The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat kick off the NBA Finals tomorrow and it is shaping up to a doozy. There are a bunch of relevant angles to explore — so many in fact that I scrapped a few just to save you, the precious reader, some time. Here are the seven story lines that made the cut:
Miami is mortal
Miami punctuated a physically exhausting seven-game series with a 99-76 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday. Indiana, specifically the duo of David West and Roy Hibbert, decimated the limited Heat frontline, grabbing more than a third of their own misses (34.3 percent), during the series per NBA.com. The Pacers played inspired, gritty basketball and nearly upended the defending champions. This, of course, is a team that only dropped four games since February 1 prior to the Eastern Conference finals. In a span of 12 days, they lost three games and were one LeBron James buzzer-beating layup from coughing up another. Yep, Miami is mortal.
Rest vs. rust
The good news for Miami? Regardless of how bad they looked in their Finals tune up — and, for many stretches, the Pacers could have been mistaken for the favorite — they have achieved their primary objective. Getting to the Finals.
They just need to finish the job. Their next opponent won't be very easy either. The San Antonio Spurs have Gregg Popovich, widely considered as both the best X-and-O's tactician and motivator in professional basketball, and the benefit of rest. Nine days, to be exact. Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, logging the most minutes on the team (37.1) during the postseason, were both suffering from minor ailments during the Western Conference finals. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, both entering the opposite end of their respective careers, could use the rest, too.
The Heat, meanwhile, will have two days to reset their odometers. While it is rare, there is precedent for a Finals pitting a team that swept the prior series and another that squeaked out a seven-game victory. The team that swept the previous round, according to ESPN Stats and Information, has won the series four out of six times. The last team to buck that trend was the 1998 Chicago Bulls, headlined by none other than Michael Jordan.
The beginning vs. the end
For Miami, this may be the title that establishes their dominance. A loss doesn't mean their dynastic run will come to an end, not by a long shot, but it could influence James, a potential free agent in two seasons, to leave for greener pastures. Dwyane Wade has been set back by a myriad of debilitating knee issues in the past few seasons. Chris Bosh is a fine secondary superstar but he has a knack for disappearing in big moments. There isn't much cap space either to support James. His promise to deliver multiple championships to Miami will likely not come to fruition if he falls short for the second time in three seasons.
For San Antonio, this may very well be their last legitimate chance at securing a fifth ring for Duncan's thumb. Parker promised Duncan another ring last season, after their season was abruptly ended by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Duncan doesn't have much left and neither does Ginobili. There's a ton of pressure on both fronts.
King James duels the Spurs, again
In his second season, James took a Cleveland roster that wasn't quite ready for the Finals stage. With nobody talented enough to take pressure off his shoulders, James, pestered by the indomitable Bruce Bowen, hoisted 90 shots in four games. He only made 32. The Spurs' defense didn't give him any easy looks.
He's a much, much different player now. James, according to his own evaluation, is 50 times better. He must be respected from every part of the floor — in the post, above the arc, where he made 38.9 percent of his 3-pointers this season, and in the intermediate spots. He's a threat to beeline to the rim or thread a timely cross-court pass to a wide-open teammate. There isn't anywhere to hide this time around. Are the Spurs up for the biggest defensive task in basketball?
Leonard's huge test
Leonard hasn't even turned 22 and he will be pressed with the chore of guarding James in the NBA Finals. Popovich will lean on him heavily; he may even extend him to 40 minutes per game. Leonard didn't have a tough perimeter task, save for the few stretches against Mike Conley, against Memphis or Los Angeles, but he did clamp down on Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in the semifinals.
They are completely different players than James, who combines the 3-point proficiency with the ridiculous ability to finish any shot in the paint. Leonard needs to prevent as many shots in the paint as possible — James averaged 9.1 shots in the paint during the regular season and 9.4 in the Eastern Conference finals — and with little help from his teammates. Indiana did an excellent job staying home on Miami's shooters while simultaneously altering James' forays into the paint; he only made 64.7 percent of his shots in the paint against Indiana compared to his regular season mark (70 percent). That's the defensive blueprint, along with dominating the offensive boards and making quick decisions, but it isn't nearly that easy.
San Antonio runs the pick-and-roll early and often. They ruthlessly bludgeoned Zach Randolph and even Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol with a flurry of screens to free Parker on the perimeter. Per Synergy Sports, they were the league's most proficient pick-and-roll team during the regular season. Miami happens to be the best team at defending this type of action.
They are atypical in their coverage, though; their athleticism allows them to trap the ball-handler aggressively. This can be taxing for the defenders, since it requires a ton of effort and timely help defense to fortify the openings in the defense. If these weak-side defenders can't collapse on the rolling big in time, the offense only needs to fire a decent entry pass to generate good offense. This type of defense is equally hard to beat and execute. It's why Miami's defense is so damn inconsistent. Their margin for error is inordinately high, especially against the passing acumen of the Spurs bigs. It will be up to Parker to either beat the trap and attack the paint or a big (likely Duncan, Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw) to deliver pinpoint passes to teammates and finish over smaller help defenders. The victor of this chess match will have a significant leg up on the opposition.
What do we make of it? Wade is averaging 14.1 points in the playoffs. Bosh's rebounding plummeted in the Eastern Conference finals. Shane Battier, a fixture in three of Miami's best five-man regular season lineups, has made 15 of his 66 looks in the playoffs (22.7 percent). Battier was often used as a versatile fulcrum, because he can competently defend multiple positions and shoot open 3-pointers. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra completely eliminated him from the rotation in Game 7. Spo eventually delved into the deep recesses of his bench just to get any positive contribution (Joel Anthony, Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis). LeBron's cast mates have had very little impact thus far, excluding Chris Andersen and Norris Cole. San Antonio's rotation is the paradigm of productivity. Miami doesn't need to match the Spurs' bench punch for punch, but they can't be completely outplayed.
Prediction: Heat in seven. (For the record, I'm not too confident with this pick.)