Prepare for the letdown, Israel. Even if Game 6 had not been an all-time classic -- the best NBA Finals game I've seen since the Bulls and Suns went to triple overtime in 1993 -- even if it had been as one-sided as Games 2-5 turned out to be, Game 7 isn't going to be pretty. These things just aren't, at least not the ones I've covered. The pressure of an ultimate Finals game is too much, the stage is too big, the teams are too familiar with each other for it to be aesthetically pleasing.
Here are the scores from the past three Game 7s in the NBA Finals:
2010: Lakers 83, Celtics 79
2005: Spurs 81, Pistons 74
1994: Rockets 90, Knicks 84
As Tim Duncan said of the energy brought on by the high stakes of a Finals Game 7: "Some people use it the right way. Some people are hurt by it."
And you don't know who will belong to which category. Game 7s are John Starks shooting 2-for-18 or Kobe Bryant misfiring on 18 of 24 shots. At the same time, they're Vernon Maxwell (who didn't get the nickname "Mad Max" because he's a model of efficiency) putting together a true shooting percentage of 72 percent or Pau Gasol (not known as the roughest individual) pulling down 18 rebounds.
So the relevant question heading into Game 7 of Heat versus Spurs: Who shines and who succumbs?
But basically what I'm asking is: What's LeBron going to do?
Interesting question you pose. It's one that's been asked, oh, approximately 283 times since he put on a Heat uniform, but never in this context. Because he has never been in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
But LeBron has been in a Game 6 of the Finals as part of the trailing team twice. How he responded to the most recent experience might be a preview of what we'll see in this Game 7.
When LeBron was asked to do his part to save the Heat's championship hopes in Game 6 against the Mavericks in 2011, he offered a rather empty 21 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 6 turnovers and a telling minus-24, the worst on his team by far. He was lost in space, as he was for seemingly that entire series.
Tuesday, though, he went to a different place: the playground.
When the Heat's season was ostensibly over late in the third quarter of Game 6, LeBron said, "I know how this looks, and I don't want history to repeat itself," so he played with a ferocity that essentially ignored the playbook. He simply became that aggressive attacker who didn't allow the Spurs' defense to dictate what he did or where he was going.
He was either going to foul out committing nothing but charges, or he was going to lead Miami to a dramatic finish. We all know how that ended.
It's clear at this point that, when LeBron gets desperate, he turns into that almost primitive, instinctive, aggressive athlete who dismisses all refinement and relies heavily on his intimidating physical gifts.
And that's just fine with Heat fans. They would much rather have that than the guy who defers with lightning quickness and chucks up jumpers with little hope.
I think that fire is what you'll get from LeBron in Game 7. It will be a stark contrast to what the Spurs will offer, which is the more reliable execution, and it might just end in another triple-double line like Tuesday's.
Whether it'll be enough will be decided by who joins him on that ride. But if the Heat lose this time, it won't be because LeBron just let it happen.
The LeBron question feels like the biggie, the equivalent of "What's the meaning of life?" in this series. But perhaps the more relevant query is, what will Dwyane Wade do? Will his latest knee injury render him less effective? Will the old knee injury flare up again? Can he post a better plus/minus than the minus-15 he had in Game 6? And what do we make of his newfound negative impact on LeBron when the two share the court?
In Game 6, the reason behind the negative numbers became clear: When Wade and LeBron are in together, Wade goes to strange spots on the floor, spots that tend to bring another defender into LeBron's vicinity. The spacing is horrible. Or Wade takes the ball and LeBron stands in the corner, useless.
It was jarring to hear LeBron, on the eve of Game 7, cite Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Mike Miller as the playing partners who afforded him the most room to be aggressive. No Wade, no Chris Bosh. The Big Three are about to ride into their biggest game together and LeBron feels most comfortable without the other two? Wow.
As we continue to wonder how Miami's Big Three concept will work, or how much longer these three will be together, can we take a moment and admire how San Antonio's trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has provided more than a decade of excellence? These guys have been together for 11 years, more than triple the time of Miami's group and more than double Boston's Big Three era, as well as lasting three years longer than Shaq and Kobe, the only other comparable combination in their time. In a Game 7 with so many variables, their sustained greatness is the one thing that can't possibly be diminished, regardless of the outcome.
