For the fifth time and in one of the most dominating fashions the NBA Finals has ever seen, the San Antonio Spurs won the title on Sunday night. The Spurs beat the Miami Heat, 104-87, their third consecutive double-digit win.
How dominant were the Spurs? San Antonio led the league in per-100-possession point differential during the regular season at +8.1. The Spurs were +13.0 or better in all four of their Finals wins.
The ascension of finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the decline of Miami’s defense, the battle of the role players going emphatically to San Antonio, Manu Ginobili immersing himself in the fountain of youth — many elements explain this Spurs breakthrough. But perhaps nothing was more important than San Antonio’s ball movement.
As I’ve highlighted before, the Heat play an aggressive, trapping style of defense. If the Spurs maintained composure and continued to swing the ball during the finals, they would stretch Miami’s defense to the breaking point.
That’s exactly what happened.
In the Finals, the Spurs had 127 assists to just 76 for the Heat. Even if we account for their many more made field goals and instead compare the percentage of assisted baskets, the Spurs still have an enormous edge: 66 percent to 45 percent.
More revealing: The Spurs had 42 secondary assists in the series (tracked by the NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking System, these are passes that led directly to an assist). That means that a third of the Spurs’ assists in the series were part of a sequence of two or more passes. Looking at the numbers game by game, we can see the stark difference in the way the Heat and the Spurs went about their business.
The secondary assist percentage shown here is the percentage of each team’s baskets for which a secondary assist was recorded. For the Heat, those numbers dropped off significantly from the regular season, when Miami had an assist percentage of 59 percent and a secondary assist percentage of 16 percent. The Spurs defense was disruptive enough that it forced the Heat toward relying on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to create offense, often singlehandedly.
One might imagine that the Spurs would have a harder time executing against an NBA Finals-caliber team (not to mention a two-time defending champ) than they did in the regular season. But the Spurs pretty much met their regular season numbers: an assist percentage of 62 percent and a secondary assist percentage of 18 percent. The Heat’s defense wasn’t able to shake the Spurs out of their rhythm, and Miami paid the price, over and over again.