2015 NBA Finals Game 3: Warriors @ Cavaliers

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Defending LeBron 

With LeBron James taking more and more of a responsibility on offense with each passing game, Golden State has concurrently devoted greater attention towards how to deal with the most unstoppable force in the NBA. To start, the Warriors slotted in Harrison Barnes to guard LeBron–the natural fit considering the starting lineup–and the results were disastrous. Twelve seconds into the game, James dismantled the small forward on the low block and turned around for any easy layup. The notion of a mismatch increasingly crystallized, as despite forcing a few unnecessary jumpshots, LeBron dominated Barnes in going 3-6 from the field and 3-5 near the rim.

However, that immediately changed upon Andre Iguodala’s entry into the game at 6:48 in the first quarter for Barnes. Finding the same success in this matchup as in the last two games, Iguodala effectively shut down James and importantly warded him off taking over offensive possessions. On the first possession since his arrival, Iggy induced a travel call on LeBron, after which James became much more passive on the court. When he returned to a dominant offensive role, James missed two shots in the paint and one from three-point territory while guarded by Iguodala for the remainder of the quarter. His passing became disrupted too, as LBJ commited a turnover and another errant pass that should have had the same result. In the one moment that a switch took Iggy of LeBron, James was able to hit a driving layup while guarded by Draymond Green in the early second.

On the other end of the court, Iguodala complemented his excellent defense with key offensive contributions. Through the 19 first half minutes he logged in–second highest on the team–Iggy led the Warriors in scoring with 10 and chipped in four assists and four rebounds to complete the all-around effort. A few vicious dunks and passes that led to makes for teammates helped Golden State stay afloat on offense during the first 24 minutes.

Yet the initially suffocating defensive approach did not deter LBJ from resuming his scoring output. First drawing a shooting foul on Iggy in the high paint area, LeBron ferociously blew by Iguodala shortly after for a dunk. James continued to attack with aggression and as a result found a way to shed his defender Iguodala on these drives to the rim. It no longer seemed that Iggy alone could stymie LeBron, raising the question and necessity for greater help defense entering the next quarter. At the end of the half, James still struggled with his shot on 6-17 shooting, but managed 13 points and ended a rebound shy of a double-double, along with three assists.

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (ESPN Box Score).

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (two made FTs at 0:42 not included) (ESPN Box Score).

On Cleveland’s first possession of the third quarter, Draymond Green opened as the defender on LeBron, which translated to a blazing drive and finish at the rim that left Green in the dust. Later, in addition to mainly sticking Iguodala on him, the Dubs also experimented with Shaun Livingston on LeBron, which at one point created a short fallaway jumper for James that dropped through the net. Unlike the last two quarters, the third one hardly brought the same success for Golden State in limiting James. As a part of a broader 28-point explosion and crowd-galvanizing 12 minutes of play, LeBron rocketed to 13 points, doubling his scoring production for the game, and added three assists which all resulted in three long-range makes and thus an extra nine points.

Sloppiness then defined James’s early performance in the fourth quarter. Perhaps complacent with a 17-point lead–minutes after a 20-point edge, the largest in the series–LeBron committed two turnovers and a foul, as well as posted a 1-4 shooting mark and a missed free throw. In part, this momentary dropoff allowed the Warriors to storm back in the game. Yet it was short-lived, as James returned to dominance and carried the Cavs on his back–perhaps the most operative use of this worn-out sports cliche–to a 2-1 series lead. As the Dubs began to close in on Cleveland’s lead in the final minutes, LeBron brought the ball up the court, used a Tristan Thompson screen to create some separation, and hit a three-point dagger in the face of Iguodala off the left wing. After extending the Cavs’ lead to seven with this shot, James proceeded to convert on all six of his free throw attempts under the one-minute mark–a late-game facet he’s often struggled with–in guiding his team to the 96-91 win. In either final end-of-game shots or during closeout stretches as with this situation, LeBron has cemented–especially in these last six Finals runs–time and time again his status as a premier clutch performer, a feat once many thought inconceivable for him.