That makes their performance in these Finals -- even their appearance in these Finals -- more admirable. They don't need this anywhere near as much as the Heat, yet here they are, playing as if it's the only shot they've ever had.
There's a difference in the way we talk about the Spurs.
The Spurs, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili -- they've all already been validated. Win or lose, that group will go down as one of the best to play together, displaying a longevity few franchises can boast, much less with the same core for a decade.
There's also the sense that the Spurs are almost playing with house money, having gotten the good fortune of not facing a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs. Combine those factors with the already reserved demeanor of the Duncan-led Spurs and what you have is a team that shouldn't feel nearly as much pressure entering this Game 7 as the Heat.
It's Miami that faces questions of legacy, of a potential dynasty, of whether it can or should retain the core that has brought it to three straight championship series.
The Spurs also have the benefit of being a masterful execution team. There's less pressure on any one player to take over when their crisp ball movement gets them open, familiar, comfortable shots regularly.
All of that should play a larger factor for San Antonio than the emotional letdown of Tuesday night. There should be little carryover from that game, unless the Spurs find themselves in another situation in which they're clinging to a lead and have to replay that scenario.
The Spurs were the victims of a successful recovery from devastation in 2005. In Game 5 against the Pistons in Detroit, the Spurs' Robert Horry hit a game-winning 3-pointer that seemed to rattle the Pistons, who were aiming for back-to-back titles. But that "devastated" group of Pistons still went to San Antonio and, 48 hours later, forced Game 7 with a convincing road win.
Like those Pistons, these Spurs are strong-minded and experienced. What can we expect from them in a Game 7? More of the same.
The Spurs have a better shot of getting over the mental devastation than the typical team because of their disposition. They should be better prepared for the mental challenge of a Finals Game 7 because they have key players who have been there before. If we can define Duncan, Parker and Ginobili as a "team," this will be the first team that has played multiple Finals Game 7s since the Lakers did it in 1984 and 1988. (The Pistons franchise did it between then -- in '88 against the Lakers and 2005 against the Spurs -- but with none of the same players.)
But will they be worse off for that overtime Game 6 because they had to play heavier minutes than they prefer? Gregg Popovich let them, particularly Duncan, go a little longer than normal even in regulation because he was trying to close out. The last thing he needed was five more pressure-packed minutes of game time. Fatigue has been an issue with the Spurs, especially when Parker looks gassed.
Here's another advantage for the Spurs, though: You don't know who would get that "Russell" as the Finals MVP if they win. It's easy to envision Duncan (averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds, with two 20-point games and one 30-point game), Parker (17 points and 7 assists, secured Game 1 with an improbable shot) or Danny Green (two 20-point games, so many 3-pointers I've lost count) getting the award with the right performance tonight. That speaks high-decibel volumes about their team and approach, just as the fact that Miami's lone candidate is LeBron is a reflection of what the Heat have become in these playoffs. It's one last contrast between these teams, as if we didn't have enough, starting with The Decision versus The Duration.
Finally, let's applaud both teams for giving us an NBA Finals that's been competitive without being contentious. It's been carried out with a gentlemanly conduct that was epitomized when Popovich recruited Erik Spoelstra on a game day to join him in offering a public handshake to national anthem singer Sebastien De La Cruz, the 11-year-old Mexican-American who had been picked on by the lowest level of our society: Twitter tough guys. We haven't had shoving matches or vicious elbows in the games or whining about the officiating during the off days.
They gave us an all-time classic in Game 6 and the gift of a Game 7. Although I don't think this game in itself will be worthy of framing and hanging, it will have drama. I have the Heat winning -- and, when it's over, this series will be considered a W for basketball fans, as well.
This game might feature all those elements that have been absent so far, though. There hasn't been nearly the same animosity as there was between the Heat and Pacers, but this game could bring that out of both teams.
Ginobili, in particular, will have some pent-up aggression after his career-worst eight-turnover game. Kawhi Leonard could incite some fury from Heat players if he continues to sneak in for offensive boards or toss out a well-timed wing the way he did while dunking on Miller or drawing a foul against Allen on the break. Andersen's constant activity is always a threat to create irritation.
You can expect the physicality to be ramped up with so much on the line, both with Duncan in the post and with LeBron in the paint.
This might not be a classic in terms of aesthetics or brilliant finishes, the way Game 6 was. But it should bring out some raw emotions, with anger being one of them.
