2014 NBA Finals Game 2: Analysis

Chalmers's elbow shot on Parker warranted a flagrant foul. (USATSI)

Chalmers’s elbow shot on Parker warranted a flagrant foul. (USATSI)

A Cheap Shot, A Game Changed 

Mario Chalmers’s egregiously winded-up, cheap shot elbow to the stomach of Tony Parker not only permanently disoriented the point guard who had just re-entered the game 18 seconds ago, but following the pause in the game caused by the technical foul, took a toll on the Spurs’ psyche. San Antonio failed to recover thereafter, neither in their immediate four free throw opportunities (all missed), nor down the stretch: the team shot 2-7 with only six points in the remaining period, excluding the futile Manu Ginobili three-point jumper at the buzzer. The incident also plays into the bigger picture of Miami’s “questionable” (at best) style of play, regularly engaging in histrionics and exaggeration–colloquially called flopping–as both Dwayne Wade and Chalmers did earlier in the contest, as well as taking the occasional cheap shot at an opponent. This tendency is in fact utterly incomprehensible: why resort to such morally low and basketball-disparaging methods, when you have an unstoppable and overpowering freight train of a basketball player–and the world’s best player–in LeBron James at your side? Nevertheless, therein lies the reason for why so commonly the NBA world allies against the Heat, and why Miami incites a tremendous amount of hatred–and not so much because of their successes and dominance.

Evolution Of Bosh

Resounding, bounce-back responses to previous game defeats have characterized the Miami Heat’s reign over the NBA in the past year. But while LeBron James leads the charge in this type of scenario, frequently experiencing scoring outbursts and increasing his influence on the game, the superstar’s ability to take control late in a contest remains inconsistent. So for converted-center Chris Bosh–usually regarded as the lesser of Miami’s “big three”–to sink the go-ahead three pointer in Game 2, it’s huge, and will serve as a huge psychological lift for the rest of the series (particularly for LeBron, who now can lessen or even pass off his clutch-time responsibilities). Furthermore, it highlights the dimension Bosh has recently added to his repertoire: the three-point shot. Sure it extends his NBA career for a few seasons, but in the present, it has the effect of nicely complementing the play of his star teammate James, and adds another layer to the team’s offensive arsenal.

Beaten At Their Own Game

If the Spurs will have any shot to dethrone their Finals opponents–and complete the crucial task of taking at least one of the next two games in Miami–they must win the battle in the paint. With Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter, San Antonio has the clear advantage in the low block both offensively and defensively, therefore making Miami’s 44-34 points-in-the-paint victory simply inexcusable. Adding in Tony Parker, and his driving-layup ability and craftiness around the basket, there’s no reason for the Spurs not to use their superiority in the paint to the fullest, and impact the game to their favor from that space on the floor. The Heat not only out-shot the Spurs in this area, but also somehow managed to out-muscle them, having the better edge of total rebounds by a tally of 38-37. It only further speaks to the critical necessity for San Antonio to regain dominance down low–and how influential a factor this paint battle really is–which players and coach Gregg Popovich will assuredly keen in on during the time until Game 3 in Miami.

Leonard (2) will seek to better restrain LeBron in Game 3. (Photo by Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Leonard (2) will seek to better restrain LeBron in Game 3. (Photo by Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Leonard’s Liability

Third-year small forward Kawhi Leonard has been tasked with containing LeBron James from the start of the series (and to some extent, assumed the same duty in last year’s Finals too), so it’s imperative for him to play defense shrewdly in order to remain in the game as long as possible–and not succumb to foul trouble like in Game 2, which freed up LeBron, allowed him to face and exploit mismatches, and ultimately develop the rhythm that paved the way for a 35-point performance. Though fouling out with just 47 seconds left in the game, Leonard constantly felt dragged down by his high foul total throughout the course of the game, either having to take a seat on the bench, or not guarding LeBron as aggressively and effectively as he usually would while on the floor. Looking ahead to the remainder of the series, Leonard must act more judiciously in his defensive challenges, and especially avoid debatable contact in the latter stages of games, having committed six of his eight defensive fouls during the last two games of the series in the second half of play. As long as Leonard puts forth an unhindered defensive effort, compounded with well-timed help defense from his teammates, the Spurs have the capacity to mitigate LeBron’s impact and force him into taking contested  jump-shots.

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2014 NBA Finals: Quick Picks

Prediction: San Antonio Spurs over Miami Heat in 6 games

Finals MVP: Tim Duncan

Three reasons why

1. Top-notch basketball acumen pervades the Spurs organization: players, coaches, and any other important affiliates will take part in a concerted and unified push to learn from last year’s mistakes, and adjust and prepare effectively for what seems like a nearly identical Miami Heat team.

