SAN ANTONIO – Maybe the biggest preconception fans had about the Miami Heat in The Finals, any Finals, is that the so-called “superstar” calls naturally would favor the team boasting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Aside from the matter of whether such calls exist – you’d get quite an argument from the league HQ – there’s the nature of those players’ attack styles and the pressure that puts on defenses to get beat or to foul. All three routinely rank in the Top 10 in free-throw attempts and have done so for years – James (No. 28), Wade (No. 37) and Bosh (No. 72) also rank in the Top 100 in NBA history in the category of getting to the foul line.
Ah, but they haven’t played their entire careers against the San Antonio Spurs.
Defending without fouling is a priority of the Spurs. It has been for years. And if that approach can be considered the immovable object of the 2013 and 2014 Finals, it is winning its clashes with the Heat’s unstoppable foul-line force.
Consider some of the numbers:
- Miami shot just 11 free throws in the opener Thursday, the fewest attempts by a team in Game 1 in 50 years.
- The Heat’s 118 free throws a year ago set the record for the fewest ever in a seven-game Finals.
- San Antonio set a corresponding record by committing the fewest fouls (118) in a seven-game Finals. They were called for only 14 Thursday.
- The Heat generated about a fifth of their offense from the foul line in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (20.2 percent combined), and that rate held in their championship series against Dallas and Oklahoma City (20.4 percent). But after getting nearly as many of their points on free throws the past two seasons (17.0 percent), their rate in eight Finals games against San Antonio has dropped off noticeably (14.5 percent).
- Only once in the past 10 seasons have the Spurs ranked lower than five in fewest fouls committed or sixth in most free throws allowed. They have ranked in the top three in those categories seven and six times, respectively.
In other words, it’s how they play.
“Not fouling is what we try to do every season,” coach Gregg Popovich said before Game 1. “We’re usually first or second, I believe, in that category of fewest fouls. It’s just our philosophy. Might be wrong, might be right, other people have a different philosophy, but for us it works. … Just percentage‑wise and strategy‑wise for what we do and the way we play defense, it works for us.”
Hall of Fame-bound big man Tim Duncan summed up the approach thusly: “Keep ‘em off the line, make ‘em make the tough shots and play the percentages has been our philosophy.”
Duncan — who, if you ask him, never has committed a foul in his 17 NBA seasons anyway — likened James, Wade and Bosh to the potent scorers San Antonio faced in the previous round from Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Those types of players are dangerous enough when the defense isn’t helping them out. “Those are easy points that can get people going,” Duncan said. “And you put them on the free‑throw line and they get to stand there and score some points, and that in turn can up their confidence, give them a rhythm, whatever it may be.”
Not doing something you want to avoid – not fouling – is easier said than done at this level. When a defense breaks down, when your man flashes by you, it can be satisfying at some primal level to put wood on him, to at least feel like you’re doing something.
“It’s a fine line,” Spurs forward Matt Bonner said, “because you don’t want to give people layups but at the same time, you don’t want to bail ‘em out. If you can stay between them and the basket, you want to try to show your hands and make them make a shot.
“It’s not a fluke. Not fouling is a point of emphasis here, it’s a teaching point, so regardless of who we’re playing – whether it’s a superstar or not – that’s how we try to play.”
There is one more benefit to the Spurs when they don’t foul: It avoids stopping the clock and grinding the game to a halt. Remember, San Antonio these days has a high-octane attack that prefers to keep pace in the game. It no longer wants to slow everything down in the half court.
Here’s how one Western Conference assistant coach put it: “A miss or a make can be better than a free throw. They don’t want to foul because if you’re at the line shooting free throws, they’ve got to take the ball out of the basket. Even on a make [made field goal], they get the ball in quickly and they want to play with pace. So as much as not fouling is important to them defensively, it’s important to them in running our offense.”
The challenge to Miami, then, is to either force the issue to earn its free throws or – if it can’t count on a symphony of whistles – to generate offense in other ways.
“We understand what they’re trying to do,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re an attack, aggressive team but three‑point spacing is important to us. Teams will take away what you’re good at, you will still try to get to what you’re good at … but ultimately you have to figure it out.”
Said Wade: “Obviously got to make more shots. One thing they do is try to flush you out, make you take tough shots, contest it. Or if you drive the basket, try to get you to miss without fouling.
“You gotta play with the flow of the game, gotta make more shots, shoot a higher percentage than we did in the first game versus this team. That’s what we did last year – we made shots. And if you don’t make shots, they’ll kill you.”