Cleveland’s supporting cast

King James finished the contest with 40 points–setting the record for most points through the first three Finals games with 123–on 14-34 shooting and two assists away from a triple-double. But for not the offensive support of a few key members of his supporting cast and at crucial points in time, a Game 3 win would likely have been out of reach. First and foremost, grit-personified (he chases loose balls like he’s still playing on a 10-day contract) Matthew Dellavedova backed his Game 2 defensive masterpiece by going toe to toe with Stephen Curry on the offensive end Tuesday night. While erratic with five missed shots out of seven, the Australian instantly assumed an aggressive offensive disposition in the first quarter, netting four of his team’s first 10 points.

But his greatest damage would come later in the third quarter, during which he fueled a critical run–perhaps without it, Cleveland would not be able to stave a furious GSW comeback a quarter later. From 11:23 to 2:51 in the third, the Cavs fired off a 24-9 run–at one point a 12-0 stretch–to leap ahead 68-48. Dellavedova had a huge hand in this momentous surge, racking up 10 points that included two three-pointers, and furthermore assisted on a LeBron trey and 15-footer.

For a moment, Delly looked like he returned to a scrawny no-name player after getting his shot blocked by Leandro Barbosa, missing a 20-foot runner, and committing a foul all in the first 1:04 of the fourth, consequently getting yanked from the game. But after reentering as the fourth quarter wounded down, he provided us with perhaps his most remarkable play. With 2:45 left on the game clock, an increasingly hot-shooting Stephen Curry had just drained a three–with Dellavedova naturally right up against him–to cut the margin to 81-80, the closest since the early minutes of the second quarter. Then, as if he had the audacity to undertake a PG duel with the league MVP, an “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” shootout heretofore reserved for sparring NBA superstars, Delly, with the opposing floor general glued onto him, stumbled towards the free throw line area after a pass from LeBron, an inch or two from completely losing control of the ball, released a wild shove towards the basket that mildly resembled a basketball shot attempt. It, to the glee of a zealous Quicken Loans Arena, somehow banked off the backboard into the rim, and in the process Dellavedova drew a foul from behind off Curry. Video of the play shows even Delly himself, having ended up sprawled on his back, slightly shaking his head in disbelief–mirroring the reaction of every basketball fan watching. The inevitable converted free throw made it 84-80, and effectively impeded the fourth quarter Golden State comeback surge at its apex.

In total, Dellavedova scored a playoff-high of 20 and tacked on four rebounds and five assists. In addition, the point guard who has (almost) made Cleveland forget about Uncle Drew posted the highest plus minus (+13) of all players–outside of David Lee, who participated in a quick 13-minute Dubs burst–and only three players on the court played more minutes than he did. This may just be as incredible as it is unsustainable, but Dellavedova, even aside from his unwavering motor and yes, grit, has legitimately become one of the best two-way players in this Finals series.

Consistency, balance, and an essential three-point efficiency when playing on a team with LeBron (it does wonders for spacing) characterized the contributions by the rest of the supporting cast. By the end of the first half when the Cavs built up a 44-37 advantage, five different Cleveland players reached at least five points, four at least seven–and that’s with LeBron already at 13. James’s teammates in the backcourt and on the wing all developed a nice shooting touch far from the basket that continued throughout the game: J.R. Smith, James Jones, and Iman Shumpert collectively went 7-13 from the floor and most importantly hit five threes. Nearly all of the connections from deep also carried additional significance: either extending Cleveland’s lead beyond one or two possessions or facilitating game-changing runs. And that’s not to mention the game-to-game extraordinary work on the boards by Tristan Thompson, who has averaged 14.0 rebounds through three Finals games–almost seven more than the next closest Warriors player–and had a game-high 13 rebounds on Tuesday–four on offense, his lowest total this series but significant nonetheless–with 10 points.

Warriors’ shooting woes 

The biggest concern for Golden State heading into Game 3 was how to improve its shooting–particularly from three-point land–that dwindled so sharply in Game 2. Some regression to the mean would be in order as well, as the Dubs deviated heavily from their average shooting percentages as seen below:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

But for however much creativity in developing their shot early on, the Warriors still could not regain their usually unparalleled shooting form. Screens around the perimeter, pull-up shots, switches by the defense that carved out space, or even relatively open looks did not return substantial gains. While Curry converted on a three within two minutes of the opening whistle, the MVP would not see another ball go down from long range for more than half an hour of playing time. The shot also marked the only three for the Dubs out of the seven taken in the first quarter, and 2-9 team shooting from beyond the arc in the subsequent quarter brought the overall three-point percentage to a miserable .188 mark. Four players took at least three attempts, and the Splash Brothers went a combined 1-7.