2. Competition along the road to this year’s NBA Finals strongly distinguishes both the physical and mental statuses of the Spurs and Heat; a particularly weak set of Eastern Conference opponents provided a challenge in only one or two playoff games for the Miami Heat, who could begin sluggish and get rattled by San Antonio’s play (which has been tested throughout their cutthroat conference playoffs).

3. The championship window could easily close for San Antonio’s backbone trio–Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili–following this season, and adding in their special cooperative effort with coach Gregg Popovich, the three will ensure another championship opportunity does not go to waste.

Why The Pacers’ Off-Court Actions Will Lead To Their Fall

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron's reaction to his comments.

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron’s reaction to his comments.

For all of Indiana’s efforts on the court to best solidify their chances of overcoming the two-time champion Miami Heat, it is the Pacers’ actions off the floor that have already triggered one collapse this year, and will soon spark another.

The organization has made itself into a championship contender, and proved its worth as one, through the game of play: the players’ cohesion and developing efficiency has vaulted the team into the upper echelons of the NBA. Its fame has not resulted from off-the-court popularization or basketball marketability, but from how complete and polished the squad is–namely the starting five–and how formidable they stand in the face of the megastars from South Beach. Thus, comments from Roy Hibbert and Paul George earlier in the season that first derailed the team, and now those of Lance Stephenson that will surely have the same effect, will make the season’s inevitable outcome both ironic and mind-boggling for Indiana.

Harken back to the shower of praise–in which two Pacer members partook–following the 61-point spectacular performance by LeBron James on May 3rd. Shortly after James’s achievement, Hibbert chimed in with applause on Twitter, which it’s worth mentioning has become a reliable outlet for an NBA player’s expression, tweeting “damn @KingJames 61 is tough. Congrats.” In the days following this seemingly simple gesture of praise, and presumably tied in some way to James’s recent surge, teammate Paul George expressed his desire to work with and learn from LeBron James. He essentially viewed the Heat superstar as a potential mentor, of course in spite of the fact that James and his team constitute the sole obstacle to George and his Pacers’ aspirations.

At face value, these instances do not appear egregious or damning, but rather gestures of respect and sportsmanship towards the opposition. But is it any coincidence that after the tweet and the comments to Basketball Insiders, the Pacers finished April on a 6-10 slide and ended the year 10-13, barely securing their number-one Eastern Conference spot and overtly showing their struggles along the way? It’s nice that players can act respectfully towards their contemporaries, but at the same time, there’s a time and place for these friendly activities. For the Indiana Pacers, James and the Miami Heat serve as the adversaries and hindrances to their goals, thereby forming the image of LeBron particularly as the enemy–not in any malicious way, but in purely competitive spirit. In no way is it permissible to reveal a hint of deference by congratulating the enemy on his successes, as Hibbert did, or to suggest to cooperate and mingle with him, as George desires to do.

Thus, through the actions of two prominent Indiana starters off court, the lack of a competitive mindset within the team’s core was uncovered, one that both NBA champions of the past and present possess. This damages the team’s prospects in the long run, but the more immediate effect, as mentioned before, manifested itself in a horrid stretch to conclude the regular season.

Now fast forward to yesterday, when another key figure on the Pacers roster, shooting guard Lance Stephenson, made comments about LeBron outside the court of play. Perhaps still remembered for flashing a choke sign at King James while in a backup role, this time Stephenson told the Associated Press that he feels he has gotten under LeBron’s skin and considers getting trash-talked by the Heat star a sign of weakness. Although this sort of statement connotes a very different attitude towards the opposition, the instance plays into the bigger picture of exposing Indiana’s focus on something other than itself and its abilities. It seems out of character for the Pacers to direct their attention to the their rivaling squad, rather than concentrating on themselves, their performance, and what they can do as a team: an approach that has led them to their status as one of the NBA’s best. Simply put, it’s matter of distractions and the Pacers investing themselves in something other than what they do on the court.

Moreover, at this juncture in the NBA year, when players battle through fatigue and seek sources of inspiration as they inch closer and closer to the illustrious NBA Finals, why would Stephenson dare to poke the proverbial bear? It’s not as if publicly clarifying on-court happenings and then making assumptions off them will irritate the attacked player in a manner that will hinder his ability. Instead, if anything, it will provide James and his team with “bulletin board” material, and incite the Heat–especially LeBron of course–with an extra push and motivation in their quest for a three-peat.

