Wow! That’s about the only word I could muster in watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals unfold. Miami got the final “wow!” of regulation when Ray Allen hit a game-tying three-pointer, and they got the final “wow!” at the end when they barely hung on in overtime, winning 103-100 and forcing a decisive Game 7 for the NBA championship on Thursday night (9 PM ET, ABC).
The big storyline is two great opportunities San Antonio had to close out this game and the championship, as well as some debated decisions. Today’s NBA commentary will start by reviewing these, and then move into what each team could like and dislike in terms of the big picture.
GAME 6’s DECISIVE MOMENTS
*Let’s start with the Spurs being up 75-65 after three quarters. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich took the gamble and rested his key players, notably Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Miami erased the lead and it was essentially even by the six-minute mark.
Over at the blog Stat Intelligence, which has a heavy NBA focus, blogger Jeff Fogle cautiously called the decision by Popovich “questionable.” That’s fair enough, but I think it’s a gamble Popovich had to take. You’re going to have to buy Parker and Duncan some rest at some point in the fourth quarter. Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra had to do the same with Dwayne Wade, and in a far more uncomfortable position, playing from behind.
Furthermore, we’ve all watched the NBA long enough to know that Miami had one more big push in them. If you play Parker and Duncan right away at the fourth quarter, you’re gambling on a blowout, and if it doesn’t work, your best players are gassed in the final minutes. I wasn’t surprised the Heat rallied, but felt Popovich used the lead to conserve his veterans.
*The strategy also paid off. Parker hit a huge three-pointer down the stretch and the Spurs had a 93-89 lead, and needed only to avoid turning the ball over and make their free throws down the stretch. They had six key free throws and five would have secured the championship. San Antonio only made four, with Manu Ginobli going 3-for-4, and Kawhi Leonard splitting a pair.
I look at Ginobli here. Leonard is a kid, at 21-years-old, and even if he weren’t, he’s not a lights-out free throw shooter from the line. Ginobli is. I won’t say making three of four is some kind of epic choke job, but if you’re a Spurs fan and someone tells you the title is coming down to Ginobli bagging four straight free throws, I think you take your chances. Because he missed, Miami was still within three.
*Now we move to a much more debatable decision by Popovich, and it’s to take Tim Duncan off the floor with his team ahead 95-92 and Miami realistically down to its final chance. The logic behind the move was defensible—with the Heat needing a trey, you’re putting in players who can chase defensively. LeBron missed a highly contested trey, but without Duncan on the floor, Chris Bosh got the ball to Ray Allen for a clean look, and the veteran three-point specialist banged it home.
I’m a little more torn on what I’d have done here. The irony is that, had I known Miami would make no attempt whatsoever to drive the lane, I’d have probably said it was best to leave Duncan out and do what San Antonio did, and chase the three-point shooters. There were still 10-12 seconds left when LeBron got the ball. That’s enough to time to put your head down, get in the lane, cut the lead to one and then take a desperation three if the Spurs make both free throws (something we note they had not done leading up to this). I guess I’m going to bail on saying what I’d have done, and say it’s a reasonable guess either way. I know that’s a little too political, but I honestly don’t know.
*Finally we come to the officiating decision that settled this game. San Antonio trailed by one in the closing seconds of overtime. Manu Ginobli got loose in the open floor and drove the lane. Ginobli drew contact from Allen. There was no call, and the game was all but over. Did the officials blow the call?
To me, two things are very clear—yes, the officials did blow this call. Ginobli was clearly hacked, it wasn’t the kind of incidental contact you might let go at this point in the game. It was the kind of contact that prevented him from getting to the hoop. The foul simply must be called at any time of the game and Ginobli, having missed from the line once before, was not likely to do so again.
But…and it’s a big but. In the Spurs big third-quarter run to open up the aforementioned ten-point lead, they were the beneficiary of several highly questionable calls against Miami. They were ticky-tack fouls, often off the ball and all but shut the Heat down for several minutes.
It was as though David Stern was looking NBA conspiracy theorists and saying “Take that!” If you’re a Spurs fan, and you’re willing to look at the big picture, rather than just the final no-call, you can’t put this on the refs.
WHY MIAMI CAN FEEL GOOD
Besides the obvious point that they’re still playing basketball when almost any other night, they’d have tasted defeat, the Heat can look at the stepping up of Mario Chalmers. He nailed four three-pointers and was an active presence all night. Given Chalmers track record in big games—all the way back to the 2008 NCAA final when he was with Kansas, I think the Heat can expect him to play well again Thursday.
The Heat also found an answer for Danny Green, who only hit one three-point shot. Defensively, they put LeBron on Tony Parker and forced the Spurs’ guard into a tough 6-for-23 shooting night. Miami held close to even on the boards, while playing their perimeter game effectively and they’re going to be a very tough out on Thursday night if they do that again.
WHY SAN ANTONIO CAN FEEL GOOD
When we talk about the Spurs having their chances to close it out, but failing, we refer to very specific instances of the start of the fourth quarter and the four-point lead in the final 20 seconds. But let’s take a bigger-picture look. San Antonio got nothing from their backcourt, they only shot 5-of-18 from the three-point line, while playing on the road against a desperate team with the best player in basketball.
And they still came within a missed free throw or secured rebound of winning the game. They shot 43% from the floor, which is not terrible, but I would see 45 percent as a mark of real offensive efficiency. What happens if the Spurs actually play well?
The flip side of this is that you can’t necessarily count on Tim Duncan having another 30 points/17 rebounds night, but even here it has to be noted that Duncan did his damage almost exclusively in the first half, yet the Spurs had their biggest runs in the second half. And while the 30 points might not happen again, Duncan is a warrior, and I wouldn’t rule out a 15-20 rebound game in Game 7.
THURSDAY NIGHT’S TITLE FIGHT
I always pick the home team to win a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs, and won’t change course here. We do need to note though, that the Spurs meet the criteria of being a team that can get it done on the road. They’re most similar to the 2010 Boston Celtics, another veteran team who missed a close-out chance in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers. But Boston had a double-digit lead in the third quarter of Game 7 and only lost by four.
I think if you’re San Antonio you take any situation that gets you to the final 5-6 minutes with a chance to just execute your offense, showcase your improved defense and try and steal a title. I expect them to at least get the chance, but the best player in basketball, on his home floor, and the road team not won a NBA Finals Game 7 since 1978, when Washington beat Seattle, is too much to go against.