The finish line is in sight, but it's not over yet. Here are some notes on The Finals and the playoffs so far.
Bellinelli was great during the regular season. But then the playoffs rolled around and it was like Bonner all over again -- spring came and he took off his winter shoes. He was never a great individual defender, and it takes multiple years for players to completely internalize Popovich's defensive schemes. I've wondered at how little of his great regular season play has been visible in the playoffs. But when I think about the first year that Robert Horry, Michael Finley and Brent Barry had in San Antonio, I become more hopeful for what Marco can become as a Spur.
Since I mentioned Bonner, I wanted to point out that he's playing pretty well in limited minutes. While he is overpaid considering his production, his spacing adds a new dimension to the offense, and his defense (known as the "Bonner trap defense" that lures freak athletes into attacking a T-rex-armed, turkey-running man that isn't actually a bad defender any more) provides a unique way of stopping an attack. Bonner also brings up an interesting paradox: the reason that he dropped out of the rotation was Diaw's good play; but the reason that he is getting playing time now is Diaw's good play. Against these teams that insist on going small and jamming up the passing lanes, Pop has had to go with Diaw to start, since the Splitter-Duncan combination doesn't work well in that situation. So when Diaw sits, Bonner acts as the spacing big-man. Interesting.
On the Heat:
In Game One, they had a lead. But they lost. However, they could say that if LeBron hadn't cramped up, they would have won.
In Game Two, they won by 2 points. They were going home. They had taken care of business. They had kept the Spurs under 100. They had stolen home court. They were in good shape.
The Spurs' performance in Game Three was historic. The Heat had this to believe in: the Spurs will never shoot that way again. Ever. There were other reasons to have hope for next game. They got blown out last year in Game Thee by 36, and won Game Four. They hadn't lost consecutive playoff games.
In Game Four, they were down by 19 at the half. They couldn't score. They couldn't get a stop. They were simply getting outplayed. During third quarter, LeBron goes off and is almost perfect from the floor, pouring in 19 points by himself, only to look up at a bigger deficit. The Heat were shell-shocked.
There is a mystique surrounding the Heat. There is a deference given to them by the media. They've earned a pass on any missteps, because when it has mattered, they have been able to turn it on. And they expected it themselves. But I think there were warning signs this year -- some of them against the Jekyll and Hyde Pacers. Now it's an elimination game in San Antonio.
On the Spurs:
Two years ago, when the rotations shortened up in the Western Conference Finals, I wasn't happy. It wasn't the starters that had been blowing games open; it had been the Manu-Splitter led second unit that was destroying teams. That year, I thought they broke the OKC trap better than Parker and Duncan. But the rotations shortened, and there wasn't much time for that combination.
Last year, I was not happy about the shortening of the rotation. But I saw that some players had regressed -- it was understandable. Still, a case can be made for some fatigue affecting game play -- especially late in Games Six and Seven of the Finals.
This year, the Spurs set records with their minute management. And while Pop said that he was going to start playing the major guys more to get their conditioning up in preparation for 40 minutes a game during the playoffs, it never really happened. Blowouts or just outright sit outs were happening for the last couple of weeks of the season. But they made it to the Finals, and the promised 40 minutes game has not appeared -- although one or two players have approached the 40 minute mark a few times. The rotation hasn't been shortened much, as pretty much only Bellinelli has fallen off from his regular season playing time. Joseph and Bonner are getting some spot minutes, and the blowouts continue. Nobody is playing big minutes.
But it's a different story for the Heat.I
In my previous piece about the importance of the bench. I talked about how the Spurs have been running like this all year long. Despite what Barkley and others have to say, the Spurs are one of the best conditioned teams in the league. Wave after wave of shooters, passers, and playmakers come at you in different combinations -- all with fresh legs.
On Miami fans:
Can any of you remember a time when the Spurs got booed on their home court? Spurs fans aren't perfect by any means, but to boo the Spurs? That would be beyond the pale. People would consider that treason. Pitchforks would be found. Torches would light up the AT&T Center. It would be a modern re-enactment of this:
I'm guessing the same ones who booed the Heat are the people that won't let anybody say a word against LeBron or Wade or Eric Spoelstra, responding with thoughtful arguments like, "Haters gonna hate", "You jealous, bro?", and "Count da ringz". They abandoned their team with time on the clock in Finals games after paying shocking amounts of money for tickets. Not all Miami fans are like this, as David Ramil's excellent article shows, but it's sad that some are.
On the media:
It was maybe midway through the 3rd quarter of Game Four when this narrative popped up: the Heat were tired. This was attributed to the grueling task of making four Finals in a row. I would like say that this is a load of carp.
The Spurs were knocked out in the first round 3 years ago in 6 games -- against a very tough Grizzly team. The Spurs were knocked out in the WCF in 6 games -- against a very athletic Thunder team. The Spurs were right there with the Heat last year, and of course, this year. So, are people really saying that 6 games two years ago, and 15 games THREE years ago are the reason that the Heat can't bring it now? That's just silly. Additionally, nobody is talking about international summer play. How many games have Spurs players played in the last 3 off-seasons? Heat players? I guarantee that the argument breaks down right here.
So many people seem shocked that the Spurs are undressing the Heat in this fashion. That is producing story lines about the West being so much better than the East, about the Heat having an easy road to the Final, and other similar things -- something we have been saying that is being echoed nationally now.
They're also bringing up the amazing offensive performances that the Spurs have had in previous series. I had started to wonder if all those offensive explosions were meaningless until the Spurs repeated the same feats against the Heat. Apparently, now they are validated. Still haven't brought up the defensive performances though.
There is some stuff being written about what is wrong with the Heat, but I am surprised at how much is being said about what is right with the Spurs. In fact, the Spurs are getting more love right now than at any time in the 10+ years I have been following them -- some are even saying that this team would beat the great Bulls, Lakers, and Celtics teams of old.
The Spurs aren't going to let up. Pop won't let them. Tim Duncan won't let them. The players won't let themselves.