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Project Spurs mailbag: NBA Finals edition part II

In the second Project Spurs mailbag (NBA Finals edition!), I answered readers questions on the Spurs’ Finals and postseason MVP, how Miami can adjust to Boris Diaw and whether that Kawhi Leonard guy will ever talk to the media. (Spoiler: Probably not.)

To have your question answered in next weeks mailbag, tweet @quixem or email him at quixemramirez@gmail.com.

Zack Gonzalez asks, “Any chance Kawhi Leonard ever opens up to the media… Like…. Ever?”

Vegas odds: 250/1. (Basically, the odds are very unlikely.)

The media, following his 29-point performance in Game 3, quite possibly his best two-way performance of his career, has poked and prodded at Leonard during the Finals to no avail. Not even Guillermo from Jimmy Kimmel has gotten through to him. He’s a tough cookie to crack.

He approaches the media with the disdain (or, rather, just plain indifference) of a high school student taking Calculus.

“He speaks less than Timmy ever did,” Gregg Popovich said yesterday. “He just wants to do his job. He wants to be a great player and go home. I don’t think you’re ever going to get him to sit down and expound on a whole lot of things.”

During yesterday’s media session, he said he doesn’t talk much because some players — like Tim Duncan — are 10+ years older than him and share little in common. Some of the younger players have families and Kawhi just didn’t want to bother them. Instead, he put countless hours into his game to the point where Gregg Popovich has to kick him out of the gym.

But he did say he’s opening up a bit more to his teammates — it’s his third year with the team and he’s already comfortable with the system, his game and his role. Perhaps we hear more from him, but I wouldn’t expect a novel anytime soon.

Karla Battung asks, “Do the players watch NBA news or read any specific column before and after each game? Any they stay clear of?”

I have no idea, honestly. There aren’t many people capable of compartmentalizing the intense media scrutiny and play world-class basketball at the same time. Could you play basketball and pay attention to social media at the same time? LeBron avoids everything all together and he’s the best basketball player in the world. It’s just too much to handle. (Understandably. As tough as these athletes are, they are people too and facing the unforgiving Internet each day can be exhausting.)

In Tom Haberstroh’s feature on Chris Bosh (which you should definitely read), Bosh said, “First year, I cared. I read it all. I did.”

Then he stopped. You can’t put too much stock into what people say about you if you want to play well. The 24/7 pressure the media exerts is impregnable. You can’t defeat it. But you can ignore it and focus on the things that matter most.

Chris asks, “Is Kawhi this team’s MVP? I mean in the true sense (not best, but most valuable).”

Matthew Tynan put it best: He’s the difference between good and damn near unbeatable. The Spurs are 68-19 when he plays this season — a sparkling 78 winning percentage, equating to a 64-18 record over a single NBA season. By contrast, when he sits out, the Spurs are 8-8 — Minnesota Timberwolves territory.

I maintain that Tim Duncan is still the team’s MVP, even at his reduced state. He influences both ends of the floor, sets great screens, pops out for mid-range shots, decimates smaller defenders on the block (Miami is struggling to defend him), bends defenses and he’s a terrific passer. You could also go with Tony Parker and maybe even Manu. Kawhi belongs in the same conversation. They wouldn’t be in their second straight NBA Finals without him.

There is no right answer. Just preference.

Juan Manuel asks, “Who is your Finals MVP through three games?”

Boris Diaw won’t get serious consideration for Finals MVP, but he deserves some praise in this space at the very least. The Spurs have outscored Miami by 45 points in his 102 minutes, per NBA.com, a massive 23.4 net rating. Popovich inserted him in the starting lineup in Game 3, a gambit many didn’t anticipate this early in the series, and the Spurs were +20 with him on the floor. He’s averaging 6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and shooting just 35 percent this series. He doesn’t have the traditional stats to back up his claim, but if he continues to bend defenses and punish them for trapping Parker, he’ll be one of the most important players.

