Tonight, the Heat host the San Antonio Spurs in what is sure to be an exciting matchup between two NBA powerhouses. I had a chance to get together with JR Wilco at Pounding the Rock.
1) Tim Duncan seems to have solved Father Time. His nightly contribution is roughly matching that of Tim Duncan ~ 2008. What has to happen for him to continue to play at this pace?
No one is more surprised than I am at the way that Duncan is playing this year, so I don't know what kind of wisdom I can give you in response to your question. But I guess I can offer up a guess. Somewhere in the spring of 2010 separated by no more than 6 to 8 weeks were two games against the Golden State Warriors one home and one away. In both of those games Duncan went down clutching his left knee. He seemed to bounce back quickly and well from both of those events, but that year in the playoffs against the Grizzlies the Spurs were eliminated in six games and he was a shadow of himself. Time and again he would take up post position against Pau Gasol only to be pushed off of his favorite spot on the block by five, seven, even ten feet. It was something that I had never seen happen to him in his career, and I thought it signaled the end of his effectiveness in the NBA.
I can't tell you how glad I am to have been so wrong, but the main thing at this point that will keep him potentially able to continue to play the way he has been is simply avoiding injury. Over the last two years he's been playing at a very high rate of efficiency. All of his per 36 minute numbers are at or just below his career averages. And it seems likely to me that he's been doing all of that as his knee was slowly recovering. It kind of looks as though it's better now, doesn't it?
2) The Spurs can be counted on for at least 50 wins per season. They have at least that many the last 14 years in a row, and 15 of the last 16 (they went 37-13 in 1998-99). As maybe the quietest dynasty in NBA history, does it behoove the team to "sneak up" on people? Or do you think the team would crave some national attention?
One of my favorite stories about Tim Duncan was told to me by one of my writers who was in the locker room after one the games of last season's series against the Utah Jazz. All of the reporters were gathered around different players, busy lobbing and retrieving questions, as Tim Duncan emerged, fully dressed, from the shower area. Tim took a look around the locker room, realized that no one was waiting for him to offer a quote, silently pumped his fist to himself, turned on his heel and exited the way he had entered: entirely without being noticed.
No, I feel pretty certain that the team as a whole does not crave any additional national attention. It's one of the things that sets them apart and makes them the mystery that they are.
3) After struggling with a back injury to start the season, Manu Ginobili seems to have turned it on as of late. If he suffers a recurrence, who can Spurs nation count on to fill his shoes?
It would fall to the same crew of guys who stepped up last year when Manu was out for so many games (he missed more than half of the truncated season with a variety of issues among which was a broken hand), namely Danny Green, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard. The beauty of this team is the way that they operate within Pop's system, and how that puts everyone in their favorite positions with their favorite shots ready for them to take as often as it does.
If the average Spurs fan is anything like me, they don't fear the regular season without Manu Ginobili in uniform, because it's the postseason when he's needed the most.
4) As of this writing, the Spurs rank 10th in points scored and have allowed the 10th fewest points. Parking Duncan under the net will help push the high powered Heat offense outside, but Miami has been unconscious from beyond the arc, leading the NBA by hitting 43.2 percent of their three point shots. What do you think the Spurs have planned to slow the damage from deep?
Historically, when the Spurs defense is playing at its best, it limits shots at the rim and three-pointers, allows as many midrange jumpers as the other team would care to take, all while hoovering up nearly every single defensive rebound available. This year, the rebounding numbers have taken a hit, because the bigs have been tasked with challenging those midrange shots more often than ever before. With this new wrinkle on their time-tested formula still being experimented with, I hate to say it but your guess is as good as mine.
5) No place to hide – predict the winner and margin of victory. I’ll go first: Heat by three.
For the Spurs, Thursday night's game is a SEGABABA (as well as a FOGAFINI in the midst of the FIGASENI) and the last of 6 straight road games, the first five of which they've won, the last two by more than 20 points each. I wouldn't be surprised if Popovich benched the big three and just let you guys romp. But if he actually gives his guys their normal minutes, then I think it will probably be a contest decided in the last three minutes of the game. Which is the same as saying it's a horse race. But it's an early-season game in late November, so I'll go with your prediction and say Heat by three as well.
