This is no longer the Indiana Pacers or the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s the loud and clear message the San Antonio Spurs sent the Miami Heat last with the Spurs’ 92-88 win to open the 2013 NBA Finals. Whereas the Thunder in last year’s Finals, and the Pacers in this year’s Eastern finals, were susceptible down the stretch, San Antonio showed they can close games.
The Heat, in effect, went from batting against Jose Valverde in the bottom of the ninth—a good enough closer, but inconsistent—to batting against Mariano Rivera, and after Danny Green hit a big trey to give the Spurs an 88-81 spread with 2:12 to play, the veteran team was able to make enough plays on both ends in the final two minutes to secure the win.
After falling behind 9-2 to start the game, Miami seemed more or less in control for the better part of three quarters, but San Antonio kept hanging around and then the Spurs improved defense—something that was stressed here in our NBA Finals Preview earlier this week—really locked down and they won the fourth quarter 23-16.
Both teams actually played good defense, with neither getting to 45 percent from the floor, and while it seemed like the three-point shooting was good as I watched the game unfold, the box score told a different story—San Antonio was 7-for-23, while Miami was 8-for-25, neither even good enough to hit the minimum 33 percent threshold a team has to make for the shot to be justifiable.
HEROES & GOATS
If we’re looking for heroes for San Antonio it starts in a very predictable place, and that’s Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Parker was an efficient 9-of-18 for 21 points, the final basket of which literally beat the shot clock by a fraction of a second and sealed the game with five seconds left. Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and was the key reason the Spurs won points in the paint by a 40-34 margin.
If we’re looking for goats for Miami, Chris Bosh stands out above them all. He insisted on shooting threes, including a big miss when the Heat had the lead down to 90-86 in the closing minute. I agree completely with ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy—it’s not that Bosh can’t hit that shot. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes out Sunday night and knocks down three in a row if given the chance. But I know that, among all the little subplot matchups going on in the Finals, if I’m Gregg Popovich, I’m more than happy to let this championship end up as a referendum on Bosh shooting threes. He went 0-for-4 in Game 1.
LeBron James was also cold from downtown, going 1-for-5. Though James shooting the trey is more logical than Bosh, I’d still vastly prefer to see him going to the basket. James was exceptionally aggressive on the boards, with 18 rebounds and ensuring Miami won this battle, 46-37. It included a big put-back that cut the Spurs’ lead to two in the final minute. The MVP also did his usual job passing the ball, with ten assists. But I was expecting to see him get more assertive in the fourth quarter, take the ball to the hoop and get to the line, and that didn’t happen.
Green was the unlikely hero for San Antonio—well, maybe unlikely is too strong a word, but at the very least he was a little bit of a dark horse. His trey with 2:12 left was one of four he connected on, giving the Spurs’ offense the third component they needed to get over the top.
UNSUNG HEROES & GOATS
Now we’ll reverse sides and look at those from Miami who got it done and those from San Antonio that should feel relief. Let’s start with Ray Allen for the Heat. The veteran sharpshooter knocked down three of four behind the arc, and along with Mike Miller made Miami look at least a little bit like the regular season team that was razor-sharp from outside. Dwayne Wade looked like something close to his old self and was both efficient and active
Let’s also include LeBron here. I mentioned him in the previous section, because he was too passive offensively in the fourth quarter, but when you slap up an 18/18/10 night, you aren’t the reason your team lost.
For San Antonio, I was exceptionally disappointed with the play of Tiago Splitter, who managed only two rebounds. I don’t think the Spurs can win this series of Splitter doesn’t rebound better. I’m also going to lean toward putting Kawhi Leonard in this category. This might be unfair—he did have ten rebounds, and he drew the defensive matchup with LeBron, but he went 0-for-4 from three-point range. It doesn’t bother me that Leonard doesn’t score, given his imposing responsibilities in the nitty-gritty areas, but don’t go launching four treys if you’re expending yourself at the other end of the floor. San Antonio has plenty of people who can deliver from long range.
THE SUBTLE STAT EDGES
San Antonio might not have won the rebounding battle the way Indiana did, the Spurs did two things exceptionally well that made the difference in a close game. They hit their free throws. Trips to the line were fairly even, 18-17 for San Antonio. But the Spurs turned that into a 15-12 scoring margin. That’s hardly a huge deal in a normal game, but in one where every edge counted, three additional points on only one extra attempt was a swing vote.
Then there are the turnovers. Miami got used to Indiana handing the ball over left and right, but with Parker running the show, San Antonio was nearly flawless. They only had four mishaps. Miami had nine turnovers—hardly a bad number, but not good enough in this game.
A HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHT
Anyone who wasn’t convinced this is a true heavyweight fight has to believe now. The game’s crucial play—Parker’s basket alluded to above that represented the final points—came as it looked like Miami had him trapped and was going to get a shot clock violation. It was great team defense on the part of the Heat. But Parker has the presence of mind to not simply get off a shot, but keep his composure and square himself up as he literally got off the floor, keeping his dribble and beating the clock by a margin so close that it took a couple different replay angles to confirm it. That’s the fraction that seems to separate these two teams right now.
I expect Miami to win on Sunday night. The biggest reason is just the natural ebb and flow of a series and that it’s tough to imagine the favorite losing the first two games on their home floor. I look for a more assertive LeBron, and while I’m not looking for a Bosh revival, he simply can’t be as bad as he was on Thursday night.
Game time is 8 PM ET on ABC. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary resumes on Monday to shake it all out.