NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: LeBron should be fine for G2 — No matter is more pressing in The Association than LeBron James‘ fitness for Game 2 of the 2014 Finals. The extreme heat in San Antonio’s AT&T Center caused the Miami Heat superstar to lock up from painful cramping in the left side of his body, and he missed the decisive minutes at the end of the championship series’ opener, when the Spurs closed in a 16-3 rush. Monitoring James’ recovery has been top priority for the vast media mob covering these Finals, so know this: As much as the 72-hour layoff between games might have been a bummer for entertainment’s sake, it could end up being vital to James’ capabilities Sunday night. As our man Fran Blinebury chronicled off Friday’s availability:
There was no latest update on the bags of IV fluid taken in by LeBron James, no count on the bags of liquids he’s ingested and, thankfully, no longer a step-by-step total of the trips he’s made to the bathroom.
James appeared less tired, more confident, more chipper and even channeled the ghost of Allen Iverson when teammate Dwyane Wade chided him for spending too much time chatting with media.
The four-time MVP has been resting and working with the Miami medical staff since he was forced to sit out the last 3:59 of Game 1 on Thursday with severe cramps.
“I’m going to get some work done today,” James said before the Heat’s practice on Saturday afternoon. “But there is no way to test my body for what I went through. The conditions are nowhere near extreme as they was, unless I decide to run from here to the hotel, that’s the only way I would be able to test my body out.
“But I’m doing well, doing a lot better. The soreness is starting to get out. I’m feeling better than I did yesterday and with another day, I should feel much better (Sunday).”
James said he will not go into Game 2 with any mental burdens from the incident, won’t wonder if and when his body might give out again.
“Well, for me and the situation that happened in Game 1 is like you don’t know it’s going to happen,” he said. “Obviously I felt the extreme measures, but I wasn’t the only one out there on the floor. So you just play and you worry about the results later. You can’t think about what may happen in the third or fourth quarter, live in the moment. And for me, whatever I can give my teammates if it happens again, hopefully I can make an impact while I’m on the floor and that’s all that matters to me.
“I can live with the results. If I’m giving my all and playing as hard as I can, I’m putting my body and my mind on the line for us to win, you know, for that guy back there in the back, it’s all that matters.”
No. 2: Spurs defend, don’t whack— Let’s face it, there’s a visceral satisfaction that comes from fouling an opponent who’s been having success offensively. It’s payback, it’s a message, it’s a way of getting the guy off you – but generally, he winds up getting his points anyway from the free-throw line. San Antonio has resisted the temptataion to get even – or to get lazy – by giving away points that way. And as NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner wrote, it’s a tactic that helps the Spurs at both ends of the floor:
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.”
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 their offense.”
No. 3: Eyes on Heat, Spurs bench guys — Conventional wisdom says NBA coaches shorten their rotations in the postseason, and by The Finals any such reduction is complete, with nearly as many spectators on each roster as legit participants. But the benches in this matchup again will play a pivotal role, particularly if it last six or seven games. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra will be clicking through his combinations, wrote our man John Schuhmann. San Antonio, meanwhile, will benefit from the care and nurturing of some deep reserves, according to NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan.
First, here’s some food for Heat fans’ thoughts:
Spoelstra is never afraid to make changes. He’s had 11 different guys in the rotation at one point or another in this postseason. That list includes James Jones and Udonis Haslem, who sat in Game 1, but who he could turn to on Sunday.
Spoelstra would turn to Haslem for defense. And given how well the Spurs shot in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and how well (and easily) Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter shot all night, defense is obviously a concern.
But the efficiency of the Spurs’ bigs wasn’t necessarily about how well the Heat’s bigs played defense. Those layups were more about a lack of pressure on the ball and slow rotations from the weak side. Neither Duncan nor Splitter were just punishing Miami in the post. They were catching the ball on the move and benefiting from the work of their teammates.
“There was a lot of defensive breakdowns,” Haslem said Saturday. “Not to say they can’t go one on one, but we had a lot of defensive breakdowns and we gave a lot of layups up. It wasn’t really them just throwing the ball in the paint and those guys just pounding on us.”