And that’s additional to the aforementioned effect Stephenson’s words will have on his team in terms of diverting focus. In what will eerily parallel the aftermath of Hibbert and George’s comments off the court, Stephenson’s actions off the floor yesterday will help bring about Indiana’s imminent downfall, one that is notably self-inflicted and outside the basketball court.

*Written without knowledge of the outcome of ECF Game 4 on Monday, April 26th. 

Chemistry, Hot-shooting, and a Blowout: Heat-Spurs Game 3 Recap

Heat team dynamic

For all the scrutiny surrounding LeBron James’ supporting cast in these playoffs, the superstar MVP finally received a considerable amount of assistance on Tuesday night. The ailing Dwayne Wade got off to a fantastic start, and after several efficient trips on the offensive end, the shooting guard frankly should have shouldered more of the ball control. Wade’s shot and distributive efforts were spot on to begin the night, a surprising and reassuring effort that could not be paralleled by his fellow teammate, LeBron, who converted on one measly 6-foot jumper at the 3:24 mark in all of the 1st quarter action. The MVP went on to net only 2 more points in the 1st half, and along with 4 assists, marked a gruesome 1st-half performance.

Wade’s production waned as the game progressed, but the fault is not necessarily directed at him. Chris Bosh prolonged his struggle on Tuesday, meaning Wade would receive all the defensive attention. Yet had LeBron averted his passive attitude (literally and figuratively), he may have provided essential support for Wade that would undoubtedly aid both of their play for the rest of the game. Even the sharp-shooting Mike Miller, as well as the ball of energy that is Norris Cole, pitched in valuable efforts in the first 2 1/2 quarters that kept Miami in the game–in spite of LeBron’s no-show. One could only imagine how Game 3 might have turned out if LeBron actually played like himself: the unstoppable, MVP force that takes control of contests like no other.

Shooting Spurs

If you happen to dabble in fantasy basketball, you couldn’t say the performances of Danny Green and Gary Neal were TOO surprising: their three-point totals and explosive scoring stretches caught many an eye during the regular season. Nevertheless, the play of Green and Neal on Tuesday is one for the ages, and certainly meets the lofty standards of Spurs playoff lore. The barrage of 3’s en route to taking a 2-1 series lead resonates on a level beyond the stat sheet, as it ignited an oftentimes dormant San Antonio crowd. With the majority of the punishing damage coming in the 3rd quarter, Green/Neal combined to shoot 18 for 32 (56%), and a gaudy 13 for 19 (68%) beyond the arc. Perhaps most importantly, their stellar performances nicely made up for mediocre play from their fellow teammates: the terrific trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, who surprisingly could only muster a paltry 10-23 combined shooting night. The three veterans could only convert on 1-5 3-PT field goals, and even went a horrid 4-9 at the charity stripe.

Keep in mind that these faces of the Spurs franchise are about as good as it gets as making adjustments from game to game, which will come of use in the NBA finals: in other words, don’t expect any more low-key performances from the trio, who will also definitely play more than 30 minutes in the coming games (a mark none of the three surpassed on Tuesday). And even if Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili don’t regroup in time to establish a significant impact on the series, they faithfully leave the reigns in young, potent (as we saw Game 3) hands.

Observations in a blowout

Perhaps Gregg Popovich was trying to send a message, through–gasp–allowing for his players to have a little fun by piling on the score in the 3rd quarter. Or maybe Miami already had one step outside of the AT&T Center and had no intentions on looking back until Thursday. Or it may have been that the explosive Danny Green/Gary Neal tandem was divinely possessed, and the continual onslaught of 3-pointers were simply a natural feat. Whatever the case may be, the blowout witnessed on Tuesday seemed a bit different.

Usually, in an telepathic act of mutual consent, opposing coaches take out their players–and toss out their will to compete any longer–once the scoring margin exceeds 20. But once a blowout was brewing towards the latter part of the 3rd quarter, the Spurs attack on the basket hardly ceased, as it seemed natural for the basketball to glide into the hoop. In most cases, in games following a blowout, any notion of a huge disparity between two teams halts going into the next game. Of course, that comes after the 4th quarter (and maybe even some of the 3rd) instantly transforms into garbage time: stars are benched, the crowd calms down, and the excitement ventilating throughout the stadium evaporates. That was clearly not the case on Tuesday, as the home crowd fervor only grew towards the end of the game, corresponding with a growth in San Antonio’s lead. Perhaps this means the Spurs’ momentous, blowout victory could have lasting effects in this series, as the aura surrounding the NBA Finals series could shift towards San Antonio’s advantage.

