In new role, LeBron James picking apart Spurs' defense


Published: Monday, June 10 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) prepares to pass the ball as San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili of Argentina, left, during the first half of Game 2 in the NBA Finals basketball game, Sunday, June 9, 2013 in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Lynne Sladky, AP

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After two games in the NBA finals, the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat have established their blueprints for victory. The Spurs’ offense hummed with productivity in Game 1 and point guard Tony Parker was nearly flawless in his command of his team’s pick-and-roll attack. But the Heat adjusted, and in Game 2 they disrupted the Spurs with their thieving hands and dazzling athleticism.

The Heat also discovered a way through the Spurs’ conservative but effective defense. Game 2 made clear why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has so vocally praised LeBron James’ intelligence in the news media. Though James again struggled to score, finishing with 17 points, his versatility allowed him to dissect the Spurs’ defense as the screener in pick-and-rolls.

This is a departure from the regular season, when James typically conducted the offense from the dribble. But with opponents loading up defenders against him, coach Erik Spoelstra has increasingly moved James off the ball, where he is harder to track. During the Heat’s incredible 33-5 run in Game 2, from the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth, James assisted on three 3-point shots by rolling to near the free-throw line, drawing the defense while receiving a pass, then whipping the ball to a shooter on the opposite side of the court.

Add this pass to the list of basketball plays James makes better than anyone else. No one combines his accuracy and timing with raw pace — the ball simply arrives earlier. And because James hits his shooters right in the chest, they can take advantage of the extra time.

On one Mike Miller 3-pointer, James hurled a bullet over the top of a double team by Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard with enough zip to whiz past another Spurs defender and hit Miller right in the numbers in the opposite corner. With quick-shooting teammates like Ray Allen and Miller, who shot 6 for 8 combined from behind the 3-point line in Game 2, James’ passing forces opponents to reconsider notions of what makes a Heat shooter “open.”

Moving James off the ball is easier when Mario Chalmers plays well. Two seasons ago it would have been unfathomable to imagine Chalmers, who led the Heat in scoring Sunday with 19 points, commanding the offense with James and Dwyane Wade on the court. But Chalmers’ improved decision-making and playmaking skills gave Spoelstra the option of moving the two Heat wings all over the court.

“Just the way we’re being defended, our guards, our point guards both have to be very aggressive,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody has to be a live option. When we’re at our best you’re not necessarily sure where the ball’s going to end up.”

With the Heat attacking from every angle, the Spurs’ defenders often found themselves out of position.

It was not unlike the way the Heat defense fared in Game 1 against the Spurs’ ball movement and spacing. Early in Game 2 the Spurs found many of the same quality opportunities, and shooting guard Danny Green converted three open 3-pointers in the first quarter. After playing in the Spurs’ system for two full seasons, Green has an excellent sense of when his shots are coming, and he understands how to drift to open spaces where his teammates can find him. But even as Green splashed home 3-pointers, the Heat defenders were clearly more prepared and aggressive — a word both teams used ad nauseam to describe the Heat after Game 2 — than they had been in Game 1.

Those two qualities — preparedness and aggression — go hand in hand for the Heat. When they know where the play is going, they can make the most of their team speed and quick hands. In the first quarter alone, the Heat stole the ball three times by anticipating where the Spurs guards wanted to pass the ball on pick-and-rolls.

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