The Miami Heat are scary good. With their 16-point victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, extending their season-high win streak to 15 games, the Heat are seven games ahead of the second-seeded Indiana Pacers.
The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, will welcome Chicago, Portland and Oklahoma City to the AT&T Center this week. If the Spurs lose at least one game and Miami takes care of Orlando, losers of 31 of their last 36 games, Philadelphia, whose offensive "attack" ranks behind Charlotte (adjusted for schedule) and Indiana, the Heat will hold the best record in the league. The difference is only a game and a half.
Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless of ESPN's First Take, explored potential playoff matchups for the defending champions. Oklahoma City is still in the mix but the usually combative duo agreed on one thing: San Antonio presents a unique combination of coaching, execution and depth that could be good enough to upend the Heat in a seven-game series. (Note: Assuming Tony Parker doesn't suffer any setbacks in rehabilitating his left ankle.)
For the sake of comparison, we will break down the potential Finals matchup, focusing on both sides of the ball.
The difference between Miami's second-ranked offense and San Antonio's sixth-ranked offense is steep — 2.8 points per 100 possessions. But, in reality, the teams are not so esthetically different. Neither team relies on mid-range shots to bolster their offense. Both generate a ton of 3-pointers and move the ball at an elite rate, though San Antonio has been better in both facets thus far. The only differences are Miami's insane field goal percentage at the rim — ahem, LeBron James — free throws and turnovers. The latter two grant Miami's offense extra possessions, a deadly proposition for a unit with three perennial All-Stars and 3-point snipers in Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers.
During their winning streak, Miami's opponents have averaged 94.9 points per game. That mark bests the Spurs' season average (95.7) but this recent trend doesn't necessarily underscore defensive dominance. Yet. It's encouraging for a team that was merely average for the first half of the season but there will likely be regression.
First and foremost: The Heat yield more 3-pointers and induce less mid-range shots per game than San Antonio.
Second: The Spurs protect the defensive glass better, preventing extra possessions.
And third: Miami fouls more often, putting the offense in advantageous positions.
In other words, San Antonio is the more reliable defense. Miami has the higher defensive ceiling.
(One huge caveat: LeBron James. The Heat are an elite defense, compared to above-average, when he's on the floor according to NBA.com/Stats. In the playoffs, when he can play justifiably 42 minutes without losing efficiency, this could tilt defense in their favor.)
It isn't an easy task picking between the two. In all likelihood, a hypothetical series will reach a penultimate sixth game at the least. Maybe a seventh. I'm leaning towards Miami at the moment but I could easily be wrong.