Posts Tagged ‘2014 NBA Playoffs’

For Miami, frustration, humility, speculation and always drama


VIDEO: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade talk about the Heat’s loss in The Finals

SAN ANTONIO – The trek from the court back to the visitors’ dressing room at the AT&T Center is longer than most in the NBA. It requires Spurs opponents to slip through the tunnel at one end and then head down, beneath the stands, almost to the other end. A basic salt-and-pepper, industrial-strength mat shows them the way, behind a little iron railing.

On nights like Sunday, in the moments after their Game 5 elimination from The 2014 Finals, it’s way more perp walk than red carpet.

One by one, the Heat players, coaches and staff trod along that path, San Antonio’s on-court celebration revving up and booming through the building. LeBron James walked fast, head high, a phalanx of cameras and reporters tracking each step. Dwyane Wade came a few beats later, bare-chested, his Miami jersey gifted at some point after the final horn. They were stone-faced, revealing nothing beyond the harshness and letdown of the outcome.

Ray Allen strode by with purpose, inscrutable, deep in thoughts that surely didn’t include cheeseburgers. Then Pat Riley, looking almost wistful, resigned or ground down by the 70-point differential between his team and the Spurs (the fattest cumulative margin in Finals history). Chris Bosh paused, turned and shook hands with Heat assistant Bob McAdoo. Shane Battier spied a friend, smiled briefly and pantomimed a golf swing, a sign of his impending retirement.

None of them looked happy, obviously. None of them, however, was brought to his knees.

That, after all, is social media’s job, along with the rest of this what-have-you-done-for-me-five-minutes-from-now culture. It musters no patience, offers no comfort and certainly treats nothing sacred, particularly with this team, whose critics outnumber its fans 10-to-1, maybe 100-to-1.

However unceremonious its march into the offseason, Miami had wrapped up four consecutive trips to The Finals. The first, against Dallas in 2011, brought hard lessons and a little humility. The next two produced Larry O’Brien trophies, just like they all had pictured it. This one, three straight beatdowns still hanging in the air, had been telegraphed by slippage in the Heat’s defensive ranks and the loss (via amnesty) of Mike Miller from last year’s team.

This one carried with it some payback from the Spurs, who had been on the other side last June,and it naturally brought a skidload of questions, speculation and uncertainty.

Because this was the Heat and that’s how they roll.

So, Erik Spoelstra, have you guys underachieved? That’s how it went and that’s how it will go for days and weeks and months, now that the ol’ smoke-and-lasers pep rally back of July 2010 (“Not one, not two, not three…”) officially has stopped at two, at least temporarily.

Spoelstra referred to it as “the exaggeration that’s out there.”

“Even as painful as it feels right now, you have to have perspective,” the Heat coach said. “Even the team we’re playing against has never been to the Finals four straight years. You can’t be jaded enough not to appreciate that.”

Wanna bet? Only two other franchises – Boston and the Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers – ever had made it to four Finals in a row. But this was supposed to be about rings, not runners-up. It’s the life they chose, once James, Wade and Bosh conspired to sign with Miami four years ago and gild their resumes through a strength-in-superstar-numbers approach. (more…)

Spurs are one game away from redemption


VIDEO: San Antonio dominates Heat for second straight game to move to 3-1

MIAMI – This isn’t a five-point lead with 28 seconds left, but it’s close.

The San Antonio Spurs waited 12 months and played eight hoping to get back to this point, the place they’d reached last June when they had an NBA championship within their grasp. Only this time, of course, they’d grab it and hold tight.

It didn’t go that way a year ago when Ray Allen hit that shot in Game 6 and LeBron James shoved them aside in Game 7.

So the Spurs have lived ever since knowing they came closer to winning a title, only to lose it, than any other team in league history. Now they’re poised to fix that, to re-write the ending, to redeem themselves so completely that it might soothe the sting and heal any psychic scars. A real double-or-nothing opportunity, even if the Miami Heat haven’t signed off on handing over any rings.

Or…

The Spurs could do over three more games between now and next Friday what they crammed so miserably into that fateful half minute and all that followed. No team in Finals history ever has opened a 3-1 lead after four games and not gone on to win the championship. The record is clear: 31 teams have led 3-1, 31 teams have closed out successfully.

The Spurs and their fans dare not think about failing now. Heck, against the two-time defending champions and the world’s best basketball player, they dare not even breathe.

There might be no coming back from that sort of trauma. So the best thing for San Antonio to do might be to stay locked in from the moment their flight touches down back in Texas right through their next 48 minutes against the Heat.

Stay focused, stay driven, stay hungry, no pondering or calculating allowed, right?

“If you think about it last year, we had two opportunities to win,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “Now we have three. It’s not that different. So now we’re going to have one opportunity at home and we just have to think about that being the last opportunity.”

Uh, OK. He means Game 5 Sunday at the AT&T Center, right?

“That’s a Game 7 for us,” Ginobili said.

Enough with the pondering and calculating, Manu.