But it's the variety the Spurs can offer that I think gives them the edge tonight. If it comes down to LeBron or bust, it won't end well for the Heat. If their 3-point shooters have another big night, though, then they have a strong chance.
What the Heat can't rely on is the Spurs folding at any time, for any reason. They've absorbed every hit Miami has offered in this series and responded, making even the Heat's two blowout wins in this series a test of endurance.
I think the Spurs' consistency edges out the Heat's spurt-ability in this winner-takes-all. And those yellow ropes will be out, again, to prepare for a San Antonio celebration.
Updated after Spurs win Game 5 - Heat vs. Spurs 50,000 times:
June 4, 2013 - After an NBA season that may long be remembered for dominant teams and emerging stars, the 2013 NBA postseason has featured a fair amount of drama and intrigue - at least as much off the court as on. As we stand though, with the Miami Heat set to host the San Antonio Spurs in Thursday's Game 1, the two clear best teams of the postseason and two of the three dominant teams of the regular season will meet in what appears to be a compelling matchup of two very different teams with wildly differing storylines.
Before this NBA Playoffs season began, we projected the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat would meet in the NBA Finals 32.4% of the time, which was the second most likely finals matchup behind the Heat and Thunder (after Oklahoma City lost Russell Westbrook to injury and was ousted by the Memphis Grizzlies, a Heat-Spurs series became an astounding 76.6% leading into the conference finals). At that time, the numbers suggested that the Heat would be about 78.4% likely to make it this far and 54.8% - the largest we have seen in the last decade - likely to win it all. Despite San Antonio's impressive run through the Western Conference that culminated in a sweep of the tough, defensive-oriented Grizzlies, Miami is still a prohibitive favorite.
While we could not foresee Westbook's injury, any suspensions or the complete disappearance of Dwyane Wade for most of the postseason up to this point, we can account for injuries, roster changes and even how team depth charts have been utilized throughout the postseason to produce new projections for this specific series. Updating all numbers, the Miami Heat are rightfully favorites, but not quite as significant as the sportsbooks in Las Vegas would suggest.
In 50,000 simulations of the NBA Finals, Miami wins over San Antonio 66.2% of the time. The most likely scenario (as seen below) is a six game series won by the Heat who have home court advantage and would close out that series in front of the home crowd at American Airlines Arena. The current consensus lines have Miami as a -220 favorite to win the series and San Antonio at +190. This would suggest that books think that Miami has a 66.6% chance to win the series. To be comfortable wagering on either side, one would have to be at least 68.8% confident in the Heat at -220 or at 34.5% confident in the Spurs at +190. In other words, this series is not bettable as we agree with the consensus that Miami is about twice as likely to win it all as San Antonio.
That being said, the Spurs will need to make the most of playing Games 3, 4 and 5 at home. Of all series simulated, 46.1% are won by the Heat in six or seven games. That also means that almost 70% of the Heat's series wins come at home. In total, 66.7% of series go at least six games, while the series gets to a decisive Game 7 31.4% of the time (which is won by the home Heat 69.4% of the time). The exact most likely series outcome - Miami in six games at 24.7% - is more likely than either team winning in a sweep (11.6%) or either team winning in five games (21.8%).
It's certainly of note that the Spurs have essentially the same chance (10.0%) of winning in exactly five games as they do in six (10.5%) or seven (10.0%), meaning that stealing a game in Miami is of the utmost importance for this rested team. Having home court advantage for Game 7 is significant. Simulating the NBA Finals with the home court advantage going to the Spurs instead of the Heat, Miami becomes just a 58.7% favorite to win the series.
From a value perspective, the series is not bettable, nor are the exact series results. The closest series result to playable happens to be our most likely series result, which sees Miami win 24.7% in six games and pays 3:1, which requires 25% confidence. That being said, the OVER on 5.5 total games in this series does appear to have some value. As we just outlined, it happens almost exactly two-thirds of the time, which is just greater than the 65.5% confidence needed to wager at -190 (the same can be said for props on the series ending in Miami).
