There are plenty for whom the Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs epitomizes the NBA’s basest qualities: a predictable pairing of legacy franchises, or worse, a ratings conspiracy.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course. This just happens to be the wrong one.
For basketball diehards, what these two hardwood heavyweights represent are unparalleled paragons of basketball poetry—two different but equally compelling platonic ideals of how the game should be played.
For the Spurs, devastation comes with precision, in the pinpoint passes and almost telepathic prescience of its practitioners, honed for years around an impossibly complementary core.
The Heat, meanwhile, have managed to turn athleticism and aggression—qualities traditionally resistant to taming—into a two-way blitzkrieg the likes of which the league has never seen.
If last year’s epic seven-game slugfest was any kind of bellwether, the 2014 Finals stand to become a series for the ages. Not just in matters of pride and legacies laid on the line, but as a testament to the most timeless tenets of team basketball.
Which is why it’s critical to understand—and appreciate—the offensive philosophies being brought to the table.
The Spurs Way
1. Pounding the Rock
In the Spurs, we see the fruits of what “system basketball” can yield, which is to say something wholly antithetical to what we think of when we hear system. Indeed, the word fairly reeks of something sinister, a cold, calculating machine designed to subjugate the wills of its working parts.
In practice, the product is anything but.
A few years back, 48 Minutes of Hell’s Andrew McNeill authored a brief post designed to lend insight into Gregg Popovich’s oft-used mantra, “pounding the rock.” The inspiration, as it turns out, stems from a quote from famed muckraking journalist Jacob Riis:
When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
McNeill then recalls a late-season pregame press conference wherein Pop—prompted by J.R. Wilco of the eponymous Pounding the Rock blog—lent some refreshing insight into how the quote managed to find a foothold within his greater coaching lexicon:
I thought that it fit. You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent. A different way to get to the guys and make them think about it.
The adage makes more sense when you consider the context: Boasting as they do the game’s most intricate offense, the Spurs understand that, for them, perfection is all about the process—an endless, exhausting, sometimes skull-crushingly monotonous process.
2. The Five Principles
What many don’t realize is that San Antonio’s offense is just a few years into this new incarnation, the biproduct of years spent devising a system based around the peerless post presence of Tim Duncan.
In his excellent breakdown of the Spurs’ attack, Grantland’s Brett Koremenos identified five specific pillars at play: spacing, misdirection, ball movement, pace and—last but not least—Tony Parker.
And while those terms only scratch the terminological surface of San Antonio’s master plan, Koremenos nonetheless comes through with more than a few crucial takeaways:
Popovich and his staff are masters in the art of deception. Few teams in the league can match the clever nature of some of San Antonio’s primary sets. More than a handful of times a game, the team will run a play that seems designed to look like one thing, only to have the play’s real purpose emerge after it’s too late for the defense to properly react. The Spurs’ “Hammer” action, in which a ball handler drives toward the baseline on one side of the floor in order to make a pass to a shooter floating toward the opposite corner with the help of a back screen, is a classic example of San Antonio sleight of hand.
When you lack elite athleticism, as the Spurs certainly do, there’s only one real recourse: outsmarting your opponent.
What could be more humanist than that?
3. Game of Roles
Perhaps above all, the Spurs have fostered a basketball culture wherein everyone—from a four-time champion and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer to the video intern—knows his role. It’s that Spartan sensibility that has helped San Antonio establish arguably the NBA’s most stable franchise.
Those values are seen in their most rapturous relief where it matters most: on the court.
Skim down the list of names on San Antonio’s roster, skipping over the obvious four, what you’ll see is a seeming grab-bag of castoffs and also-rans, some of whom, under practically any other circumstances, may have long been out of the league.
Instead, you find Tiago Splitter sharing the frontcourt with Tim Duncan. You see a diminutive shoot-first point guard, Patty Mills, making efficient hay with San Antonio’s second unit. And there’s Danny Green, a University of North Carolina prospect turned D-League flotsam brought to flock by a coach capable of turning him into one of the deadliest spot-up shooters in the NBA.