Led by Curry and Thompson, the Warriors started to show some signs of life from the floor in the third–somewhat of a harbinger of things to come–by going 2-4 from three. Yet the poor overall shooting was still there, and as a result Golden State could not keep up with Cleveland’s most formidable quarter of play that produced a +10 margin. As noted on the ABC Finals broadcast by Mike Breen, the Warriors failed to reach 60 points through three quarters for the second straight game, marking the only two times it occurred all season–a fact simply astounding, but perfectly representative of the hopeless stagnancy the Dubs had showcased the prior seven quarters.

Yet the tides soon changed: in what was at the same time an unprecedented development and eerily familiar of a team that once throttled everything in its path, Golden State emerged in the fourth quarter down 17 with its back against the wall, but revitalized. With Steve Kerr slotting in David Lee into the lineup to start the quarter–who provided a pivotal boost of energy and offensive resourcefulness in tallying nine points, four rebounds, and two assists after his entry–the Warriors jumped out on an 8-0 run sparked by two three’s in less that two minutes that cut the deficit to single-digits.

Of course what really catapulted the Dubs back into contention was the awakening of Stephen Curry. After adding a three and a few midrangers to raise his scoring total to 10 in the third quarter, the MVP looked like the Curry of old (i.e. before Game 2) in developing a hot three-point stroke. Here’s his offensive progression from quarter to quarter:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

From the 7:24 mark in the fourth onward, Curry nearly stole Game 3 for Golden State in making five three-point jumpers, some within the Warriors offensive system and others in a stroke of individual brilliance, and knocked down three different shots during this span that brought his team one possession away from the Cavs. Apart from a Lee two-pointer with 40 seconds left, Curry was the only Dubs player to score in the final six minutes of play–take out Lee entirely and no other teammate recorded a point inside the nine-minute mark.

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Yet for all of Curry’s efforts, the Warriors shooting machine–in the form of its key part–rumbled to life far too late on Tuesday. LeBron and Dellavedova did enough on the other end to negate Golden State’s offensive incursion, which had it fully developed perhaps a quarter earlier, might have tremendously affected the game’s result. But that doesn’t preclude an eventual full regression to the shooting mean for the Warriors. This series has at least two remaining games and at most four, and despite the extent to which the most recent events can cloud our vision, it’s almost a near certainty this team will soon return to its shooting prosperity. Cleveland deserves credit for its defensive approach to muck up and slow down the game, as well as tightly stick to and unsettle Warrior shooters. Still, Golden State has also uncharacteristically missed several open looks around the perimeter, exuding a sense of an “off touch” for the Splash Bros & Co. these last few games. Simply put, that this series is far from over is directly related to the fact that the Warriors are far from likely to stay this cold from the floor. Expect regression, and expect a team that has rightfully caught the fascination of the entire NBA community to fight back–much like they did in similar circumstances against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals a few weeks ago.

UPDATE: The legend of Dellavedova is blossoming before our own eyes.

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2015 NBA Finals Game 2: Cavaliers @ Warriors

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and attempts a shot close to the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and looks to finish at the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

This is the Finals matchup people wanted at the start of the playoffs, and this is the one they received. Two opening games have featured the expected excitement and starpower. Experiencing two consecutive overtimes, however, between the two best teams in the league at the end of season was nearly superfluous–our hopes would have been fulfilled whether or not the additional five minutes were needed. Nevertheless, two straight games of extra periods composed largely of strained jumpshots and isolation plays have brought the 2015 Finals to new heights in terms of thrill, unpredictability, and quality basketball.

Below are some stray observations concerning different points in time and aspects of Game 2.

