different matchups.
We always talk about how corner threes are the most efficient jump shots in the NBA. Well, against the Heat, that becomes even more exaggerated.
Miami has one of the most consistently aggressive pick-and-roll defensive strategies in the NBA, blitzing it by sending a big man to chase after the ball-handler up top.
The goal: to trap the ball-handler and force turnovers. The reasoning: The Heat are small but can take advantage of their quicker bigs by sending them out to the perimeter.
If there's one thing you may not want to critique about Miami, it's the pick-and-roll coverage. Opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers averaged just 0.58 points per play against the Heat this year, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), best in the league. The Heat also forced those ball-handlers to turn the ball over on 34 percent of their possessions, best in the NBA once again.
Miami has defended the screen-and-roll this way over the past few years, perfectly in line with its usual mentality. Play small, quick and aggressive basketball. But the Heat changed things up against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami actually played a little more conservative against George Hill and the Pacers, often letting a big man sag back on ball screens. From Zach Lowe of Grantland:
The Heat have had their big men drop back on the pick-and-roll or slide side to side at the level of the screener. It is damn near conventional NBA defense by a team that has been unconventional in almost every way since Pat Riley constructed it.
There were lots of reasons for the adjustment, including the coaching staff’s recognition that playing hyperactive defense wore down an aging team. But Indiana really coaxed the change. It punished Miami’s traps by having its screeners slip down toward the foul line before even really setting the pick, allowing Indiana’s ball handlers to loft easy entry passes ahead of the Heat’s traps.
Against Indiana, the adjustment worked. But versus a more disciplined Spurs team with a potentially hobbled Parker, don't be surprised if the Heat start blitzing like they just hired Rex Ryan even though Miami did switch on the pick-and-roll for extended stretches of last year's Finals. And when the Heat do send two defenders chasing after Parker or Manu Ginobili or whoever else is running the pick-and-roll, the defense becomes vulnerable in the corner.
That's where a team that passes like San Antonio can take advantage of potential four-on-threes like no other. Even if Miami cuts off the first option to the roll man, the Spurs are usually so quick to get the rock out to someone on the perimeter, who has a free angle to the rim-running big. And here's the thing: All of San Antonio's bigs are more-than-capable passers.
The efficiency of the corner three isn't completely about making easier shots from that spot. It's also about the process of getting the ball there. If you're creating open looks in the corner, you're probably having an efficient, intelligent possession.
Duncan, Splitter and especially Diaw make quick decisions with the ball. That's how the Spurs are able to make plays like this one from Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals:
Yes, I showed this play in my Monday column. And yes, I will continue to show it forever and ever and ever. Actually, can we just place this video next to the Mona Lisa, Starry Night and Craig Sager's neon suits in the Beauty Hall of Fame and call it a day?
You can't expect the Spurs to pass quite like this every play. Or every game. Or ever, really. But this does show what San Antonio is capable of doing.
Miami may have had the aforementioned tremendous numbers defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers during the regular season, but there is a way to beat them out of those sets: Make sure to get the ball to the roll man in whatever way possible.
Steven Adams actually cuts off the passing lane to Duncan on that incredible play leading to the Diaw three, but when Ginobili swings the ball to Patty Mills, Mills immediately becomes the passer to get the ball to the rim-running Duncan. And capitalizing on those four-on-threes is the exact way to beat the Heat in the pick-and-roll.
The Heat may have allowed pick-and-roll ball-handlers to score on just 0.58 points per play, but pick-and-roll roll men are scoring on 0.93 points per play, according to Synergy (subscription required). That's still a top-notch number for a defensive team, but it's a massive difference from the alternative.
Miami has its flaws. The Spurs just have to work the ball inside out to exploit them sometimes.
The Heat allowed the third-most corner-three attempts of any team during the regular season, per NBA.com (subscription required). Opponents hit 40.1 percent of those shots, bottom 10 in the league. And when Miami leaves shooters open there, that's when the Spurs can pounce.
The Spurs take advantage of blown assignments as much as any other offense in the league. Now is their chance to continue that against the Heat.
Splitting the Difference
The intuitive strategy against Miami during the LeBron era has been to "out-size" the Heat. Throw two bigs down low and pound them inside.
The Heat don't go to that aggressive pick-and-roll strategy because it's the best for any roster to play. They do it out of necessity, to compensate for their lack of size.