Chalk it up to what you will: San Antonio’s sleepy reputation, the demands of a franchise familiar with excellence or the singular vision of the game’s greatest coach—these Spurs have taken team basketball and turned it into a towering totem pole, one where the arrangement of faces matters far less than the space they share.
Team First, Stars Second
1. Flying Death Machine (Pace)
Just two months after watching his Big Three lose in crippling fashion to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had an epiphany that in many ways came to shape today’s basketball dynasty.
The inspiration: Chip Kelly’s University of Oregon Ducks.
From ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh’s spectacular story:
Explosive. Fast. Unpredictable.These are the words that Kelly used to describe the principles behind his signature spread offense that he rode to the BCS National Championship Game in 2011. They're also the same ones often used to describe a Heat team led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
At least, that's what the team is supposed to be…But rather than deflect the responsibility, the Heat coach went back to the drawing board to find a better model. So he bought a plane ticket to go see Kelly and ask him a simple, yet vexing question:
How exactly do you turn a collection of world-class athletes into a merciless scoring machine?
Kelly’s answer? In the words of Haberstroh, “Turn up the pace and let it fly.”
And fly Miami has. Key to the Heat’s attack has been the uncanny ability of their perimeter players—James and Wade especially—to disrupt passing lanes, thereby turning defense into instant offense, often to devastating psychological effect.
That’s not to say the Heat have become the 1984 Denver Nuggets. Indeed, speed as it pertains to Miami is less about pace for the sake of itself and more about exploiting space—open, half-court or otherwise—with as much ferocity and power as possible.
What the Heat lack in San Antonio-style precision, they more than make up for with their ability to capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. And when you’re as intelligent of a team as these Heat are, opponents are bound to make a lot of them.
That the Heat share this in common with their Finals foes only punctuates its importance as a modern basketball principle.
But whereas the Spurs employ a complex symphony of movement and misdirection, Miami’s spacing—though slightly more milquetoast—can be just as devastating.
The reason: In James and Wade, the Heat boast two of the league’s most gifted slashers. What’s more, both have become acutely adept at finding one of Miami’s legion of marksmen—Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Norris Cole, even Chris Bosh—on the perimeter.
In a 2012 post for NBA.com, Couper Moorhead summed up the strategy thusly (attendant video can be found on the website):
In other words, you need your shooters in the corners when the ball is up top. If the defense is respecting those shooters, as they are in the above image, then all James has to do is turn the corner and the paint is his playground. Here, Greg Stiemsma goes way under the screen set by Haslem and James passes to Miller on the left side. Miller takes Rondo off the dribble and misses a pull-up shot, but no other defender affected the play. Miller utilized the space, and every offensive player on the floor is tall enough to see who has the most of it.
Two years later, Miami’s offensive machine is more finely tuned than it’s ever been before. Which tends to happen when you have the world’s best basketball player in your employ.
3. James, LeBron James
What is there to say about LeBron James that hasn’t already been said, sung and shouted?
Here’s what we know: Any offense has the potential to be a good offense when LeBron James is leading it. But unlike the criminally uncreative attacks typified by his years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami’s makeup—two fellow stars notwithstanding—is almost tailor-made to James’ titanic talents.
It’s not just that James is a great player; it’s that he’s always—or as near to always as possible—making a great play. The right play.
For Miami, LeBron’s basketball brain is the difference between a junkyard jalopy and KITT from Knight Rider, between a merely middling NBA offense and a system on the brink of a third straight vindication.
But lest we fall into the tired trap of believing these Finals serve as some kind of hardwood holy war—the singular superstar over here, the court collective—let’s make one thing clear: No team makes it this far in the fight without a proven plan of attack.
Beautiful basketball, like beautiful art, is known not by the numbers, but by the eyes of those who behold it. Lucky for the Spurs and Heat, then, that they’ll soon have untold millions upon them.