GSW early ball movement 

As they have often done at the start of games, the Warriors tend to force jumpshots that don’t emanate from adequate ball movement. Of course, for all the fanfare concerning a team that transcendently relies on jumpshooting to fuel abundant success, Golden State would be the most justified of any team to rely on such a quick trigger method. After all, no better basketball play derives greater crowd fervor–an aspect of the Oracle Arena experience that many have acknowledged as legitimately influential. Yet shots that result from ball movement rather than individual pull-up decisions are statistically more efficient. It would certainly behoove the Dubs, who already best embody basketball analytics ideology in emphasizing three’s and drives, to add an element of patience to their shot selection early on. However, it may as well just be part of their in-game development, as Golden State also tends to adopt a more ball movement-centric scheme as the game progresses.

LeBron James

With his best teammate, elite NBA point guard, and in truth the primary reason he returned to Cleveland in Kyrie Irving out for the season after a Game 1 injury, LeBron James and his on-court habits were bound to be an even more interesting case study than usual for Game 2. The Cavaliers have mainly eschewed offensive creativity and playcalling in favor of more isolation plays and “caveman basketball” as their roster has become more and more depleted. This tendency hit a crux of sorts last Thursday when James had to release 38 attempts–18 of which he made–good for a 47.4 usage percentage but only a 104 offensive rating. On Sunday, he seemed set to take on an even greater share as impossible–and potentially deterrent to his teammates’ progress–as that sounds.

Through a quarter of play, LeBron shot the ball 10 times–on track for 40 shot attempts for the game–and netted 10 points in visibly assuming the onus of compensating for Irving’s exit. However, the grizzled NBA Finals veteran cooled off with just three more attempts in the second quarter. Staying in his true unparalleled basketball character, James made his impact felt in other ways along the progression of the first 24 minutes of play. Perhaps fittingly in assuming the now vacant top point guard spot, LeBron turned distributor and accounted for all six of his first half assists in the second quarter. In terms of shot distribution, while he missed five of his shots in traffic in the lane, he did well enough in penetrating the paint to draw fouls and hit 5-6 from the charity stripe. All of his free throw attempts came in the second quarter, and his first-half exploits totaled to 20 points.

However, upon entering the second half of play, James regressed, offering a mixture of high shooting volume and sub-standard efficiency that characterized his Game 1 effort. LeBron fell on a downward slope of shooting accuracy, as seen in his shot charts for each segment of Game 2 below:

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Shot chart first quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

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Shot chart third quarter (left), fourth quarter (center), and overtime (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

The two-time champion, hoping for a third, finished regulation with a 11-31 mark, as he shot 4-18 in the second half, and missed three additional jumpers in overtime to boot. The third quarter became an ugly scrum and an anomaly within this NBA Final series, riddled with poor shooting as the both teams scored no more than 15 points apiece. LeBron, however, still helped Cleveland to keep pace during this lull. In addition to his six points–and despite his own horrendous shooting–his two assists produced five more points from other Cavs players, a crucial facilitating feat in a quarter defined by a dearth of offense.

James continued to struggle into the fourth quarter, but what stands out from his own shot selection on the above charts is the way in which he attempted to score. Four of his eight shots occurred in the paint and within six feet of the basket, whereas in the previous quarter he posted only one such shot out of his 10 total. The poor results near the basket should most definitely not discourage LeBron, as his renewed mentality in operating close to the rim for the fourth quarter was all by means the right decision, and the best one moving forward. During these playoffs, James has gone .597 on shots less 10 feet from basket, .600 on drives to the hoop, and .460 on post-up plays, while going .184 on three-pointers, .223 on pull-up shots, and .329 on isolation play shots. The indication these stats give is not a matter of reshaping the offensive habits of the most talented and overpowering player in the world. Rather, I would argue that even a minimal shift towards attacking more near the rim and thus better utilizing his strength, all the while retaining his jumpshot and three-point stroke for the sake of offensive balance, would most suitably fit the current situation for LeBron and his team scrambling for offensive impetus.

Back to Game 2, despite his prolonged shooting difficulties, James contributed 10 key points in the fourth quarter, six of which came from shots beyond the arc, and his assists led to five more points. In the subsequent overtime period, he added three more points and assisted on an Iman Shumpert three. And though for the second straight game he missed a potential game-clinching shot at the end of regulation, LeBron has almost single-handedly kept Cleveland in contention for an NBA championship. Considering the responsibility he has taken–explaining and partially excusing the ridiculous 36 shot attempts per game he has average during the Finals–and the defensive focus he receives nightly from his opponents, to score 44 in the first game and 39 in this past second game (with a triple-double in the latter), and doing so without Irving, Kevin Love, or any other 2014 opening day starter teammates, and with a reeling supporting cast of sharpshooters, is otherworldly. Considering the last few years for LeBron, it might as well just be mundane.

