Eight of nine NBA.com writers believe the San Antonio Spurs should be favored to win the NBA Finals — regardless if they're playing the defending champion Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
But hold on. It shouldn't be such a foregone conclusion. For proof, here's some advanced statistics from this postseason, per NBA.com:
— The Spurs are second in points per 100 possessions (106.5), only behind by Miami and their gaudy 109.6 figure. Indiana's offense is sixth (102.9).
— San Antonio is first in defensive rating, allowing a stifling 95.4 points per 100 possessions. Miami, meanwhile, isn't far behind with a still pretty staunch 98.8 mark. Indiana's defense has regressed a bit against tougher competition but they were consistently the league's best defense in the regular season, a much more reliable sample size in the long-run.
— The Spurs have outscored their opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions — a few smidgens higher than Miami's second-ranked mark (10.9) and miles ahead of Indiana (1.5). The defending champions, at this point last season, were outscoring their opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions.
— Since the NBA Finals pits two teams that are generally very, very good basketball teams, each game is likely to come down to the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The team that executes under pressure, and doesn't wilt, is likely to win the series. So it bears mentioning that the Spurs have decimated their opponents in 37 "clutch," minutes, when the margin is fewer than five points and there is five or fewer minutes remaining. Their defense tightens, shaving even more points off the opponent's offensive bottom line, while the offense maintains their normal efficiency.
Only Indiana, besting their opposition by a ridiculous 38.5 points per 100 possessions in 29 clutch minutes, has been better. The Heat, however, have been crushed in these clutch situations thus far — which is odd because they were easily the league's most proficient team during the regular season. The Lakers were second (!!!!) and yet they were about 20 points per 100 possessions worse than Miami. Again, it wasn't even close.
So, what do these numbers even mean? How should they affect our perception of these NBA Finals?
Well, first and foremost, they indicate that the Spurs have been simply excellent in all facets. But they also underscore the quality of Miami's basketball and, to a lesser extent, the Pacers.
Though they were far and away the best team during the regular season times, and have only lost five games since February, Miami has stumbled into a tenacious Pacers team. Frank Vogel has his bunch protecting the rim, no team was better in the regular season, and extending to the 3-point line to contest shooters. Miami, second in 3-point percentage during the regular season, is shooting less shots from the perimeter in this series and making them much, much less frequently (down to 33.8 percent on 3's).
Indiana's offense has been emboldened by the emergence of Roy Hibbert, averaging 22.8 points and 12 boards per game in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the physicality of David West. Paul George is a decent, if not an above-average weapon, and if George Hill and Lance Stephenson are making open 3-pointers, they cannot be overlooked.
Miami isn't bad either. The haven't punched their ticket yet, not even close, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that they can play better basketball. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are playing less efficiently than their regular season counterparts. Their perimeter shooting has been nonexistent in the postseason, especially against Indiana. They haven't been playing well in the fourth quarter.
And they can still beat their opponents senselessly — Exhibit A being their decisive 114-96 victory in Game 3 despite allowing the Pacers to grab 18 offensive rebounds. Miami's ceiling is just dramatically higher than everyone else; if their "switch" is on, they are damn near impossible to beat. Right now, that switch hasn't been flipped. But that can easily change in heart beat. Or, you know, it might not.
But whether its Miami or Indiana, there is no doubt that the Spurs will have a difficult time winning their fifth championship in the Tim Duncan era. NBA.com isn't wrong to tag the Spurs as the favorites — it certainly isn't a crime since San Antonio is playing so well — but it probably shouldn't be a consensus.
Because it definitely won't be easy.