The NBA Finals start Thursday night in Miami, as the San Antonio Spurs come in to take on the Heat. Once Oklahoma City lost Russell Westbrook in the first round, it became apparent the Heat and Spurs were the league’s two best teams and in the predictable world that is the NBA postseason, it’s those two that end up in the Finals.
This is a matchup with some juicy historical storylines. Each team has championship cache, but for both, beating this particular opponent would fill in a gap on the resume.
Miami has established themselves against up-and-comers like Oklahoma City and Indiana. They’ve shown they can beat a veteran team whose best days are well in the rearview mirror (Boston in last year’s conference finals). Can they beat a team that has the combination of experience, plus enough gas in the tank?
San Antonio has won four championships, but they’ve never been able to beat the signature player or team in the league. The Spurs won their first title in 1999 when the 8th-seeded New York Knicks stumbled their way into the Finals. Then Shaq and Kobe took over in Los Angeles and won three straight. San Antonio returned to the top and beat New Jersey in 2003, Detroit in 2005 and a still-to-young-and-no-supporting-cast (that’s all one word) LeBron and Cleveland in 2007.
I’m not one who holds the fact San Antonio never beat the Shaq/Kobe Lakers against them, but it’s undeniable that winning this championship against an in-his-prime LeBron with a full supporting cast, would be the crown jewel of a tremendous run for the franchise.
Now the question is whether Miami’s being pushed to the max by Indiana was a sign of what an even better team can do, or whether this was just a case of a matchup problem that San Antonio can’t replicate. Let’s dive into the specifics of each team and see how they match up.
STARTING WITH THE STARS
This is where it all begins in the NBA. LeBron James has having the best postseason of his career, averaging 27 points/7 rebounds/6 assists. He’s doing it with efficiency, shooting 51 percent. He’s stepped out to the three-point line and hitting close to 40 percent. He’s taken games over when necessary and looked to get teammates involved.
But it’s the latter part that’s been a sore subject, because in spite of King James’ best efforts, his running mates have not played well. Dwayne Wade showed the heart of a champion in Game 7against Indiana, but in the first six games he showed the body of an aging vet whose knee is killing him. I’d look for more of the same here—Wade has too much heart not to dig deep, but you can’t ask his ailing body to do it repeatedly over a long series.
Chris Bosh’s disappearance has been much harder to figure. He’s averaging a mediocre 12 points/6 rebounds in the playoffs and was positively awful against Indiana. Mix in the fact that Ray Allen is shooting below 40 percent from the three-point line—37% isn’t bad from long range, but when it’s all you bring the team, then it’s a problem. Mario Chalmers is not shooting well from behind the arc, and Shane Battier has played poorly enough to lose his minutes. We’ve seen good spurts for Norris Cole in this postseason and this is someone I would have my eye on in the Finals.
Tony Parker has been the brightest star for San Antonio all year, and might have made his own run at the MVP award before a February injury. Parker is scoring 23 points and dishing seven assists in the playoffs, and when his team had a chance to clinch early on the road against Memphis in the Western Conference Finals, Parker was the shark who smelled blood in the water. Combine him with the ageless Tim Duncan, and his 18/9 per-game average in the playoffs and you have a terrific inside-out combination.
The Spurs run waves of depth at you, and a lot of the Finals are going to be about figuring matchups and who’s going to step up. So far that’s been Kawhi Leonard, averaging a 13/8, and his ability to rebound will be crucial in exploiting Miami’s weakness. Manu Ginobli, like Wade, is watching his body break down, although in Ginobli’s case he’s averaged five assists per game. His ability to shoot the three-ball will be a big factor in this series.
Danny Green will have to play well alongside Parker in the backcourt and avoid the turnover problems that ultimately did Indiana in. Tiago Splitter is a solid presence down low, but in this matchup he needs to give more than the four rebounds a game he’s currently averaging.
MESHING AS A TEAM
Both of these teams are clicking offensively, running 1-2 in efficiency for the playoffs. For Miami, that’s just a continuation of what they did all year long, when they were the NBA’s most efficient offense. San Antonio was a very good offense in the regular season and has raised their game to a higher level in the postseason.
Defensively, these teams are different than last year, and that’s the hidden edge for San Antonio. During the 2012 run, Miami and Chicago were easily the league’s best defensive teams. San Antonio was above-average, but relied on the smoothness of its offense to separate themselves. Once that didn’t work—and eventually in the playoffs it doesn’t—the Spurs were quickly run out of the gym by Oklahoma City and Miami ended up champs.
This year has been different. The Spurs have been a top five team on the defensive end all year, and have been the league’s best in the playoffs. Miami is still a good team on this end of the floor, make no mistake about it, but they’re not quite as dominant as 2012, and they rank a bit behind San Antonio.
Neither team is all that good at rebounding. San Antonio is a little bit better, but this is not the huge advantage it was for Indiana in the conference finals, and would have been for Memphis, had they reached this round. The Heat still have their vulnerabilities, but losing the board battle by margins of 10-12 should no longer happen.
Where the big difference lies is in style. When you read media reports of San Antonio’s age, or see highlights of a Miami fast break, you might think it’s the Heat who push tempo and the Spurs who want to slow it down. But the opposite is true. Led by Parker, San Antonio plays at one of the faster paces in the league, while Miami is a grinding half-court team. The Spurs can get an edge if this series becomes defensive-oriented—there will be a premium on easy baskets and more opportunities to get them in transition. The flip side is that championships are ultimately won and lost in the half-court and Miami would appear to be a bit more comfortable in that spot.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
In the wake of Miami’s scare in the conference finals—not just being pushed to seven games, but allowing Indiana to basically control the flow of play through the first six—there seems to be a little bandwagon building for San Antonio. On my Monday podcast, my colleague Greg DePalma went so far as to say the Spurs would not only win the championship, the series wouldn’t even get back to Miami for Games 6 & 7. I’ve heard mainstream commentators also now pick the Spurs to win the title.
I’m not ready to go there. For one, I am in the camp that believes Indiana offered a unique matchup problem for Miami because of the Pacers’ ability to dominate in the post. While I fully expect Duncan to have a good series, I’m not sold that someone like a Splitter is going to be up to the job of turning into a monster rebounder. Furthermore, Duncan is not the defensive force that Roy Hibbert was and I expect Bosh’s offensive game to return to form.
But having said that, I never completely dismissed San Antonio’s chances to beat Miami to begin with, so I’m not suggesting that Miami’s going to snap back to attention and roll right through. The Heat may have had a historically great run this season with their 27-game win streak, but their softness down low and dependence on the perimeter mean they are not a historically great team.
Furthermore, San Antonio knows something that Indiana did not this year and Oklahoma City did not last year—how to close games. When these playoffs started, I felt the Spurs were the kind of team who could split the first four games with Miami and set up a very interesting Game 5 battle. Remember, in the Finals, homecourt goes 2-3-2, and I still expect San Antonio to have the opportunity to just win that game at home and get two cracks at the title in South Beach.
But I also expect Miami to meet the challenge. LeBron James is just playing too well right now, and I respect this Heat team’s intangibles—namely, their appreciation of the defensive end. I think they gut out a thrilling win on the road in Game 5, and bring it back home to win another hard-fought Game 6.
It’s going to be a Finals that follows the mode of the rest of the playoffs—exciting, offering some intrigue and doubt, but with the favorite prevailing in the end.
Game 1 is Thursday at 9 PM ET on ABC. TheSportsNotebook will have updated NBA commentary after each game, so we’ll be back on Friday to rehash and look ahead.