All the Spurs need to do to keep their sneakers on Miami’s throat and close this series out is to show up Sunday as big a moving target as they did for Game 4. The way they had shot in Game 3, the way they had hung points on the Heat at home and had blown them out, well, even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich labeled it an anomaly. Not gonna see that again anytime soon, players and coaches on both sides agreed.

They were right. What they got in Game 4 Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena was even more incongruous, outlandish and unexpected. It was an outlier of its own, a surprise even Malcolm Gladwell might not have seen coming.

The Spurs grew more dominant, not less, by shooting a little worse but defending better.

The Heat lost their way completely after a second consecutive punched-in-the-mouth start.

This time, instead of making a run that had the Spurs sweating when their lead dwindled to seven, the Heat squandered a brilliant third quarter from James (19 points) and never got closer than 13. San Antonio countered every thrust, matched every move and pumped its lead bigger by the start of the fourth than it had been at halftime.

If not for four missed free throws by Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in Game 2… actually, the Spurs and their fans dare not go there either. Already the best team through four games, San Antonio needs one more as near-flawless as the pair it played in Miami. But the sort of babbling and projecting Ginobili did above is asking for trouble. It’s the first sign of a team letting go of the rope, something the Spurs want no part of. Miami is too dangerous, even in its current flummoxed state. James might be back in Cleveland mode, having to do too much, but until his team is six feet under, he might as well be Michael Myers.

“I’m glad that they performed as well as they did while we’ve been in Miami, and that’s about as far as it goes,” Popovich said. “Now we’ve got to go back home and play as well or better.”

Said Boris Diaw, the Vive la difference forward whose upholstered physique belies his ball skills and awareness: “We are not going to make the mistake to think it’s going to be an easy game because we’re playing at home. We know they’re going to play for their lives.”

That sounds right – except that Miami was supposed to have been playing for its life Thursday, after the beatdown it took in Game 3 48 hours earlier. But the urgency never showed up. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his players were gracious, talking about how well San Antonio played. But 28 points from James and just 28 more from the other Heat starters won’t get them back in this series, never mind winning it.

The contrast in styles, not just in how they play and spread the responsibilities around but in how their rosters were built, was on full display Thursday. San Antonio might as well have been wearing sepia-toned uniforms the way it was working five-as-one, swinging the ball side to side and staying patient not just for the extra pass but the extra extra pass.

Miami, or at least its fans, kept looking for a star to fix the growing mess. James? Dwyane Wade? Chris Bosh? The team built around big names didn’t get enough boost from its main guys or enough bump from its role players.

The Spurs, meanwhile, purred. They were throwback-Thursday good, the audiophiles’ equivalent of vinyl over cold, bloodless digital. It’s that jazz thing that makes basketball better than other sports, five players working in concert, improvising off each other, the magic coming in the seams and the pauses rather than on the melody.

It’s important, naturally, not to overstate anything here. Miami somehow has managed to get to four Finals in a row and win two of them, this third one still pending. A victory at the AT&T Center in Game 5 should shift everything, including momentum, right back to the AAA. There were glimpses when James and Wade didn’t look good or very resilient during the game, but afterward neither seemed beaten or ready to spit out the bit.

“They’re able to throw it in another gear, and they’re going to do just that,” Duncan said. “They don’t want this to be done. They’ve already won on our [court] so they feel they can do it again, and we don’t want to give them any life.”


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich talks about the Spurs’ Game 4 performance

Game 4: Miami’s 1st ‘must win’ of Finals


VIDEO: What’s in store for Game 4 of The Finals?

MIAMI – The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs have played 10 June games against each other in a little more than a year. They’re 5-5 so far. In fact, San Antonio has outscored Miami 1,001-964, an average of 3.7 ppg. But the Heat players, coaches and front-office staff have all the rings based on last year’s Game 6 turnaround and Game 7 Finals clincher.

The Basics:

Game 4 tips off Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

The Heat get a second chance to do the home-court thing right, after suffering their first home loss of the postseason. They’re 8-1 after falling two victories short of the NBA record for most consecutive home triumphs in a single postseason.

Thanks to the revived 2-2-1-1-1 format, a pre-1985 configuration, Miami only has this one additional shot at home before the series shifts back to Texas, perhaps never to return. Then again, the Heat have history on their side, as in, they’re tenacious about not losing two in a row come playoff time. They have backed up their last 13 postseason defeats with a victory, in a streak that stretches back 48 games; you need to go back to the 2012 East finals, when Miami lost Games 3, 4 and 5 before pulling that series out in seven.

The Narrative:

The Spurs weren’t happy with their Game 2 performance, specifically down the stretch when they spoke afterwards about the basketball “sticking” in their offense, resulting in too many one- or two-pass possessions. That allowed Miami’s defense to zero in on the man with the ball, which is like Rottweilers zeroing in on a T-bone steak. So coach Gregg Popovich fixed that in a big way to start Game 3 — a big, big way that resulted in San Antonio scoring 41 points in the first quarter, 71 in the first half, and setting a Finals record for the hottest shooting first quarter ever (86.7 percent, 13 of 15). The Spurs led by 25 early and were able to manage that to their 111-94 victory.

