Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – Welcome to the circus. The White Stripes blared through the PA system while nearly 20,000 hysterical Miami fans chanted in unison as the Birdman led a contingent of the Heat players in some sort of strange ritualistic hybrid bounce-dance number with periodic fire flames flaring behind them. This Miami pregame introduction was reminiscent of the obnoxiously premature pep rally held by the Heat upon the signing of Chris Bosh and LeBron James in 2010. Don’t get me wrong, the NBA Finals are one of the grandest stages that the world of sports has to offer and a franchise should be able to celebrate the honor of hosting this event however it sees fit. I concede that the purpose of the pregame introduction is to whip the fans into a frenzy and generate the energy necessary to maximize your home court advantage, so I’m trying my best not to be overly critical of the Heaification of the NBA where the marketing of basketball as a billion dollar entertainment product has become seemingly just as important as the showcasing of a sport played at its highest level. But on the other hand, the NBA Finals are one of the grandest stages that the world of sports has to offer so exercising a bit of class and decorum in reverence to the historical sacredness of the moment might be in order (especially when you’ve been here before). But what do I know, I’m just a basketball purest who has been watching this event since I was 5 years old. Funny, I don’t remember ever once seeing Larry Bird or Magic Johnson dance before an NBA Finals game. To his credit, LeBron James did not participate in this pandemonium but stood there stoically mentally preparing for the battle at hand.
Game 1 on Thursday night was a monster of an NBA Finals game. From the moment that the two teams took the court, it was easy to sense an aura of determination on both sides that has the makings to provide for one of the greatest Finals match ups in league history. San Antonio controlled the opening tip and immediately committed the type of cardinal sin that is probably necessary for us to commit regularly in order for the Miami Heat to be afforded an opportunity to win this series comfortably. The Spurs turned the ball over on a lazy pass that led to an easy Dwyane Wade transition dunk off of a LeBron James dish at the other end. I guess we can chalk that first play up as the single most glaring manifestation of the “rust” that many analyst hypothesized would rear its ugly head to hurt the Spurs after a nine day lay off since our last game. Over the next 47 and a half minutes, the #BlackAndSilver only turned the ball over three more times to tie an NBA Finals record for fewest in a game set by the Detroit Pistons in Game 4 of the 2005 Finals against the Spurs. This was crucial because it gave San Antonio an ability to hang in the game by preventing Miami the aforementioned comfort that their fast break attack provides to their overall level of play. After the initial turnover on the first play of the game, San Antonio settled down nicely to jump out to a 9-2 lead. During the run, Danny Green partially put one of my biggest fears about this series to rest by knocking down his first three point attempt. The biggest unknown for me, going into this series, is whether or not the San Antonio spot up shooters could continue to consistently knock down open three pointers with the added pressure of the enormity of the Finals. Green was clearly up to the task hitting on 4-9 from three for the game. The other spot up shooters were a combined 1-9 from three with Kawhi Leonard going 0-4, Gary Neal going 1-5, and Matt Bonner not even attempting a three. Manu Ginobili in a confident and efficient NBA Finals game hit 2-5 with both of his makes being run stopping daggers to keep the Spurs within striking distance while the Heat enjoyed the lead. Manu finished the game with 13 points on a conservative 4-11 shooting with 3 assists, 2 steals and only 1 turnover. As a team, the Spurs shot only 30.4 percent on 7-23 from the arc. This is somewhat concerning moving forward because our ability to knock down open shots off of Tony and Manu’s penetration is key for San Antonio to win this series. Our shooters will invariably shoot better at home, so (given the lay off and the intensity of the energy in the building) the percentage of threes we hit on Thursday night was decent enough to help the Spurs hang in and thwart extended Heat runs.
After the initial 9-2 burst by the Spurs, the Heat settled down and punched us right back to take a lead that they would not relinquish again until the fourth quarter. Throughout the game both teams seemed to be feeling each other out, unable to impose their will for prolonged stretches. The Spurs seemed to be in an early predicament when both Kawhi and Tim Duncan got into early foul trouble. To add to our cause for alarm, when Timmy left the game with his second foul he was 0-5 from the field having missed a handful of shots that he normally makes. With Duncan on the bench, Miami was able to build their lead to nine and by the time Tim returned in the second quarter the Heat seemed like they were on the verge of breaking the game wide open. But the focus was clearly evident on Timmy’s face when he walked purposefully back into the game and he went on to take command of the rest of the quarter scoring 12 points, gobbling up rebound after rebound, blocking a couple of shots, and calming sinking a buzzer beating jumper with 0.8 seconds left before halftime to cut the Heat’s lead to only three at the break. Number 21, aka Time’s Father, went on to have a prototypical Tim Duncan NBA Finals line with 20 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks. Without out the utter domination of the second quarter by one of this stage’s most magnificent performers, the Spurs would have all but assuredly been facing a double digit deficit after 24 minutes. All things considered, I felt pretty good to be within striking distance at the half especially considering that Tony Parker had not really broken free to start picking apart the Miami defense at his normal level of proficiency and also because the Heat had squandered several opportunities to build their lead to a large enough margin that we might start questioning our ability to compete. Luckily, San Antonio was able to do what we so often have done in the past and use our mental toughness to play through adversity and hang in a rough game on the road.
