In the San Antonio Spurs’ Game 1 victory over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, the Spurs assisted on 30 of their 40 made baskets. The 30 assists are a number the Spurs’ offense never even tallied the previous year in the Finals against the Heat.
In the 2013 NBA Finals, the Heat limited the Spurs to 18.4 assists per game. The most assists San Antonio collected last year was 29, which was their best game of the series, as the Spurs defeated the Heat by 36 points in Game 3.
This postseason, the Heat defense is allowing 19.1 assists per game. Despite San Antonio playing what’s expected to be one of their worst games of the series (23 turnovers), they’ve already reached 30 assists. Saturday at both teams practice sessions, I spoke with a few Spurs and Heat players, to get their take on why the Spurs’ ball movement was so successful in Game 1.
“I guess the Heat were doing a good job of stopping the quick pass, or the easy drive,” said Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. “They were making us do 4 to 5 extra passes, so that probably got us a lot more assists, just making the defense scramble.”
“Their defense is very aggressive,” said Spurs center Tiago Splitter. “They gamble a lot. Sometimes they steal, but when they don’t steal, we have an open shot. That’s the thing, we have to be strong on the ball, and try to find those open shots.”
I then asked Heat guard Mario “Rio” Chalmers and forward Rashard Lewis about the Spurs’ 30 assists, and their takeaway, was it was mainly to due to miscues by the Heat defense.
“Well they’re a great passing team, but I think we made a lot of mistakes on defense, and we let them get into the paint too many times, and when they get into the paint, it creates opportunities for them to move the ball around and get assists when they’re knocking down shots,” said Lewis.
“A little bit of both,” said Chalmers of the Heat’s over-aggressiveness and defensive miscues. “We were kind of anxious, we broke down on some of our defensive principles. But it’s something that happens, but you just have to adjust to it, and be ready for Game 2.”
Asked what the biggest factor for the emphasis on ball movement has been, Spurs guard Danny Green pointed out to the Spurs’ head coach, Gregg Popovich.
“Pop,” said Green of the Spurs’ emphasis on ball movement. “He’s been on us the last couple of years. When we don’t move the ball, he’ll let us know.”
Green said that when the team goes through film sessions, mostly during losses, Popovich will stop the film and show just where there could have been pass to a man that was open, rather than what the player did – turned the ball over, shot a contested shot, made the wrong pass.
A play that allows for the Spurs to collect some of their assists, is the pick-and-roll. As I noted in my article after Game 1, the Spurs’ big men rolling off a pick scored 56% of the time, on their 9 scoring possessions per Synergy.
“Well I think it’s the play that we use all the season,” said Splitter of the pick-and-roll. “Me rolling, or Boris (Diaw) popping. It’s play that everybody in the league use, it’s the most common play. Then we have good playmakers like Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker) who knows what to do with the ball – shoot the ball, pass the ball, find the open guy at the 3-point line. I think that’s the key of basketball, you’ve got play well the pick-and-roll.”
I then asked Splitter if he felt the Spurs had the advantage in the front court with he, Tim Duncan, and Boris Diaw, as the Heat frontcourt is made up of Chris Bosh, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen, and Udonis Haslem. Though he said the Spurs do size-wise, the Heat still counter with their activity on defense.
“Yes,” said Splitter of the Spurs’ size advantage, “they don’t have (Serge) Ibaka for example, or (Kendrick) Perkins. So it’s a little bit different, it’s the way they play. They won us playing like this last year, so it’s not something that is easy. They have a lot of guys with a lot of activity putting the hands, slapping the hands, ball, or arms.”
Extra Time with Kawhi
At Finals practice, there’s more open opportunities to speak with players in a 1-on-1 setting at times. I had the opportunity to speak with Leonard for several minutes on other topics from Game 1, as well as a topic that dated back to early in the season.
With 2:33 minutes remaining in the first quarter, Leonard had to be subbed out with two fouls. Leonard wouldn’t return until the 7:00 minute mark in the second quarter, and then immediately only played a minute and a half before being called for his third foul at the 5:21 mark. With Leonard on the floor, the Heat’s Offensive Rating was 95.4 points per 100 possessions. When Leonard went to the bench, the Heat Offensive Rating jumped to a 107.4 points per 100 possessions.
Basically, the Heat’s Net Rating went from a -19.2 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor, to a -8.0 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the bench. I asked Leonard if there’s a mental effect when he’s having to play through foul trouble.
“I’m just going out there, and trying to play the same game,” said Leonard of how he approaches being in foul trouble. “If I’m not aggressive, then it stops my rhythm. My team needs me out there to be aggressive, not just wander around the floor.”
In Game 1, the Heat also came out with early possessions where they tried to get LeBron James in the post, in order to isolate Leonard on him, so the Spurs couldn’t just force James to take contested jumpers off the pick-and-roll.
I asked Leonard if he was surprised James tried to post him early. “No,” said Leonard. “I mean he’s going to play his game, and he’s been posting a lot more this year, and he’s been doing good at it.”
Lastly, early in the season, some of the “Twitter talk” had been about Leonard never eating a breakfast taco, as he was about to begin his third season in San Antonio. Well, as his third season is coming to a wrap in the next two weeks, Leonard had this answer for me on whether he’s eaten a breakfast taco.
(Statistics via NBA.com/stats)