A Lesson in Motivation
Gregg Popovich, squatting among the Spurs huddled mass, midway through the second quarter:
“Hey, great job moving the basketball. All the shots are great. Let’s feel confident and let it fly. Get your name in the paper.”
Gary Neal: undrafted. Danny Green: 46th overall pick in 2009 draft. Tiago Splitter: 27th pick in 2007 draft. It’s amazing what confidence can do to an athlete. While the voice in Gary Neal’s head says, “Let it fly. You’re a scorer,” and while the voice in Danny Green’s head says, “Let it go. An inch of daylight means a pure swish,” the voice in LeBron’s head is questioning the amount of daylight, saying “Really?! You’re giving me this 15- footer?”
It starts with the long arm of Kawhi Leonard invading LeBron’s thoughts. It continues with Popovich’s pick-and-roll strategy, “Go ahead, keep away from the rim, take that jumper and lose that aggression.”
(Popovich’s choice of “get famous” phrase included the newspaper. Makes you consider that the phrase “Get your name in the paper,” which might be obsolete in 2050 or so).
With 2:15 left in the first half, the Spurs led 43-35, connecting on five 3-pointers. At that point, the Spurs had tallied eleven assists on seventeen baskets.
Over the next 24 minutes of basketball, the Spurs would compile eighteen more assists, and eleven more 3-pointers, out of their final 25 hoops. A clinic in ball movement. Erik Spoelstra’s post-game press-conference expressed stoic embarrassment with the lack of defense and lack of resilience. The lack of aggression from their leader trickled down onto every other member of the Heat, while the Spurs fans (who hadn’t seen a home game in a bizarrely long stretch of three weeks due to their sweep in Memphis and the nine-day layoff before the Finals) went insane with every long-range splash.
Birth of the LeBron-Stopper
Kawhi Leonard’s defense has taken LeBron out of his comfort zone completely. The beauty of the Spurs system is that a player like Leonard is put into position to excel in only his second year in the league. Popovich and Buford reward hard work and success. And Leonard has become ridiculously successful for a second-year player out of San Diego State who was drafted 15th overall in 2011. Coming out of two years of school, scouts were skeptical of Leonard’s offensive ability. What they didn’t take into account was how hard he would work to become a reliable corner three-point shooter (remember Bruce Bowen?)
Kawhi’s rebounding, steal, 3-PT field goals, total points, plus/minus
Game 1: 2 offensive, 8 defensive rebounds, 1 steal, 0 turnovers, 0-4 3-PT, 10 points, +6
Game 2: 8 offensive, 6 defensive rebounds, 1 steal, 1 turnover, 1-3 3-PT, 9 points, -21
Game 3: 3 offensive, 9 defensive rebounds, 4 steals, 1 turnover, 2-3 3-PT, 14 points, +29 (best plus/minus of the game)
LeBron’s field-goal attempts, free-throw attempts
Game 1: 7 of 16, 3 of 4 from line
Game 2: 7 of 17, 2 of 2 from line
Game 3: 7 of 21, 0 of 0 from line
The Spurs game plan, in addition to the individual defense of Leonard and Green, is wreaking havoc on LeBron. Popovich is daring LeBron to take open 18 footers, which LeBron had been knocking down with regularity in the last two regular seasons and throughout the playoffs. LeBron’s jump-shot has deserted him in Games 2 and 3. It stands to reason that LeBron may finally be wearing down after playing so many minutes as the power forward against physical defenses over his last 14 playoff games (5 vs. Chicago, 7 vs. Indiana, and now 3 vs. SA).
Were the rims wider than the standard 18 inches in diameter? To Gary Neal, Danny Green and Mike Miller, the hoop must have been looking like an ocean, because they simply couldn’t miss.
The 6’4″ sharpshooter from Baltimore, who started off his college career as the Atlantic 10 rookie of the year at LaSalle in 2003, Gary Neal has always been a scorer. Neal averaged 26.1 ppg after transferrring as a junior at Towson. As a senior, Neal averaged 25.3 ppg, but saw his 3-point field goal percentage drop from 40.5 to 33.5%. In part because of the weak competition at Towson, and in part because of the personal baggage (a rape allegation while at LaSalle that was eventually dropped), Neal’s scoring touch was not enough to get him drafted. He spent three years playing in Europe, first torching the Turkish league, then drifting between Spain and Italy, before San Antonio signed him in 2010. Now 28 years-old, Neal is a seasoned professional, with that electrifying shooting stroke. Erik Spoelstra may be having Neal nightmares until Game 4.
Chalmers: Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
Mario Chalmers playoff game scores (courtesy basketball-reference.com):
I have yet to see a lower game score than negative 7.4. Mario was Mar”zero” in Game 3.
This was Chalmers’ worst game of his career, and it came on the heels of his biggest performance of the 2013 playoffs.
In last year’s playoff run, Chalmers was occasionally excellent, and usually solid, hitting open shots in big moments.
It will be intriguing to see how Chalmers recovers (or doesn’t) in Game 4.
Game 1: 3-10, 2-6 3-PT (2.9 game score)
Game 2: 6-12, 2-4 3-PT, 5-5 FT (16.2 game score)
Game 3: 0-5, 0-1 3-PT, 4 turnovers (-7.4 game score)
Despite the offensive explosion in Game 3, the Spurs will head into Game 4 knowing that Tony Parker’s hamstring is less than 100%. Though they didn’t miss him in Game 3, there can be no doubt he is essential to San Antonio’s continued offensive flow. It’s hard to believe Neal and Leonard can be expected to drain their jumpers with the same consistency for the rest of this series.