Wednesday, June 4, 2014

NBA Finals Are the Spurs’ For the Taking

By Ross Lancaster

The 2014 NBA Finals will feature the first rematch of the previous year's championship series since the Bulls and Jazz met in 1998. And just like in that series, the losing team from the first matchup is trying to stop the defending champions from a historic three-peat, something that's only been done a handful of times in NBA history.

But before the Heat can be crowned among immortals, a question I feel NBA fans should be asking themselves is, "Will the Heat even make this an extended series?"

If you're a Heat fan, you might have just looked at the previous sentence and scoffed. You might even think that suggesting that the two-time defending champions, who also have the best player in the world on their side, might get blown out in a series borders on disrespect.

Think back to last year's finals. Even the most ardent of Heat fans would have to admit that Miami was extremely fortunate to win the last two games of last year's series at home. Just in end-game scenarios, the Heat needed one of the most miraculous shots ever by Ray Allen to fall at the end of Game 6 and for Tim Duncan to miss two shots he's hit a thousand times in his life at the end of Game 7.

Then, ask yourself: are the Heat nearly as good as last year? Are the Spurs improved since then?

The answers should be a resounding no and yes, respectively. And that's why I think the Spurs will only need six games at most to win their fifth title in 16 seasons.

In the 2014 playoffs to this point, I don't think it's a stretch to say that each of San Antonio's three playoff opponents was better than each of Miami's playoff foes after taking Indiana's post All-Star Break meltdown into account. After all, the Spurs' series with Dallas in the first round, which seems like it was in January, went the distance as Dallas played some of the best defense it played all year.

In Game 1 of the East Finals, Indiana took down the Heat by playing a decisive, aggressive brand of half-court offense and flabbergasted Miami with its shotmaking ability. It was probably the Pacers' best performance since before the All-Star Game. In San Antonio, Miami faces a team where such offense is the norm, and not an aberration on the road to an embarrassing elimination.

In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs faced a challenge many times tougher than anything Miami has come up against in its 12-3 playoff run. When Serge Ibaka unexpectedly returned for the Thunder in Game 3 and scored the first basket of the game on his way to hitting his first six shots of the night, San Antonio found itself against the same Oklahoma City team that had swept them in the regular season.

After blowout wins in Games 3 and 4, the Spurs were staring straight at another 4-2 defeat like in 2012, winning the first two games before dropping the next four. But in Game 5, the Spurs' lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, and Duncan proved decisive, creating any number of matchup problems for the Thunder.

In Game 6, even with Parker out the entire second half and overtime, and a combination of Cory Joseph, Patty Mills and Ginobili playing the point, San Antonio neutralized Ibaka, and helped keep the ball away from Kevin Durant as much as possible on defense.

Erik Spoelstra is miles ahead of Scott Brooks as an in-game coach, so you had better believe that when San Antonio sets high screens with those lineups as in Game 6, Spoelstra won't make the switches like the ones that saw Derek Fisher guarding Diaw during pivotal Game 6 possessions. But those matchups hint at a larger issue for the Heat.

In each of the Heat's previous matchups, their lack of depth wasn't an issue against Charlotte's limited talent and limited Al Jefferson, Brooklyn's age and defensive issues, and Indiana's more pronounced bench issues. That won't be the case against the Spurs, who played 10 players at least 10 minutes per game and 13 men overall against Oklahoma City.

Nevertheless, there are key x-factors for the Spurs that could help Miami excel instead.

Tiago Splitter was excellent against Dallas, but was less productive against Portland and OKC. If he can give the Spurs offense like he did against the Mavs, Miami's small-ball tactics will be less effective. Kawhi Leonard shut down LeBron James at times during last year's series, and has made even more improvement in the last year. Obviously, Parker's ankle and hamstring need to be as close to 100 percent as possible for the Spurs to be firing on all cylinders.

The 2014 Finals feature the strongest team from the West against their counterparts from the East. While the gap in quality in this finals won't be as wide as the chasm between the two conferences, San Antonio should prevail.

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