Diaw won’t win it, though. Realistically, this is a four-player race between The Big Three and Kawhi. Right now, I’m giving the MVP to Duncan by the slimmest of margins, with Kawhi right behind him. Parker and Manu can move up the ladder with a couple of dynamite performances, too. This is a wide-open race.

Kuestmaster asks, “Who has been the Spurs MVP throughout the playoffs?”

Kawhi. He’s defended LeBron and Durant almost exclusively and some LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki, too. The Spurs have been 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this postseason, per NBA.com, which is even better than his regular season mark of 9.6.  (They’ve played better competition!) His usage rate is nearly identical and his true shooting percentage is only a few points lower. He’s been who he has been the entire year, as Pop put it. He’s been up to the challenge.

John Lugo asks, “What way do you think the Heat can successfully counter against the Spurs putting Boris Diaw in the starting lineup?”

Last season, Miami’s small lineups set the tone for the series. When they surrounded LeBron with Bosh and three shooters, the Heat were much, much better than the Spurs. It forced Tiago Splitter out of the starting lineup to compensate and pressed the Spurs into playing the same game. Miami won that battle and they’ve won any small ball battle handily since 2012. (The perks of having the best player in the world.) This series has been a bit different. Their most used lineup this series, the starters, have scored 118.1 points per 100 possessions (very good!) and allowed 118.2 points (very bad!).  Even the smaller lineups, which have barely seen the floor, haven’t been effective.

Boris has thrown a wrench into the Heat’s plans. He hurts them in the pick-and-roll when he pops out as a safety valve for Parker. He’s attacked hard close outs and pierced the second-line. He’s rebounded well and ensured the Spurs’ offense runs at the peak efficiency. The Spurs can play both big and small when he’s on the floor, neutralizing some of the advantages Miami created last year.

No Miami lineup logging time this series has been productive. I don’t think there is any specific adjustment they can make, except trusting their smaller lineups more often and forcing Boris out of his comfort zone on defense. (For his size, he’s quite good on the perimeter.) They have LeBron, the NBA’s ultimate catch-22, and giving him space is still their best option this series.

Steve Hall asks, “Which as-of-yet unproductive Heat player is most likely to hurt the Spurs in the next few games?”

Mario Chalmers has been bad this series. In Game 3, he scored two points, missed all five of his field goals  and turned the ball over three times in a series low 22 minutes. He played two minutes in the fourth quarter, ceding most of his time to Ray Allen and Norris Cole. Cole, in particular, isn’t quite the shooter Chalmers is but, where they sacrifice spacing, they gain on defense and decision making. He’s competent enough. If Chalmers strings together another poor game, we might see Spoelstra go to Cole more often.

B. Palacios asks, “Will we see Greg Oden play non-garbage minutes?”

No, unless something catastrophic happens. Miami will exhaust every resource before they rely on Oden for non-garbage time. Andersen and Udonis Haslem actively hurt them on offense. James Jones just shoots and fouls people. Miami has serious issues in their front court. Oden doesn’t solve any of them.

Spurs Talk asks, “What’s the reasoning for Bonner getting minutes?”

He’s played 10 minutes and 48 seconds in three games, which I wouldn’t consider “getting minutes.” He played a series-high 9 minutes and 45 seconds in Game 3, mostly just to give Diaw a burn. He played each minute while Chris Andersen was on the floor, a zero-dimensional offensively player he doesn’t have to worry about defensively. Popovich has re-worked his rotation to where Splitter replaces Duncan and Bonner replaces Diaw. The Spurs don’t need Bonner much this series, except for a few minutes. He’s valuable in the sense that he replicates some of what makes Diaw important in this series: Spacing (without the other worldly facilitating).

Aiden Eccles asks, “Is Austin Daye out to steal Matt Bonner’s job?”

No.

Joel asks, “How big is your Finals mailbag, and how do you carry it around?”

The world will never know.

Quixem Ramirez

About Quixem Ramirez

Quixem Ramirez is the sports editor for the University Star, the content editor for Toros Nation, and a staff writer for Project Spurs. He enjoys basketball and pie -- sometimes in that order.

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