NBA Finals Preview: LeBron’s revenge denied?

2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 1) Miami Heat
 
How are the Spurs taking this in 7 games?
 
A 27-game win streak, the league’s MVP and the 10th best record ever in an 82 game season at 66-16. Nigh indomitable, no?
 
No. Not for these San Antonio Spurs.
 
The MAMBINO crew got together via e-mail this week and took our prediction poll, as per usual every round. However, unlike all the other rounds, the Heat weren’t a unanimous pick to win the series. They weren’t even the pick to win the series. MAMBINO had taken the Spurs in 7 games.
 
Perhaps the reasons are as simple as they’re the hottest team playing right now. The Spurs annihilated two of their three playoff opponents in two distinguished sweeps, with the war-torn Lakers going down in the first round and the stunningly over matched Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. There almost hasn’t been any area in which San Antonio has faltered in the past to months; they’ve rebounded extremely well, forced turnovers, scored efficiently and played shut down D (the Spurs haven’t allowed 100 points since Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors). They are executing their offense and defense to the letter, throwing screens upon screens for their cutting wings and using a revitalized Tim Duncan as a deadly force in the high post. It doesn’t seem to matter who the San Antonio is playing either: the uptempo Warriors tried to run the Spurs into the ground with Harrison Barnes acting as a small-ball power forward, while the Grizzlies tried to use Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to bully their way inside. Both times San Antonio adjusted and re-adjusted, using their versatile roster to combat any offensive strategy their opponents tried.
 
No team has played as consistently well as the Spurs have since mid-April, Right now, they look like the best team in the league. It’s not a coincidence then that they have arguably the second best (or best) player in the playoffs. That’s Tony Parker.

The Frenchman has had stretches like this before, only matched by his run throughout the 2007 championship season. He’s averaging 23 ppg in 37 minutes, with 4 boards, 7 assists on .475/.375/.797 shooting. Of the players who have been in 10 or more playoff games this postseason, only 3 other guys have topped his 24.22 PER: Kevin Durant, Chris Andersen (!) and LeBron James. He slaughtered the feeble challenge presented by the Lakers’ third string and broke down a hobbled Stephen Curry and a near useless defensive sieve in Jarrett Jack. From there, he took down an even stauncher defense in Second Team All-Defense guard Mike Conley Jr. and First Team All-Defense swing man Tony Allen. Through a series of intricate cuts and screens, Coach Gregg Popovich was able to get Parker to an open shot whenever he wanted, shaking the notion that one man would be able to stop Tony–it would have to be the whole damn team.

Looking at the matchup, San Antonio’s three biggest advantages are the aforementioned Parker, their rotation depth and ability to stretch the Heat’s athletic defense.

Part of what eventually spelled doom for the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals was their inability to keep the pressure on the Heat for 48 minutes. In other words, Indy’s bench was absolute crap. Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi and DJ Augustin couldn’t keep attacking Miami when the starters were getting rest–if the Pacers had 1 or 2 worthy reserves, it could have been a completely different series. The Spurs aren’t going to give the Heat any such respite. Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Corey Joseph and Boris Diaw could beat the Charlotte Bobcat’s first string all by themselves, quite honestly. San Antonio is going to keep coming at Miami for four straight quarters with 10 fresh-legged players who have had a week and a half of rest.

The Spurs will play into Miami’s biggest defensive strength and weakness: an extremely quick, strong and athletic defense that sometimes uses their gifts over aggressively. Last round, Indiana was able to get open looks because of the Heat’s reliance on trapping ball handlers. It’s great that Miami can move all around the court, but they often try to bully their way into turnovers. The savvy Spurs might not give into that strategy. A constantly crashing Parker, Ginobili, Joseph and Duncan are going to stretch out Miami’s horses athletically, as shooters like Danny Green, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard could punish them for their overcompensation. The Heat don’t have a classic rim protector, which is a key in trying to diffuse San Antonio, but all in all it might not matter; the Spurs use so many switches and cuts that quite often the big man is 15 feet away from the rim OR giving up a wide open jumper. Gregg Popovich is a basketball god, and we should all bow down to him as if he were Chuck Norris or Jimmy Page or someone else really, really cool.