[If] Spoelstra wants to try it, he doesn’t necessarily have to turn to Haslem. He could just increase the minutes of Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen, who played just three minutes together on Thursday.
That pair has had some success at times in these playoffs. They were a plus-15 together in a three-point win in Game 2 of the Conference finals and are a plus-1 overall in 75 minutes together in the postseason. Bosh and Haslem, meanwhile, have been an awful combination. The Heat have been outscored by 57 points in 89 minutes with the two on the floor together.
Then there is this on the development of San Antonio’s backup unit:
San Antonio has boasted one of the deepest rosters in the league and benefitted from a group of reliable, fundamentally sound reserves who mesh seamlessly into the Spurs’ machine-like system. Numerous times during the regular season, the Spurs won games with one, two or even all three of the Big Three being strategically held out by Popovich with an eye toward making a deep playoff run.
Twice a shorthanded Spurs squad — once without Duncan, [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginobili, and later without Duncan and Ginobili — won at Golden State. In the final week of the season, the Spurs were in Dallas playing a desperate Mavericks team fighting for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
With Parker out of the lineup, backup point guard Patty Mills, a player under development in the Spurs’ system for three seasons, dropped six 3-pointers and 26 points in a 109-100 win.
“You obviously come into a program like this and you go through it and you learn the coaches and the system and how to react,” said Mills, who had seven points and a steal in 12 minutes in Game 1. “We’re past the stage of being scared to make mistakes. And I think we’re all part of that now.”
No. 4: A Love-Rondo package? — It’s starting to look like a both-or-neither situation in Boston, where the Celtics’ interest in Minnesota all-NBA forward Kevin Love is at a fever pitch. Hemorrhaging assets to land Love makes sense for Boston only if it intends to fast-track its rebuilding process and that means having point guard Rajon Rondo on board to chase down max victories and a playoff berth next spring. Not acquiring Love (or some other high-impact piece), however, keeps the Celtics on the slower track, at which point a fat new contract for the stellar playmaker might make less sense. Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald kicked around the dilemma some:
Love could be pivotal to Rajon Rondo’s future with the Celtics.
Without Rondo, Love has no reason to come here. Without Love, the Celtics lack an ironclad reason to hold onto their most valuable trading chip.
And with a contract that will pay him a very reasonable $13 million in his last season, Rondo is that rare combination of affordable, good and extremely tradeable.
There are many reasons why the mercurial Celtics captain may play better somewhere else. His ball-dominating style is better-suited to a team of veteran finishers than it is to Brad Stevens’ fledgling motion system.
It was preposterous two winters ago when, after Rondo went down with a torn ACL, the debate started over whether the Celtics were a better team without him. They did indeed go on a run in the ensuing two weeks with Avery Bradley at point guard. That’s how long it took for Bradley’s latent weaknesses at the position to be exposed.
The debate continues, though. The Celtics did seem to move the ball more quickly and efficiently with Rondo off the floor, even if the alternatives were backups like Phil Pressey and Jordan Crawford. They no longer have the finishers to convert his surgical passing late in the shot clock.
But [basketball president Danny] Ainge also must determine whether Rondo is a max-contract, cornerstone player on a young team. The evidence — namely, his inability to be a lead scorer — suggests not. He’ll also be 29 at the start of his next contract.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Speaking of Saunders, Wolves guard Ricky Rubio talked about Minnesota’s exec-turned-coach and Kevin Love’s situation from the 2014 adidas EuroCamp in Treviso, Italy … What Saunders is attempting hasn’t gone that well for Minnesota’s other refurbished coaches. … Orlando’s Arron Afflalo might be headed out of town via trade or his 2015 player-option. … Memphis forward James Johnson brought some blues to Beale Street. And to his wife in a domestic assault arrest. … NBA commissioner Adam Silver adds air-conditioning maintenance to the league’s Finals checklist. … Jason Terry with some hot air on the hot air. … Here are some heartbreak kids of past Finals.