Here are the results of the 2013 Heat-Spurs NBA Finals played 50,000 times:
The Predictalator plays this best-of-seven series 50,000 times. Each series is played in its entirety and recorded by which team wins and in how many games. The data we use incorporates individual player's statistics, where most recent games are given more weight. This helps us account for player development as well as those who may be playing differently now because of health (good or bad). Playing time and matchup assumptions are made with regards to recent team history, so they are dictated by coaching styles and not necessarily what would be optimal. Relevant statistics include individual and team per-possession statistics as adjusted by strength of schedule of opponents.
Photo by REUTERS/Mike Segar
Here we are once again, a year later, with the two best teams in basketball set to square off in the NBA Finals. Last year’s series was an all-time classic, quite possibly the best playoff series I have ever seen. It will be incredibly difficult for this year’s version to live up to that standard, but if any two teams can match the combination of quality and drama last year’s Finals provided, it’s these two.
Since the beginning of last season, the Heat and Spurs have faced off a total of 11 times. The overall scoring margin in those 11 games is a scant 10 points, even though six of the 11 contests have been decided by double-digits. The Spurs come out ahead, thanks to their margin of victory in the blowouts being larger than the Heat’s.
This is an incredibly close series between two teams about as evenly-matched as they come. The Spurs throughout the season appeared to be the better squad, even if by a slight margin. Their offense ran smoother and their defense was superior. As good a coach as Erik Spoelstra has become, the Spurs still hold the advantage with Gregg Popovich patrolling the sidelines. But the Heat still have the world’s best player in LeBron James, and they also have a roster configuration that allows them to occasionally force the Spurs into rotational adjustments that take one or more of their best players off the floor.
And that point brings us to the first of 10 key questions we’ll examine.
1. Can Tiago Splitter stay on the floor?
Splitter started 50 of the 59 games he played this season, and the Spurs went a spectacular 40-10 in those games. When Splitter and Tim Duncan started together, the Spurs’ record was 36-8. San Antonio is just a better team when it can find a way to play those two the same time, particularly on defense. That defense was mind-blowingly good when the duo shared the floor in the regular season, producing a defensive efficiency of 94.9 according to NBA.com, which would have led the league by nearly two full points. There hasn’t been much of a drop-off in the postseason, as the Duncan-Splitter combo has held opponents down to the tune of 95.8 points per 100 possessions, still good enough for the league lead.
But the Thunder used their length and athleticism to get the Spurs to split that pairing up over the last few games of the Western Conference Finals, and the Heat were able to do the same thing in last year’s NBA Finals. Miami pretty much ran Splitter out of the series last year, and as a result he ended up playing only 107 of a possible 341 minutes, and only 39 of those minutes came with Duncan on the court as well. When he was on the court, he was tentative on offense and ineffective defense, and the Spurs were also outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions. It was not pretty.
But Splitter is better now than he was then. He’s become a considerably more versatile offensive threat, able to catch the ball on the move and deliver passes to Duncan underneath or to one of the various shooters San Antonio stations on the perimeter, in addition to finishing in the lane. In the first two games of the conference finals, the Spurs even had him do some facilitating from the elbow, a role normally reserved for Duncan and Boris Diaw among San Antonio big men. He should not be quite as lost offensively this season as he was last year.
And again, the San Antonio defense is markedly better when he and Duncan share the floor. That changes when opponents go small against the Spurs, though, as exemplified by the 122.8 defensive efficiency San Antonio posted when they shared the floor in Games 3 through 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Splitter just has no chance guarding someone like Kevin Durant or LeBron James, and as a result, the Heat will likely look to go small whenever the offense needs a boost, in order to get the Spurs to remove either Duncan or Splitter (likely Splitter) from the game.
2. How will Miami distribute the big and small minutes? How does San Antonio counter when Miami goes small?
This might actually be the biggest (two-part) question of the series. Miami discovered itself offensively in last year’s Finals by going small with LeBron surrounded by an army of shooters. Miami played “small” with LeBron as one of the two big men on the court for 254 of the 341 minutes of last year’s Finals, according to NBA.com, outscoring the Spurs by 22 in those minutes. In only 87 minutes with any other lineup configuration on the floor, including the 40 minutes LeBron sat, they were outscored by 27 points. That’s a massive swing. Though Rashard Lewis might start a few (or even all) of the games as the nominal “power forward” to guard Splitter, you can expect to see a whole lot of lineups featuring LeBron, Dwyane Wade and three shooters (one of whom will be Chris Bosh) throughout the series.
