A rematch a year in the making, the NBA Finals commence this Thursday night with the San Antonio Spurs looking to make amends for the title they let slip away. On the other side of the coin, LeBron James and the Miami Heat will attempt to make a serious dent in the history books by securing their third consecutive championship.
Looking back at the 2013 Finals, like most I still have a hard time reconciling what went down in those last 28 seconds of Game 6. The Spurs had seemingly vanquished Miami only to see some lucky bounces, missed free throws, and bizarre rotational decisions by Coach Pop transpire against them all at once. Five or six different things had to all break the Heat’s way for them to win the title, and due to a myriad of explainable and unexplainable reasons they did. They won Game 6 and survived a grind it out Game 7, leaving the aging Spurs to ponder how it all went sideways and if they would ever make it back to that point again.
Most San Antonio fans I know believe they gave that title away last June, and that if Game 6 turned out differently today’s narrative would be quite different. LeBron would have seen his overall record in the Finals drop to an abysmal 1-3 (instead of a respectable 2-2), Duncan would have joined Kobe Bryant in winning his fifth title, and the future viability of the Miami experiment would be psychoanalyzed relentlessly. Instead, the Heat has enjoyed the spoils that come with being back-to-back champs while the Spurs have had to fight through the emotional baggage that comes with such a jarring defeat.
To the delight of a good portion of NBA fans and even casual observers, both the Heat and Spurs took care of business in their respective conferences in order to provide us with the rematch we were clamoring for. One team gets a quick chance at redemption, while the other can prove once for and for all that 2013 wasn’t a fluke. Below are a few keys to this matchup:
Home-court advantage: Unlike a year ago, the Spurs will have the luxury of playing an extra game in their own building if the series goes that far. This should help them from an offensive standpoint, as so far in the postseason they scoring more points (116.5 vs. 104.8), shooting a higher field goal percentage (50.6% vs. 45.4%), and making more three-pointers per game (9.6 vs. 7.4) per 100 possessions at home versus on the road (per nba.com). Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for role players (see Danny Green) to feel more comfortable and play much better in front of the home fans. Conversely, during the playoffs the Heat have been shooting a few percentage points lower on the road and scoring about eight points less per 100 possessions. Overall though, Miami is a battle tested, veteran laden squad that doesn’t mind playing on the road. They know everything can change in an instant and the pressure will shift real quickly if they can steal one of the first two games.
More balance: San Antonio did a great job this season of getting production from its bench and creating the depth necessary to give their older starters a breather while also allowing Pop the flexibility to experiment with a variety of different lineups. After looking like a washed-up fighter in last year’s Finals, Manu Ginobili is back to being an offensive force, driving to the rim with reckless abandon in route to scoring over 15 ppg in the last round against OKC. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Patti Mills, Danny Green, and Boris Diaw have all either improved as players in 2014 or are contributing more to the cause due to familiarity with the Spurs’ system. The Heat are a tad creakier when it comes to its bench and role players. Can Miami get four to five good games out of Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Shane Battier and/or Rashard Lewis? With Mike Miller gone from last year’s squad, Miami needs a few of these shooters to get hot and stretch the floor for LeBron and D-Wade.
Tony Parker: Surprise surprise, another playoff run by the Spurs, another Tony Parker injury. San Antonio’s star point guard is becoming increasingly brittle, and after going in the tank in Games 6 & 7 last year while playing through a bum hamstring, he is now dealing with an ankle injury. This latest malady, which follows the strained left hamstring he suffered in Game 5 of the West semifinals against Portland, was serious enough to have kept him on the bench for the second half of the series clinching win against OKC. The Spurs need Parker to be close to his best in this series due to his ability to score (averaging 17.2 PPG in the playoffs) and wreak havoc in the paint. Despite the prowess of San Antonio’s bench, without Parker closing games it’s hard to envision San Antonio getting to the finish line and winning four times versus LeBron.
LeBron factor: This guy is still a freak of nature, terrifying for the opposition to have to deal with. Going into the fourth quarter you hope your team has a solid cushion, but honestly no lead few than fifteen points feels safe when LeBron is on the floor. He can still ratchet it up like no other on both ends, so you have to be prepared to meet force with force and hope for the best. James leads all playoff participants in win shares and PER, a testament to his greatness while also a reflection of the workload he has to carry to get the Heat their W’s. San Antonio (and Leonard in particular) has to make sure they make him work for everything he gets, take contested jump shots, and not allow him to feast on layups at the rim or fast-break dunks.
Tougher road: Miami was able to coast to the Finals, winning fairly easily and getting plenty of rest along the way as they capitalized on a historically pathetic Eastern Conference. This was extremely beneficial with LeBron, who has played a ton of minutes since arriving in South Beach, and also D-Wade and his suspect knees. San Antonio had to trudge its way through a brutal Western Conference, battling Dallas for seven games in the first round and playing three more games overall than the Heat did in route to the Finals. Will those extra minutes played come back to haunt the Spurs? Or will the minutes restriction Pop placed on all his guys this year (no player logging more than 30 minutes per game) ultimately be their saving grace?
Misc: Pretty evenly matched series according to those setting the odds, with Miami sitting at -110 on the money line while the Spurs are -135.
Prediction: While no team has beaten Miami in the playoffs since the Mavericks back in 2011, San Antonio appears to have all the components necessary to get the job done. They are deep and talented enough to counteract everything that the Heat will throw at them, employ one of the better coaches in the league in Pop, and will have the benefit of the home-court. There is also the revenge/motivation factor – they have waited a year to get back to this point and are determined to finish the job. LeBron will make this a closer series than it should be, but if everyone holds up physically (primarily Parker and Wade), I like the Spurs to take it in 7.