Is Game 6 ever going away? No, probably not, but there was definitely some measure of catharsis in Thursday's huge 111-87 win against the two-time defending champion Heat. It was a game in which the Spurs not only handed Miami their most decisive loss of the season, but more importantly to me, they put on a defensive clinic against the most efficient offense in the league. It was welcome to see in a season where there have been far more questions raised about the team's defense than offense.
Kawhi Leonard was fantastic, of course. And Pop, who usually tosses around compliments like manhole covers, made it a point to come to him on the bench near the end of game to give him a little "you kicked LeBron's ass," acknowledgment. (I'm not positive, but I swear I saw a rare display of emotion from Leonard a moment or two before that, when he saw the Heat take an intentional foul with under two minutes to go to wave the white flag and put in all their subs, I think Leonard pumped his fist in the air.)
It wasn't just Leonard alone who won the game, obviously. Boris Diaw started, and was also superb. He took a few defensive turns on James here and there and put up a 16-8-5 line, shooting a perfect 5-of-5 from the field and hitting probably the biggest shot of the game, a momentum-preserving three-pointer right before half after Miami had cut the a 17-point lead to eight. Diaw bullied the smaller Shane Battier in the post and almost singlehandedly rendered Miami's small-ball lineup unplayable. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra quit on Battier after 16 minutes.
Then there was Patty Mills, with nine points and a career-high 10 boards. He made the second-biggest bucket of the night, a three from the corner late in the third quarter with the Spurs leading by just five. That broke the spell that Miami's swarming defense had cast on the Spurs to the point they couldn't even make point-blank layups. Mills was clearly the second-best point guard on the floor and the Spurs aren't going to lose many games when that's the case.
Even Tiago Splitter, who's been much-maligned for his poor performances in last year's Finals, contributed mightily to the win. Seven points and two rebounds don't look like much, but Splitter's passing was magnificent and he was terrific in sealing off the basket, regardless of whether he was playing alongside Tim Duncan or not. There was a memorable play late in the first quarter where Splitter rose up vertically and denied a would-be James layup, but he didn't turn around and preen to the crowd after so I guess it wasn't all that good.
Duncan was quietly the best player on the floor with 23 and 11 and Tony Parker got the team off to a roaring start with 10 first quarter points (the Spurs scored 37 in the first quarter, tying a season-high one game after setting their low-water mark with 13 points in the first at Cleveland) but ultimately what won the game was that their role players four through nine were significantly better than their Heat counterparts, outscoring them 65-28. If you insist that Leonard belongs in the class with the Spurs big three, fine, then it was 54-28.
The point is, no matter what Gregg Popovich says and how insistent he is about it, the game offered definitive proof that these Spurs need to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They need to fight tooth and nail for that best record, as long as its attainable.
Why do the Spurs need it? Simple. This team, more than any other contender, depends on its role players to be successful. Role players play better at home than on the road. Look at how Splitter, Danny Green, Gary Neal played in Games 3-5 last year and how they played in Games 6 and 7. In game 7 Pop, who'd already pared down his rotation to seven, had basically three guys he could rely on to do anything, because Parker was so limited by his hamstring injury.
Better yet, look at Miami's guys. In Game 3 only Mike Miller did anything. Battier, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Ray Allen (ugh) and Chris Andersen were practically invisible, combining for 14 points. In Game 4 Allen had 14 but all the other role guys combined for eight points. In Game 5 Allen went off for 21, but Chalmers and Battier had seven apiece and Miller was a ghost.
Now look at those guys in the final two games. In Game 6 Allen and Battier scored nine points apiece, Miller had 8 and Chalmers had 20. No Spurs role player had more than Diaw's seven. In Game 7, Battier had 18 and Chalmers had 14. No Spurs role player had more than five (Green shot 1-of-12).
The one time the Spurs lost at home to the Heat, it was because Miami's big three all played sensationally in the same game, combining for 85 points and 30 rebounds. A game like that is going to happen at least once a series. James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are all too good to shut down completely. When they have it going, you're gonna lose. What an enterprising coach has to do is to minimize the chances of their supporting cast helping them out, and to do that you need a bunch of home games. As both the Spurs and the Pacers discovered last May and June, you just don't want to put yourself in the situation of having to win two road games against Miami, especially one of them being an elimination game.
If Pop is resistant to the idea of home court being important it's because his memory is playing tricks on him. Once upon a time, he was Erik Spoelstra: the coach with the baddest trio in all the land. If Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all showed out, the Spurs weren't losing to anybody, anywhere. But those days are long gone, and Pop needs to accept it. Neither Duncan nor Parker play like superstars night in and night out anymore and Ginobili's prime is long gone. On a good night he puts in a couple dominant bursts here and there but he can't sustain it for a whole game, let alone a series. He picks his spots and is otherwise content to quarterback the second unit.
The Spurs need their role players and role players need their home games. If it really doesn't matter, how come the Spurs have gone 4-0 in Finals when they had it and lost the only one they didn't? Does anyone think they beat the Pistons in 2005 if Game 7 is at Detroit?
Even in the conference finals, the Spurs had home court in four of their five wins, with the lone exception being 2005 against a soft Phoenix team. San Antonio had some margin of error back then, with The Big Three in their primes. That margin of error is gone. Their opponents are just too good; whether we're talking about Miami, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Portland, Houston, even the Clippers. There's just a lot of solid clubs out there. The league is taking on the same look as the nation's economy. There are the haves and the have-nots. The middle class is disappearing.
The Spurs have won two elimination games on the road in The Big Three era: Game 6 at Dallas in 2006 (Ginobili's best playoff road game, all things considered) and Game 7 at New Orleans in 2008, which, let's face it, was against the Hornets. Neither of those series were even in the third round let alone the Finals.
I understand Pop's concern about injuries, but there comes a point where you just have to trust your guys to stay healthy and expect that the law of averages will dictate that the injury epidemic has run its course. Anybody can get hurt on a fluke play in Game 2 of the first round just as easily as they can in Game 79 of the regular season. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be.
What Pop needs to do is give the team its best chance to succeed with the things they can control. You can't control injuries. You can control lineups. Give the guys plenty of rest in the soft March schedule, but when it comes time to play tough teams in April as home court is being decided, I desperately want the Spurs to fight for them. You can't rely on Russell Westbrook getting hurt again. You're not gonna get lucky like that twice.
At their best, the Spurs are better than Miami. Deep down, I think even Spoelstra knows it. He knows how fortunate they were last year. If we're going to get a Spurs/Heat Finals rematch, the Spurs need to do everything they can to pull the odds in their favor.