Just like that, they grabbed back home-court advantage. But the Spurs know this series has merely followed the pattern established last June, when they enjoyed a blowout victory in Game 3 only to get thumped again in Game 4. Miami eventually would be fine if the script to this sequel hews closely to the original. Remember, Game 4 was the one last year when LeBron James caught fire, scoring 33, 25, 32 and 37 points the rest of the way. James had a familiar sort of intensity and resolve when he spoke to the media Wednesday.

The Subplots:

Big 3 vs. Big 3? Not so fast. San Antonio got its biggest offensive boosts from non-traditional sources. Kawhi Leonard set a career high – regular season or playoffs – with 29 points, attacking Miami every which way (perimeter, drives, 3-pointers, dunks) and shooting 10-of-13 overall. Danny Green, meanwhile, surprised the Heat by putting the ball on the floor more than they’d seen and getting inside the Heat defense. In 21:19, Green hit 7 of his 8 shots, scored 15 points and only hoisted two 3-pointers (hitting one). Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker? They totaled 40 points, fewer than James and Dwyane Wade (44).

Chris Bosh had played so well. He was hushing up his critics and asserting himself again in the Heat’s pecking order, and then … nine points. Bosh got just four field-goal attempts, getting neglected in Miami’s scramble to whittle down the deficit. The Heat got as close as seven points, but might have been too frantic about it because Bosh made every shot he took and the offense didn’t find him. If it’s not James going strong from the get-go, expect to see Miami serving its lanky power forward/center with early offense.

X’s and O’s:

James’ tendency of letting a game come to him, allowing it to breathe so he can assess the situation and summon the particular skills needed on any given night, experienced a rare backfire because Game 3 got out of hand so quickly. There was only one mode for James and the other Miami players to play in: catch-up mode. He would do well to impose his will and his powers on Game 4 from tipoff, and 22 points won’t be nearly enough against a hot Spurs team that can capitalize on mistakes.

What sort of mistakes? The Heat turned over the ball 20 times, leading to 23 of San Antonio’s 111 points. The Spurs had a 17-point edge in points off turnovers, in fact, and won the game by 19, so those things matter.

Popovich made a starting lineup change in the most recent game, using Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter. Diaw’s deft passing skills and vision lubricated the San Antonio attack by, specifically, getting the basketball moving from one side of the floor to the other. That ball movement and the spread in the Spurs’ spacing created maximum room for them to attack, using the Heat players’ aggressive close-out attempts against them by occasionally putting the ball on the floor as a Miami guy rushed by.

Who’s Hot?

Wrong question in Game 3, at least for San Antonio, at least in the first half. Better and simpler to have asked Who’s Not? When a team hits 19 of its first 21 shots, there’s nothing but hot hands in the rotation. Those who have sustained it the best, though, are Duncan (64.5 percent in the series so far), Green (63.6), Splitter (66.7) and Leonard (59.3).

Prior to this spring, James’ most accurate postseason came in 2009, when he sank 51 percent of his shots. But he’s at 57.0 percent in the 2014 postseason and 60.4 through the first three Finals games. He wasn’t wild about his seven turnovers in Game 3, though, or the 15 he’s had so far in this series.

Whatever happened to …

Mario Chalmers’ confidence has been dropping faster than South Beach revelers’ sobriety and standards after midnight. Always a pest, Chalmers has been reduced merely to that through the first three games. He has scored only 10 points, missed several open looks and invariably made the wrong decisions time and again. His backup Norris Cole hasn’t been much better, especially compared to his contributions in the East finals against Indiana. Then there is Shane Battier, who in this new Heat order has logged only 15 minutes through the three games.

Splitter’s contributions might be sliced if Diaw continues to start in his spot for the Spurs. Keep an eye on Marco Belinelli, a deep threat who has hit half of his eight 3-point attempts but is 0-for-3 inside the arc.

Bottom line:

Some of us in the media, while wishing no ill on the Heat and their three-peat ambitions, are awfully curious to see how they would respond to a two-game deficit in a best-of-seven. It’s been so long, y’know? Would their championship pedigree emerge in full and save them? Would the predicament be too dire for a team that might not be as good as the ones that grabbed rings in 2013 and 2012? It’s more of a gawker’s wish, eager for a different sort of drama than we’ve seen out of Erik Spoelstra and his crew lately.

But the truth is, Miami’s championship pedigree is the very thing that has enabled it to avoid two-game deficits in the playoffs since its loss to Dallas, four games to two, in 2011. Not getting burned doesn’t mean you don’t know how to work the stove – it actually means the opposite, and that’s how the Heat have rolled through the past three postseasons. The odds and the experts favor them to keep that going in Game 4.

Chalmers’ crisis of confidence contributes to Heat’s concerns


VIDEO: Mario Chalmers at the Heat’s shootaround the day of Game 3

MIAMI – Oh joy, Mario Chalmers soon might have LeBron James yelling at him again.

