Heading into Thursday night's Game 4 of the 2013 NBA Finals, it seems the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat have made it their jobs to give us more questions than answers in their first three contests.
For Miami, it's merely different variations of the same storylines from the previous two years told through a new prism. What's wrong with LeBron James? Did anyone check Dwyane Wade's birth certificate? Is it time to trade Chris Bosh? Does any role player not named Mike Miller know how to make a jump shot? Will coach Erik Estrada ever get off his motorcycle and actually coach a basketball game?
In print, they feel so over-discussed that the word "blah" doesn't even begin to describe it.
Same thing for the Spurs. Other than Tony Parker's injury status, some variation of these storylines was probably discussed at your local sports bar in 2007. How is Tim Duncan this good at this age? Were the Amazon reviewers of Ageless Male lying to me? Where does Gregg Popovich keep finding these players off the street? Is it OK to nickname Danny Green Golden Shot?
While it all seems like silly, sarcasm-filled minutiae, it's impossible to not get caught up in these moments, these underlying currents of things that seem so small but actually create the entire picture.
With just hours to go before Game 4 tips off, it's those questions that need answering. Well, at least the ones that don't involve 1980s procedurals and testosterone tablets. We can save those for Friday morning.
With that out of the way, let's take a complete look at everything you need to know about Thursday's Game 4.
When: Thursday, June 13 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center in San Antonio
Storylines to Watch
Can the Heat Offense—Particularly LeBron James—Adjust to the Spurs' D?
I'm about to say something, and it might be controversial. It's a pretty original thought, so be prepared to be floored. Seriously, you might want to take a seat. OK, I warned you, here it goes:
LeBron James has lacked aggression in this series. He's not attacking the rim enough and has been completely taken out of the post when guarded by Kawhi Leonard. For just the 10th time in his illustrious career, James did not take a free throw against San Antonio. In Game 3 he shot 7-of-21 from the floor en route to his third straight contest below the 20-point mark.
“I played like s---,” James said after the game, echoing the sentiments of every social media platform known to man (per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver).
But great players have bad games. Even the Skip Baylesses of the world know that LeBron James can't be perfect every time out. There are ebbs and flows with every player's journey, though LeBron was so near perfect he made us question that universal truth this season. Tuesday, and this series as a whole, has been different. For once, the ravenous pitbulls of bluster known as the comment-baiting media have it right.
He's looked rudderless offensively, much in the same way he did against the Mavericks in 2011. Too many possessions look like the one below, with James dribbling around aimlessly for the entirety of the shot clock before hoisting up a bad jumper.
We can all see that LeBron is playing poorly. A player who started the regular season with 33 straight 20-plus point games doesn't score below that mark in three straight in the NBA Finals without something being amiss—mentally and schematically.
The key for Miami heading into Game 4 is to figure out why, and how to fix it. Well, good luck with that one, Mr. Spoelstra.
Figuring out San Antonio's defensive scheme against LeBron takes all of about a quarter of film work—assuming that quarter includes all of James' array of skills. Gregg Popovich, being the evil genius that he is, is throwing a consistent array of looks at James depending on his offensive purpose in each set.
Because everyone's so focused on LeBron being in "attack mode," which essentially means he starts the possession at the top of the key, let's start there. When James starts a possession on the perimeter, San Antonio is blatantly following the Dallas blueprint from two years ago. They're allowing him to take almost every off-the-dribble mid-range jumper he wants, daring him to shy away from the rim.
On the play previously highlighted, Tiago Splitter is standing almost in the paint the entire time James is dribbling beyond the three-point line. But Splitter, slow on his feet, would probably do that even it it wasn't a team-wide emphasis put in place by Popovich. Here's a look at another situation for James, this time guarded by the more active Kawhi Leonard, as he's granted an almost equal amount of space from the elbow:
This strategy shouldn't work. James hit 43.2 percent of his mid-range jumpers and 40.6 percent of his threes during the regular season—both elite numbers. Whether it's confidence, exhaustion or what have you, those shots just aren't falling against San Antonio.
When the Heat try to get James going by sending him into the post, the Spurs' mentality has a Hydian switch. Suddenly, San Antonio does its best Miami jig, doubling and trapping James hard in the post, trying to get the ball out of his hands. The Spurs have typically sent more help Danny Green's way than when Leonard is guarding him, but Miami has struggled all series long to find ways for James to get easier, quicker post position.
In Game 3, Spoelstra implemented a new set I suspect we'll see a ton more going forward. The Heat will have a man set a quick cross screen for James, hoping to get him in deep enough position for a quick-strike shot. It fails here—notice the swarming bodies again—but the intent is good.
That being said, the Spurs wouldn't be able to double James as hard if they had any respect for Dwyane Wade. It's become clear through these first few games that Popovich is going to take advantage of Wade's knee problems by having defenders treat him with a Tony Allen-like disregard.
