A month ago, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs were viewed in an entirely different light than they are now. The Heat were the prohibitive favorite, with most pundits not wondering if they would the title, but how easily they would win it. Early struggles against Chicago were dismissed as aberrations or as a result of boredom and it was assumed that as the opposition improved, Miami would raise their level of play. Conversely, the Spurs were almost an afterthought in the Western Conference. The Thunder were the initial frontrunners until Russell Westbrook injured his knee and they went down to the Grizzlies. The Warriors burst onto the scene loaded with young talent and an exciting style, but they flamed out in a flurry of injuries and fatigue. Finally, Memphis became the new media darling with their swagger and snarl, leading some people to peg them as biggest threat to the Heat. San Antonio just kept their heads down and did what they always do: they won. They demolished the patchwork Lakers, weathered the furious storm of the Warriors and poked a hole in the tough guy veneer of the Grizzlies in a four game sweep.
One month later, Miami is a wounded animal limping into The Finals with their usually unshakable confidence in tatters. LeBron James has admitted to feeling like he did when he was a one man band in Cleveland. Whether due to injury or an ill-timed slump, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade have only been shadows of themselves during these Playoffs. If the two of them can’t play at an elite level, the Miami Heat are a collection of very average parts. The Indiana Pacers used a combination of size, strength and defense to push the Heat to a Game 7 and expose their vulnerabilities.
San Antonio’s victories have redefined them by turning their age into valuable experience and their lack of flash into championship poise. The Spurs are a model of consistency that plays with intelligence and cohesion among their teammates. They have also been able to manage injuries and fatigue well which has allowed them to come into these Finals as healthy as any team is able to be at this point in a long and grueling NBA season. The general consensus is that Tim Duncan is on the downside of his career but he has experienced an impressive resurgence facing Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Marc Gasol in succession and outplaying them. Tony Parker has forced his way into the conversation about who the best point guard in the NBA is, while seizing the reins of the Spurs and establishing himself as their best player. San Antonio is a team with a championship pedigree and no fear of the Miami Heat, so this is primed to be a competitive Finals.
When the Heat have the ball, their most pronounced advantage is their speed. They will play with a smaller lineup in the hopes that their athleticism will allow them to beat the Spurs end to end in the open court. Pushing the ball up the floor will not just generate transition layups, but it will also help free up Miami’s three point shooters to get wide open shots. Miami’s half-court offense will be dictated by who guards LeBron James. If the Spurs put Kawhi Leonard on him, LeBron will take him into the low post and use his superior size and strength. If Thiago Splitterdefends him, LeBron will operate from the perimeter and constantly attack Splitter off of the dribble. Either way he will eventually draw double teams and it will open things up for his teammates. Chris Bosh will be responsible for pulling Tim Duncan away from the rim with his jump shooting, opening up the lane for Dwayne Wade and LeBronJames to drive to the basket.
When Miami is on defense, they plan to pressure San Antonio’s ball handlers on the perimeter and jump the passing lanes in an effort to keep the ball out of the low post where the Spurs have a notable size advantage. Miami plays elite defense on the outside but only average defense on the inside so their biggest challenge will be to keep the basketball out of the paint.
San Antonio’s Gameplan:
The Spurs will not make the mistake that a lot of teams make against the Heat. Most teams alter their lineup to try and match Miami’s speed forcing themselves to play to Miami’s strengths. San Antonio will put their best 5 players on the floor regardless of who they are playing. The Spurs have two offensive mismatches that they will try to exploit: Tony Parker will be too much for Mario Chalmers to guard one on one and the combination of Duncanand Splitter should dominate the offensive rebounding, giving San Antonio a lot of second chance points.
Defensively, the Spurs want to clog the lane to keep James and Wade away from the rim and close quickly on the three point shooters. San Antonio wants the Miami Heat to have to beat them by shooting 18 foot jump shots. Kawhi Leonard can’t guard LeBron James by himself, but he will try to funnel him towards the shot blockers and make sure that his shots are contested. San Antonio will not be overly aggressive trying to force turnovers and get steals, they just want to play fundamentally good defense and always have a hand in the face of the Heat’s shooters.
Conventional wisdom states that when it comes to basketball, the team with the best player usually wins. LeBron James is the best player on the planet let alone this series. However, the last time he faced the Spurs in the Finals, the Spurs were able to bottle him up because he got so little help from his teammates. If the Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh that we saw against the Pacers play at that same level against the Spurs, San Antonio will win this series in 6 games. If they are able to rise to the occasion and give James the help he needs, the Heat will win this series in 7. Ultimately it comes down to this: where does my faith lie?
Miami Heat wins 4 games to 3