Actually, James offered that possibility with the very best of intentions, as a tactic to jar Chalmers – the Miami Heat’s often-irritating, widely criticized point guard – out of a confidence crisis here in The 2014 Finals.

Through three games, Chalmers was averaging 3.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.0 turnovers in 23.4 minutes. He has been called for 12 fouls, including a flagrant 1 when he jammed his elbow into Tony Parker‘s ribs in Game 2. The sixth-year guard has taken 12 shots and missed nine of them, including four of his five from 3-point range.

Neither he nor backup Norris Cole has risen to the moment, not so much undermining what the Heat have tried to do but not making anything easy, either. Which is what the Miami point guards are expected to do, given their second or third level of responsibility in the team’s pecking order.

That’s why James was talking about going back to an old approach with Chalmers, who traditionally has been more of a kick-in-the-rear than pat-on-the-back guy.

“Obviously, it’s weighing on him,” James said Wednesday on the series off-day at AmericanAirlines Arena. “It’s in his head right now, I think. He hasn’t said much. … But he can’t lose confidence in himself.

“As a leader, I’m going to give him as much confidence as I can, and I’m going to stay on him. Maybe I need to get back on him like I used to do in the past, when you guys used to see me really get on him. I’ve kind of laid off of him. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do.”

We’ve all seen that. It was as much a part of Heat culture in the Big 3 era – which Chalmers predated by two seasons, by the way – as LeBron’s headband/hairline watch and breathless updates on Dwyane Wade‘s knees. It was James or Wade or both airing out Chalmers for some on-court mistake, bossy big brothers pointing out their younger sibling’s mistakes.

Chalmers always took it, and the two Heat stars seemed to back off recently, either figuring he’d learned from their lessons or because they got tired of repeating themselves. The bottom line wasn’t bad, by the way: Four straight Eastern Conference titles, two consecutive championships with a shot now for a third.

But now Chalmers has regressed. He averaged 31.6 minutes in the 2013 Finals, along with 10.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 38.8 percent overall and 40.6 from the arc. During an inconsistent 2013-14 season, his corresponding stats: 29.8 minutes, 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 45.4 percent shooting and 38.5 percent on 3FGs.

San Antonio has noticed, but just to be safe is treating any decline in Chalmers’ play as a fluke. “We know that when he has a big game, usually Miami wins,” Parker said Wednesday. “So he’s a big X-factor, and we talked about it. Coach [Gregg Popovich] challenged me to make sure I have big games defensively, because last year he had a couple of big games and they won those games.”

Chalmers and the Heat would happily take one such performance now.

“Yeah, we have trust in Rio,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I don’t want him to shoulder the full responsibility.”

Trouble is, Chalmers sounds as if he does. That and more, in fact, based on his impending free agency and the likelihood that his struggles now will hurt his market value more than his two rings boost it.

It doesn’t help that Chalmers is handling this different than his big brothers would. James, when feeling heat or a need to lock in, unplugs from social media and, lately, talks openly about his belief that he is the “easiest target in sports.” Chris Bosh does what he can to ignore criticism and tell himself it doesn’t matter.

But Chalmers goes home after Game 3 and stays up until 5 a.m., going over video of the three games so far in this Finals and parts of all seven of the 2013 edition.

“To figure out attacking points and what I’m doing wrong,” Chalmers told a few wave of reporters who found him during the Heat’s media availability Wednesday, far from the podiums or lecterns. He was seated near some Heat deep reserves in the bench area, obscured from view by the folks standing near him.

So what did Chalmers see that has been lacking? “Just my energy, really, that’s the main thing,” he said. “I need to bring more energy to the game. [Last year] I was disruptive on the defensive end, which led to more breaks on the offensive end, more opportunities.”

This year, Chalmers has mostly just fouled, a pest running into Spurs players in the open court in a bad habit he’s developed though the years. For a guy who has been described as cocky at times in his career, seeing and hearing how rattled he is is a bit disconcerting.

“This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever been through,”Chalmers said. “It’s actually very tough right now. But I’ve just got to keep believing. I know my teammates trust in me, the coaching staff trusts in me. I just have to keep believing in myself.”

Chalmer said Bosh, in particular, has tried to lift him out of his funk. “Sent me a text message [before Game 2] since I was on the first bus,” he said. “Y’know, ‘Let everything go. Stop thinking so much on the court and just play the basketball you’ve been playing your whole life.’ “

Easier quoted than done at this stage. As eager as his Heat cohorts are that Chalmers get going, the Spurs are committed to him sputtering.

James and Spoelstra talked for a while about Miami’s efforts to build up Chalmers, remind him of the good times and get him going within the team concept. Either it’s going to get better for him and his team or, with the series zipping by, it’s going to get worse.

“You can give a guy as much confidence as you want,” James said, “but when a guy loses confidence in himself, it can be all downhill.”

Spurs’ ‘future’ hands them a present


VIDEO: Leonard’s career night helps Spurs take 2-1 series lead

MIAMI – Kawhi Leonard, the presumptive future of the San Antonio Spurs, was sorely needed in the present, lest these 2014 Finals slip too quickly into his and the Spurs’ past.

