First things first: Go read J Gomez's series preview. In it you will find all sorts of goodies on how this series may play out, and how each team can exploit their opponent's weaknesses while leveraging their own advantages. It's a perfect segue into the piece I am about to write, and it's an excellent read in its own right.
In his preview, Mr. Gomez mentions a key strategy that the Heat employ in order to cut off points of attack: pressure defense. The Heat like to trap and hedge aggressively on P&R situations. Their defensive foundation is laid upon restraining the offense's ball movement by pressuring the handler, and they will send double teams and help any time they feel they may exploit the opponent in this manner.
Enter Tony Parker, master of ball movement and spacing. The Spurs offense has evolved since the Prime Duncan Days to allow Parker to effectively utilize his speed, passing, and finishing ability to score and distribute. Certainly, Parker has improved over his career as both a passer and a shooter, while his uncanny ability to finish at the rim has continued to propel him to elite levels, even if Tony may not be quite as fast as he was when the Spurs drafted him back in 2001. But if we look beyond Tony Parker's individual skill set, we see that Popovich has continued to craft the offensive system to match Tony's abilities. And that has everything to do with spacing.
When sports writers and analysts talk about spacing, we usually think about stretch-4's and sharpshooting wingmen, who are able to keep defenses honest by drawing defenders away from the paint. It's one of the reasons Miami is the best team in the league when their perimeter shooters are firing on all cylinders, and it is exactly the reason why the Memphis Grizzlies could not score points in high volume against the Spurs.
But "spacing" means a lot more than freeing up your guards and big men to work in the paint. In the Spurs offense, it has more to do with generating open spaces all over the court and even at the top of the key for Parker to work with. What bothers Parker is when he doesn't have room to get a head start against the defense. When defenders are able to pressure him before an offensive set is initiated, the offense is stymied and almost certainly ends in a forced mid-range jumper by Duncan or an off-balance floater by Danny Green or Gary Neal. That is why the Heat's defensive strategy appears to be so scary for the Spurs, and for Parker in particular. If the Heat can effectively pressure Parker - or Ginobili for that matter - by hedging and trapping on screens, then the Spurs will not win this series, without a doubt.
Fortunately for Spurs fans, there is this guy with an extraneous G in his name, one Gregg Popovich. He has been able to refine the offense over the last couple of years to maximize spacing for Parker, and the dividends have been two top 5 offenses after that dismal first round loss against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011, in which the Spurs averaged only 94.3 points per game.
In that series, Memphis arguably won because they eliminated Tony's space. What's more, the Spurs' offense hadn't yet made the appropriate transition to allow Tony that space, and perhaps the roster wasn't quite equipped to do it. Parker didn't have a terrible series, scoring 19.7 per game to go along with 5.2 assists, but it came rather inefficiently, as he shot 46.2% to go along with 3.3 turnovers per game.
Part of Parker's poor series can be explained by his own errors. He often held the ball for too long and tried to make plays that weren't there or wouldn't effectively utilize his bigs' screens, but a larger part of it was that he rarely had enough space to go to work.
Now, since the Spurs are matching up against the Heat in the Finals, and not the 2011 Grizzlies, it might make sense to look at Spurs vs. Heat games to see how these strategies play out. Well the obvious problem, as mentioned by J Gomez and several others, is that the Spurs and Heat did not play each other in their complete forms this season. Last year, they only had one matchup - due to the shortened season - and Manu and Wade were both out. So they really haven't played the true forms of each other since that infamous 2011 first round exit.
Memphis tends to play a similar style of defense against the ball handler, pressuring and hedging to try to force turnovers. Remember the beginning of Game 3 in this year's Western Conference Finals? The Spurs appeared to get lazy, and the Grizzlies came out to a roaring start, forcing eight turnovers in the first quarter. In Game 7 of this year's Eastern Conference Finals, Miami forced the Pacers into nine turnovers, in much the same way as the Grizzlies did to the Spurs in Game 3 and numerous times in the 2011 series.
