MIAMI – The ball did not stick in Game 3. And the results were remarkable.
After his team lost Game 2 of The Finals on Sunday, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich remarked how the ball “stuck” too much in his team’s offense.
According to SportVU, the Spurs made exactly the same number of passes in Game 2 (337) as they did in Game 1, and on fewer possessions (88 vs. 95). But some passes are better than others, especially against the Miami Heat defense. When you say the ball sticks, you could mean that it sticks in one guy’s hands or that it sticks to one side of the floor.
In the first half of Game 2, the Spurs swung the ball from one side of the floor to the other with a pass just 19 times (on 46 possessions). They were passing, but they didn’t necessarily move the ball effectively. Here’s an example of a possession where the ball was passed four times, but stayed on the right side of the floor.
In the first half of Game 3, the Spurs swung the ball from side to side with a pass 30 times (on 44 possessions), which led to a relentless attack of the paint.
Monday’s Film Study noted the Heat’s ability to close out on shooters and force the Spurs’ into 23 mid-range shots in Game 2. On Tuesday, the Spurs attempted just eight mid-range shots, the same number as they attempted in their Game 1 victory.
When the ball is coming from the other side of the floor, closing out on shooters is tougher. The Heat’s weak-side defenders are generally in the paint, ready to help on a drive or cut. So when the ball is reversed, they have a longer distance to travel than if the ball is coming from the top of the key or the same side of the floor. They may get to the 3-point line, but their momentum keeps them from being able to stay in front of their man as easily.
And when the defender is coming from far way with that momentum, attacking those close-outs is easier. With the ball moving from side to side on Tuesday more than it did on Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green went right at the Heat’s recovering defenders.
Here are a few examples…
Play 1: Swing and attack
- NBA.com/stats video: Leonard drives and draws a foul
The ball movement wasn’t crisp on the Spurs’ third possession of the game, in part because they were trying to take advantage of a mismatch – Mario Chalmers guarding Leonard. But once they saw that they couldn’t get the ball to Leonard in the post, the ball swung from the right side of the floor to the left. And when the ball came back to the right side, Leonard had just enough of a lane to the paint…
Leonard drew a foul on Chalmers on the play, but also could have hit Tony Parker for an open 3 in the left corner…
Play 2: Got him with the rocker
- NBA.com/stats video: Leonard gets by Wade and gets an and-1
A few possessions later, the Spurs quickly swung the ball from the left side of the floor to the right, and then reversed it back to Leonard at the top of the key. With 16 seconds left on the shot clock, the Heat were already scrambling, with LeBron James having totally lost contact with Leonard and Dwyane Wade forced to switch out …
Leonard looked to swing the ball to Green, but James recovered well enough. Wade displayed some great awareness to see James on the baseline and know that he had to go guard Leonard. And because Leonard first looked to pass (and because Chris Bosh also hedged over), Wade was able to get in front of him. But a simple rocker move got Wade leaning to his left, and Leonard was able to get him on his hip, get into the paint, draw a foul on Bosh, and hit a nifty scoop shot.
Play 3: Green gets in the act
- NBA.com/stats video: Green gets by Wade for a runner
The ball stays on the right side of the floor on this play, but it’s another example of Leonard’s and Green’s attack-the-close-out mentality. After Parker gets a sideline screen from Tim Duncan and takes the ball toward the right corner, he reverses it to Green. Wade closes out and positions himself to force the ball to the sideline …
… but Green uses Wade’s momentum against him. He attacks that right leg and gets into the paint for a runner.
Play 4: Taking what they give you
- NBA.com/stats video: Green drives off another ball reversal
The Heat are trying to push the ball to the sideline on their close-outs. They do not want the ball in the middle of the floor, where layups can be had and passes can more easily be made to whoever is open.
We were still in the first six minutes of the first quarter when Parker and Duncan ran a standard high pick-and-roll. A quick pass put the ball in Boris Diaw‘s hands with Ray Allen sinking down to the right block on the weak side…
Two passes and 1.5 seconds later, the ball was in Green’s hands on the right wing. Allen closed out and, just like Wade, positioned himself to force the ball to the sideline…
Unlike Wade in the play above, Allen has help in the presence of Duncan and Chris Andersen, who are preventing Green from attacking that right leg. But Green still uses Allen’s momentum to get to the basket. He just goes the other way.
Where the title will be determined
Green set a Finals record with 27 3-pointers in last year’s series. And Leonard’s mid-range shooting has improved quite a bit since he came into the league. But the pair were a combined 12-for-12 in the paint in Game 3, because of how well the Spurs moved the ball from side to side and because of how well they attacked the Heat’s close-outs.
There’s a reason all three Finals Film Studies thus far have been about the Spurs’ end of the floor. The Heat have been solid offensively throughout the series, especially when James has been able to stay on the floor. They’ve scored at least 105 points per 100 possessions in eight of the 11 quarters in which his body didn’t shut down.
In order to win their third straight championship, the Heat will need to get more consistent stops. They’re trying to be only the fourth team in the last 35 years to win a title after not ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season. And there’s a reason why only three teams have done it in that span.