We head into tonight's Game 4 of the 2013 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, and I won't lie to you; I'm having a difficult time figuring out exactly what I'm watching. On the one hand we've got a Spurs team who has been opportunistic one one game, shot the lights out in the other, but in between showed an expected struggle with a team defense that plays physical on the perimeter. (How expected? The Thunder used this exact same tactic a year ago to win 4 straight). On the other side of the court, we've got the Heat, being led by LeBron James who seems to be struggling with the one thing that superduper athletes are prohibited from struggling against - self doubt.
Game 4 is going to be pivotal, and I see two general scenarios playing out:
1) LeBron James has one ace up his sleeve.
The card he can play is to go "Celtics Game 6" from a year ago. You remember that game, right? It was the game that LeBron decided that if he was going to lose, it would be on his terms. He then proceeded to shoot every open jumper, turnaround, and post move that the Celtics gave him, found his shooting rhythm early, and crushed the Celtics' dreams. It was not so much mastery over the game itself, as we've seen from LeBron during this season, as much as it was him taking a page out of Kobe Bryant's book, consequences accepted.
I think it is LeBron's best and perhaps only move left, and the reason why is because the Spurs have done to him over these 3 games exactly what they've done to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The Spurs defense is what I keep referring to as "next level" defense. Instead of meeting the other team head on like the Bulls, Grizzlies, and even Heat do, they understand that the game is played out over the course of 4 quarters and during that time percentages can stay in your favor if you stick to your principles. The Spurs' principles are basic (but implemented with complexity) - they are going to give LeBron any perimeter shot he wants. They are going to stay down on the pump fakes, they are going to trap him on the block, and they are not going to leave his shooters open. Easier said than done, of course, but that's what makes the Spurs, well, the Spurs. If you watch guys like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guard LeBron, especially in the 4th, they are playing with a principle governed by discipline (and perhaps a little fear of Coach Pop). They back up their stance and say to LeBron, "come at me, bro."
The result is that the most cerebral player in the game has too much to think about, and his aggression is set aside for a constant mental prodding of what the best play might be. You know what it reminds me of? This scene from "Rounders:"
It's crafty, it's devious, and I have a strong hunch that this is the game the Spurs are playing with LeBron's offense. Once they intentionally tip their hand on each possession - "I'm giving you THIS wide open shot," the mental mind either says, "That's what I want, I'm shooting it," as LeBron did a year ago in Boston, or he asks himself a dreaded question of self doubt - "Why?"
2) The Spurs are gearing up for another dominant win.
All of it hangs, of course, on Tim Duncan, the man that Pounding the Rock affectionately refers to as GOAT PUFF. What Duncan failed to do in Game 2 was twofold - a) he kept setting up on the left block instead of the right and/or top of the key, and b) he missed his shots.
Just like the Spurs were willing to do with LeBron, the Heat defense was willing to cede the left block to Duncan, and it paid off. He shot a horrible 3-13 for the game and never made the Heat pay with their hyper-aggressive perimeter defense. Missed shots can doom the night, especially if teams are struggling to get to the free throw line (as both have been in this series).
The bigger problem though was that Duncan's better side is his right, as he can pivot and shoot over anyone with ease. More importantly, by not flashing on the high post, either off pindown screens or out of the pick and roll, the Spurs kept getting trapped with the Heat's perimeter defenders, which opened up the passing lanes for the Heat defense to exploit. In Game 2, once this opening was exploited, the Heat were off to the races. In Game 3 however, the Spurs managed the traps much better. They not only cut down their turnovers, but by Duncan flashing high, he was able to catch and pivot, looking for the shooters on the perimeter. Once Danny Green and Gary Neal got into a zone, it was all over for Miami. The massacre all started with Duncan's ability to move to different parts of the court and make enough shots to keep the Heat defense honest.
Game 4 is going to be huge, and I fully expect the Heat to play a more physical brand of defense than in the past. The question is, how will the Spurs deal with it, and will they make enough open looks to hurt Miami? It won't take a 16 made 3-pointers night to crush the Heat defense, but they will have to continue to make their shots with consistency.
In the end, we've got the cerebral LeBron, who has the talent, knowledge, and smarts to win a game. On the other side, we've got Gregg Popovich. And Tim Duncan. And Manu Ginobili. And Tony Parker. In other words, the scales have tipped.
But then again, LeBron vs 2012 Celtics still lurks.