The NBA Finals: The Ultimate Game of Adjustments

LeBron blocks Splitter_Christian PetersenImage by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The chess game that is the NBA finals is in full effect. Game 1 was the most competitive game of the series as both teams felt each other out like two heavy weight fighters in round 1 of a title bout before going back to their corners. The Heat made the proper adjustments in Game 2 to come away with a victory while San Antonio responded in Game 3 with 36 points worth of adjustments. What should we expect in Game 4?

Game 2 adjustments made by the Heat

Play the two-man lineup combination of Ray Allen and Mike Miller

In their Game 1 loss, the Heat were +11 in the 16 minutes Allen and Miller shared the court (best of any 2 player combination). The Heat made five three-pointers during this stretch and shot 48% from the field. The Spurs are a solid defensive team, but they are average at defending the three. The Golden State Warriors were able to hand the Spurs two losses in the playoffs because of their ability to spread the floor with shooters.

In Game 2, the Heat were +21 in the 13 minutes that Allen and Miller were on the court together making 5-6 three’s and shooting 73% from the field. More importantly, coach Spoelstra went to a lineup with Allen and Miller to start the 4th quarter, and that lineup outscored the Spurs by 17 points in 7 minutes to blow Game 3 open and secure a victory Miami in what was otherwise an extremely close game.

Get Chris Bosh off the Perimeter and into the Paint

Chris Bosh literally lived on the perimeter in Game 1 and was not present in the paint on offense.  Bosh’s stat line of 37% FG shooting, 4 defensive rebounds, 1 offensive rebound and 4 three-point attempts say a lot about his futility but there’s more. On the 58 half-court possession that Bosh was on the court for the Heat, he established position in the paint only 15 times (position in the paint includes drives into the paint, post ups and being in the paint when a shot attempt goes up. This statistic was independently collectet). The rare times that Bosh was in the paint he was often in poor offensive rebounding position.  For the other 43 possessions, Bosh could be found dancing around the three-point line.

Bosh's poor offensive rebounding position in Game 1

Bosh’s poor offensive rebounding position in Game 1

Bosh’s poor offensive rebounding position in Game 1

As a center, Bosh should always have more offensive rebounds than three point attempts and his court positioning is directly correlated to his impact on the heat offense.

In Game 2, Bosh came out of the gates looking to establish post position. In the first quarter, Bosh established post position on 9 of 11 half court possessions and for the game established post position on 22 out of 35 half court possessions. Bosh’s activity banging in the paint led to numerous tip outs and forced Tim Duncan/Tiago Splitter to monitor his movements rather than just locking in on the player with the ball. Bosh also made a concerted effort to catch the ball in the 16-20 feet range rather than at the three-point line. Bosh’s Game 2 stat line: 60% FG shooting, 6 defensive rebounds, 4 offensive rebounds and 0 three point shots.

Bosh's improved post positioning and activity in Game 2

Bosh’s improved post positioning and put-back in Game 2 after LeBron missed shot

Bosh’s improved post positioning and put-back in Game 2 after LeBron missed shot

Game 3 adjustments made by the Spurs

Force LeBron back into bad habits

During the Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote about LeBron’s propensity to settle for outside shots instead of being aggressive and driving to the basket. LeBron and the Miami Heat are not the same when LeBron is chucking up three’s and jump shots. Yes, LeBron can make this shot and has vastly improved his jump shooting, but this is the least reliable part of his game.  In Game 3, San Antonio gave LeBron (and Dwayne Wade) a free pass to take jump shots by playing off him on defense and going under all screens. LeBron responded by accepting the challenge and proceeded to go 2-14 on shots outside of the paint.

Go Small

Yes, as odd as that sounds, going small was advantageous for the Spurs in Game 3. Miami’s weakness all season has been rebounding, and they do play better against smaller teams, but the Spurs went small to spread out the Heat defense just like the Heat attempted to spread them out by pairing Ray Allen and Mike Miller on the court.  Aside from the first 8 minutes of the game, coach Popevich did not play Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together. Pop rather play numerous lineups that featured 3 guards, Kawhi Leonard at the power forward position and Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter at the center position. Leonard’s impressive rebounding during Games 1 and 2 (10 in G1 and 14 in G2) certainly providing Pop with the confidence to go small without fearing that the Spurs would lose their advantage boards.  Kawhi responded with 12 rebounds in Game 3.

Is this the right strategy to go with for the rest of the series? I don’t think so, but it worked in Game 3 because the Heat were not expecting to see 4 guard lineups.  Udonis Haslem was yielded useless in Game 3 as he played only 10 minutes, and the three-point shooting exhibition (NBA Finals record 16 three’s) that San Antonio put on sealed the deal.

Game 4 Adjustments (we might see) 

Miami Heat

Miami should look to establish LeBron on the post with more regularity. Running the offense through LeBron on the post maximizes the potential of the Heat offense.

  1. LeBron is stronger that any defender that San Antonio can throw at him and has the ability to establish post position and deep post position
  2. Dwayne Wade has looked his best cutting to the rim, and this is the off-ball movement that is afforded when LeBron is in the post.
  3. Once LeBron catches the ball in the post, the defense can either collapse or allow LeBron to work 1on1 against his defender. A collapsing defense into the paint has a longer distance to recover if LeBron kicks the ball to his shooters camped out beyond the three-point line
  4. Post ups and shot taken in the paint have a greater chance for offensive rebounds. If LeBron is in the vicinity of the paint, he is nearly unstoppable

The sequence below from Game 1 is the perfect example of what the Miami offense should look like. Post Lebron, spread the court and have Wade cut into the paint, have LeBron make an aggressive move and draw a multiple defenders (in this case 3), make the pass to a wide open shooter in the corner who now has the option to shoot or pump fake and drive and have Bosh in offensive rebounding position.

LBJ post1
LBJ post2
LBJ post3
LBJ post4

San Antonio Spurs

To attempt to predict what coach Popovich will do in Game 4 is just a lose-lose proposition, but I’ll do my best to get into the mind of Pop the Great. Gary Neal has been the best Spur off the bench in these NBA Finals. Manu Ginobili on the other hand, has been unpredictable at best and has looked lost on both the offensive and defensive ends. Coming into Game 4, Ginobili is averaging 25.4 minutes per game during the playoffs while Neal is averaging 16.9 minutes.

Still, during these playoffs, the Spurs have a net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of 12.5 when Ginobili is on the court compared to a net rating of 7.6 when he is off the court. Pop has been with Ginobili through many playoff battles, but Neal is deserving of more playing time if he continues to shoot the lights out.

All stats and screen shots are courtesy unless otherwise noted 

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