When Wade sets himself as the primary ball-handler on a possession, San Antonio just applies its LeBron strategy. The Spurs will have Wade's defender stay two or three steps closer to the painted area, knowing that No. 3 isn't going to start jacking up triples and that he doesn't have the first step to make them pay by taking it to the basket.
This creates a multitude of problems, not the least of which get heaped on James. On this set, Manu Ginobili is so comfortable abandoning Wade that he's able to single-handedly muck up what looked like a successful clear-out isolation for LeBron.
How do you fix this? ESPN's Tom Haberstroh suggested moving Wade to the bench, which seems crazy, but is backed up by numbers and the eye test in this series. Wade won't get benched because, well, he's Dwyane Wade. But Spoelstra needs to find some time for LeBron to be on the court "alone" in this series—especially with the league MVP going through issues of his own.
Will the Spurs Continue Destroying Miami on Offensive Glass?
During the regular season, San Antonio rebounded just 20.5 percent of its misses. That level of putridity was only eclipsed by the Boston Celtics, who have now finished at the bottom of the league three years running in that statistic. Prior to taking on Miami in the finals, San Antonio improved its offensive rebounding rate to a robust 22 percent—the worst rate of any team that advanced past Round 1.
The Spurs, simply put, were an awful offensive rebounding squad. There are plenty of mitigating factors to answer the question of why the Spurs were so bad collecting extra possessions—mostly the schematic emphasis on getting back on defense—but the fact remains they seemed of little threat to Miami.
Though the Heat were bludgeoned inside by the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, San Antonio doesn't have Roy Hibbert. It doesn't have David West. There is no season-long emphasis on creating second opportunities within the Spurs' system. The Heat, at the very least, should be able to play San Antonio to something of a draw on the glass.
Or so the theory goes.
Instead, the Spurs have grabbed offensive boards at a near-Pacerian rate through the series' first three games. After languishing in the low 20 percents for the first its first 96 games of the season (regular season and playoffs), San Antonio is at a 30.5 percent rate in the finals. That would have been fourth-best in the regular season. Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are averaging a combined 8.3 offensive rebounds per game in this series. Eight-point-three!
Certainly, when juxtaposing the Jurassic figures of a three-game sample size with the tiny figures of the previous 96, it's easy to point out an expected regression to the mean. And that's likely over the course of what will certainly be a six- or seven-game series.
But we won't see that regression until the Heat—namely Dwyane Wade and LeBron James—give better effort when covering Leonard on box outs. Duncan, for his part, has done an excellent job at getting position after Heat traps and setting himself in case one of his teammates jacks up a long-range shot. And Duncan is also tall. Very, very tall.
The Leonard issue is arguably more critical and dates back to Game 1, a contest where the Spurs pulled down a meager six ORBs. If you'll allow me to get all sportswritery for a second, this is the NBA Finals. We shouldn't be seeing plays like this from Wade—first losing his man beyond recovery, then giving the effort of a 16-year-old kid working his way through summer on a minimum wage job on the box-out on Leonard. Injuries or not, that's just not acceptable.
The same can be said about James on the play below, during a time in Game 3 where the Heat were very much still in the contest. There are two offensive boards for San Antonio on this play, the latter being James' mishandling of Leonard. The first is a flukey offensive board that just happens from time to time—the exact type those screaming "regression to the mean" can easily point to. But James and Norris Cole allow Leonard to come crashing in unabated and give the Spurs a third attempt on one possession.
Games 2 and 3 are especially littered with these plays. And the Spurs haven't been wasting their opportunities. Danny Green and Gary Neal both took advantage of offensive rebounds to knock down some of their daggers on Tuesday night—mainly because it's nearly impossible for players to get back in proper defensive position after an offensive rebound.
There's no strategical change that Erik Spoelstra can make to fix this. His guys just have to try harder, starting with his two most famous faces.
The great thing about this series is that it's been inherently unpredictable. One instant classic and two blowouts (one for each side) have been the result of the first three games, so there's really no telling what could come next.
Despite all the negativity surrounding Miami, the Heat still have one semi-universal truth at their disposal: They don't lose back-to-back games. It's happened once since the beginning of 2013, and RJ Bell of Pregame.com had quite the encouraging stat for Heat fans:
As of publication, the Spurs are one-point favorites, per Bovada; this game is essentially a pick 'em. It's not the best reason to ride with the defending champions, but anyone who tries making game-to-game predictions with any righteous vigor is doing so just to hear themselves posture. We don't know what will happen, and that's perfectly fine.
But let's just assume the best player on the planet finds his way past the 20-point mark and leads his team to victory on Thursday. If not, well, congrats on title No. 5, San Antonio.
Score Prediction: Heat 97, Spurs 91
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: