Momentum and the NBA Finals: Heat Survive the Spurs in 7 Mostly Memorable Games

Momentum is highly elusive.  It enables otherwise ordinary athletes to do extraordinary things.  In basketball games, in relationships of all kinds, in teaching, in parenting, in training a pet, in studying, in writing, and, by extension in life.  Momentum makes you feel capable of anything (Danny Green in games 1-5).  And a lack of momentum can destroy you (Manu Ginobili in Games 2, 4 and especially 6).  Momentum is something that great teams find more often that good teams.  As if there is a liquid reserve of the stuff in a storage unit, and whenever necessary, everyone goes in to get their dose, and the team comes out of that halftime looking recharged, refreshed, and rejuvenated.  Momentum is not possible without confidence and ability.  Momentum pushes confidence into a different sphere.  It is easier for athletes to achieve that momentum when their home crowd is roaring, urging them on to victory.  The NBA Playoffs are filled with momentum shifts.  Runs.  Surprise turn-arounds.

How the momentum shifted and kept shifting in this year’s NBA Finals

Miami lost the momentum in Game 1 of this series.  Home court wasn’t enough to counteract the toll the Pacers had taken on them (seven highly physical and mostly close games) while the Spurs were well-rested.  A tightly contested game ends in Tony Parker’s incredible shot and the Spurs have Game 1 and that mojo.

The focus on three-point shooting by both teams amplifies the pendulum swings of play, the teams taking turns going on hot streaks, losing control of the pace, getting sloppy with the ball, and most importantly, losing defensive focus (which results in the epic 21-2 Spurs run and 33-5 Heat run.  Though Games 2 through 5 ended up large margins of victory, only Games 2 and 3 should be considered “blow-outs.”  At the end of the third quarter of Game 2, the Heat held a 10-point lead.  The fourth quarter defensive havoc and Spurs turnovers (Parker and Ginobili) resulted in open transition looks for Allen, Miller and Chalmers, which turned the game into rest-your-starters-for-the-last-four-minutes-blowout.

Game 3 saw the series head to San Antonio and 3-point barrages from Gary Neal and Danny Green made the Heat defensive look apoplectic by the end, but also because of the fact that Spoelstra hadn’t yet made the necessary Mike Miller adjustment and LeBron got stuck in his own head (see below). Game 4 was decided in the fourth quarter, as Miami pulled away behind 85 combined points from their skilled trio.  After constant criticism, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had their most consistently aggressive and in-the-flow (momentum, anyone?) offensive games of the series.  Wade’s six steals and defensive activity were positively Avery-Bradley-TonyAllen-Kawhi-Leonard-esque.  Following Wade, Game 5 was Manu’s turn-back-the-clock night, finding the way-back machine and also finding Danny Green (6 of 10 from downtown), which led to a 114-104 victory.  The game felt safer for San Antonio than it was because they got out to an early lead (32-19 at the end of one).  Games 6 and 7… (see below).

LeBron’s momentum vanished in Game 3 because of three things: 1) Kawhi Leonard is even longer than Paul George (arms and swarming hands) and; 2) the Spurs strategy to sag so far off of him on defense got him thinking (“What are they crazy?  Daring me to shoot?  Don’t they know I’ve figured this out?”); and 3) Teams play their best team-defense when their crowd is going nuts and that San Antonio crowd was certifiable for Game 3.  Celtics fans know this, as those 2008-2012 teams showed). LeBron’s memories of past jump-shot woes came flooding back. The Spurs crowd (three weeks without a home playoff game because of the 9-day layoff before the Finals) was ready to erupt from the tip in Game 3, which resulted in a genuine blow-the-roof-off-blowout, 113-77.

With the help of his talented sidekicks (Wade and Bosh), the Heat defense was back in Game 4, and LeBron was given a breather from the intensity of feeling like he had to score or assist on every possession.  However, the personal momentum was gone again in Game 5, continuing on into the first 3 quarters of Game 6, before the headband incident, the now-or-never focus that only Jordan, Bird, Magic and Hakeem used to have.  And that Kobe, Pierce, Garnett, Duncan, Wade, Durant and LeBron have more recently had.  “The “Get on My Back!” mentality that Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo have when healthy.  That Chris Paul has, but has yet had the chance to show on the biggest stage.  The mentality that Stephen Curry is developing.  The line between great and unstoppable.

The dominant LeBron narrative (“aren’t all LeBron narratives dominant at this point?”) shifts going into the off-season because of that comeback-for-the-ages-that-you-knew-was-coming.  Game 6, Fourth quarter, Spurs leading 75-65:

LeBron opening the quarter by attacking and finding two open looks for teammates Chalmers and Miller, with a driving lay-up thrown in the middle (lead cut to 4, 77-73.  By then the Heat crowd becomes a factor, and then every Heat player from Chris Anderson (energy and shot-blocking) to Chris Bosh (close-out defense, rebounding, and shot-blocking) to Ray Allen (game-tying shot with 5 seconds remaining in regulation) contribute.

What makes this Finals especially tough for non-Heat fans to swallow is the knowledge of two missed free-throws that allowed a 5-point lead (84-79) with 28 seconds remaining to slip away.  One by up-and-coming Spurs jack-of-all-trades Kawhi Leonard.  One by the up-and-down aging Ginobili.  A controversial decision (Duncan on the bench when they absolutely had to have a rebound), and a few lucky bounces, and suddenly….Miami has the momentum back and the series turns.

Of course, the free-throws helped get them into the Finals to begin with.  Everyone will recall that the Spurs swept Memphis in the Western Conference Finals.  They will forget how easily Memphis might have won Games 2 and 3 (both overtime losses) if they had been able to hit their free-throws in regulation.  Would it have been Memphis losing in 7 games, had Randolph been able to coax a few more in at the line in those games?  Possibly.  Would it have been as entertaining?  Probably not.  Game 1 of the Pacers-Heat might have gone to Indiana had Frank Vogel kept his center (Hibbert) in the game at a crucial moment.  Can we argue that the Pacers would have won the series had they won Game 1.  Sure, you can argue that, though the Heat would likely have found a way to dig deeper and tie the series at 1-game apiece had they lost Game 1.

With this, ends the 2013 NBA Season.  One NBA Draft entry, and I will be detoxing from the blog for a few months.

I genuinely appreciate everyone reading, following, contributing, and generally supporting this endeavor.  It has been a challenging, exhausting, and rewarding experience for me.  And I’m not sure how long it will continue, but I’m glad I made it through a full season.

Thanks, again.

What does all of this add up to?  Is there a conclusion?  All I can think of is the scene from The Big Lebowski, where Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) interrogates the kid about his homework.  “Is this your homework, Larry?”

For me, the 4th quarter and overtime of Game 6 felt like this scene:

Jonah Hall kept writing The Darko Index this year because of momentum. 

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One thought on “Momentum and the NBA Finals: Heat Survive the Spurs in 7 Mostly Memorable Games

  1. I’ll be back. You know where to find me.

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