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As Game 2 approaches, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how well the Spurs played in Game 1, their dominant fourth quarter, the impact of their bench, and their likelihood to win it all after impressively taking the 1-0 series lead.
Things look good for the Spurs, as NBA history is certainly on their side. Since 1947, the team that has won Game 1 of the NBA Finals has gone on to win the title 70.1% of the time (47-20 all time), and that percentage jumps to 78.0% (39-11) when said game was won by the home team. Of the 10 times in NBA history where a team has won Game 1 by 15 or more points (as the Spurs did on Thursday, taking Game 1 110-95), that team has gone on to win 9 times, with the 1985 Celtics being the only team to ever overcome those odds. And even if you prefer predicting the future over studying the past, our algorithms currently have the Spurs as 69.64% favorites to take it as well.
But on the other end of those odds is a team that is not your typical underdog. The Miami Heat are defending back-to-back titles, and are appearing in their fourth straight NBA Finals. They've won 12 straight playoff games following a loss, the longest such streak since Jordan’s Bulls did it between 1990 and 1992. Since the start of the Big Three era, they've lost Game 1 five times and went on to win each of those matchups anyway. Of the three championships that the Heat have won in their franchise’s history (2006, 2012, 2013), they’ve lost Game 1 of the Finals every single time. This is not new territory for them.
Besides, people seem to forget that the Heat were just fine before the Spurs went nuts in the fourth and LeBron James succumbed to his body. The Heat had a 78-74 lead going into the final frame, and even pushed that lead to seven at one point. As dominant as the Spurs were in the fourth quarter, the Heat owned the third, outscoring the Spurs by 9, outrebounding them 10 to 8 (a battle they often lose), and forcing San Antonio into 9 turnovers.
Even with the loss, malfunctioning air conditioning, leg cramps, and seemingly insurmountable odds, the Heat are still very much in this thing.
In order for them to even this series up before they bring it back to Miami, however, a few key things need to happen.
1. LeBron James Needs to Play More
I know this qualifies as one of the most obvious statements ever written about professional basketball, but the Heat are better when LeBron James is on the floor. Despite the fact that someone could look at a Heat basketball game for the first time in his or her life and come to that conclusion in a matter of seconds, it’s important to understand just how much better they have been.
It’s certainly enough evidence that the Heat have scored 11.5 points per 100 possessions more than they allow when James is on the court than when he’s been off it during these playoffs (as evidenced by the difference in the sum of the on/off net ratings above). But in Game 1 of the Finals, Miami was ridiculously worse during the 15 minutes James was off the court - worse to the tune of 41.7 points more allowed than scored per 100 possessions. Just to be even clearer, the Heat had an adjusted plus-minus of -47.6 during the time he sat. For the record, that’s insanely bad.
LeBron has played 39.1 minutes per game in Miami’s 12 wins this postseason, and 34.4 in their four losses. In the games in which he has been somehow incapacitated (whether to foul trouble in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals or health in Game 1 of this series), the Heat have not been able to survive without him.
Simply put, the King averages more minutes per game (37.9) than anyone else on the Heat this postseason for a reason: they need him to win. Miami will need James at 100% and playing his full complement of minutes (or more) if they want to stay in this thing.
2. The Heat Need to Protect the Rim
The San Antonio Spurs absolutely feasted in the paint in Game 1, going 23 for 31 (74.2%) in the restricted area, and 20 for 24 (83.3%) directly at the rim. The Spurs have been successful all playoffs by attacking the paint through pick-and-rolls and Tony Parker drives, and it's been the undoing of all their previous opponents. They've scored 44.6 points per game in the paint this postseason (41.8% of their total output), which is the tops of all teams that played more than one round.
The Heat forced the Spurs to have to go away from Tiago Splitter in last year’s NBA Finals by going small, rendering him practically unusable when Tim Duncan was on the floor. With Splitter a year wiser, the Brazilian was able to earn himself over 23 minutes of playing time in Game 1 (more than the last three games of last year’s Finals combined), going 5 for 6 in the restricted area for 14 points. If he and Duncan are both going to be putting in effective time down low, and Parker and Manu Ginobili continue to drive like mad, the Heat will need to find an answer.
According to SportVU’s player tracking data, Chris Bosh faced 10 shots at the rim in Game 1 and let in 8. That could be a problem, considering he’s already been among the worst at defending the rim these playoffs, allowing opponents to hit on 55.5% of the 8.0 shots per game they’ve thrown at him in that area.
What’s the answer? More Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Andersen is among the best at defending the rim this postseason, only allowing 46.3% in the 4.8 shots he’s faced (which is within 1.3% of both Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka, for comparison’s sake). His personal net rating (points scored by the Heat per 100 possessions when he’s on the court minus points allowed) has been the team’s second best this postseason at 15.2. In last year’s NBA Finals versus the Heat, he had a team-best 18.4.
Obviously more Birdman can’t mean less Bosh, but if the Spurs aren’t broken by the Heat’s attempts to go small, Miami might have to go big with more Bosh at his natural position of power forward and with Andersen at center. The pairing played together for only three minutes in Game 1, but had a defensive rating of 101.7 (compared to the Heat’s 115.0 for the game). In 396 minutes of floor time together this season, the Bosh-Birdman pairing posted a defensive rating of 93.0, and didn’t sacrifice as much on the offensive end as one might think (offensive rating of 106.4). If Miami hopes to stop the Spurs from scoring at will in the paint, this might be the way to go.
3. Mario Chalmers Needs to Stay Out of Foul Trouble
I mentioned in my NBA Finals preview that Mario Chalmers was a key component to the Heat’s chances for the three-peat, because of his excellent defense on Tony Parker. To reiterate, Chalmers reduced Parker’s effectiveness in their two regular season meetings this year, holding him to rates of 9.2 drives per 36 minutes (down from a 12.5 mark on the season) and 0.62 points per drive (down from 0.44). Furthermore, the Heat had a team-worst 116.6 defensive rating when Chalmers sat in last year’s NBA Finals against the Spurs, compared to a sterling 97.6 when he was on the floor.
One of the Heat’s biggest problems from Game 1 was that Chalmers was in foul trouble the whole game and only saw a little over 17 minutes of floor time. Chalmers’ backup, Norris Cole, has been effective in spelling Chalmers for various stretches of this postseason, but didn’t have it against the Spurs, finishing with 2 points on 1 for 4 shooting. Chalmers finished the game with only 3 points and 5 turnovers, but contributed 3 steals and was only a -3 in his time on the floor (the fourth-best plus-minus of anyone who played for the Heat that game).
With Chalmers playing for a contract this offseason, and with the Heat needing his defense on Tony Parker, Chalmers will have to control the ticky-tack fouls and stay on the court to show everyone just how effective he can be.
How Crucial Is Game 2?
Considering how much the odds are stacked for the Spurs after winning Game 1, Game 2 will be a crucial moment in the Heat’s drive for a three-peat. If they lose, Miami will say that the Spurs simply defended their home court, and now they’ll just have to do the same and try to take a game in San Antonio down the road.
History, however, is once again not in their favor. Teams that have gone down 2-0 in the NBA Finals have gone on to lose the series 90.3% of the time (3-28 all time). Our algorithms predict a Spurs series win at 82.04% if San Antonio takes a 2-0 lead after Game 2. If Miami wins and evens it at 1-1? The computers spit out an even 50% for each team.
Something tells me that Miami would like those odds a whole lot more.