Another lesser point in this Game 3 eruption is how the Spurs’ heroes conducted themselves in light of a Miami blowout just days earlier. The NBA world surely has gotten to know LeBron’s overpowering stuff of Tiago Splitter’s dunk attempt on Sunday night, a point that really highlighted the Heat blowout. James, instead of sprinting back on defense like a non-egotistical person, gladly soaked in the moment, as he pretentiously observed his surroundings and happily gloated. This provided a stark contrast from how the likes of Game 3 stars Danny Green and Gary Neal carried themselves. After each one of their crowd-arousing 3-point shots went through the net, Green and Neal immediately scampered back on defense, and kept a blank, but intensely focused, expression on their face. The most you could get out of Green at least was a grin and a jump or two (going into timeouts), occurring towards the end of his shooting streak.

This serves as yet another reason of why so many despise the Miami Heat and all that its brand constantly expresses. So much for LeBron being a changed man, and experiencing his “epiphany” (a story that graced a Sports Illustrated cover a year ago). And if that’s not what he included under “change”, he might want to reconsider what truly defines him not just as a basketball player, but as a person and role model.

The Frustration the Sports World Brings

Entering this Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat, in the eyes of the public/sports world, were the clear favorites in their matchup against the Indiana Pacers. (And when I mention the “sports world”, or the “NBA world”, I refer to the general media, such as regional analysts or influential/qualified sports personalities from ESPN). However powerful the menacing Heat appeared in the games leading up, this general consensus blatantly ignored a straightforward fact from the regular season: the Pacers won the overall season series 2-1.

Yet after Indiana nearly (and should have) won Game 1 and actually took Game 2, the popular opinion recklessly shifted to the other side of the spectrum, in an essentially knee-jerk reaction: all of a sudden, using the most recent sample size of two games, the Pacers were perceived as formidable foes to the Miami Heat, and had a strong chance to even emerge victorious from this series.

Of course, after the Heat left no doubt in their Game 3 blowout win, the public consensus quickly shifted once again. The majority believed that the Pacers had no chance in making this playoff series competitive again, much less win Game 4, just days after recognizing Indiana as a worthy opponent.

So heading into Game 4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and what somehow felt like the Pacers stood on the brink of elimination, the NBA world had practically written off Indiana. Clearly, this perspective was completely disproved as the Pacers won on their home court, evening the series at 2 games apiece.

In my opinion, I find it unbelievable and utterly idiotic how quickly the general public opinion–the perspective of the sports world–can change, in such an irrational manner, from game to game in this playoff series. It’s one of the few times when the reactions and attitudes of the general public (as well as the sports world’s most prominent members) is simply frustrating: how quickly it can reverse its judgment, how negligent it can be, and how it can be carelessly caught in the moment. It’s just agitating how fickle the sports world can be on such major topics, to the point where making all these claims and judgments on who controls this Heat-Pacers series is completely futile.

Perhaps it would be better to try to avoid being so blinded by a single playoff game (being caught in the moment)–such as an exhilarating and overly-influential basketball Game 3–and to not adopt such bold positions as a result of 3 hours of basketball (i.e. brushing off the Pacers after they Game 3 defeat). If anything, and greatly supported by the fact that this series is tied at 2-2, the sports world should have recognized from the onset that this Eastern Conference finals mathcup would be hard-fought and the two teams in it would be inseparable, therefore potentially stretching a full seven games.

High-Fives Aren’t for the Playoffs

At the end of the 3rd quarter of Indiana’s Game 2 victory over Miami, LeBron James went over to fellow superstar Paul George and paid his respects through a simple high-five. Although many consider such an action dignifying and even a bit humble, it has no place in playoff basketball.

During the height of the sport in the 1980s, one would never dream to see bitter competitors–and newly-established Eastern Conference rivals–exchange pleasantries within the span of a game. And that just pertains to regular season action. Such an action as ‘high-fiving’ an opposing player would be even more reprehensible in the postseason, as the increase in passion and intensity would only give way to more animosity between the two teams.

Now I’m not saying today’s basketball should aim to replicate that of the 1980s. Just keep in mind that that era was in fact regarded as the greatest in the sport, when basketball’s popularity–and most importantly quality of play on the court–skyrocketed through the roof. It would seem natural to abide by the style and mindset of 1980s basketball, if to properly follow the model of success the era brought.

Frank’s Fault: A First for the Pacers Coach

In three years as head coach of a rebuilding Indiana Pacers team, Frank Vogel has been a model of consistency and progress. After taking the job 44 games into his first year, he improved the team’s winning percentage from .386 to .526–the team made the playoffs for the first time in five years. For each of the following years, Vogel has led his team farther into the postseason, and garnering more praise by the day along the way. Yet after Wednesday night’s Game 1 matchup against the Heat, the young coach has received his first taste of true criticism. 

