Even the most fanatical of basketball fans would have to concede that the 82-game NBA season can be a bit of a slog. Early November is fantastic for fans of the hard-court—the season is all new and shiny, each fan base is, somewhat naively, brimming with optimism, and it’s fun to see how new arrivals fit in with their respective teams; and even how well teams rock their new uniforms and tinkered logos. It’s an entirely different experience watching an October 31st Cavs-Wizards game—which many of us did—to watching that same match-up in mid-February.
But we trudge on through those banal middle-of-the-season games because as NBA fans we know that somewhere down the line we’re going to be rewarded with a match-up so big, so stocked full of juicy narratives and amazing head-to-head battles, that it’ll more than reward the loyalty we’ve displayed to the league we love.
And this year’s Finals will be quite the reward.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs provide the perfect denouement to the NBA season. On the one hand we have the ageless, relentless Spurs, with a Big 3 who have remained excellent for more than a decade—Tim Duncan’s dominance being especially striking. In 1999 Duncan won an NBA title and Finals MVP against the New York Knicks, and 14 seasons on, quite inexplicably, he has a realistic chance of repeating that feat. Only Kareem, who won Finals MVP in 1971 and 1985, has stayed dominant over so long a time frame. And Gregg Popovich, widely thought of as the best coach in the league—a guy who’s rebuilt and reengineered his team’s playing style to stay relevant over the years—will look to guarantee his place on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches. A win will ensure that history mentions him in the same breath as Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson.
Then there’s the Heat—the team looking to cement its status as a basketball dynasty. Three championships is probably necessary for that distinction, but 3 straight appearances in the Finals and the potential to win 2 straight titles certainly doesn’t harm the cause. And Miami’s Big 3, hardly adored across the league in the way Parker, Ginobli and Duncan are, have much to prove…well, at least two thirds of that Big 3 do. After a poor showing against the Pacers, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be desperate to prove that they are in fact worthy of being included in the company of LeBron—that they’re not just a ‘medium-size 2’, under a ‘Big 1’; 2013’s Daniel Gibson and Drew Gooden, as their critics have somewhat unfairly labeled them.
How did we get here?
If you told me before the playoffs began that one of these two teams would sweep 2 series on the way to the Finals, and the other would only scrape past their Conference Finals opponent, I would’ve assumed the Heat would be the former. Miami, after their 66-game winning season, and 27-game winning streak, weren’t supposed to break a sweat in the Eastern Conference playoffs—and for two rounds, aside from a blip against the Bulls, they didn’t. But their glaring weakness—one that wasn’t exposed very often in the regular season—was exploited against the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat can’t protect the rim and they don’t rebuild well. They’re a small team, simple as that. The Pacers are huge—both burly and awkwardly long. They had the luxury of focusing exclusively on exploiting Miami’s weaknesses—teams don’t have time for that in the regular season—and they did a fantastic job of bullying Spoelstra’s boy in the paint. Wade couldn’t get to the rim, partly because he’s not healthy, but also because the Pacers protected it so well. With a jump shot that’s not clicking, Wade became completely ineffective. It was also a nightmare series for Bosh—just a terrible matchup on the defensive end where he couldn’t defend the size and length of David West and Roy Hibbert—and offensively, despite his (theoretical) speed advantage and ability to stretch the floor, he shot poorly and looked alarmingly passive.
So it was up to LeBron James to do what he did against the Celtics last year—dominate on both ends and will his team to victory. That was enough. But only just
The Spurs’ path to the Finals was far smoother—evidenced by the fact that they’ve been waiting around for what feels like an age now. But unlike the Heat, many predicted the Spurs would struggle and probably wouldn’t come out of the West. Of course, Russell Westbrook’s injury helped their cause, but once again the Spurs proved us all wrong. They were supposed to be troubled by the Lakers—some even picked Los Angeles to win that first-round series. They weren’t troubled at all. They killed the Lakers. Golden State, particularly after Games 1 and 2, were supposed to be their kryptonite, with their youth and fearlessness. The Spurs overcame them. And Memphis, mainly because they’d upset them in the 2011 playoffs, were going to blitz the Spurs with their monster front-line. Didn’t happen. The Spurs swept the Grizzlies aside. Literally and figuratively.