If “small” for Miami means playing Lewis next to Bosh and LeBron in the frontcourt, then the Spurs can pretty confidently keep Splitter on the floor, rather than having to remove him like they did last year. But if the Heat align themselves with only LeBron and Bosh as the “bigs,” and play any combination of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and even James Jones or Toney Douglas as the other three guys on the court, then we get into the real chess match.
Splitter can’t guard LeBron, and having him chase Allen or Wade around the court is a non-starter. The Spurs briefly put him on Wade last year, but that was a totally different Wade, as we’ll get into below. It’s theoretically possible to stash him on Battier (or Jones, if he gets minutes), but that still draws him way outside of the paint and puts him in the position of defending in areas of the floor he’s not quite used to.
The Spurs turned to Boris Diaw quite often in the Western Conference Finals when the Thunder went small, and that’s an alignment we can expect to see quite a bit of in the Finals as well. Diaw is feistier than he looks on both ends of the floor, and though he can’t exactly handle the LeBron assignment, he can do a better job than Splitter of guarding him out on the perimeter.
There’s also the possibility that the Spurs just decide to match Miami and go small themselves. The only lineup that appeared in all seven games of last year’s Finals for the Spurs was Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan. That lineup acquitted itself nicely enough on offense (106.5 offensive efficiency), but it got blasted on the other end (108.0 defensive efficiency).
3. Can anyone fill the Mike Miller role?
A huge part of Miami’s small-ball success in last year’s Finals is no longer on the Heat as Mike Miller is now plying his trade for the Memphis Grizzlies. Spoelstra dusted Miller off for 152 scintillating minutes in last year’s Finals, and the Heat just absolutely destroyed San Antonio when he was on the floor, particularly on offense, where they scored a remarkable 119.7 points per 100 possessions.
But again, Miller is no longer in Miami, and the Heat have not exactly replaced his services. Shane Battier is creaking toward the finish line, and doesn’t have nearly any of the off-the-bounce creativity or passing ability Miller flashed in last year’s finals, even if he is still a superior defender. Ray Allen is not close to as good a rebounder or defender as Miller. Lewis isn’t close to as good a shooter, doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a dribble game, and can’t defend any perimeter players. James Jones might spontaneously combust if he does anything other than catch and shoot. Cole and Chalmers don’t have Miller’s size.
It’s likely that two of these six players will find themselves flanking the Big Three for a good portion of the series, and how those lineups perform will go a long way toward determining the winner.
4. How many different defenders will San Antonio throw at LeBron? And will they revive last year’s “please shoot this jumper” strategy?
Kawhi Leonard will get the first shot on LeBron James, but he certainly won’t be the only one to check him throughout the series. You can bet on Boris Diaw seeing some time on LeBron when the Heat go small and the Spurs counter by bringing Diaw in for Splitter. Splitter himself may even see some LeBron action if the Spurs decide they want to try to get away with keeping him on the floor. It’s possible, but not exactly likely, that Danny Green could spend some time on LeBron as well, if, as they did with Russell Westbrook in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs decide to sic Leonard on Dwyane Wade in an effort to cut off the Heat’s best shot at non-LeBron off-the-bounce creation.
The Spurs unveiled a pretty revelatory strategy for defending LeBron in last year’s Finals, where they played extraordinarily far off him when he faced up from the perimeter, had defenders go under every screen, and even switched assignments some, all in an effort to get him to take outside jumpers. For the first three games of the series, this strategy worked to perfection. In Games 4 through 7, not so much.
It’s still a better idea to let LeBron take perimeter jumpers than risk him barreling into the restricted area, where he shoots nearly 80 percent. But if he’s making those outside shots as often as he did in the second half of last year’s Finals, this may be a difficult blueprint to re-enact.
5. How will Miami defend pick and rolls?
The Heat in their current incarnation have become known for their ultra-aggressive pick and roll defense in which they send the big man guarding the screener flying out at ball handlers more often than any team in the league in an effort to get him to pick up his dribble, retreat toward half-court, or fling a cross-court pass that stands a good chance of being intercepted.
They’ve softened that defense a bit this season, particularly against high screens, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe detailed on Tuesday. Bigs like Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen now most often slide side-to-side and parallel with the screener, rather than chasing the ball handler all the way out to half-court. This is done to protect against the “short rolls” popularized by both David West and Tim Duncan, in which the screener, rather than rolling all the way to the rim, simply slides to the free throw line, catches the ball, and then negotiates a four-on-three situation in front of him.
