In the two games the San Antonio Spurs won in the 2013 NBA Finals so far, it seems that either a slightly lucky break (game 1) or a shooting spree (game 3) that won’t happen again were the main reason for the win, while in their losses, it was simply the case of being outplayed by a better team, while Tony Parker collapsed both times in the second half, and the man who should be backing him up, Manu Ginobili, was nowhere to be found.
Of course there’s more to this series than luck, whether it’s a last second shot by Tony Parker in the first game after already finding himself on the ground, or Danny Green and Gary Neal combining for an unreasonable 51 points and 13-of-19 from beyond the arc, hitting some shots you’d be crazy to take on any normal day.
But if the Spurs aren’t better than the Heat by 33 points, and Miami aren’t better than San Antonio by 19 or 16, where is the real point of junction between the two teams? Somewhere in between leaves a lot of grey areas and blind spots, although it seems that the difference is determined by two things: The Spurs’ ability to play efficient defense consistently, and have a relatively fluid passing game on the other end.
Different players are in charge of both factors. Tim Duncan is the heart of the Spurs defense, but he had such a remarkable season thanks to a few players: The emergence of Tiago Splitter, especially felt in the conference finals against Memphis, and the perimeter and individual defense provided by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, in turn supported by Duncan from behind.
The moment the Heat moved towards a shooters lineup, or small-ball if you prefer, that defensive system was exposed. The Spurs were forced to start challenging more and more shots, especially during the first half of game 4, which ended in a 49-49 tie. In the second half, their defense was already wide open, as Wade and James kept beating their men, while Duncan and Splitter were both forced to move away from the basket and give up driving lanes.
The offense was worse. To turn the ball over 19 times against the Heat, and especially giving up so many opportunities to James torch the floor through the transition game, is basketball suicide, and putting a team in an impossible situation to win. The Spurs’ defense works as planned, more or less, in a half-court type of game, but once it becomes a track meet, with James and Wade off to the races, there’s not a lot anyone can do.
Tony Parker was a mess, attempting only four field goal attempts in the second half, missing all of them. For what Manu Ginobili was there aren’t enough words at the moment. He simply made bad decision after bad shot after bad decision, and another 20-point night from Tim Duncan (grabbing only 5 rebounds, mostly because the Heat didn’t miss as much as before while also keeping him off the offensive glass) wasn’t even remotely close to being enough to help.
On these factors the Spurs will live and die to the end of this series, beginning in game 5, trying to remain a team that has never trailed in an NBA finals series. Unless Tony Parker pulls off a Dwyane Wade and recovers from this hamstring injury, while Manu Ginobili recovers from old age and terrible form, the chances of the Spurs doing anything systematic and not up to pure luck and chance is getting smaller and smaller.