Now that we’re down to the NBA’s version of the Final Four, are there any conclusions worth drawing other than the fact that LeBron James is seriously great and so are the chances that any team he plays for will win it all?
Well, actually there may be. Look to the Eisenhower Era concepts of ball movement and team play and see if that’s not the way to make some postseason noise in 2013. San Antonio certainly wins this way, leading the league in assists. Indiana has no single scorer in the NBA’s top 20. Memphis has a 7-foot-1 center who loves to pass and Miami takes the lead of LeBron, who does everything well.
On the flip side are teams led by unrepentant gunners and ball hogs. Carmelo Anthony’s name always comes up here, and usually with a groan.
Scan the list of the men who shot the most during the 2012-13 regular season. From that top 10 list emerges only one player whose team is still alive in the playoffs. That would be LeBron, again, the exception to every rule, but admit it, aren’t there times when we’re all screaming at him to shoot it a little more?
The Western Conference finals, in particular, has demonstrated the emphasis on ball movement and smart spacing as essential championship elements.
The Spurs just kept passing the ball in Game 1 until Memphis simply couldn’t chase it anymore. A playoff franchise-record 14 3-pointers was the result, and we’re talking about a San Antonio franchise with twice Miami’s total of NBA titles.
Then came Game 2, an overtime win for the Spurs that featured all five starters scoring in double figures and Tony Parker running up a career playoff best of 18 assists. The Grizzlies, best defensive team in the league, trapped and harassed Parker far from the basket but he regularly made them pay.
“He’s a Hall of Fame guard, people,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “He’s been around. He’s done great things in his career. He just controlled the pace and got in the paint and found open guys.”
Memphis trails the series 2-0 but has a chance to get back in it at home by relying on a similar habit of sharing. Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies’ center, is particularly adept at drawing attention to himself and throwing the ball out to open shooters. He averaged 4.0 assists per game during the regular season, second on the team only to point guard Mike Conley.
At the moment, however, we’re more focused on Indiana. In compensating for the loss of Danny Granger to injury, coach Frank Vogel has developed a winning plan based on defense and rebounding. The team’s assist rank is near the bottom of the league, but in effect all those offensive putbacks have the feel of assists. Everybody crashes the boards, including the guards, with Lance Stephenson getting 12 rebounds against Miami in Game 1 to lead all players.
Miami, meanwhile, ran up a 27-game winning streak during the regular season that seemingly had little to do with who was in the lineup on a given night.
Were you watching Wednesday night how Chris Andersen got his 16 points off the bench? Three of those “Birdman” baskets were dunks on assists from LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole, with all three of them drawing defenders in the lane and taking the better option.
“We’re an attacking team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It takes a great commitment and effort to be able to do it together. When you play a very good defensive team like this one, you might not necessarily get it on the first option of your attack. You have to have the poise and patience to work your offense, get to the proper spacing, move bodies and have those opportunities in the paint.”
If an all-timer like LeBron can do it, anybody can, and eventually, almost everybody will. That’s the new discipline being drilled into teams, and next month it’s going to win an NBA championship for somebody in this Final, Fundamental Four.