When you play a 2013 NBA Finals game one, away to the defending champions, whose team includes the best basketball player on the planet, and you shoot 42% from the field, you should not win. Spurs 92, Heat 88. Why?
When you play a Euro 2008 or 2012 Finals, or a 2010 World Cup Finals, in a team sport that increasingly values size and allows major physical contact, with a line-up consisting of six starters standing under 5 feet and eight inches, and play teams with an overall average height of six feet and two inches, you should be at a disadvantage. Spain 1, Germany 0-X2, and Spain 1, Netherlands 0. Why?
It might sound like a stretch to compare these two distinctly different team sports–basketball and football—but bear with me on the similarities between the manner of play of the Spurs and the Spanish National Football Team.
Let’s look at the teams in last night’s NBA game from the team style, chemistry, and confidence perspectives.
The Heat have been playing hurt and erratically, if eventually effectively, all post season (http://on.nba.com/18Kr2io). They are an up-tempo team with increasingly good perimeter shooting, great, swarming defense, outstanding individual talent that can take most any opposition one-on-one at each position, a bench that re-energizes the starters with their quality contributions, and that intangible ingredient of three young stars in their prime who can turn it on to win 32% of their season’s games at a single stretch. But those pieces do not make a whole. So that when the post season arrived, and in particular last night, when the finals arrived, those pieces formed an exaggeratedly individualistic team. One that may yet prevail, given their otherworldly talent, but one that will not have an easy series.
Lebron James has been peaking as the finals neared and had a triple-double last night. Chris Bosch (13 points last night) has shaken off a couple of slow and poorly played series to peak at the right moment too. Dwayne Wade (17 points last night), who has been hampered with a knee injury, looked like his old silky smooth and powerful self in game one. Individually they were humming, but you could sense there was no collective momentum just the jarring one man beating another staccato.
The Heat led at the end of each of the first three quarters and had spurts that put them nine points up at several junctures. But their style modified from the one they used to win their last game seven. When things got tough they did not know how to respond–are we the game seven team or the individualistic team, or the mix that nearly broke the consecutive seasonal wins record? The Spurs kept within a 3-5 point striking distance each quarter and then out-scored the Heat 23-16 in the fourth quarter to steal the win. But what really happened to seal that win happened all game long and not just in that last quarter.
San Antonio played their game from tip off, to 0.1 second basket (http://bit.ly/18bwlKX), to Bosch’s desperate, after the buzzer, long miss. The Heat have yet to develop a characteristic team style and looked out of sorts all quarter long because, individually, none of their stars was humming. The Spurs maintained a particular style of play that may have seemed boringly repetitive to non-purists, but which was also so methodically, clinically, even aesthetically conclusive that it must be admired. Sound familiar?
Tony Parker is the Spurs’ top scorer (off of speedy layups and deadly mid-range jumpers) and he runs the Spurs show. Though he touches the ball more than the rest of the squad combined, he doles out the needed playing chunks to Tim Duncan first (who has remained a scoring force even as he modified his repertoire from low post banker to above the key marksman) and then to whomever else comprises the other three on the floor. End of act one–in each and every Spurs performance (http://bit.ly/11xd9SC).
When Manu Ginobili comes in, usually allowing Parker a breather, the team gets injected with a kinetic force that can be erratic but is always, bottom line, a spark for the team and a jolt to the opposition. The best sixth man in the world is the second key to the Spurs style of play, a tempo changer who is given leeway to break the methodical rhythm set at the start by Parker. This throws opponents off their stride. They don’t know what Manu will do next, but his teammates are ready to feed off whatever he does. End of act two–a great two-punch combination. [Note: many teams now emulate this strategy, but few succeed because the “substitute jolt” is not a seamless part of the rest of those teams’ routine rhythm.]
Then comes the coach’s turn, act three. No one in the business is better than Gregg Popovich at both setting the critical game day strategic parameters (that an 82-game season and multiple encounters with potential post season rivals have already required) and the half-time nuanced adjustments that singular opposition demand. Popovich is the designer of the San Antonio style which entails allowing Parker and Duncan to star in act one before handing off to Ginobili for act two. But Gregg reserves act three for himself.
Pre-game, he has already decided on some needed roles, which last night included: Tiago Splitter the cutter, rebounder, shot blocker, and Danny Green the three point scorer (and fouler) who hits the key baskets (4 of 9 from behind the arc) as often as Kawhi Leonard gets rebounds (10), makes shots (10 points), and dogs opponent’s stars. Yet, Popovich’s strong suit is knowing that last night, big-three member Manu, who is not at the top of his game due to injury, was needed on court long enough to do his thing, and get 13 points, but still log in less time than Parker, Green, Duncan, or Leonard. Manu needs to be a growing force as the series progresses, and because he uses his energy at such a high level of intensity, he needs to be parsed strategically, less that energy dissipate before it is critically needed.
When the game is on the line, Manu, Parker, and Duncan will be on the court, and the beauty of that is that it might be a Manu buzzer-beater three pointer, or a Tony 0.1 shot, or a Tim seven-consecutive- points- in-overtime that get you, and you don’t know which one it will be. Popovich’s secret is that he can trust one of them to do what is needed and the other two to help that one succeed.
Imagine the team chemistry required to put three stars who can run the show by themselves on the court with the game on the line and nearly no script. Each of those players knows what he can do alone, yet the three also trust their teammates to do their thing to such a degree that they are willing to divvy up the pie spontaneously, as the situation and opposition dictate. Imagine the confidence the players must have in themselves, in their teammates, and in a club culture that values, reinforces, and rewards such collective behavior. Sound like Barcelona’s La Masia’s philosophy?
All game long, San Antonio knew that if they could keep to within not more than a couple of baskets from the Heat, when their break came, they would have the wherewithal to seize that moment. At that moment, they would not reinvent the wheel, but would instead go with the mix of a spontaneity born of that team chemistry built on trust, and the collective confidence that their long standing, methodical, direct manner, would bring about a win. It worked for the Spurs, and for Spain at Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup.
In part two we will analyze and compare how small-sized Spain won an unprecedented three, consecutive, major international football tournaments against faster, stronger, and bigger teams.