The San Antonio Spurs are shooting 49 percent (25-51) from three-point range through two games of the NBA Finals. This would easily be a record over a full season, and certainly is indicative of Miami’s defensive struggles so far in the series. Digging deeper, 23 of those 25 made three-pointers have been assisted shots, which makes sense because rapid ball movement and making extra passes are fundamental to the Spurs’ offense.
Many of these opportunities are created via the dribble drive. The Spurs have been exceptional at driving the paint to create scoring opportunities, with both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili ranking among the playoff leaders in points created via drive entering the series. This is a carryover from the regular season, when Parker was the second-most productive driver in the league on a per-minute basis:
(via NBA.com. The SportVU system defines a “drive” as an instance during a half-court possession where a player moves with the ball from at least 20 feet from the basket to 10 feet or less from the hoop)
Both Spurs guards, but Parker especially, are efficient enough scorers on their drives that they force help and rotations, which lead to some of these three-pointers, especially the wide-open, high-percentage corner variety, such as these:
And aside from this playmaking, Parker uses the drive and the threat of the drive to score himself, averaging 20 points over Games 1 and 2 on his usually array of layups, teardrops and mid-range pull-ups.
Digging into data from the SportVU data (courtesy of STATS Inc.) through the first two Finals games, Parker is averaging 11 drives per game, with the Spurs scoring 1.23 points per drive. Miami point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have had particular trouble staying in front of Parker, with 14 of Parkers drives coming at the expense of those two players. Cole was particularly susceptible in Game 1, when Parker beat him off the dribble on eight (!) occasions in the just less than 20 minutes they shared the floor.
With Parker’s success against Miami’s natural matchups, it is mildly surprising how little time LeBron James has spent guarding Parker. Though it was used to great success at key times in the 2013 Finals, this ploy was not deployed until very late in Game 2.
James switched onto Parker with 5 minutes 30 seconds left in the game. From that point, Parker drove only twice, once when Chris Bosh switched onto him (resulting in a Boris Diaw corner three-pointer) and this failed attempt to beat James off the dribble:
Not coincidentally, the Spurs’ offense fell apart down the stretch. Over that last 5:30, they managed to advance the ball into the paint exactly once, for a wild Danny Green spinning layup which Chris Andersen either blocked or altered. Every other shot was a contested jumper, aside from Diaw’s three-pointer and Ginobili’s all-over-but-for-the-gamblers buzzer-beater.
Of course, putting James on Parker opens up other matchups for San Antonio. If Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra goes to this well early or often, will it allow Kawhi Leonard to get untracked as Miami has no one aside from James who can match Leonard’s combination of size and speed? Will it wear out James even more as he is forced to carry an increased burden because of Chalmers’s poor play and Dwyane Wade’s apparently deteriorating physical condition? Or does Spoelstra simply exhort Chalmers and Cole to defend better and hope for the best? Whatever the answer, Miami needs to keep Parker on the edges to have a chance at slowing the Spurs’ offense.
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.