So the future was now in Game 3 against the Miami Heat, Leonard scoring a career-high 29 points and shadowing LeBron James into the sort of mere-mortal game San Antonio will need if it hopes to do this year what it couldn’t do last.

Leonard was jerked out of his foul-plagued funk in the two games in San Antonio by some pep talks and tough love from the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan as if he was, oh, Roy Hibbert. And he responded, mostly by ignoring the circumstances of these games and playing as if this were January.

Offensively, Leonard attacked Miami from the start, hitting all five of his shots in the first quarter and scoring 16 of the Spurs’ 41 points that period. Defensively the 6-foot-7 forward with the pterodactyl wingspan and Wolverine hands helped limit James to 22 points, just eight over the final three quarters when San Antonio’s fat lead cried out for something special after halftime.

Leonard had been outscored 60-18 by James in Games 1 and 2 combined, but he had the edge this time by seven. By relaxing, by seizing the moment while forgetting how momentous it was, Leonard sparked the Spurs to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and stuck Miami with its first home loss of the postseason (8-1).

“That’s how he’s played all year long,” Popovich said. “He’s got to be one of our better players on the court or we’re not good enough. That’s just the way it is.

“You know, it’s the NBA Finals. You can’t just be mediocre out there if you want to win a game, and everybody’s got to play well, and he did that.”

San Antonio wouldn’t be here now without Leonard, who took a strong next step in his third season. His value has risen each year, so much so that without Leonard in 2013-14 – he missed 14 games with a broken hand, one after a dental procedure and one to rest – the Spurs were an ordinary 8-8. With him? Try 54-12.

Leonard’s still just 22 (his birthday is June 29) and it’s fine for Popovich to weave him into a punchline, as he did after the forward’s 17-point, 11-rebound performance in the Game 6 clincher against Oklahoma City. “He’s the future of the Spurs,” the coach said, “partially because everyone else is older than dirt.”

But there could be no waiting around for Leonard in this series, no leaving it to the team’s past/present of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Much like Rajon Rondo forced his way into Boston’s Pierce-Garnett-Allen Big 3 a few years back, Leonard’s learning curve is ascending faster than the Spurs old guys’ is descending. He’s integral to what they do now, indispensable on nights they don’t.

So for Leonard to score nine points in the opener, nine more in Game 2 and get on the floor for only 55 minutes total due to early fouls one night and a disqualifying six the next, that wasn’t going to get it done for the Spurs no matter what sort of throwback games his elderly teammates mustered.

“He wasn’t down. I wouldn’t call it struggling either,” forward Boris Diaw said. “The fouls, especially in the first game, quick fouls early, didn’t let him be as aggressive as he is … and defense gives him some adrenaline for offense.”

Popovich acknowledged that he and others within the team had talked with Leonard in the two off-days before Game 3, though he declined to share. “Family business,” the Spurs coach called it.

Though the specifics were cloaked, the message seemed obvious.

“We just wanted him to be who he’s been the whole year, in the regular season and in the playoffs,” Popovich said. He said Leonard “overreacted” to the fouls called against him and “became very cautious.” “And he doesn’t play like that,” the coach added.

Said Duncan: “We’ve been on him about continuing to play.”

Leonard’s defense has gained traction swiftly through three seasons – he and James butted heads in last year’s Finals, with the Miami star shooting just 44 percent when they were on the court together. This season, the native of Riverside, Calif., earned a spot on the NBA’s all-defensive second team. The Spurs still rely on gang tactics but Leonard set career highs by averaging 6.2 rebounds, 1.73 steals and 0.76 blocks. His steals were the most by a Spurs player since Ginobili averaged 1.77 a decade ago.

James’ stats were modest for him – except for his seven turnovers, one of which came via a Leonard steal. “I was in a pretty good rhythm,” the Heat star said. “I just turned the ball over way too much.”

Leonard knew he had underperformed and, in his understated, man-of-few-words way at Tuesday’s shootaround had hinted he would give a better showing.

“Yeah, for Game 3,” Leonard said at the end of the night. “But the series is not over yet.”

Don’t let him shrug off the moment. Said Miami’s Ray Allen: “He attacked us.”

Leonard’s 29 points weren’t just his NBA career high – they apparently were the most he’d scored since high school. He had 26 for San Diego State as a freshman in a game at Wyoming, Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears reported, and 26 in an April game against Memphis this season. He’s the first player to set his personal scoring high in a Finals game since the Nets’ Kenyon Martin went for 35 in Game 4 against the Lakers in 2002.

Leonard scored 20 points or more only three times in the 2013-14 regular season but he did it twice more in the West semifinals against Portland. He had five games among his 66 this season in which he led San Antonio in scoring, but he has done it three times now in the 21 playoff games.

No longer a bonus, his offense now ranks as a Spurs need.

“He has many ways of scoring,” Ginobili said. “His handles are good. We don’t give him the ball to play a pick-and-roll, but he can do it. … He has a great 3-point shot, everybody saw it. His percentages during the season were great. He can post up, [he has] mid-range game.