JR, in turn, had a few questions for me. I answered to the best of my ability:
1. Life has to be pretty good for Heat fans right about now, a championship for Mr. James, an end to all the angst as to whether the team whatever fulfill their potential, no more questions on the national scene about whether "the decision" was a bad idea, etc. Is there anything left to be upset about?
It’s hard to be mad at the champs, especially when there doesn’t seem to be a discernible dropoff from the successes enjoyed in the recent past. Add to that the Miami Dolphins only just now regaining a little respect, the Florida Panthers (and the rest of the NHL) on (off) ice for the forseeable future, and the running punchline that is the Miami Marlins. The Heat is really the only game in town for many.
The place where the Heat may run into trouble is backing up the King’s pledge of "Not three, not four, not five….," etc. Dwyane Wade is already showing significant wear and tear above and beyond what he could possibly have accrued in the still young season. James’ pledge of at least seven championships may be hard to back up with DWade continuing to be any sort of relevant force. Ray Allen is fantastic, but he’s 37 years old. He can’t be expected to play more than four seasons (and that may really be pushing it).
Sports fans being who they are, there is always something to complain about. This season, Heat Nation is talking about how far the defense has fallen. Most casual NBA fans may not notice, with Miami’s offense being so out of this world, but the defense has fallen off considerably. Miami allows 107.6 points per 100 possessions this season, good for 25th best in the NBA. Last year, they allowed 100.2, ranked fourth. Still at this point last season, the eventual champs were 8-4, one game behind where the Heat rank this season. As I said, it’s hard to nit-pick when you’re King of the Mountain.
2. With LBJ currently playing at an all-world level, are there any holes left in his game? Or any places where you see that he still has room left to improve?
James PER again leads the NBA, with a 28.5 rating. (Incidentally, next on the list is your own Tim Duncan, playing out of his mind with a career best 27.2). James leads the Heat in scoring (25.2), rebounds (8.8), and in assists (6.5). All that dishing out makes it hard to call him selfish. His game is incredibly well rounded, and still improving. He’s shooting a career best .531 from the field, also making a career best .439 with his three point shooting. He’s also incredibly durable (missing an average of three games per season through his first 10 seasons) and freakishly strong. He’s 6’8", 260 pounds of basketball freak.
We routinely run out of adjectives on the game thread when he’s out on the floor. If you had asked me last season if there was room to improve, I would have said no. He may just prove me wrong.
3. As versatile as your big three is -- Wade can guard one through three, James two through four, and Bosh three through five -- is there any type of player, or style of offense, that is the hardest for the Heat to defend?
The Heat is tricky, and their best defense has proved to be a good offense. As to what is the hardest for them to defend, we need to look into the three losses Miami has suffered thus far this season.
In the second game of the season, the New York Knicks (short Amare Stoudamire) defeated the Heat by 20. They did this by coming out strong and outscoring the Heat by 16 in the first quarter, then playing .500 ball the rest of the game. The Knicks managed to stay hot from outside (hitting 19-of-36 from deep), while limiting the Heat to a seven-of-20 performance.
After reeling off a four game winning streak, Miami visited the Grizzlies in FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN. Unlike Miami’s first loss, they stayed on pace with the Grizz in the first quarter. Memphis outscored the Heat, 34-20 in the second quarter, then stayed ahead for the rest of the game. Like the first loss, Miami’s vaunted long game was stagnant (four-of-15), while Memphis had their best game of the season (14-for-24).
Three days later, against the Clippers in Los Angeles, Miami played pretty evenly. Each team made 35 field goals (Miami on 77 shots, LA on 72), while the Heat was 8-for-21 from distance and LA was 9-of-21. Most other metrics, advanced and simple, were relatively even. In the end, the real difference in this matchup was the simple things. Free throws, usually a strength for Miami, was the only significant difference between the teams. The Heat was 21-for-29, the Clippers went 27-of-32.
What can we take from this? Two of the three Miami losses came at the hands of hot outside shooting, which the Heat is sometimes loathe to defend. As I said in one of my questions – the Heat lead the NBA with 43.2% of their three point attempts paying off. The Achilles heel comes when they face an opponent who can also ball from deep.
4. With all of the new faces you guys added over the summer, how much better is this year's Heat versus last? I'll put it to you another way: If last season's team and this year's met in a seven game series, who would win and why?
The three players we lost combined for 712 minutes all last season, or an average of three and a half minutes per player per game. Additionally, none of the three were a significant part of the rotation for any length of time (Turiaf earned a few minutes late in the year, but was largely ignored in the playoffs).
