San Antonio's Dominance in the Paint Has Been the Difference in the NBA Finals
If you haven't watched the San Antonio Spurs since, well, the last World Cup in 2010, you might be surprised to see such an effective, high-scoring offense from these men in black rather than a stifling, score-just-enough approach like you'd see from the Spanish national soccer team that epitomized the Spurs in the 2000s.
The truth is, though, that the Spurs have been ranked inside the top seven in the league in points per game over the past four seasons, and have become one of the most exciting offenses to watch in the entire league, as you've seen from this year's Finals.
There aren't many LeBron James highlight reel alley-oops (though Boris Diaw jams are quite fun in a different way), but the Spurs have revolutionized and stabilized their offensive approach, giving them the stability the Miami Heat's offense has lost this season.
Paint It Black
So far in the 2014 Finals, the Spurs have outscored the Heat 176-152 in the paint (according to my tallies from NBA.com). That's only a difference of six points per game. But digging deeper into the sea of stats uncovers a worrisome trend for the Heat moving forward both in the Finals and in the future.
Through four games, the team that won the points in the paint (PITP) battle has emerged victorious.
|2014 Finals||Spurs PITP||Spurs PITP%||Heat PITP||Heat PITP%||Result|
|Game 1||48||43.6%||36||37.9%||Spurs W (110-95)|
|Game 2||34||35.4%||44||44.9%||Heat W (98-96)|
|Game 3||48||43.2%||42||45.7%||Spurs W (111-92)|
|Game 4||46||43.0%||30||34.9%||Spurs W (107-86)|
Additionally, the Spurs have relied on at least 43.0% of their points to come inside the paint in their three wins, and have posted at least 46 PITP in each victory, a mark the Heat have yet to accomplish in four games.
While the eye test suggests the Heat are settling for shots outside the paint (I'm looking at you, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade) this series and that the Heat aren't scoring inside, it's not necessarily true according to the numbers from last year's Finals.
|2013 Finals||Spurs PITP||Spurs PITP%||Heat PITP||Heat PITP%||Result|
|Game 1||40||43.5%||34||38.6%||Spurs W (92-88)|
|Game 2||38||45.2%||46||44.7%||Heat W (103-84)|
|Game 3||40||35.4%||32||41.6%||Spurs W (107-86)|
|Game 4||38||45.9%||50||40.9%||Heat W (109-93)|
|Game 5||50||43.9%||40||38.5%||Spurs W (114-104)|
|Game 6||60||60.0%||36||35.0%||Heat W (103-100)|
|Game 7||48||54.5%||24||25.3%||Heat W (95-88)|
The Heat have already accounted for at least 43.0% of their points inside the paint twice so far in this series, a feat they accomplished just once in seven games last season (Game 2). Overall, the Spurs outscored the Heat 314-262 in the paint last year, a difference of 7.4 points per game.
So, Miami's PITP% marks are quite favorable compared to last year's Finals, and their overall PITP tallies just a smidgen better (38.0 PITP in 2014 compared to 37.4 PITP in 2013).
How are the Heat better in the paint but trailing so badly? You can chalk it up to amazing play from the Spurs, sure, but something is missing from Miami's offense.
Is Bosh to Blame?
Even though Bosh has become a deadly three-point weapon for Miami, and is being criticized by analysts and ostracized by his team, he's averaging 5.5 PITP per game in the series.
He averaged 5.4 PITP per game last year, a number inflated by 24 PITP in Games 4 and 5 combined. Bosh is just as good (or bad) in the paint as he was last year, and the Heat are faring better in the Finals this year than last year in terms of scoring inside the paint.
Plus, Chris Andersen's production inside has dipped more significantly. Andersen posted 3.2 PITP in last year's Finals, and just just 1.5 this year so far. Yet, the Heat are outperforming their 2013 team and getting trounced in the series.
So, the Heat won the title last year and did so with a slightly smaller reliance on PITP, and won Games 6 and 7 while losing the PITP battle 108-60, after all. Why, then, does it matter that they're being outscored in the Finals this year down low?
Because they aren't shooting like they did last year in the playoffs - but not in the way you may think.
If you had to guess which Heat playoff team (2013 or 2014) shot better from beyond the arc, you'd be silly to assume it was the 2014 squad. I can only call you silly because I already know that the 2014 team is shooting a higher three-point percentage (40.2%) than the 2013 team did (38.1%). But that statistic doesn't tell the whole story: it's just part of the larger one stemming from Miami's inability to add PITP consistently.
The 2013 Heat shot a worse percentage from beyond the arc, but those makes weren't as essential to the team's final score as they are this year.
|Heat Playoffs||PITP% in Wins||PITP% in Losses||3PT Scoring% in Wins||3PT Scoring% in Losses|
In the playoffs, the 2014 Heat rely on a significantly higher portion of their scoring (27.3%) in wins to come from three-pointers than the 2013 Heat did (21.9%). If the Heat aren't making shots from the outside this year, then they're more likely to struggle because they rely more on those makes than they did during the 2013 playoff stretch.
In the 2014 Finals, the Heat are averaging 9.8 makes from beyond the arc and are shooting 42.9%. Last year in the Finals, they made 9.1 three-pointers at a 43.2% clip. Those are quite similar marks, but remember that the Heat are significantly more reliant on points from beyond the arc to win games this year than they were last year: it's like filling a bigger hole with the same amount of dirt.
Stacking Up Against San Antonio
If you've caught on with the general theme of the article (and I'm sure you have by now), you'll be able to deduce that the Spurs are able to rely on points in the paint rather than points from beyond the arc, which is mostly true.
|Spurs Playoffs||PITP% in Wins||PITP% in Losses||3PT Scoring% in Wins||3PT Scoring% in Losses|
The Spurs are less reliant on points from three-pointers, and more reliant on PITP than are the Heat in wins and losses this year in the playoffs. The Spurs are mostly consistent between years and between wins and losses. (The outlier is seeing that 47.5% of their scoring in losses last year came inside the paint, which was heavily influenced by losses in Games 6 and 7 while scoring well over half of their points inside.)
If the outside shots aren't falling for the Spurs, they are less affected than are the Heat when they can't find the stroke. For instance, the Spurs were able to hold on and defeat the Dallas Mavericks despite making eight or fewer three-point attempts in five of their seven games. The Spurs were able to go 3-2 in those despite making only 16 shots from three-point land in the three victories.
Despite having a historical series from Danny Green last season, three-point makes accounted for only 26.8% of San Antonio's points last year in the Finals (while 45.9% came in the paint). Spectacular three-point shooting for the Spurs is a luxury, a beneficiary both of and to the Spurs inside game from Tony Parker drives and Tim Duncan post-ups.
For a Heat team without a driving point guard, a healthy Wade, or a face-up Bosh, it seems as though the three-point shot is no longer a luxury to them, but rather their only chance to compete for a title this year and in the future given their current roster construction.