“So he’s young and he’s on a team where it’s not we go at him every time. So he does have great potential but it’s going to depend on him, as always, of not being too satisfied with what he’s doing now, working at it and develop.”

Leonard has been developing for three years, his rookie season cut short by the 2010 lockout. Duncan got his first glimpses of him then, when Leonard showed up and worked out in San Antonio while waiting for the games.

Duncan wasn’t impressed.

“I thought he had a lot of work to do,” Duncan said. “He wasn’t shooting the ball like he does now. But Pop and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way.

“Last year I thought he really got his confidence and understood what he had to do, and he continues to evolve year after year. This year, you can see when he gets in a groove like that, he can be special.”

Never mind the “can be” stuff. San Antonio needs Leonard strictly in the present tense.

Spurs, Heat growing as mutual irritants


VIDEO: The GameTime crew previews Game 3 of The Finals

MIAMI – Familiarity breeds…

“Another game,” Chris Bosh said, blowing the old saying but offering perspective all the same on the Miami Heat’s ongoing clash with the San Antonio Spurs. With Game 3 of The 2014 Finals Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat and the Spurs will have played their 10th consecutive Finals game against each other.

That’s something that hasn’t happened since 1997 and 1998, when the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz played 12 straight head-to-head. The Bulls and the Jazz had seen more than enough of each other by that point, thank you. And though Bosh didn’t complete the saying with “contempt,” it would seem that after nine games against the same guys, two Junes running, the Heat and the Spurs might be getting their bellies full of each other.

“Hell yeah,” the Miami forward said after his team’s morning shootaround Tuesday. “I know we’re on their nerves. They’re on ours. So it’s part of the game. Going through shootaround, you know every single play that they’re running – but you still have to go over it. It’s a part of the grind. But we’re building confidence in our defensive coverages as we go, so that’s really helping us.”

It’s too soon to say if the Spurs and the Heat are working up a good dislike of each other. LeBron James said the other day a rivalry might exist if they faced each other four times in the regular season rather than two, as dictated by East vs. West scheduling. Still, this best-of-seven championship series did seem to gain some edginess Sunday.

That’s when Miami point guard Mario Chalmers jammed an elbow into Tony Parker as he drove to the basket for the series’ first flagrant foul. Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard fouled out, limiting his time (31:32) and his impact.

That’s also when Tim Duncan and James were slapped with the series’ first technical fouls. Last year in their seven-game chess match, there was nothing more wayward than a defensive three-second call.

Also, Game 2 was only the third time in the nine games that San Antonio committed at least 20 fouls, and only the third time the Heat shot more than 20 free throws. And if you want to break it up this way – the Spurs have lost three of their last four against Miami, with James averaging 32.3 points – that’s the sort of stuff that starts to chafe. Ditto this: The winner of  Game 3, when The Finals has been tied 1-1, has gone on to win the championship 30 of 36 times (83.3 percent).

So for all the mutual respect flowing between the clubs, each stands in the way of the other. Same guys over and over. Great competitors and irritating too, Chalmers admitted. “Definitely. Second time around,” the Miami guard said. “Both teams want it just as bad. Now they’re trying to leave everything out there to get it.”

Bosh goes clutch to answer his critics


VIDEO: Chris Bosh comes up clutch for the Heat in the final minutes of Game 2

SAN ANTONIO – When LeBron James wasn’t talking about cramps in the two days before Game 2 of The 2014 Finals, he was explaining why he considers himself the “easiest target in sports.” (Short answer: Nonstop media coverage and inflated expectations since he’s been 15 years old.)

That led to a natural follow-up question Sunday night for Chris Bosh, James’ teammate with the Miami Heat. After all Bosh, even in flattering coverage, ranks third among the Heat’s Big 3. In the snarkier accounts, or Shaq‘s occasional wise-guy remarks, he’s the Fredo of this particular Corleone crew behind James and Dwyane Wade.

“I’m probably the second [easiest target],” Bosh said after Miami’s 98-96 victory to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1. The 6-foot-11 forward scored 18 points and, despite his meager rebound total of three, was active enough defensively that he and Rashard Lewis outscored Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter by a combined 32-20. Spot San Antonio Boris Diaw off the bench, along with the Heat’s Chris Andersen, and Miami still had the edge, 35-27.

Then there was Bosh late. He took a pass from James in the right corner for a 3-pointer with 1:18 left, turning a 1-point lead into a 2-point advantage. On Miami’s last offensive possession, it was Bosh who drove inside, drawing the defense and dishing to Wade for a dagger layup to make it 98-93 with 9.4 seconds left.

And sure enough, Bosh was talking about validation afterward. Because after years as Toronto’s cornerstone and go-to guy, he is and remains third on this team. He’s the butt of social media jokes, a source of frustration for the Heat fans with paper-thin loyalty and just sensitive enough to process all the noise.

“I think validating yourself is a constant process,” Bosh said, before adding, “I really let that go a long time ago. I don’t care about those things. I focus on the game and what we’re supposed to do with it. We have a chance to compete for another championship. That’s all that matters to me now.” (more…)

Few freebies from San Antonio defense


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks about the Spurs’ defensive philosophy

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.”