The three we gained have already played 529 minutes, or 13.5 minutes per player per game. Like the departed Heatsters, none of these three are on the starting lineup. Unlike their predecessors, they have already made timely and significant contributions to the bottom line. Allen has already hit two game winning shots, and as ridiculous as it may seem, is shooting at a career best 52.9 percent three point rate (if he keeps it up, this will mark the third season in a row that he has set a new career high in the category). Wade does look aged at times, and Norris Cole has the lowest PER among regularly rotated point guards in the NBA (3.8). However the addition of Allen and Lewis more than make up for it. I would take the new Heat in seven.
5. The Spurs' biggest lightning rod currently is Matt Bonner. The fanbase doesn't want to see him on the court at all, and every time Pop plays him people get upset. Is there anyone who currently occupies this role for Miami?
If you don’t mind too much, I’m going to farm this one out to fellow Hot Hot Hoops blogger Jay Ramos, who answered this very question this past Sunday:
"You know, when you have been around something since it was young, you've nurtured it, raised it and seen it blossom into adulthood, it's painful when the bloom is a bust. Norris Cole is not at that point, but he certainly seems headed there.
The Heat have invested in Cole's development. They traded for the draft rights of the 2011 first round pick and he immediately earned playing time his rookie season. Cole seems to be more well liked than the average rotation player by the fan base. After a hot start, however, he's regressed into a very limited NBA player. He did get a full off-season under his belt and starred for the Heat's summer league team this year, so maybe things were looking up.
But it still seems fair to point out that the Heat have a very inefficient player in the rotation, even if that fact is masked by wins.
Cole's presence on the court alone contributed to draining the team eight points in offensive rating, which is the amount of points a team produces per 100 possessions. In combination with the defensive splits, the Heat were 11.5 points better per 100 possessions when he was sitting. Team splits aren't a conclusive measure for an individual player, but when we take into account his production, we can't help but notice the correlation. It may be a little surprising that the team didn't turn it over more with him on the court, but otherwise the team was average when he played. As the backup point guard, Cole plays with at least one of the Heat's stars the majority of the time.
If Cole continues to be this ineffective, it's very unlikely that the units he is on the floor with produce results more positive than those without him.
He is clearly a weak link in the rotation. Many think the Heat are built to have rebounding issues, which hasn't appeared in the data, or could use a defensive savant inside to deter shots (I think Joel Anthony still exists). But maybe we should consider that perhaps the biggest issue with Miami is the fact that they play one of the least productive players in the league 20 minutes a night."
There’s a whole lot more to Jay’s post, and you can read it here.
6. Design a team to beat Miami and feel free to use any player on any other team that's currently in the league. Who do you use to build your nine man rotation?
I’m not pandering when I say I’d like to start with Tim Duncan as my starting center. The big fundamental (you can’t spell it without "fun") is still wicked good, a great role player, and the shot blocker and rebounder who just may have a shot at slowing down some of the weapons in Miami’s arsenal.
I’d take Rajon Rondo at starting point guard. He averages 13.6 points and 9.9 assists per game against Miami (both his second best totals against any team, he averages 11.5 assists against the Spurs), and always brings it to the Heat.
Dirk Nowitzki has the Heat’s number at starting power forward. He’s the ultimate weapon when healthy, able to post up or drive the lane. He’s got the size to ball inside, and the range to make the Heat pay three points at a time.
I’d hire Carmelo Anthony to play at small forward. Sometimes the guy plays a little selfish, but he became one of my favorites after the show he put on against the Heat on November 2nd.
Kobe Bryant would be my shooting guard. The guy has a nose for the win, and he’s as clutch as they get. The Lakers are .500 right now. Underperforming? Very likely, but they wouldn’t even be close to .500 without the Mamba, leading the league in scoring in his 17th season. Can you believe the guy is only 34? That hardly seems fair.
That leaves my bench. I’d take James Harden, and reunite him with Kevin Durant, add the otherworldly quickness of Chris Paul, and finish off with Dwight Howard. I know it looks like an all-star team, but I think that’s a team that could give Miami a fit. I pick the superteam in five.
I hope you enjoyed the back and forth. Make sure to stay tuned for more on tonight's matchup here at Hot Hot Hoops, and don't forget to tune in tonight at 8:00 on NBA TV for the showdown.