Klay Thompson 

Hiding Matthew Dellavedova off Stephen Curry hardly eliminates defensive mismatches when playing the Warriors. As such, Klay Thompson–to whom Dellavedova turned to guard for some time–thrived in the first half on Sunday, and entered a quasi-heat check mode in the early parts of the second quarter. As a spectator, a burgeoning confidence shown by Thompson both at the rim and behind the three-point line is as goosebump-inducing as any trend when watching the Dubs. In a matter of a little over two minutes in early second quarter action, Klay connected on a three and two midrange jumpers. Shots outside the paint but inside arc aren’t always the most efficiently wise basketball choices, but when they come assissted as with Thompson’s, their potential significantly rises. By the end of the half, Klay led his team with 9-13 shooting with two three’s for 20 points.

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Shot chart for 1st quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for Klay Thompson (ESPN game box score).

However, Thompson cooled off in the third quarter, missing his first three jumpshots and getting a layup blocked before finally seeing the ball go through the net again eight minutes in. The shooting guard went 5-15 from the field after his blazing first half start, and began to force more unwarranted jumpshots in the latter half of the game. Thompson finished Sunday night with a total of 34 points on 14-28 shooting and 4-12 from behind the three point-line–both percentage declines from one half to the next.

Game 2 still marked his breakthrough of a shooting performance, but Golden State–as much as it values Klay’s contributions–will likely try to cure the scoring imbalance moving forward. After all, the Warriors won the first Finals contest thanks in large part to five players reaching double digits in scoring, not one above a tally of 26. Furthermore, a well-rounded offensive approach predicated on passing, spacing, high tempo, and of course sharpshooting has keyed any and all team success this year. The return to form starts with what seems like the inevitable: a shooting improvement from league MVP Stephen Curry heading into Cleveland for Game 3.

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (source: ESPN game box score).

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (ESPN game box score).

After netting 10 of his 20 shots last Thursday (2-6 from three), Curry entered an unseemly cold spell for all but a few fourth quarter gasps of life in Game 2. Missing five of his six first quarter shots and three of four second quarter ones, Curry recovered to an extent towards the end of regulation with seven fourth quarter points, but ended with a grisly 5-23 shooting clip (the reasons for which I’ll touch on shortly)–albeit with 19 points aided by 7-8 free throw shooting. Every so often, Curry comes out with this off shooting touch. Unfortunately for the Warriors, it coincided with lackluster shooting efforts from practically every other offensive cog on the team for most of the game. Regarding Curry’s performance, it should not be received as any more than an aberration, one in which Steph at least displayed some perseverance in continually trying to catch his rhythm (i.e. he kept shooting), and from which the MVP should rebound forcefully.

Matthew Dellavedova

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The second-year Australian had one of the largest impacts on the game Sunday night. Hardly the first option to guard Curry entering the series, and still not fully on him in the early stages of Game 2, Dellavedova gradually issued a defensive lockdown of a performance on the MVP. A fiercely contested–and air-balled–19-foot jumper by Curry with 0:07 in overtime was merely the symbolic capstone in a stifling effort, as Dellavedova defended Steph probably as well as anyone could. Moreover, the defensive job had little to do with any physicality, athleticism, or a lanky frame–usually keys for defensive specialists–but had all to do with Dellavedova’s incessant nagging, pestering, tight coverage, and arm-waving, at times as if simulating a deranged jumping-jack motion. With an unmatched tenacity and ability to keep up with the deftly moving Curry, an unheralded–up until the playoffs–backup point guard caused the league’s best player to shoot 5-23 and 2-15 from beyond the arc.

And while he shot the ball poorly in whole–0-5 through the first three quarters before finishing 3-10–Dellavedova netted all seven of his non-free throw points in the fourth quarter. As for his points from the free throw line, they could not have come at a more critical juncture: with 10 seconds left in the overtime period, Delly cold-bloodedly sunk two free throws amid a roaring Oracle Arena crowd, moments after snagging an offensive rebound and drawing a foul from behind, which ultimately represented the go-ahead points for the Cavs’ Game 2 victory.