So to beat the Heat, teams tend to go in the opposite direction, and you'd think the Spurs would be well-equipped to do that with Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan down low—except San Antonio wasn't all that effective when it went to that combination in last year's Finals.
Who should start next to Tim Duncan?
Miami outscored the Spurs by four points per 100 possessions when Splitter was on the floor over the course of that series, 3.4 points per 100 possessions worse than when he sat on the bench. So after Game 3, Gregg Popovich adjusted.
Splitter gradually lost playing time as last year's series progressed, seeing his minutes totals go down in each of the final four games of the series. Over those four contests, he averaged just 9.1 minutes per game.
The Brazilian doesn't always work when you can stretch him away from the paint. That's what Miami did when it played Bosh at center with a small-ball power forward. And when Splitter has to jump out to the three-point line to defend players, he loses part of his best defensive trait: rim protection.
If the Heat play a bunch of Rashard Lewis against the Spurs like they did down the stretch of the Pacers series, that could help neutralize Splitter's effect, and it could mean more Diaw. After all, the Frenchman did average 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes during the Western Conference Finals.
But this isn't just about defense.
Statistically, the Spurs defense was actually better with Splitter on the floor last year (though that probably has more to do with him playing mostly with the starters). This comes down to the offensive end.
Splitter shot just 44.8 percent from the field while averaging only 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per 36 minutes in his limited playing time. When he struggles, he has this awful habit of becoming antsy in the paint. That's when he starts to rush plays.
Coincidence or not, the indecision started to happen last year after that ego-slashing LeBron block in Game 2. As Splitter dwindled, so did his minutes.
We saw that in last year's Finals, when he turned the ball over like he was half Nelsoning it, and we saw it again against the Thunder as well. If he is playing like that and hitting just 46.7 percent of his shots in the restricted area, like he did in the 2013 Finals, Splitter starts to lose his purpose.
Diaw, who shot 40.2 percent from three-point range this season, can be his own sort of stretch 4. And considering exactly how effective he was when guarding James during last year's Finals (and that he started both games against the Heat this regular season), we may not see a ton of Splitter in this series.
Taking Advantage of the Defense
Miami finished outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession during the regular season. That does put the Heat in the top half of the league in defense, but it's not necessarily treading them in championship territory. From Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (subscription required):
They were the better defense in the regular season, ranking fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions; Miami finished 11th. The Heat would be the first team to win the championship while finishing outside the league's top 10 defenses since the 2001 Lakers (21st).
Unlike those Lakers, however, Miami hasn't yet shown the ability to turn on its defense for extended stretches during the playoffs.
But let's take this a little bit further.
Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only two teams outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession have won it all: the aforementioned '01 Lakers and the '95 Houston Rockets. And what did those two teams have in common? They were both repeat champions who notoriously coasted through the regular season.
The Heat do fit that criteria in some capacity. They would be a repeat champion if they beat the Spurs (a three-peat champion, to be precise), and they did coast during the regular season. But as Pelton mentioned, the Heat, who have allowed 2.4 more points per 100 possessions during the playoffs than in the regular season, haven't turned the playoff defense up to a new level like the Lakers and Rockets did.
San Antonio is in a perfect position to attack an imperfect defense. Mainly, when Miami gambles, the Spurs tend to make the right decision most of the time.
The Spurs screen better than any team in the NBA and rarely hold onto the ball for extended periods of time. It's the sort of offensive attack that can stab at the blisters of an overly aggressive defense.
Little hip checks from Duncan have become a Spurs signature. It almost seems like San Antonio doesn't get an open shot without one of those. Watch as Duncan illegally screens Derek Fisher to help set up Ginobili for one of the biggest makes of Game 6 against the Thunder:
Really, that's what the Spurs need to do. They have to pick like a miner against a Miami defense that sets itself up for chasing situations. And considering how quickly the San Antonio offense moves, it could generate a bunch of its points just from those sorts of plays.
We're going to see lots of screening from the Spurs—pick-and-roll and all—whether Parker is healthy or not. We're going to see San Antonio run guys like Green and Marco Belinelli off screens, especially when a contact-averse Dwyane Wade is on the floor. Because that's what the Spurs do. They screen like no one else.
Ultimately, the Spurs offense is coming down to one factor: ball movement. And if Miami leaves guys open on the perimeter enough times, one Ray Allen three may not be enough to save the Heat's season.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.