MIAMI — The mind games have already started.
The NBA Finals do not begin until Thursday, but already it seems like the Heat is trying to soften up the revenge-hardened San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs have had a more difficult road to the Finals, Chris Bosh emphasized Monday at the Heat’s first practice since winning the Eastern Conference finals.
The 2013 Finals could have gone either way, other players said.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a “great coach,” but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is simply “a great up-and-coming coach,” Dwyane Wade pointed out.
In other words, there will be no bulletin-board material for this rematch of last year’s classic seven-game series. The Spurs already have the home-court advantage, and the bitter taste of defeat to fuel their motivation. Spurs center Tim Duncan made that clear shortly after the Western Conference finals when he said, “We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.”
For someone as understated as Duncan, that was a revelation into how badly the Spurs are still hurting from last year’s collapse in the Finals.
“They don’t like us, they don’t,” LeBron James said of Spurs. “I can sense it from Timmy’s comments over the last couple of days. They wanted this, they wanted us and we’ll be ready for the challenge.”
That bit of pre-series promotion might play well for the TV cameras and Internet headlines, but the truth of this series is that raw emotion will have little to do with its outcome. The Eastern Conference finals might have been about trash talk and cheap shots, but this next chapter of the Heat and Spurs will be about respect, preparation, adjustments and, more specifically, simply making shots.
At least, that’s the Heat’s hope.
“This is the one I’m sure everybody is happy for,” Bosh said. “I know they’ve been eager to get back, and we’ve had that same feeling.
“We could easily be saying how spiteful we are right now, but the series comes down to possessions. That’s how it goes.”
As in, Bosh created that one extra possession in Game€‰6 of the 2013 Finals with an offensive rebound and found Ray Allen in the corner for that magical three-pointer.
Allen’s shot saved the Heat, but in the end the series came down to LeBron James making the proper adjustment against the defense Popovich designed for the series. In Games 1 through 3, James shot 38.9 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from three-point range and averaged 16.7 points.
In the final four games, James was almost twice as good offensively. He shot 47.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three-point range and averaged 31.8 points per game.
What did the Spurs do defensively to limit James so thoroughly in the beginning?
“They actually didn’t focus on me last year,” James said. “They didn’t guard me. I didn’t make shots... . It wasn’t much of a game plan, they didn’t guard me.
“On every pick and roll I had, they dared me to shoot, and I didn’t make shots the first couple of games, and I just tried to stay with it, watch film and figure out ways to help our team. I started to make shots, and that opened the floor for all of us.”
To say the Spurs didn’t defend James isn’t completely accurate. Popovich actually chose to give James space defensively early in possessions to see if the then-reigning MVP would take low-percentage shots. It worked until Game 4.
In Game 3, a 113-77 loss for the Heat, James was 7-of-21 shooting overall and 2 of 14 from outside paint. In Game 4, with the Heat trailing 2-1 in the series, James was 15 of 25 from the field (60 percent), including 8 of 12 from outside paint.
What was the most significant change? James forced himself to be patient, according to Bosh, who said on Monday that the Heat would need a similar mind-set in this series.
“You’re given the jump shot in the initial defense, and I know they’re a very smart team. They know about statistics,” Bosh said of the Spurs. “A mid-range two, they’d rather give that up, a late contest, rather than LeBron getting to the bucket, or an open three.”
Bosh noted a lot of the same strategy in the recently completed Western Conference finals. The Spurs defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games.
“They feel like they do their job if they force you into quick shots, which we saw against OKC,” Bosh said. “(Oklahoma City) didn’t have the discipline to continue to work their offense. They took a lot of those shots. Some of those went in, but when it got tough, a lot went out.
“So, you just have to pick and choose your spots. Sometimes it’s a good shot, but most times you’re just going to have to be patient.”
The patient and necessary approach against the Spurs was a contributing source of motivation for Bosh to further develop his three-point shot. If he can pull the Spurs’ defenders out of the paint, then James and Wade can have easier driving lanes to the basket. If the defenders remain inside, Bosh can then backpedal outside for a wide-open corner three-pointer.
And that’s the shot he was working on 30 minutes after practice Monday. He was the last player on the court. Bosh didn’t score in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals, going 0 of 5 from the field and 0 of 1 from three-point range. As a team, Heat attempted 32 three-pointers.
“We can change up the looks a little bit,” Bosh said. “We’ll see how the series goes, but we’re going to pre-adjust just a little bit, and take our success and failures from last year and kind of really mix it into this series.
“Because we’ve played this team before and because they’ve played us, it’s kind of like picking right back up where we left off and this is Game 8.”
— There was a narrative this season that suggested James didn’t try as hard defensively as in years past. That perception kept him off of the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.
James was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team on Monday. Taking James’ annual place on the team was Indiana forward Paul George, who earned his first selection to the First Team. James was left off the first team despite leading the Heat in steals and rebounds.
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