The x-factors are here too: Miami isn’t playing the Pacers who are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time, the Oklahoma City Thunder who are in the NBA Finals for the first time. They’re playing the 4-time champions with a three-man core that have won 3 chips together. The Spurs are under the guidance of one of the top-5 coaches ever to hold a clipboard on a NBA court. They’re not scared of LeBron’s greatness, Pat Riley’s courtside glare or Wade’s championship pedigree. San Antonio shakes for no one, from their Finals MVPs in Duncan and Parker to their second year players in Joseph, Leonard and Neal.

Don’t get me wrong: this should be an extremely tightly contested series, unless either team’s key players inexplicably stop playing well (paging Zach Randolph). The Spurs are calm, confident and know exactly who they are, which bodes well for 2 games to finish the series on the road. But even as San Antonio seems to have the advantage, the Heat have home court, as well as the best player in the world.

Why Miami could win it in 6?

First and foremost, 3 teams have ever won a Game 7 on the road, and none since the Dennis Johnson-led Seattle Supersonics in 1978. The thought that the Spurs could trounce the reigning champions is bold enough, but to think they could do it on the road against the greatest player in the world? That’s a tough situation to envision, even for three Hall of Fame players and one Hall of Fame coach.

A second title for the Heat hinges on several factors, but two come immediately to mind.

The Heat in large part got taken to seven games against Indiana because the Pacers’ big men allowed the Eastern Conference runners-up to control the flow of the game. It was a slow, plodding mess, with post ups on every offensive possession, enough rebounding to stop fast breaks and quick, effective transition defense. Miami hardly got to run possessions down the court with their myriad of ball handlers, looking for either transition kick outs or lay-ins. It was an incredible slog through the muck for Miami, and only LeBron’s post-up brilliance and timely contributions from long-thought dead corpses like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller got the Heat to prevail.

If the Spurs want to accent their strengths offensively, that means running the ball and looking to discombobulate the Miami defensive scheme. On the flip side, that’s going to allow the Heat to run, run, run and destroy fast break opportunities. There’s no team in the NBA more deadly in transition, and no more deflating a scene than a series of alley-oop dunks from a group of serial posterizers like the Heat. The Spurs aren’t going to be able to pound them inside like the Pacers did, so the Heat are going to have to be able to make a jump shooting oriented team pay. An aggressive Chris Bosh is key here, as he will most likely be matched up with Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and Thiago Splitter. Miami cannot win if they do not rebound, and 4 boards a game from their starting center won’t do it. Bosh must control the boards as much as possible, and keep the pressure on the Spurs interior defense.

Of course, none of this matters if LeBron isn’t brilliant. Even against the league’s best defense, James posted some downright ridiculous numbers: 29 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg on .510/.441/.778 shooting. Surely not his greatest series ever, but he was undoubtedly the best player on the floor and dragged his team to victory even when teammates like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh forgot to show up that evening. To beat the Spurs and gain some measure of revenge from a 2007 NBA Finals sweep while in Cleveland, LeBron will have to be positively superhuman. He’ll have to dissect a very clever Spurs defense that can throw multiple long wing players on him time after time, and set up shooters that MUST punish San Antonio from long range. James doesn’t have to be flawless, but he’s got to be damn near close in every single game…none of which is out of range for him. There’s a lot of keys to this series for Miami, but it starts and ends with LeBron being fantastic.

Game 7 against the Pacers was the Heat playing near the peak of their powers. I could see one contest like that coming against San Antonio, but no more than that. The Spurs are too well coached to allow the Heat to do what they want offensively, so this series, more than any before it, is going to be game after game of adjustments from the coaches. It’s not as if either team can continually follow a strategy knowing the other can’t catch up–these two squads are matched up evenly athletically–so it’s on Erik Spoelstra to try to keep pace with his Hall of Fame chess opponent on the other side of the ledger.

The schedule too is on the Heat’s side. The biggest problem San Antonio faces is having to win one of the first two on the road. Without it, winning 2 out of 3 of the middle games in San Antonio likely won’t salvage a Finals victory. For the Heat, winning the first two games of the Finals puts them at a tremendous advantage. After all, it’s going to be very, very difficult to beat the reigning champions three times in a row.

 

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