But the Heat could gear up the aggressive blitzing at a moment’s notice, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see them dust it off whenever Patty Mills is in the game rather than Tony Parker. Mills wants to get around a screen and pull up for a jumper more often than he looks to dish it off, so sending him back toward half-court is a good way to prevent that. He’s also far less careful with the ball when passing than Parker is, so it’s a decent gamble to get him to turn the ball over on a wild pass.
Manu was somewhat of a mess in last year’s Finals, particular in Game 6, when he had eight horribly damaging turnovers, and in Game 7, when he had four more. He averaged only 11.6 points per game in the series and produced an ugly 43/25/79 shooting line (he was 11-28 from the field and 4-15 from three in San Antonio’s four losses) that was extraordinarily uncharacteristic for one of the best postseason bench players of the modern era.
The on-court/off-court numbers for Ginobili in the Finals were particularly ugly: San Antonio was outscored by 10.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, worst among Spurs who played more than the five minutes Nando de Colo got. With Manu off the court, San Antonio was plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions, again the worst mark on the team.
But Manu was hurt last year, and he’s healthy now. And he just got done eviscerating the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, scoring 15.2 points in only 22.9 minutes per game, shooting 50/50/94 and dishing out 3.5 assists a night as well. The Spurs torched the Thunder to the tune of a 115.7 offensive efficiency with Manu on the court during the series. That is legitimately insane.
Miami can challenge Manu defensively with the Dwyane Wade match-up, but it doesn’t really have anyone who can guard him on the other end, unless Wade plays above what he’s shown defensively over the last few seasons. There is a massive difference between 2013 Finals Manu and 2014 WCF Manu, and which end of the spectrum he falls closer to is one of the determining factors in the series.
Wade had individual moments of brilliance in last year’s finals, particularly Games 4 and 7, when he combined for 55 points and shot 25-of-46 from the field while grabbing 16 rebounds and snaggling seven steals. But for the most part, he was bad, and it showed.
He shot only 43.8 percent in Games 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6; his defense was mostly atrocious, especially in transition; and he destroyed Miami’s spacing by hanging out in the short corner with his nonthreatening jumper and not cutting as aggressively as he normally does. As bad as the on/off numbers for Manu were in the Finals, they were even worse for Wade. Miami was outscored by a 7.8 points per 100 possessions in 255 minutes with Wade on the floor in the Finals, and demolished the Spurs by 30.6 points per 100 possessions in the 86 minutes he sat.
But Wade was hurt last year, and he’s healthier now. And he just got done eviscerating the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring 19.8 points per game on a 55/46/82 shooting line and dishing out 4.7 assists per contest. His defense (especially in transition) was predictably shaky and often uninterested, but he could not have fared much better offensively, which is where his services are needed most.
Miami aggressively managed Wade’s workload all season, sitting him down for 28 of the 82 games and playing him a career-low 32.9 minutes a night. This series was the reason for all that rest. If he more closely resembles 2014 ECF Wade than 2013 Finals Wade, that’s a big boost for the Heat.
Though the Spurs’ offense is a finely-tuned machine that can run proficiently no matter who is at the wheel, there’s no denying that it functions best with Parker at the helm. He’s currently battling an ankle injury that may or may not slow him some throughout the Finals, but the bet here is he resembles the Parker we’ve come to know over the last decade.
The primary responsibility of checking him will fall on Miami’s point guard tandem of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Chalmers has more length and bulk than both Parker and Cole, while Cole plays the part of the pest and constantly hounds his mark up and down the floor. Both players are strong defenders at the point of attack, but neither is much of a match for a full-strength Parker. Cole was badly abused in last year’s finals series, and he wound up playing only 82 minutes total as the Heat often ran with a zero point guard lineup when Chalmers came off the floor. Cole came back this season a more technically sound defender, and a few times during the Heat’s run to the Finals he wound up getting crunch time minutes over Chalmers.
It’s also exceedingly likely that LeBron will spend time guarding Parker, as he did down the stretch of multiple games in last year’s Finals and for what seemed like a majority of Games 6 and 7. LeBron slipped a bit as a defender this season, but he still has ample bulk and length to slow Parker down and even challenge his shot from behind if the little waterbug manages to get by him into the paint.