Heat nation counts on LeBron’s hydration


VIDEO: GameTime: LeBron report

SAN ANTONIO – There is cool air pumping through the AT&T Center, site of The 2014 Finals again this weekend. And LeBron James is confident he’ll be playing in Game 2 Sunday when the series resumes, his Miami Heat club down 1-0 to the San Antonio Spurs.

But that doesn’t mean James has moved on yet from the cramps that derailed him down the stretch in Game 1. He was achy and exhausted when he met with the media Friday, a non-practice day for the Heat but particularly an off day for James.

“I’m pretty sore right now just from the muscles spasming up and they’re starting to release, but I’m pretty sore in my legs,” James said early Friday afternoon. “What I went through the last twelve hours was getting up and using the restroom a lot. I got two-and-a-half bags of IV last night right after the game. So between 2 a.m. and 11 a.m. I got up about six or seven times. So obviously I got no sleep.”

As James spoke in a makeshift interview room at the Spurs’ practice facility on the outskirts of town, there still were about 54 hours to go before tipoff of Game 2 Sunday night. It sounded as if James planned to use every one of them in his rest and re-hydration.

He initially joked playfully that he might have to sit the next one out, but quickly swatted away his own set-up lest someone take it wrong and add to the criticism that already had come his way.

“No, I’ll be all right,” James said. “I should be 100 percent on Sunday. … Training staff said I should take it light today. Give the body another day to recover, tomorrow I should be back on my feet full go, and I got all day Sunday to get ready for Sunday night. Don’t worry, you guys can talk about me as much as you want. I’ll be there on Sunday as well. I’m not hiding.”

The electrical system responsible for the cooling system in the Spurs arena had failed sometime before tipoff, zapping the AC while permitting the lights to burn (the Spurs announced Friday it had been repaired). That led quickly to a warm building that grew more stifling as the game played on.

Several players on both sides said Friday they still felt drained or fatigued nearly 15 hours later. James referred to it as “extreme conditions,” and said he noticed during warm-ups the building’s unusually hot temperature.

“I felt it get a little warm. And I actually sat on the scorer’s table for 10 minutes and stopped warming up, so I could cool down a little bit,” he said.

By the start of the second half, James had changed his uniform, had maxed out his fluids intake and still was feeling the ill effects. He subbed out sooner after halftime and then locked up completely after his driving layup with 4:09 left. His left leg cramped up and wouldn’t let him move. Miami, up 94-92, got outscored 16-3 the rest of the way.

James finished with 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting with four rebounds and six assists, but then, he didn’t didn’t exactly finish. He hobbled back to the locker room to begin treatment before the final horn.

“My body just shut down,” he said. “Basically my body said, ‘Okay, enough jumping for you for the night. You’ve had enough.’ Nothing I could do about it.”

James has gone through this before.

The Heat star has dealt with this before, most famously in Game 4 of The 2012 Finals against Oklahoma City. It has given him a layman’s expertise, far more experience and knowledge of cramping than he’d prefer to have.

“I’ve been very preventative,” James said. “This happened to me a few times. Happened to me a lot in high school. I have been tested for it; all the tests came back positive. So we’re always up on it, and stay ahead of the curve, and [Game 1] was one of those nights.

“The body just decides to shut down. I mean, I hydrated as much as I could to the point where your stomach feels like it just can’t take anymore. Last night it just got to a point where the body just had enough, just dehydrated. Between jumping and running and cutting and sweating and a little bit of everything, exhaustion, you know, the body just hit the shutdown. … You know, it’s frustrating for sure, but nothing I can do about it.”

Someone suggested that James might be endorsing the wrong sports drink or wearing the wrong accessories, given the extreme heat and toll it took on the players’ bodies. He preferred not to get sidetracked from the challenge of getting primed and healthy.

“I’m here to win a championship, you know,” James said. “And obviously I’m conscious about the things that I endorse, but that’s not in the forefront of my mind.”

As for his on-court style and its contribution to heat retention, James said: “I actually don’t wear a lot of [stuff]. I wear a pair of tights, underwear, jersey and shorts, socks and shoes and a headband, arm sleeve.

“Compared to my teammate D‑Wade, he looks like a football player compared to me.”

 

Cramps cut down The King

VIDEO: Tim Duncan and the Spurs beat the Heat — and heat — in Game 1

SAN ANTONIO – LeBron James probably has had 140 or so “podium games” in his NBA playoff career (he’s played 154). And then, finally, in Game 1 of The 2014 Finals at the AT&T Center Thursday he had …

A sodium game.

Dehydration from an overheated arena with a broken-down air conditioning system led to severe cramping for the Miami Heat superstar, and the cramping sent James to the bench at pivotal moments in the fourth quarter, a quarter won by the San Antonio Spurs 36-17 as they grabbed a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven championship round.

Grabbed it and were lucky not to have it squirt from their hands, from the perspiration.

