The San Antonio Spurs have lost 90 playoff games since Tim Duncan joined the club in the 1997-98 season, so it might seem like their 98-96 defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat in Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals was just another minor setback in an otherwise ridiculously successful run.
But what if it was something more?
In basic terms, the Spurs lost Game 2 for two reasons. First, their typically fluid offense froze up. And second, well...LeBron James happened.
We'll hit the relatively simple offensive issues before getting into the much more complicated task of combating James' dominance.
Switching Things Up
Despite 23 total team turnovers in Game 1, the Spurs played a beautiful brand of offense in which the ball never stopped moving, cutters never stopped cutting and shooters saw loads of open looks as the Heat scrambled to catch up.
That's how the Spurs prefer to play, and as their presence in the Finals and league-best 62 regular-season wins attest, that free-flowing style usually works out pretty well for them.
Game 2 was different, though.
The Heat began to switch on pick-and-roll plays involving Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—a decision that had a litany of negative effects on San Antonio's offensive play. Instead of trapping, hedging or chasing on those picks, Miami simply handed guards off and hoped there'd be time to recover to more suitable matchups later in the possession.
The Heat were less consistent in this approach against players besides Ginobili, but the results were similarly successful.
In Game 1, the Heat's traps allowed Ginobili—a ridiculously creative and aggressive decision-maker under stress—to pick them apart with quick dumps to the roll man, hard drives to the middle or slick skip passes to outlets sliding up from the corners.
As a result, Miami had to scramble much less hurriedly to catch up with the Spurs' ball rotations, and it prevented much of the damage Ginobili—and, to a lesser extent, Parker—did in the series-opener. San Antonio got away from its ball-moving priorities, was far too deliberate in its decisions to attack mismatches and generally looked very un-Spurs-like as a whole.
Per NBA.com's John Schuhmann, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said after the game:
It’s got to be a group effort and we didn’t do that. That puts a lot of pressure on everything else. It means we’re going to have to be perfect on defense, we can’t miss four free throws in a row, those sorts of things.
You move it or you die.
The Heat made an adjustment that bothered the Spurs and, interestingly, they did it by sacrificing a great deal of their defensive identity. Miami has been trending toward a more conservative approach on the defensive end for a while now, but by switching liberally (instead of trapping) so much in Game 2, it showed off some serious scheming chops.
To combat Miami's new approach, the Spurs must attack mismatches immediately—both on the perimeter and in the post. Too much thoughtful dribbling and careful surveying allows the Heat to recover, essentially eliminating whatever advantage the Spurs briefly had.
This is a very fixable issue.
The King Arriveth
The second reason San Antonio lost—James being the best player in the universe—won't be quite so easily remedied.
King James finished with 35 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 14-of-22 shooting. And he absolutely killed the Spurs with mid-range jumpers in the third quarter, which was precisely the shot the Spurs begged him to take last year.
To San Antonio's credit, the cushion it gave James to shoot jumpers has shrunk significantly. And against most players, those are shots defenses happily concede.
But James is not most players.
Despite shooting 33.1 percent from 15-19 feet and 42.2 percent from 20-24 feet during the regular season, per NBA.com, he drilled four of his five long twos in the third period and knocked down a pair of triples for good measure.
So much for playing the percentages.
The Spurs are now in the difficult position of either relying on James' jumper to regress to regular-season levels or changing the way they attack him. If they opt for the latter approach, the issue only gets more complicated.
Do you double him and watch as he finds the open man every time? Do you put a bigger player on him to bother his shot, knowing he'll blow past him for finishes at the rim and kickouts to open shooters? After seeing James do precisely that on the Chris Bosh triple that served as the contest's dagger in the fourth quarter, you'd have to think San Antonio would be hesitant to let James get into the middle.
Compounding the problem, the Spurs now head to Miami for two tough games that could leave them in a 1-3 hole when they return to San Antonio. Thanks to James, they missed out on a golden opportunity to go up 2-0 at home, as Sam Amick of USA Today noted:
This matters, of course, because the Spurs blew a chance to take the sort of 2-0 series lead that has historically spelled trouble for the trailing team. Twenty-eight of the 31 teams that took a 2-0 lead in the Finals have gone on to win, the latest outlier coming in 2006 when the Dwyane Wade-led Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks in six games after dropping the first two.
And this is where all of the talk of regression and playing the odds feels a little empty. If we were dealing with a huge sample, we could comfortably rely on the Spurs figuring things out. And we could certainly expect James to shoot something less than the 80 percent he hit from the mid-range area in that pivotal quarter.
But the Spurs don't have a huge sample of games ahead of them. They're three losses from elimination and no longer have home-court advantage against a team that seems to be peaking as planned.
If we know anything about James and the Heat, it's that they do things differently (and better) when it matters most. Whatever mean San Antonio might have hoped James would regress toward no longer exists.
That's regular-season stuff.
The Beginning of the End?
It's now totally conceivable that King James, with switch fully flipped and dander still up after the nonsense surrounding his cramps in Game 1, will simply continue to play at this level until the series is over.
If that's how things play out, what we saw in Game 2 will absolutely represent irreversible damage to San Antonio.
But the Spurs were better than the Heat last year and probably should have won a ring for their trouble, and if any team can retake home-court advantage with a few tweaks and a gritty road win, it's them. Still, they have to be somewhat concerned that it was the Heat who made the first critical strategic move in this series.
And they have to be utterly terrified that James is only going to tighten his grip on the proceedings going forward.