Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buying in to the System

If the 2014 NBA Finals did anything, it was to once again reveal to us how amazing the concept of "system" basketball is. We often forget of how important the role players on each team are, in any championship team, the Spurs didn't rediscover this, they've known this all along, all 2014 did was to re-emphasize that point by the popularizing of role players like Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and Danny Green against arguably three of the biggest superstar names in the NBA in recent history in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. After a struggle against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, which ended up being a brilliant chess match between Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich over 7 games, the Spurs handily defeated three teams that arguably had the hottest stars of the league. First it was the unexpected but dangerous duo of LaMarcus Aldridge, arguably one of the best if not the best PF currently in the league, with a mid-range game that makes him neigh unguardable at 6-11, and the up and coming PG Damian Lillard. After that, the team that was pegged to be locked in the next 5 NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, after their summary decimation of the Spurs in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder, featuring an unparalleled scorer in Kevin Durant and a blistering combination of athleticism and energy in Russell Westbrook (incidentally, the Thunder have not made it back to the Finals since). All of which led up to the first Finals rematch since Michael Jordan's Bulls faced off twice against a John Stockton and Karl Malone led Jazz in 1995 and 1996.
Despite looking vulnerable coming into the 2014 Finals, the Heat were the defending champions, having won two championships in a row, and still featured arguably the best player of this generation in LeBron James. With Dwyane Wade looking spry (in the Indiana rematch), and Chris Bosh doing his usual Chris Bosh-type basketball things, which typically won games, the series looked at the very least to be another closely contested 7-game classic series as we enjoyed in the year prior. Things looked shaky in Game 1 as the Spurs jumped to a 110-95 victory a midst a somewhat controversial HVAC malfunction, creating a sauna in the arena and causing LeBron to cramp up and be unable to play late in the game. Some fans may argue that LeBron not playing was the difference maker and others might say that LeBron being in the game would have made no difference given how the Spurs offense was clicking towards the end of the game. Truth be told, we'll never know.

It looked promising for the pro-Heat supporters in Game 2 as LeBron returned in Game 2 with a vengeance, scoring 35 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and willing the Heat to a 98-96 victory over the Spurs, taking home court advantage away from the Spurs. From all accounts it looked to be another classic back-and-forth series that we so enjoyed in 2013, where no team was able to gain a clear cut advantage, and both teams kept trading games, unable to win or lose 2 in a row.

Then Game 3 happened. Two major adjustments were made by the Spurs. First, Boris Diaw was insert into the starting lineup, replacing Tiago Splitter. Then, Pop told Kawhi Leonard to be more aggressive. While the Heat scored a respectable 25 points in each of the 1st and 2nd quarters, they were still outmatched by the Spurs' 71 point first half on 76% shooting. I'm going to let that sink in a bit. 71 points on 76% in 24 minutes. The Spurs ended up cooling off, and "only" shooting 59% for the game, but the blistering first half (especially that 41 point, 86% shooting first quarter) had done its damage. While the Heat rallied in the 3rd quarter, the Spurs made enough shots to walk away with a convincing 111-92 victory. Oh, and incidentally, Kawhi put together an impressive 29 point, 4 rebound, 2 assist, 2 steal, 2 block evening, way to be aggressive.

Going into Game 4, everyone expected the Heat to bounce back. LeBron was quoted as saying, "That's what we do." And everyone felt that the hot shooting the Spurs enjoyed in Game 3 was something of a fluke, it wasn't going to happen again. Even Gregg Popovich said, "I don't think we'll shoot 76% in the first half ever again." So as a Spurs fan, I braced myself for the Heat to come roaring back, making the Spurs-haters look smart because of how LeBron made the Spurs look old and obsolete. Yet, where the Spurs' offense cooled off, the defense ratcheted up, the Spurs, still managing to shoot their way to a respectable 55 point first half, were also bolstered by their ability to hold the Heat to only 36 in that same half. While LeBron was able to go for 28 points and 8 rebounds, Wade was held to an uncharacteristic 10 points on 23% shooting. Meanwhile, at the other end, Kawhi continued trucking along with 20 points and 14 rebounds. The Spurs walked away with a shocking 107-86 victory. Not shocking because the Spurs won, shocking because the Spurs won by so much. The Heat never had a chance.

LeBron came out firing in Game 5, and taking the first quarter advantage, the Spurs rallied and never looked back. That was the story of the series. It's not that the Heat were bad team, on the contrary, they were quite good, the Spurs were just that much better.

There's a saying in basketball, "you can't outrun the ball". I think the Spurs proved that. It's how they solved the Miami defense, a defense predicated on scrambling and trapping, which is able to "turn it on" by simply scrambling and trapping faster and harder. However, at the end of the day, a person moves slower than a pass, and no matter how fast the Heat players moved, they couldn't catch up with the Spurs' ball movement. I imagine that must be somewhat demoralizing, and I'm sure that the Heat players recognized that the way their defense functioned, it wasn't going to work against the Spurs, given how well they were playing. 

Champions recognize that the system and team are what wins them the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of the season, while a large part may be the mercurial play of transcendental players, like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, etc... They all know that there is no championship without those role players stepping up. Spurs fans know that we don't have 5 championships without the likes of Malik Rose, Jaren Jackson, Steve Kerr Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry, Fabricio Oberto, Robert Horry, and Michael Finley. As much as our championships rest with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, they're not there without those other guys. LeBron knew that without Mike Miller and Ray Allen they wouldn't have won in 2013. 

Stars are important, because when the system breaks down you can go to the stars for a bucket. However, when the system works and everyone buys-in, the Spurs have shown us that this is what basketball is about. What makes a champion? It's not the superstar plays, it's not the game-winners, it's the understanding by the team leader that this game cannot be won individually. That's the lesson that the Spurs have held to, that's the lesson that both David Robinson and Tim Duncan bought into, that's the lesson perhaps that loses Spurs players individual awards and accolades, but that's the lesson that wins championships. While Popovich is a brilliant coach, I believe that most coaches out there have a system that can win championships. Be it Pop's motion offense, Phil Jackson's triangle, Rick Adelman's Princeton offense, or Jerry Sloan's pick-and-roll, systems are designed to score buckets. The question isn't in the system, but in whether or not the players buy in, because in a system, the players have to trust one another. While the Thunder and Rockets may have amazing talent on their teams, they will never win a championship until they learn that lesson. Basketball is about a team, and when the team plays at its best, no star can overtake it. 

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