The third quarter offered more of the same. Miami extended the lead and then San Antonio fought our way back to close to even. In fact, when the quarter was over the Spurs were in the same position that we were at the half; trailing by three after playing the Heat to an even 20 to 20 in scoring for the period. While the “rust” versus “rest” debate (in regards to the Spurs’ ability to perform in Game 1) had been debated exhaustively all week, it had seemingly not tilted dramatically in one direction or the other in the first three quarters of game. I remember predicting during the timeout between the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter that the Spurs had a golden opportunity to take advantage of the “rest” side of the equation during the fourth quarter and out work Miami to steal the game and home court advantage for the series. Miami had played an emotionally taxing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night and by the fourth quarter much of the “I’m playing in the NBA Finals” adrenaline that was likely fueling them through out the game would begin to dissipate. This prediction proved accurate as San Antonio dominated the fourth quarter on the defensive end of the court by limiting Miami to only 16 points and forcing them into a couple of costly turnovers in the closing minutes and with the game in the balance. Despite the visibly more energetic defensive acumen, the Spurs (who finally took the lead on a Kawhi put back tip-in) were still in jeopardy of coming up short down the stretch. Miami seemed positioned to potentially sneak back and re-steal the game by making just enough plays on offense to keep the entire city of San Antonio on edge. In order for the Spurs to secure the victory, it took another put back tip-in and two clutch free throws by Timmy as well as a “step aside young fella, you’re not ready to check me” spin move around Norris Cole for a reverse layup by Tony Parker and oh yeah, this…
The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals 92 to 88 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida to improve to 5-0 all time in Games 1 of the NBA Finals. Kawhi Leonard’s individual defense on LeBron James was commendable. As the primary defender for most of the game, Kawhi held James to 18 points on 7-16 shooting. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron still had a monster game racking up a triple double with 18 rebounds and 10 assists but on this night the consensus best basketball player on the planet was unable to impose his will enough to lead his team to victory. In fact, it was Tony Parker who imposed his will to not only earn my player of the game honors but lead the Spurs to a victory that dramatically shifted both the balance of pressure squarely onto Miami for the next game in this series and also the perception of Tony’s greatness as a basketball player. In Twelve Down, I argued that Tony should be universally recognized as the best point guard in the world and that he should be in the conversation for best basketball player in the world. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, Tony backed up my argument scoring 10 points including two of which that came on one of the most memorable game clinching shots in NBA Finals history. Parker finished the game with 21 points, 6 assists, and 2 steals and his fourth quarter performance on the road in a hostile setting was just about as great as anyone could ask for out of a basketball player. The Spurs were fortunate throughout the night to minimize their turnovers in order to put themselves in a position for Tony to take over the game and once again Tony came through in the clutch.
Asked during the post-game press conference if San Antonio did anything special during the preparation for the game to limit turnovers, Coach Pop responded, “Sometimes you have turnovers, sometimes you don’t…we don’t do ‘no turnover’ drills, I don’t know what those are.” Even if Coach Pop’s game plan didn’t include a strategy for tying an NBA Finals record for fewest turnovers in a game, it was clearly effective. Possession after possession down the stretch, Erik Spoelstra’s players looked less prepared and over matched as the Spurs got into our sets quickly and executed the plays that we wanted to while the Heat seemed erratic and indecisive under the pressure of the Spur’s formidable defensive scheming. Even though the Spurs also missed a lot of shots down the stretch, our ball movement allowed for players to be in the proper positions to capitalize on second chance opportunities. There is no doubt that Eric Spoelstra and his staff will have the defending champions better prepared to execute down the stretch in the next game, but in a series that could prove to be offering us two of the most evenly matched teams in Finals history, losing a winnable game at home because the opponent was better prepared to execute their game plan might prove costly. Consequently, the Spurs have put Miami in a position where the pressure is squarely on the Heat as they face as close to a must-win scenario for Game 2 as a team could possibly face in a non-close out game. The pressure is greater than normal because of the 2-3-2 format of the NBA Finals. Should a group of 13 San Antonians heist another victory in South Florida after spending an extended weekend near the ocean, the Spurs will come home needing to only win two out of three of the games in our humble little city in order to win an NBA championship. That scenario is a world of hurt that Miami wants no part of. Therefore, we can clearly expect a brilliant performance from the defending champions tomorrow evening. There is no reason why the Spurs can’t match that brilliance and put ourselves back in a position to be within striking distance in the fourth quarter to steal another game and come home to San Antonio squarely in the driver’s seat. Should the Spurs find that that opportunity presents itself, I am happy to take my chances that Tony Parker’s decision making in the guts of the game can be greater than the decision making of LeBron James. No matter what adjustments the Heat make on defending Parker, he has clearly demonstrated that he has the ability to counter and quite literally only needs 1/10th of a second to read the defense and make the proper play. No one has made more cold blooded reads during these 2013 NBA playoffs than Tony Parker and hopefully he can continue to showcase his greatness by coming up clutch throughout the duration of the NBA Finals and under all of the lights.
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