I just finished watching game three of the NBA finals and my first reaction is “man, Kawhi Leonard can play.” Leonard made the world’s greatest player, LeBron James, uncomfortable all night long with some stifling on-ball defense. Leonard always had his hands up and forced LeBron to play away from the basket for most of the game. And then there was Leonard on offense. He lit up the Heat defense to the tune of twenty-nine points and showed that he really is capable of being a star player. He shot the ball well from three point range and he displayed some fantastic athleticism driving to the basket. He also seemed to play in a more cerebral manner than I can remember seeing him play. Overall, San Antonio better hope that Leonard just unlocked the sleeping monster that would easily be the difference maker in their championship run.
Following the game, I spent a little time wondering how both of these teams, the Heat and the Spurs, were so good. This series represents a rematch of last years NBA Finals and it is Miami’s fourth trip in as many years. The Spurs had the league’s top record and I believe lead the league in offensive efficiency. The two teams dominated at stretches during the playoffs to make is back to the finals once again. It got me to think about what made these teams so good year in and year out. I came up with a short list of the primary reasons for both teams success. Surprisingly, they model each other in these regards making them very similar.
Both teams are littered with future Hall of Famers that could go out and attempt to make every play on his own. Rather than take that approach, both Miami and San Antonio have great team play. The Spurs are one of the greatest at moving the ball and moving off the ball. Their offense, while successful, is flowing and constantly moving. Even when they are setting up the pick and roll, players are shifting and positioning themselves to ensure they are ready to make a play. That all stems from everyone believing they are going to get the opportunity to make a play. There is no one who takes all of the glory. For all he is criticized, LeBron James is one of basketball’s best distributors and team players. He is always aware of who is playing well and who could use a boost. I have seen plenty a time where LeBron has made a concerted effort to get another player involved because he understands the importance of having everyone playing at a high level. And for as talented a scorer James is, he consistently spreads the ball around and sets up others for easy shots. The style of play is completely selfless and it is clear that both teams have bought into playing as a team for a championship. (Not to mention sacrificing money in contracts to add other key players around them. If that isn’t selflessness, then I am at a loss for what is.)
Even with the right mindset, it helps to have so much talent on both rosters. San Antonio is the king of rotating players evenly across the board to avoid fatigue and spark creativity. Gregg Popovich has a great system down that allows him to make full use of all of the players he has. From his stars, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, to his role players, Patty Mills and Thiago Splitter, Pop gets everyone to contribute. There are so many players on this Spurs team that are capable of playing at a high level and making significant contributions. The fact that Manu Ginobli comes off the bench for San Antonio should let you know how deep this team is. On the Heat’s side, they do not have the same kind of crazy rotation but they do have some incredible “role players.” The best examples of this would be Shane Battier and Chris Andersen. These guys are by no means stars but they come in, make big plays and frustrate opponents with their energy and determination. That Heat bench also has Greg Oden and Ray Allen among others. Both teams have more than just five starting players who can contribute and run the team when the stars are slumping. It was astounding the number of times I would look out on the floor and see one San Antonio starter on the floor with four subs and still they would have success on the defensive side of the ball. That is the mark of a great team.
The last key to the puzzle for the Spurs and Heat would be the man holding down the fort. Popovich and Miami’s Eric Spoelstra are true leaders and represent no-nonsense authorities. They are fierce competitors and excellent motivators. They both blend the star power and bench players to create a more than effective and well rested team. These two men are clearly decorated and really embody that silent leader image. Without these two leading the way, both teams would likely fall apart throughout games and lack cohesiveness among players. Popovich is clearly one of the best of all time but I think Spoelstra gets overlooked despite making his fourth consecutive finals appearance. They are the ones who make those slight adjustments that make the game so diverse in style and usually fairly close. I also am astounded by the confidence they have in their players to be creative and make plays on their own. These two are clearly headed for the Hall of Fame themselves.
This has been a very entertaining NBA Finals so far and I am looking forward to tomorrow’s game four. We will see what adjustments are made and if Miami can bounce back from their sub-par defensive performance. Those are my thoughts on the two team’s dominance. Let me know what you think.