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.

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 ’14 Spurs Are Better Than Last Year’s

Boris Diaw (33) has played a huge role in his team's bench production as of late. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Boris Diaw (33) has played a huge role in his team’s bench production as of late. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

During the 2013 NBA finals, a hamstring injury proved a hindrance to Spurs guard Tony Parker, precipitating sizable drops in PPG, FG%, and FT% from his season averages in those categories; the display of the injury’s impact remains if comparing NBA Finals averages to postseason averages as well. Yet when a foot injury sent Parker to the bench for the entire second half last night in Oklahoma City, the Spurs came out undeterred, sending backup PG Cory Joseph in Parker’s stead. Though not contributing much offensively, Joseph started the third quarter and thus partook in his team’s effort of assuming control of the game: the quarter featured the Spurs outscoring the Thunder 37-20, with Joseph having a plus/minus of +7 by the end of the game.

Thus, playing to potentially clinch a series victory in a hostile environment, the Spurs showed their ability to overcome the absence of a key team leader in Parker, finding other options to help spearhead a comeback and ultimately close out the WCF.

Heading into this season’s Finals, Australian-born Patty Mills can also serve as a viable replacement if Parker continues to suffer from his ailment entering the the last round. The point guard received an increase in minutes this season, and as a result, posted an improvement in offensive numbers from last year. While struggling in the playoffs so far, Mills can impact a basketball game with his effective shooting, and is crucial to the success of San Antonio’s second-unit, one of the best in the league.

So not only has yet another potent scorer developed in the Spurs organization, but it just so happens that the player is a point guard, the position at which the Spurs may now be deficient. This further minimizes the effect from any foreseeable absence or decline in play from Parker, and once again proves that an injury to Tony Parker does not pose an insurmountable obstacle.

Furthermore, the characteristic of bench production, briefly mentioned in the discussion about one of its prominent members (Patty Mills) above, sets the 2014 edition of the Spurs apart from the 2013 one. In the regular season this year, San Antonio’s bench averaged an NBA-best 45.1 points a game–the next closest playoff team to that number was Brooklyn, with 38.5. That number, and thereby emphasis on bench players’ importance, was much higher than in the 2013-13 season, in which the non-starters ranked high in the league (fifth) but only averaged 37.9 per game.

More importantly, San Antonio has maintained that bench effectiveness moving into postseason, topping all playoff teams with 41.4 PPG off the bench. In contrast, the Spurs’ bench experienced a significant dropoff in production last postseason, averaging only 29.1 PPG which ranked it sixth among playoff teams.

Performing on a more consistent and effective basis, this aspect of the Spurs team can only play to their advantage and prove a more pivotal factor than in last year’s Finals. Therefore, this suggests San Antonio will enter their second consecutive bout against the Miami Heat on this stage as a more stabilized, refined, and overall better team.

2014 Western Conference Finals: The Impact of Ibaka

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder's favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder’s favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

In a  matter of less than a week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have risen from the ashes of playoff irrelevancy.

Exposed by two crushing defeats–with an average losing margin of 26–to the San Antonio Spurs in the first two contests of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder appeared doomed for an exit. Yet after shifting to the raucous confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena, the series dramatically leveled out 2-2–and not necessarily for the efforts of two of the top four NBA postseason scorers, stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Instead, it was the Congolese rim-patroller Serge Ibaka, once deemed out for the rest of the season due to a calf injury, that returned and impacted the series in a way that now has the Thunder in the driver’s seat for a second Finals berth in three years.

Defensively, Ibaka’s insertion back into the lineup has wreaked havoc on San Antonio’s plan of attack. On the other end of the court, his presence as a contending offensive force has benefited his own team. And though his influence on the series has been most perceptible in the paint, it has actually spread out to and affected the perimeter space of the floor as well.

The core of the Spurs’ offensive prowess–comprising Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobili–averaged 81.5 points in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, and collectively shot .533 from the field. But following Ibaka’s arrival, that scoring output plunged to an average of 53.5 in Games 3 and 4, and the five posted a .393 FG%. That should come as no surprise, as Ibaka is one of the best defensive players in the league. In addition, he also contributed to an increase in OKC block totals: a mere 6 in the first two games to 18 in the last pair.