“As the game started, I was like, ‘Wow, it feels nice and warm in here. I’m feeling good,’ ” said Miami guard Ray Allen, the leanest and probably best-conditioned player on the floor. “Then when we called the first timeout, [Dwyane] Wade was drenched. And LeBron said, ‘He looks like he played the whole game already.’ “

Playing the whole game was a problem, particularly for James. Temperatures in the building, high at tipoff, only rose with a sold-out crowd of 18,581, the bright lights of network TV coverage and the intensity on the court.

James said he downed a bunch of fluids at halftime and even changed his uniform “to get the sweat up off of you.” Both the Miami and San Antonio trainers gave their players ice bags and cold towels on their respective benches. It was managed as well as it could be, until the mercury rose further and adrenaline mattered less than electrolytes.

“I got all the fluids I need to get,” James said after getting more delivered intravenously in the postgame locker room. “I do my normal routine I’ve done and it was inevitable for me. … I lost all the fluids that I was putting in in the last couple of days out there on the floor.”

The Spurs’ Tim Duncan had noticed James subbing out a couple of times in the second half and assumed he was tired, same as the rest of them. Only it was worse than that. The Heat star had battled cramps before – he had famously returned from a bout with them in Game 4 the 2012 Finals against Oklahoma City to hit a crucial shot – and he was seizing up Thursday night like never before.

The worst of it came deep into the final quarter after James subbed back in with 4:33 left. He drove hard to the rim for a layup and kept going into the baseline area, pulling up, testing his leg and finally just stopping. Was it an ankle injury? Nope, more like his left hamstring and calf muscles caught in a vise grip. He was, in that instant as the Spurs pushed the ball toward the other end, helpless. He had to be hurriedly half-carried to the bench, lest the Heat get charged with a timeout.

“The best option for me to do was not to move,” he told a pool reporter late Thursday. “I tried and any little step or nudge, it would get worse. It would lock up worse and my muscles spasmed 10 out of 10.”

It was not just James’ left leg but, he said, “damn near the whole left side.” Down 94-92 when the cramps stopped James, Miami got outscored 16-3 from over the final four minutes.

To their credit, the Heat didn’t dwell on James’ condition as an excuse for their unraveling. “I was worried about him,” Allen said. “But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about it as much as what we needed to do. We did let go of the rope a little bit. We gave up stuff defensively and offensively, we didn’t get to our stuff. We had some empty, open possessions we didn’t convert and they did.”

Allowing the other team to shoot 58 percent and turning over the ball 18 times can undercut grumbles about a thermostat.

Still, it was bizarre seeing a Finals opener being decided with James sitting out right in camera range, planted on the bench not by foul trouble but by the body that has been so good to him in this instance betraying him.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made the decision to shut him down for the night. “Look, at one point he was getting up with 3½ minutes to go,” Spoelstra said, “and I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. You can’t even move at this point.’ ” Instead, James was dispatched to the locker room and, minutes later, the Heat were simply dispatched.

Afterward, a few especially creative conspiracy theorists tried to float the notion that the Spurs somehow arranged for the AC breakdown, calculating James’ propensity for cramps. But Rod Thorn, NBA president of basketball operations, considered the circumstances little more than another hot game, like a bunch of other hot playoff games through the years.

“What you are looking for is to make sure that the conditions on the court are fine, and in this case there was no one slipping,” Thorn said. “Once the game starts, it’s in the hands of the referees. Had the referees felt at any time – or I had felt at any time, I was sitting the second row midcourt – that the game should not be continued, then they would have come over and said something to me. Never did.”

Both coaches used nine players, but ran them in and out more like hockey shifts.

“Players were pretty dead,” San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich said. “So we tried to get guys in and out a little bit more than we usually do. Kind of screws up the rhythm but it was mighty hot out there.”

Said Spoelstra: “We’re used to having the hotter arena at this time of year.”

Unpleasant as the temperature in the building was, most of the players had experience performing in similar conditions. Heat forward Shane Battier likened it to his time at Duke, playing in that campus’ famous Cameron Indoor Stadium in its pre-air conditioned days. “It was a huge, huge, homecourt advantage. Ten thousand people on you, no AC – it brought me back,” Battier said.

Allen and James flashed back to their high school gym. San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said: “We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all.”

Thorn said the NBA believes “very strongly” that the air conditioning issue will be fixed by Game 2. Both the AT&T Center and James have until Sunday evening to get right.

“I need it, I need it,” the Heat star said, adding that he and the training staff would start replenishing his fluids Thursday night.

Allen, a fitness maven, offered a more detailed recovery plan for his teammate. “Obviously it starts the day before, coming into the game, just refueling and resting,” the veteran guard said. “But when you’re out there, you’ve got to get that salt back into your body. You’re dispensing so much of it. For him, we’ve got to find a way to keep getting Gatorade into him while he’s on the bench, just to make sure he stays hydrated.”

Technically, James’ endorsement deal is with Powerade. But it wasn’t a night to remember for the sports drink folks, either.

VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses the impact of LeBron’s cramps on Game 1