Although facing a superior opponent in the Heat, Vogel and his Pacers are regarded as the squad most apt to challenge Miami’s attempt to secure back-to-back NBA championships. Along with winning the regular season series, the Pacers possess a vital advantage in this brewing matchup: an overpowering frontcourt. Big men David West and Roy Hibbert have displayed fantastic growth–confirmed in these playoffs–and whether on the offensive side of the ball, on defense, or even in their chemistry with each other in the post. Few teams can match this presence down low, much less Miami, who have chosen the path of flashy, finesse shooters and playmakers, rather than towering, physical centers/forwards. Clearly, going into this year’s conference finals, Indiana could severely impede Miami’s progress–especially during plays near the basket. 

And for the most part on Wednesday night, the Pacers put forth a sublime effort, one that they’ll find themselves hard-pressed to replicate. The Heat battled back from a 5-point halftime deficit, and somehow extended the game to overtime. Yet after Paul George’s miraculous game-tying three-point heave at the buzzer–cementing him as a superstar in the brightest of spotlights–the message here was obvious: if the Pacers were to snatch that influential “steal” game, and if they were to have any shot at pulling the series upset, securing a victory tonight would be of utmost necessity.   

And although the opportunity would certainly not come gift-wrapped heading into the overtime session, it arose for the taking. As the midway point of the overtime period came, the Pacers appeared as the team in control: Miami was missing field goal after field goal and the Pacers were getting plenty of officiating calls their way. From the 2:04 mark to 0:49 seconds left in the game, Indiana retained a three point lead. Twenty-five seconds after the, up until then, non-existent Chris Bosh connected on a layup and a foul, the inexplicable occurred at the 0:24 mark. 

The mastermind Frank Vogel, in an effort to apparently combat Miami’s smaller lineup, decided to substitute in small forward Sam Young for team leader Roy Hibbert. Young had played less than 10 minutes the whole game, and was clearly not suited for this type of environment and situation. So what happened after Hibbert was held out? LeBron converted on two driving layups to the basket. Without a doubt, had Hibbert been present near the rim it would have completely altered LeBron’s decision-making and mindset. Note that even Vogel himself called his prized center the “greatest rim protector”, so it seems incomprehensible that he would blatantly disregard his own principles and commit such an egregious coaching gaffe. 

Here’s where you can give proper due to LeBron James, especially during a scenario that once wreaked of nightmares and chokes before. LeBron did what he should always have been doing his whole career, and what he should continue to do now: utilize his strength–by means of his physical attributes and attack the rim–rather than rely on his weakness in clutch situations–classic, potential game-winning jumpshots. Nevertheless, it’s easy to conceive a situation where Hibbert’s presence near the basket would deter LeBron from taking the more appropriate course of action (driving to the hoop), forcing him to settle on his all-too-familiar, doomed fallaway jumper.  

And if you wish to blame Paul George for dreadful defense on the 4-time MVP, think again. Firstly, George had single-handedly guided his team through the 4th quarter and into the overtime period, and playing 47 minutes (89% of the game), it is perfectly understandable that he would be exhausted. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he was guarding a 250 lb. unstoppable freight train in LeBron James. NO ONE can guard LeBron one-on-one, particularly when he’s in his right mind and driving to the hoop: not even the player who presents the greatest challenge to him, Paul George. To put it in perspective, few players in NBA history mirror LeBron’s rare, efficient combination of brute physicality, supreme athleticism, and unmatched explosiveness. Essentially, George naturally believed that he would have one of the best NBA centers, Roy Hibbert, lurking underneath the rim if LeBron’s decided to bypass perimeter play and blow by towards the basket. But Vogel, in his decision to take out Hibbert, severely disrupted this unique, natural chemistry that would otherwise have provided crucial support in guarding a physical specimen like LeBron. 

What’s even more baffling is that Vogel actually sent Hibbert back out on the court at the 0:10 mark, and took him out again at the 0:02 mark. Not only did Vogel use two separate timeouts for his quick switches in dealing with Hibbert, but Vogel made it so his big man was present for the team’s offensive plays–while sidelining him for his strongest facet of his game, defense. 

Earlier, I predicted–like the far majority of the NBA world–that the Heat would emerge as victors in this series, and in my opinion that it would last the full seven, grueling games. This matchup was bound to be even, and due to Heat’s superstar talent, the series seemed destined to go the way of South of Beach. But the Pacers came close to endangering this pick. They had their chance to tilt the series their way, not only by gaining an enormous amount of confidence but by stealing away home-court advantage. Yet Indiana squandered their perfect opportunity, and for once, there’s no one else to blame but the Pacers head coach, Frank Vogel.