Ibaka situates himself primarily in the paint, and accordingly, points in the paint (PITP) from the opposition more precisely illustrate his defensive impact. The table below shows the PITP totals from the aforementioned “big 5” of sorts for San Antonio.

Game 1

Game 2 1 and 2 avg. Game 3 Game 4

3 and 4 avg.

Parker

10

16 13 6 10

8

Duncan

20

8 14 12 4

8

Ginobili

8

2 5 2 0

1

Leonard

10

4 7 6 2

4

Green

2

0 1 0 0

0

For all five of San Antonio’s most important players and leaders, PITP averages fell going from their home set of games to the away set. Of course, for the players that habitually net a good chunk of their points near the basket, a dropoff in this category becomes far more meaningful. Thus, the stark decline in around-the-rim production from Tim Duncan–a consensus unmatched post-presence during his 17-year NBA career–and from Tony Parker–whose drives to the basket often dictate a game’s outcome–further exhibits the magnitude of Ibaka’s impact on the paint.

Ibaka also managed to indirectly diminish San Antonio’s perimeter shooting, evident by the progression of Spurs shooting guard Danny Green’s series performance (as one example). Ibaka’s ability to effectively patrol the low block on D eliminated the need for help defense in that area from the likes of Durant, Westbrook, and other guards. Consequently, it freed his non-post teammates to remain on the perimeter and channel more of their defensive efforts to restraining San Antonio shooting. So in the case of Green, while he scored 16 points (on 6-7 shooting) in Game 1 and 21 points (7-11) in Game 2, the guard reached just 8 points (3-12) in Game 3 and sunk to 3 (1-4) in Game 4.

At a more game-total level, the table  below (team PITP totals) displays how the battle in the paint swung emphatically to OKC’s advantage with Ibaka back in the lineup.

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4
SAS 66 54 40 36
OKC 32 42 46 44

Moreover, Games 3 and 4 show not only a fall in San Antonio’s PITP totals, but also a sizable increase in that of Oklahoma City–meaning Ibaka, esteemed mainly for his defensive superiority, extended his range of impact to the offensive end to some degree, establishing himself on the glass.

Ibaka's return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka’s return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

While Ibaka himself did not perform spectacularly on offense, his return might have improved conditions for the dynamic duo he plays alongside: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Developing from a raw offensive talent over the past few years, Ibaka is no player to take lightly on offense now, having efficiently integrated himself within an already electric Thunder attack. His presence on this side of the court frees Durant and Westbrook up and opens key space for them, perhaps explaining their improvement in play with Ibaka back on the floor in Games 3 and 4. Durant experienced an increase in points per game moving from the first set of games to the next set (21.5 to 28), as did Westbrook (20 to 33). And while the field-goal percentage of Durant only rose slightly from 0.457 to .463 in the same comparison of games, that of Westbrook surged from 0.356 to .456. And though this speculative effect resulting from Ibaka’s return is not easily measurable, there’s no questioning that his impact has pervaded the basketball court.

Furthermore, factoring in on both ends of the court, Ibaka’s presence radically altered the rebounding totals as the series progressed. Without him in Games 1 and 2, the Thunder were out-rebounded 40-37 and 53-38 by the Spurs, respectively. That’s a jump from a 43.3 regular season average to 46.5 in the first two games for San Antonio, and a dip from 44.7 during the season to 37.5 for Oklahoma City. Of course, this dominance on the boards changed upon Ibaka’s return, as OKC controlled the glass with a rebounding margin of 52-36 in Game 3, and 42-41 in Game 4.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the disparate quality of play between the first two games and the latter two from OKC and SAS result in some part from location: both squads, and particularly the Thunder, thrive at their home arenas. Nevertheless, the return of a premier NBA player to a team incomplete without him is just as, if not more, influential.

Though Ibaka has averaged a modest 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in his two games, the significance of his presence in the lineup is best quantifiable by his impact on nearly every other facet of the matchup: the effect on individual Spurs players, on his fellow teammates, and on game totals. Ibaka’s influence may loom largest with respect to the last of those reasons, as at the moment he seems destined to serve as the deciding factor in the most important statistic in a series: wins.

 

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.