In Game 1, LeBron on Parker too late; early shift may work Magic

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MIAMI -- Eventually, LeBron James did what everyone knew he'd do at some point in this series. In the waning moments of Game 1, James slid out to the perimeter and started guarding Tony Parker.

And it was working. Parker missed a jumper that James contested. Manu Ginobili missed a 3-pointer after James forced Parker to give up the ball.

During that stretch, when the Miami Heat were threatening to make it a one-possession game, James wound up with the mismatch of all mismatches at the other end of the floor -- Parker pinned on his hip in the low post.

With a foul to give and nothing but James' low-post ferocity awaiting him otherwise, Parker did the only thing humanly possible: He fouled James on purpose to escape his wrath. Off the resulting inbounds play, James missed a 3-pointer.

After having pace and execution dictated to them for going on 47 minutes, the Heat were now the ones doing the dictating. Their regular point guards -- Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, mere humans -- were on the bench, and the Heat were saying to Parker, "Go ahead, beat us. But you have to go through LeBron."

Predictably, James turned the Spurs' final offensive possession into a fire drill. Parker was reeling, desperate, searching for a way out. Finally, as NBA Finals lore will remind us for decades, he found an unlikely escape route, kept his dribble alive despite stumbling to one knee under pressure and pump-faked his way off the glass and into basketball immortality. Parker's improbable leaner just under James' outstretched hand gave the Spurs their final 92-88 margin and a 1-0 lead.

I don't advocate panicking in a playoff series. So much is made of game-to-game adjustments when the good teams mostly continue to do what they've done all year and just find ways to do it better. But with the dreaded 2-3-2 format in the finals, against a worthy opponent, when the opponent's success is nearly 100 percent derived from its magical point guard, it's different.

LeBron James guarding Tony Parker for the last few possessions isn't enough. He needs to guard him more.

How much more? I asked Erik Spoelstra that three times on Friday, and he didn't answer me on the first, second or third try. He kept repeating something about "Whatever it takes" and "One through five" and some other coach-speak drivel.

The only thing Spoelstra said for sure was James wouldn't guard Parker for the whole game. James said it, too. And while I recognize that would be a little extreme, I'm telling you the Heat shouldn't close that door if James guarding Parker the entire game is what it takes.

It's going to take a lot to disrupt Parker in this series, and the most intimidating force in basketball is just the guy -- maybe the only guy -- to do it.

"More than anything else, he [Parker] initiates a lot of offense for both himself and for his teammates," Gregg Popovich said. "That's his primary job, and that's probably what he does best."

If I'm the Heat, I'd want to see Parker do that with James, the 6-8, 260-pound freak of nature and one of the smartest and most analytical players in the game, hounding him for 48 minutes.

Well, not 48, but closer to 48 than two.

With the Heat down 1-0 at home in the 2-3-2 format, Game 2 on Sunday night is their Game 7. They have to treat it as such. Conventional lineups and consistency be damned; the Heat can't just talk about doing "whatever it takes," they literally have to do it.

Chalmers and Cole can play -- when James needs a rest. Or they can play off the ball when James is on the floor, which will create wide-open 3-point opportunities because of all the attention James will attract.

I've been down this road before with the Heat, and to his credit, Spoelstra has gradually and significantly adjusted some of his conventional beliefs about lineups. When the Heat's Big Three first came together in 2010-11 and were struggling early, the elixir was to put the ball in the hands of James and Dwyane Wade more often and push the tempo in Miami's favor.

Since then, the Heat often have closed games without a true point guard on the floor and they've relied on James to be the point guard. That's what they did in the closing minutes of Game 1, and it was working. With a triple-double -- 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists -- James played like the closest thing we've seen to Magic Johnson since Magic Johnson. With all due respect to Parker and Chris Paul, if James played point guard full time, he'd be far and away the best point guard in the league.

So why not do it? As a rookie, Magic famously took an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's place at center and clinched the first of his five championships with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in Game 6 of the 1980 finals. In the 2011 finals, by the time Spoelstra committed fully to James defending Dirk Nowitzki, it was too late.

On Sunday, it's incomprehensible the Spurs will play as mistake-free as they did in Game 1 and it's illogical to think Miami will lose a second straight at home. But if the Heat get too deep into this series without turning LeBron loose at the point guard position -- flipping the script and dominating the matchup where the Spurs otherwise have their biggest advantage -- they will regret it.

Spoelstra has grown into an excellent coach, and has demonstrated a willingness to adapt and abandon a certain amount of conventional thinking over the past three years with the Big Three. The Heat's dominance during the regular season -- mostly with conventional lineups -- is why Spoelstra got my vote for coach of the year.

And while it's understandable that Spoelstra wouldn't see fit to divulge strategy in a finals press conference, his resistance to the idea of James playing more point guard -- a lot more point guard -- is a product of more than obfuscation. According to the NBA's statistical database, Spoelstra's most frequently used lineups during the regular season are a reflection of why he won't go all-in with LeBron at point guard in this series any time soon.

Of Miami's 30 most utilized lineups this season, only two of them lacked Chalmers or Cole. One of those actually was Spoelstra's third most used lineup, spanning 134 minutes this season: James, Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen and Shane Battier. (Miami was plus-18.9 with that lineup.) The only other lineup among the top 30 that didn't include either Chalmers or Cole was the same as above except with Mike Miller instead of Battier. The Heat used that lineup -- the same one they closed Game 1 with -- for a total of 33 minutes this season and were minus-7.3.

When Parker has a bigger defender on him, it changes things. He has to attack differently, probe more carefully and create more space for his lethal step-back jumper. When that bigger defender is James, it's got to be hell on Earth. Right?

"It's hard to tell," said Parker's backcourt mate, Danny Green. "Obviously, last night Tony played pretty well and they only put LeBron on him for a minute or two at the end of the game."

On one hand, a minute or two is not enough. On the other, there are risks involved.

"He does a lot of running, comes off a lot of pick and rolls," James said. "So I have to be ready for that. Offensively, it presents a little challenge for me once I get back on the other end, chasing after Tony and going through all the screens that he goes through. But I'm ready for it. I'm ready for the challenge. It's something I live for."

It's something he lives for, and something he should do -- as much as it takes, not just at the end of the game. If Parker is going to control the game and dictate the action on the floor, let's see him do it against LeBron James. If you have the modern-day equivalent of Magic Johnson on your team, then damn, let him be Magic Johnson all the way.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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