One of the biggest misconceptions in the NBA is that the Spurs are really old. Their stars are old, but overall their team isn’t. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, two players whose stifling 1-on-1 defense has been a major reason why the Spurs are in the Finals, are young and athletic. Tiago Splitter, a massive part of the Spurs’ rim defense and pick-n-roll offense, is hardly old either. Neither is back up point-guard Cory Joseph. Overall the Spurs have the perfect balance between youth and experience.
Against the Pacers the Miami Heat must have felt like a supremely talented middleweight boxer fighting a heavyweight—like Sugar Ray Leonard fighting George Foreman. They knew they were the better team—they had the speed and skill advantage—but they were constantly being forced against the ropes and hit with body shots. The feeling after Game 7 among the Heat players would have been one of relief. They weren’t knocked-out by a massive Indiana haymaker. They survived.
Reading the stories after Indiana’s Game 6 win you would’ve thought that the Heat had just been dumped out of the playoffs. The dominant narrative was that playing a Game 7 against the Pacers, win or lose, was a monumential failure for the Heat. But Indiana was the WORST possible match-up for the Heat—and they’ll remain so next season—and the Heat survived that match-up. In-fact, in Games 3, 5, and 7 they dominated. In those games they demonstrated the type of team they are when everything clicks. The regular-season Heat weren’t completely invisible in the Pacers series—contrary to what many were saying.
The Spurs are a better team than Indiana in a lot of ways. They shoot the ball better, they run a deadly pick-n-roll, and they actually have a bench. But they don’t possess the kind of size and length that killed the Heat 5 times this year (twice in the regular season and 3 times in the ECF). Splitter and Duncan will give the Heat problems, but they lack the brute force of West and Hibbert, and they aren’t the same threat on the offensive glass—the Spurs, in-fact, are a poor offensive rebounding team. What’s more, it should be far easier for both Bosh and Shane Battier (Battier’s size made him irrelevant against Indiana) to score in this series, and that’s crucial for the Heat.
Where the Spurs can, and will, hurt Miami is with their ball movement. No team moves the ball as well as San Antonio. Their offense is an absolute machine. Tony Parker will be a massive headache for any Heat defender (LeBron will probably take him in the 4th quarters), as they’ll have to chase him around multiple screens. If they choose to double Parker, or Duncan, the Spurs will be able to find players who can drain 3s all over the floor. The Heat will need to be incredibly disciplined on their rotations. No team swings the ball around to find open shooters quite like the Spurs.
I could pump San Antonio’s tires for days. They’re a fantastic basketball team. But only one team in the Finals has LeBron James. And it’s not the Spurs.
Basketball is a team game, of course, but LeBron remains the biggest advantage in this series. The guy can’t be guarded. If he goes into the post against Green or Leonard, like he did against Paul George, those guys are toast. The Spurs don’t have a Roy Hibbert protecting the paint so LeBron won’t be deterred from attacking the basket and that will open up shots for Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Battier.
But for all the LeBron’s brilliance the Heat will need something from the largely anonymous Dwyane Wade to take them over the edge in this series. And they’ll get what they need.
Wade is hurt. There’s no doubt about that. But he was hurt last year and managed to find a second wind as the playoffs progressed. He was great against the Thunder. If he has two good games in this series it might just be enough. Once again, the Spurs don’t have the length of the Pacers, or the shot blocking, and Wade is a guy who’s always saved his best for the biggest moments. I’m willing to bet that he’ll be far more effective in this series than he was against Indiana.
Last year the Heat narrowly survived a harrowing series with the Celtics. Most people picked the Thunder in the Finals based on how the Heat looked up to that point. And then the Heat destroyed the Thunder. I’m not willing to bet that Miami will have such an easy time against the Spurs—they’re too good of a team to get destroyed—but you can’t judge how Miami will do against San Antonio based on their performance in the Indiana series. The Spurs are great, but they’re simply a better match-up for the Heat.