Miami will defend Parker with five guys, not one, though, and for good reason. There’s maybe nobody better in the NBA at rejecting picks and darting into the lane for a floater, and the Heat will have to be wary and cut off driving lanes before he steps into the paint. Parker has become a knockdown shooter from the elbows off the screen and roll, particularly when he’s able to run off angled screens from the wing. That’s a situation where you’ll likely see Miami cue up the blitz, hoping to knock Parker back toward half-court or get the ball out of his hands altogether.
9. How open will Green, Leonard, Mills, Belinelli and Diaw be?
This crew, plus Matt Bonner and minus Belinelli, shot a combined 33-of-63 (52.4 percent) from three in the first five games of the Finals last year, before collapsing and going only 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) in the last two games of the series.
Green made a Finals record 25 threes in the first five games, before making only two in Games 6 and 7. He’s coming off a Western Conference Finals in which he shot 54.1 percent from beyond the arc and made at least two treys in five of the six games. Dwyane Wade will likely be most often tasked with the responsibility of guarding him, and Green has to be able to take advantage of Wade’s tendency for spaciness by moving smartly without the ball. Baseline cuts from corner-to-corner, hammer action, whatever it takes to find a sliver of space and fire, Green has to be ready. If he shoots 18 percent from deep like in Games 6 and 7, the Spurs’ chances of winning go down significantly.
Leonard famously turned himself into a shooter out of nowhere with the help of Chip Engelland upon arrival in San Antonio, and he’s now one of the better three-and-D guys in the entire league. He’s shot just south of 38 percent from deep in each of his three seasons in the league, and he’s become especially proficient from the corners. He’s a trickier off-the-bounce player than he was even a year ago, and his shot fake and drives may be just as important in this series as his ability to hit from outside.
Mills and Belinelli can together be considered the replacement for what Gary Neal brought last year, which means they can expect to spend a lot of time hoisting threes, especially when they share the backcourt with Parker. Miami will try to get the ball out of the Frenchman’s hands early and often, so both Mills and Belinelli have to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, before Miami can scramble back into position to contest their outside looks.
Diaw was never considered much of a shooter in his first eight seasons in the NBA, but of course, since getting to San Antonio, he’s made 41 percent of his triples. Typical. The Thunder were not afraid to let Diaw fire away from outside in the Western Conference Finals, though, and the Heat likely won’t be either. A Diaw outside shot is about as optimal a result as it gets for the Heat defense against the Spurs machine.
The Spurs and Heat played to a draw in the fast break points department in last year’s series, and if that happens again this year, the Spurs will gladly take it. Miami is at its best when forcing turnovers and quickly converting them into points, but the Heat will try to get out and run off misses as well.
San Antonio and Miami both typically eschew offensive rebounding in an effort to protect against transition opportunities, but they each crashed the glass a bit harder than normal in last year’s match-up. Kawhi Leonard has a bit more freedom to hit the offensive glass than any other Spur, and he took advantage quite often last season in grabbing 10 percent of available offensive rebounds while on the court – an alarming number for Miami. Generating second chances against an opponent as good as the Heat is huge, but the Spurs will likely stick to their strategy of keeping Miami’s break in control. Leonard is pretty much the sole guy to watch there.
Likewise, the Heat selectively deploy Wade or James on the offensive glass, while everyone else hikes it back to guard against early-offense opportunities. Keeping a handle on Parker in transition will be huge for the Heat, in particular not letting him penetrate and then dish out to Leonard or Green for open threes.
Man, this is tough. I’ve gone back and forth about 100 times. It’s the battle of the world’s best player and his merry band of sidekicks against the most well-oiled and fundamentally sound offense I can ever remember. The league’s best coach against its best young coach. The two best-run front offices in the league. There’s endless amounts of shooting on both sides, two vastly different styles of defense, the push-and-pull of big vs. small, slow vs. fast and precision vs. chaos.
In the end, it all comes down to LeBron, and the fact that his versatility can make the Spurs contort their rotation in ways that are too disadvantageous. The Spurs’ best game is better than Miami’s best, and they are probably the better team. But the Finals are all about the match-ups, and LeBron forces San Antonio to abandon its best configurations too often. I can’t help but come back to the same result we got last year.
© Sports Predictions 2018