Summoning the strength to play in unplayable conditions, the Spurs outlasted then blasted the Heat late, beating them by a final score of 110 to 95. My sources tell me that Doris Burke, still delirious from heat exhaustion, is currently wandering San Antonio with her handheld thermometer and reporting the temperatures of various inanimate objects to a cactus that looks like Jeff Van Gundy.
What I'm saying is that Game 1 was weird and for this article, I wanted to break down exactly why it was so strange and really relive the experience. So I pushed my A/C out the window, gave myself a really intense Charley horse by continuously flexing my calf until it seized up and then -- fully immersed in the Alamo Armpit -- I sat down and re-watched the game. Along with some general notes and random asides, this is what I saw on second viewing:
- The Spurs outscored the Heat by 12 points in the paint (48 to 36) and shot a staggering 58.8 percent from the field. Miami usually neutralizes the points they give up inside because of their lack of size defensively by hitting their three-pointers, but on Thursday the Spurs finished the game with one more long ball (13) than the Heat (12) and they shot it at a more efficient clip too (52 to 41.4 percent). These numbers are slightly deceiving though since the Spurs caught fire and shot 6 for 7 (including 4 for 4 from downtown) after LeBron James left the game with four minutes to play. During that same time period, the Heat looked hapless: connecting on only 1 of 4 attempts from the field and coughing the ball up twice. But before LeBron succumbed to cramps and the Spurs popped off, the Heat were only trailing by two, both teams were shooting about 42 percent from downtown and the Spurs turnover issues had more or less negated their dominance inside (San Antonio took 10 fewer shots in the game than Miami because they could not take care of the basketball). The game was ostensibly a coin flip, but then LeBron took a seat and the Spurs' numbers inflated accordingly. That's why even in the loss, Heat fans should take heart: if Game 1 is any indication, this will be a 50-50 series and if it is, it's always better to have the best player in the world on your team -- big time players like that have a way of tipping the scale in their favor.
- With or without the King, the Heat didn't capitalize enough on the Spurs' mistakes. The Heat were second in the league this season at generating points off of turnovers (just barely trailing the Clippers for the top spot) and scored 28 points off of San Antonio's uncharacteristic 23 TOs. Not bad, except the Heat gifted San Antonio 27 points off their 18 turnovers. If the Heat are going to lose the points in the paint battle and as a byproduct the free throw battle (since they can't stop Duncan or Splitter inside, they have to just hack them) they need to make up the difference in points off of turnovers -- again, that's supposed to be their strength. Quick tangent: the Spurs looked awful in third and the beginning of the fourth quarter -- unbelievably sloppy. They turned the ball over 9 times in the third frame alone. I'll chalk up some of their lackadaisical play to the heat -- the temperature, not the team -- but for awhile there they just looked like they were over the whole "playing basketball" thing.
- It seems counterintuitive (at least it did to me), but Coach Pop wants the Spurs to push the ball and play fast against the Heat while Spoelstra would prefer a slightly slower pace. Given each team's roster, one might think the Spurs would look to slow the game down and take advantage of their mismatches inside with Duncan and Splitter and conversely that the Heat might want to get up and down so as not to let the Spurs set up their defense. But the numbers show that San Antonio actually plays faster than Miami: the Spurs have averaged the fourth most possessions per 48 minutes of any playoff team while the Heat have ranked dead last in the same stat. And that makes sense -- both teams want to play with "pace and space," but the Spurs want to run Miami's old legs out of the gym. Plus, when a Spurs guard like Tony or Manu pushes the ball down the court and pierces the teeth of the defense in transition or semi-transition, they force Heat defenders to collapse onto them in lane which creates open looks for outside shooters like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. If the Heat stay at home and don't help to stop penetration, then Tony or Manu can either finish at the rim, get fouled or, if a big defender like Chris Bosh or Birdman step over to impede their path, they can drop the ball off to Timmy or Tiago Splitter for the dunk.
- The Heat want to get out on the fastbreak too, but they just aren't as deep as the Spurs, so they can't push the ball as often or they'll max out their best players. Even if Spoelstra would like the team to play faster, he can only ask LeBron and Dwyane Wade to do so much. And Wade has already lost a considerable amount of his speed, so unless he's pushing the ball up himself, he often can't keep up with LeBron, Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole as they sprint down the court which means he's usually not in a position to be a finisher on the break anymore. Beyond just conserving energy, the Heat also prefer a slower pace because when the game slows down, there are fewer total possessions which means that LeBron and Wade, the Heat's two best shot-creators, will have the ball in their hands for a greater percentage of the Heat's total possessions. Since the Heat don't have the same depth as the Spurs, they rely on their best players to dominate and either create a great look for themselves or for a teammate. The Heat need LeBron and Wade to carry them to victory -- without one or both of them playing at a high level and producing big numbers, they can't win. The Spurs, because of their bench, can spread the ball around and share the shot-creating responsibilities. That's why Pop always wants them to push the ball and generate as many possessions as possible: so that everyone he plays has a number of opportunities to make a play and contribute.