Since the Heat and the Grizzlies share a similar defensive mindset, at least in how to control pick-and-roll point guards, and since the Spurs and Heat haven't had a legitimate matchup in two years, the Grizzlies should serve as a good surrogate to demonstrate how not only Parker, but also the Spurs' offensive system, have significantly improved.
Take a look at these two plays from Game 6, the deciding game, in the 2011 first round.
The play begins with Duncan at the top of the key, and he swings the ball to Antonio McDyess who then drops it off to George Hill.
Parker gets a quick down screen from Duncan and heads to the top to receive the ball from Hill. At this moment he has a fair amount of space, with McDyess picking Allen and Zach Randolph holding back. Nobody else is in a position to receive a good pass, so Parker must initiate.
Parker tries to work right, but Tony Allen cuts him off. McDyess gets confused and sets a down screen on Z-Bo. He quickly realizes his mistake and turns around to screen Allen as Tony resets.
Here, Z-Bo does a good job of dropping to McDyess' left, and Parker is forced left where Allen can follow
McDyess sets again to try and contain Allen as Tony reverses to the right, but Randolph is waiting. Notice again that during this entire time, neither Richard Jefferson nor George Hill has moved an inch.
Tony works around to the right over Randolph, but Allen recovers and Marc Gasol is guarding the paint to prevent penetration. Parker swings to Duncan at the top, but Z-Bo pressures quickly.
After a brief scramble, Timmy tries to force the ball into McDyess for a dunk, but he turns it over. The hard hedge by Zach Randolph, coupled with poor screening by McDyess and an uninvolved Richard Jefferson doom this play from the start. Parker doesn't trust his teammates enough to get rid of the ball when he sees the hedge, and the result is a sloppily executed chance pass which is stolen.
Here is another play, later in the game, where the Spurs were attempting to claw back from that atrocious start.
Hill brings the ball up with McDyess up top. Parker is working down to the baseline hoping to receive a Tim Duncan screen on Tony Allen.
Timmy isn't able to set a good screen because Allen wisely goes over the pick. A cutback by Parker could have worked in this case, but only if Hill had gotten the ball to McDyess who would have had a passing angle - though McDyess probably would not have executed the pass anyway. Perhaps if it had been Boris Diaw...
Parker receives the pass on the left from Hill and will try to work baseline against Allen.
His efforts are thwarted, as three Grizzlies descend into the paint to shut him down. Parker decides to reset to the top with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
McDyess tries to come set a screen, and Z-Bo hangs back this time to guard the paint, since Timmy has drawn out Gasol. Parker makes his drive towards the left as Allen fights over the screen.
Tony ends up trapped near the baseline again, and hits McDyess for a pop. It's not necessarily a bad result - though he misses - since McDyess had a good mid-range game. The issue is how hard Tony had to work for a relatively inefficient shot. Mid-range jumpers, no matter who shoots them, will not sustainably win ball games. Just ask ‘Melo and the Knicks.
These plays show us a couple of things. One, McDyess was not particularly good at setting screens. Two, Tony was not capable of thinking two passes ahead, and he didn't trust his teammates to execute plays. If you look at the fifth screen shot of the first play, a great move would have been a quick swing to Hill, who could have dumped the ball to a cutting McDyess. Parker also could have swung to Hill in the sixth screenshot for a relatively open three.
Most importantly, however, these plays demonstrate that the Spurs' did not have a contingency for hard hedges on the pick and roll and that they did not have an effective way to get Tony good space. In a similar fashion to Game 3 of this year's WCF, the Grizzlies stymied the Spurs early in this game because of hard pressure. I remember during that first quarter, I texted JRW and asked him if I had woken up in 2011. It so resembled the same way the Spurs were abused two years ago, and I was afraid the Grizzlies had figured us out once again.
But the Spurs made a few changes that effectively sealed the deal in the series. In fact, I would contend that the Spurs were just a bit lazy in that Game 3, and that the changes were already in place. Nonetheless, the Spurs have employed a few new wrinkles this year that have freed Parker to work in more space and more fluidly initiate the offense.
