There was one sequence during the Miami Heat’s 109-93 Game 4, victory against the San Antonio Spurs that summed up the game perfectly.
It came during the fourth quarter, when the Heat started gaining firm control of things. There were eight minutes left in the game and the Heat were up seven after a beautiful Dwyane Wade floater. The Spurs came down the floor and ran one of their staple plays: A side screen-and-roll between Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Ginobili executed the play well versus Miami’s trap, finding Duncan open on the roll to the baseline, where Shane Battier met Duncan on the help before Chris Bosh came over to double Duncan. The Spurs saw a ton of those traps in Game 4, for Miami’s defense was suffocating any space the Spurs created, particularly anytime that Duncan got the ball on the baseline.
Miami’s double on this occasion restricted Duncan’s movement and his passing lanes, and he missed what would usually be an elementary pass to Splitter underneath the basket, with the ball caroming off Splitter’s finger tips. Splitter didn’t give up on the play, though, and saved the ball from going out of bounds by tossing it to Danny Green. In Game 3, Green probably would have calmly released the corner three over Ray Allen, but the Heat made a smart adjustment in Game 4, forcing Green and Gary Neal to beat them on the drive. Green got down into a triple-threat position and drove baseline before Allen and Battier walled him off. As a player unfamiliar with creating off-the-dribble, Green made a risky pass to Ginobili on the wing.
Wade, who was waiting in the weeds for that exact play, stole the ball and blew past Ginobili, getting to halfcourt with only Gary Neal in sight. Neal had a couple of feet on Wade and was darting at angle in an attempt to cut him off. In Game 3, Neal may have been able to deter Wade’s journey to the rim, or perhaps he would have swiped at the ball to force a turnover. On this night, with everything going Miami’s way, Wade would flashback to his days as Flash, pulling off a vintage Wade move, eurostepping past Neal’s body and into the paint. Simultaneously, he gathered the ball above Neal’s head, and once Wade had brushed off Neal, he threw down a monster slam and grit his teeth on his way back down the floor.
It was a microcosm of the entire evening. The Spurs executed their offense the way they wanted to against Miami’s initial traps, but the Heat’s backline rotations were flawless for the majority of game four, forcing the ball out of the hands of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan and making Neal and Green beat them as drivers. Miami’s swarming defensive philosophy is a high-risk, high reward system that can lend itself to very bad beatdowns if the effort and attention to detail isn’t there (as we learned in Game 3), but a 2-1 deficit brought that next level intensity out of the Heat once again, and they gobbled up the Spurs offense in the second half while forcing 18 turnovers for the game.
Bosh was key in this. As the Heat shifted to a small ball lineup, Bosh was left as the lone big on the floor for Miami for most of the night, and his help defense on drives and pick-and-rolls was unbelievable. Bosh, who finished with 13 rebounds and finally had a good shooting game (20 points on 8-of-14), was as tuned in defensively as he has been in a few weeks. People forget this element of Miami going small, the fact that they still have to protect the rim with a nominal power forward that was once thought of as a bad defender. Give Bosh a ton of credit, he has put in the work to become a much better defender and his ability to anchor the paint with four perimeter players around him is a big reason the Heat were able to win the title in 2012, and a big reason they are back in the hunt for the 2013 title.
And there was Wade, finishing off that transition dunk as he did so many others on this night: With the athletic grace and vitality that made him such a special player in his prime. Although LeBron James was the game’s leading scorer and certainly answered the call to be more aggressive in Game 4, it was Wade’s offensive contributions that helped the Heat surge past the Spurs.
Wade talked before the game about stepping into the mid-range shots that the Spurs were conceding to he and LeBron with confidence, and both players did that last night. It is not that surprising for James, who has become an elite shooter, but it was shocking to see Wade comfortably taking those outside shots and making a few, bad knee and all. When the Spurs sagged off of him when he didn’t have the ball, Wade made cunning cuts on the baseline to find good looks at the basket.
Wade also had a lot more burst in the paint than we have seen from him in this series, and he was able to finish baskets at the rim for the first time in what seems like forever. Given that the Spurs had previously declared that part of the court off limits for Miami’s stars, it was huge for Wade to wiggle his way into the paint so often. After shooting just 16 shots in the restricted area in the first three games of this series, Wade took 12 shots at the rim last night and converted on 10 of them. In addition to his old school eurostep dunk over Neal, Wade also had some pretty finishes with contact and over San Antonio’s bigs. Wade finished with 32 points, six rebounds, six steals and four assists; as pundits like myself wondered if Wade still had it in him to perform at this level, Flash made an appearance to show us that he still had it in him.
It was, as James said, the kind of game that let’s you know that you’re still one bad man.
Speaking of James, he also stumbled upon some rhythm in this game. After the first few minutes of the first quarter, it appeared as if James was going to play another tentative game, as the Spurs jumped out to a 15-5 lead with LeBron not touching the ball on most plays. But Erick Spoelstra must have said something during that timeout — perhaps he ribbed James for listening to Imagine Dragons in that Beats by Dre commercial — or maybe that was when he decided to ditch the team-first attitude for a stretch, because he was a different player for the rest of the night.
After scoring just one point in the first five minutes of the game, James ended up with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the final seven minutes of the period, putting him well on his way to the 33 points on 60% shooting that he finished with. During that late first quarter stretch was the first time that I saw LeBron constantly pushing the ball in transition after Spurs misses, which allowed James to get to the rim with ease for fast break layups, something we haven’t seen the Spurs concede until Game 4. It was a matter of James deciding to put his head down and attack the paint despite the bodies by the rim, and he may have finally realized that he can finish over almost anybody most of the time.
It was obvious James had found his zone in this game because of his confidently he was stepping into his shots off pick-and-rolls. He wasn’t taking a couple of seconds to think about what the Spurs were offering anymore, he was taking whatever they would give him instantly, knowing he could make them pay. After struggling to find his mid-range stroke in the first three games, James shot a ridiculous 7-of-9 from 16-23 feet in game four as he finally discovered his shot. I doubt Wade will be able to offer up another high-volume scoring game by way of the jumpshot, but James getting in rhythm with his outside shot takes his game, as well as the Heat’s overall attack, to another level, and could spell danger for the Spurs.
We had been wondering when the Miami Heat’s big three would show up to these 2013 NBA Finals, and they were nearly too late. But Wade, James and Bosh all played tremendous games last night and it came just in time to steal back homecourt advantage without digging themselves too big of a hole. Now it’s time to wonder when San Antonio’s big three will finally arrive in unison, as Parker has been spotty, Duncan has been quiet and Ginobili has been straight up depressing.
Who will show up? Will Ginobili get back on track? Will Parker be healthy? Will LeBron keep it up? Does Wade have another big time performance left in the tank?
“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Wade said. “See you Sunday.”
Yes, you will, Dwyane. Because this series is way too eccentric and entertaining to miss.