As the last seven seconds of the Western Conference finals ticked away, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were rendered useless as Scott Brooks waved the white flag. He was conceding that this version of the Thunder had its shot and it was time to end the battle. Oklahoma City was one point away from winning the 48 minute regulation session and forcing a Game 7, instead Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are headed to the NBA finals 15 years after their first appearance there.
It’s an amazing feat in its own right, but it’s even more impressive when you consider how the Spurs got back to the place where they believed they rightfully belonged, standing across from the Miami Heat.
The Thunder finished the deciding game of the series with just five points from their bench (all five were from future Knicks head coach Derek Fisher), while the Spurs finished with 51 from their bench units (FIFTY-ONE). If you look past the obvious finals storylines, (Pop and Duncan getting back to the finals again, Spurs-Heat II, Parker’s ankle) the emergence of Boris Diaw was one of the most fascinating developments of the Western Conference finals. Tiago Splitter only played 10 minutes in Game 6 and just under 12 in Game 5, while Diaw played 28 in Game 5 and a whopping 36 in the closeout game, partially thanks to the overtime session, but mostly because he played beautiful basketball. His ability to stretch the floor and make solid interior passes gives Pop a much more polished version of a player who has to be motivated to do damage after struggling to get anything going against the Heat last June.
While Diaw could very well be one of the x-factors if the Spurs are going to overcome the Heat, the rest of the Spurs’ bench is also quite interesting. Cory Joseph (who might be this year’s version of Gary Neal in the finals) started the second half of Game 6 in place of an injured Tony Parker. The Spurs outscored the Thunder 37-20 in the quarter and had one of the best possessions you’ll ever see on a basketball court (possession starts at the 27 second mark):
Pop has used Aron Baynes in a non-garbage time moment during the second round against the Blazers and he responded with 10 quick points. Jeff Ayres has scored baskets when games weren’t out of hand. I’m still waiting for the game when Marco Belinelli gets hot in the second quarter and drops like five threes and swings the momentum before halftime. In case you didn’t realize it, the Spurs are super-duper deep, which is a requirement to win a championship when you don’t have a transcendent star, or in the case of Tim Duncan, when you’re transcendent star’s best days are in the rearview mirror. This isn’t to say that Duncan isn’t effective anymore, quite the contrary. He’s going to dominate stretches of offense for the Spurs in the finals. He’s going to abuse Bosh, Bird Man, Haslem and possibly even LeBron in the high post or on the block, but the key for the Spurs in this go-around against the Heat is exposing the Heat’s bench woes and using their deep rotations to gain an advantage.
The Nets were the only team that have given the Heat any sort of problems with any of their bench players or rotations. Sure the Spurs had to deal with annoying Derek Fisher, Steven Adams and one moment of Jeremy Lamb, but the rest of the Thunder’s bench was essentially non-existent. The Blazers couldn’t deploy a healthy Mo Williams against the Spurs, who was surprisingly a key for their rotations. The only bench who gave the Spurs any kind of fight so far was the Mavericks, thanks to an incredible showing from Vince Carter, Devin Harris and DeJuan Blair.
The Spurs’ bench has scored 768 points in the postseason, which equates out to 42.7 bench points per game. Both of those numbers crush the Heat’s bench production. Miami’s bench has scored just 395 points this postseason, which equals just 26.3 points per game. As expected the numbers for the starters look quite a bit different. The Spurs starters have scored a total of 1,150 points in their 18 postseason games (63.9 per game), while the Heat’s starters have racked up 1,092 points in their 15 playoff games (72.8 per game).
A preview of a series can’t be summed up in one stat, but the production off of the Spurs’ bench and the lack of production from the Heat’s bench, could very well be the line between Pop and Duncan winning their fifth title and Miami completing the first three peat since the Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers. For the first time in the era of the Big 3 in Miami, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra struck out in free agency. Michael Beasley and Greg Oden haven’t worked out. There was a brief segment of time during these playoffs when LeBron vocalized his need for Mike Miller off of the bench. Rashard Lewis was good in Game 5 and 6 of the ECF, but he was either bricking threes or an afterthought in the other 13 games. Birdman, Birdman has been the Heat’s second leading rebounder behind LeBron, but hasn’t had any sort of real impact. Shane Battier has completely forgotten that basketball is still being played and is already gathering information for when he has to cover Duke-UNC next year.
Norris Cole has been pretty deceiving if you just look at his box score and playoff totals. He’s averaging just 5.1 points per game, but every time I see him on the court it feels like he’s having a bigger impact. You could make the case that his defense on Lance Stephenson in the fourth quarter of Game 2 began an energy swing that Indiana ultimately never came out of.
But the only bench player who has had a real “moment” for the Heat this postseason was the same guy who hit quite possibly the biggest shot in the history of the NBA finals. Ray Allen crushed the Spurs with a back-peddling, backbreaking and most importantly NBA universe altering three pointer to save the Heat last year. He crushed the Pacers hopes to go up 2-1 with four three pointers in the fourth quarter. It’s amazing to me how much lift Allen can get on his jumper at age 38.
What’s even more stunning than Allen’s ability to hit key three pointers for a contender in his 17th season? The fact that Chris Bosh has hit more threes than Allen in the playoffs (25 to 24). That stat provides the smaller, but more focused picture to this series. A picture that has LeBron, Wade and Bosh standing next to each other holding Paul George’s jersey on a fishing hook.
Wade has looked way more like the guy who LeBron was expecting to play with when he made The Decision to come to Miami (shameless plug for my column on Wade). Bosh has become a three point specialist versatile creature who has meshed perfectly with LeBron. And what do you want me to say about LeBron? He’s the best player on the planet. He’s reaching and exceeding all of the expectations that were set for him and are continued to being set as his career advances.
But just how important have the Big 3 been in terms of scoring during this year’s playoff run?
Goes to Pro-Basketball Reference (without them I couldn’t have put together this column).
Does some math (remember math?)
Miami’s saviors of basketball have scored a whopping 61.5% of the team’s total points during the playoffs, which is almost 10% higher than it was during the regular season (52.4%).
One of the biggest roles for Miami to fill during this series is the scorer who isn’t named Bosh, James or Wade. Jesus Shuttlesworth would be the most likely candidate to fill that role, but I’m leaning towards Mario Chalmers filling the spot. He put up double digit point totals in three of Miami’s victories against San Antonio in the finals last year. The dude has a knack for showing up in big moments, just ask Derrick Rose.
As we’ve come to expect, the Miami Heat’s fate lies in the hands of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This is going to be the toughest test they’ve faced together because the Spurs are a much more polished group than they were last June. Kawhi Leonard is going to be a menace for Miami every minute that he’s on the floor. Duncan, Ginobili and (hopefully he can play the entire series) Parker are seeking revenge. And then there is Pop. The mastermind behind a team who didn’t have a starter average more than 30 minutes per game during the regular season. He can deploy different lineups with confidence if Spo decides to make a change on the fly.
The saying is that quality is better than quantity, but what happens when the quantity is quality?
Spurs in six.
Follow me on Twitter @Scottdargis