For starters, both Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter are much better screeners than Antonio McDyess. Both treat screening as more of an artform than a construction project. McDyess was content to simply plant his body and let the guard make the decision. Diaw and Splitter often switch directions and communicate with Parker to confuse both defenders. This makes a very big difference in preventing solid hedges by opposing bigs.
The Spurs' playbook has also expanded. Pop has added and modified plays in the last two years to fit his new personnel and to those that are better suited to let Parker work. One play that the Spurs ran countless times during this season and the playoffs is the baseline curl triple screen. Here is an example from Game 3 of the WCF.
The play starts when Tony drops the ball to Danny Green at the top, then begins his movement down the left towards the baseline.
The first screen comes from Tim Duncan as Parker curls around towards the weak side.
He receives the second from Kawhi, and Tiago Splitter has already gained position on Z-Bo to set the final screen.
Tiago sets a great pick. Now if Z-Bo hedges, Parker has a pretty easy pass over Keyon Dooling to Splitter for a lay-in. Randolph doesn't hedge, and Tony now has tons of space.
Splitter does a great job forcing Dooling out towards the perimeter, then rolls hard as Parker works around Z-Bo. If Zach makes a hard stop, Tony can flip to Tiago for a layup or a touch pass to Timmy for the dunk. Tony gets past Randolph quickly for an easy layup.
This play works by forcing the perimeter defender through a veritable gauntlet of quality screeners. It has been highly effective for the Spurs this year, and they didn't run it once in 2011.
Here is another play the Spurs run which provides Parker tons of space. It's essentially a diminished form of the baseline triple screen, but it is run with Tony coming out of the weak side corner and leading his man into a couple of down screens.
Tim starts with the ball at the top right as Tony slides into the right corner. Kawhi makes a cut into the paint, both for misdirection and to see if he can catch his man sleeping.
Timmy swings to Tiago at the top and begins to move down into the post area, while Danny Green comes around from the corner Tony is now occupying.
Tiago flips it to Danny, who serves the same role as he did in the baseline curl. He holds the ball up top until Parker has worked his man through the screens. At this point Kawhi Leonard is setting up for his screen while keeping his man, Tayshaun Prince, inside. Duncan continues to slide into the paint to keep Marc Gasol away from the play.
Leonard sets his pick, making sure that Tony Allen is forced inside instead of outside. Splitter puts one more pick on Allen as Green switches the ball to Parker. Notice how far away from the play Duncan has dragged Gasol.
When Tony catches the ball, he immediately works back towards his right, doubling the effectiveness of Tiago's screen. Look at all that space! Allen, one of the better recovering perimeter defenders, can't get back in time as Tiago dives, and Parker gets an easy jumper for two points.
The Spurs have changed since 2011, when the Grizzlies killed them with pressure defense. Popovich has expanded the playbook, and the personnel is now more suited to allow Parker options. Splitter and Diaw set very good screens, and both roll well. Kawhi Leonard sets good baseline and down screens. Duncan draws the best defender away from the play.
The amount of discipline required to run these kinds of plays each game is tremendous. The Spurs are able to create space because they run plays that no defense can overwhelm. They force the defense to make decisions. Parker is quicker to pass out of traps and hard hedges now, likely because he trusts his teammates more.
In an interview before a game during this postseason, Tony Parker said that winning this championship would be "most special". More special than 2003, 2005, or 2007, when he won the Finals MVP. I think this speaks volumes as to how he feels about this team. After all, all of his teammates work their tails off so that he can be successful, so the team can be successful. Parker appreciates that immensely, and the work he has done on his game, both with his own skill set and in understanding The System, is a grand testament to his love for this team.
I think that the outcome of the Finals will largely depend on the level of Tony Parker's game. If he maintains the kind of play he had going against the Grizzlies, the Spurs stand a VERY good chance of taking this series in 5 or 6 games. If not, the Heat will likely face little resistance en route to their second straight championship. No pressure Tony, but this one's on you.