Keeping LeBron James on 18 points while shooting 43.8% from the field is as close to stopping him as you can get, and in order to keep him “down” at that level once more, it’s up to Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard to continue to play at the same defensive level they showed in game 1 of the NBA finals.
Tim Duncan had a weird start to the game in general, missing his first five field goal attempts, realizing that these aren’t the Memphis Grizzlies and the Miami Heat have a very different way of handling big men. So Duncan adjusted, and stopped trying to force things through the Pick & Roll that wasn’t working for the Spurs, scoring only 0.64 points per possession as a team on such plays.
He finished with 20 points, 8-of-14 from the second quarter onward. But his biggest contribution to the game was his perfect defense, which was as much about blocks and physically stopping shots (3 rejections, averaging 1.8 per game in the postseason) as it was about forcing LeBron James away from the paint, and keeping Chris Bosh shooting three pointers instead of mid-range jumpers he loves so much.
The key was keeping James away from the basket, and although LeBron did make 5-of-5 from inside 5 feet, he found it very hard getting in there. Kawhi Leonard is one of the few small forwards who is strong enough to tussle with James as the MVP lowers his shoulder and simply tries to get by on sheer force, and even when he wasn’t stopping him, Duncan was there in the paint to add the finishing touch.
James didn’t run into a brick wall like he faced with Roy Hibbert in the series against the Pacers, but the Spurs offer a different defensive look for him to figure out. Leonard is stronger than Paul George, and Duncan has better and quicker hands than Hibbert. More importantly, he isn’t easily drawn out to cover shooters like Haslem (who took only one shot in game 1) or Bosh, which doesn’t leave the paint open like it had been for the Heat when they tried to free up their “big” shooters against Indiana.
The Spurs are about lowering expectations. The opposite of Indiana and Chicago; trash-talking, loud, challenging. The Spurs feel they don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Simply focus on the game, maybe give the Heat some false-sense of comfort and softness, and then sneak up on them when it’s game time. It’s hard to think the Spurs actually surprised Miami with their basketball, because the Heat handled that offense quite well. It was the defense, which kept the Heat at only 0.50 points per possession on Pick & Roll plays, that came through more than anything else.
When you look at some of the numbers, it really came down to a shot here and there. A Chris Bosh miss, a Tony Parker basket. The Spurs turned the ball over only 4 times, the Heat turned it “only” 8, but it was enough to add to the reasons they lost the game.
And in that spirit, the Spurs enter game 2, which if they win, the series might be as good as over. And for that, like most teams say on days they win, it’s about complete focus and giving 100% on every play. Cliches, but they work. You don’t stop LeBron James with just one player. You do it with two, or more, and the Spurs have found their connecting duo to do it, hoping it doesn’t lead to eventually one of the other Heat players to step up and fill the void.