By: Shawn Davis
The way in which the NBA champion was crowned last year was the appetizer; funny thing to write, right? Look at what we’re about to have play out in our living rooms, on our phones, tablets, etc. We get a true basketball rematch, the professional version of getting revenge on the team that just ran you off your local street court when you had point-game (20) and they stormed back from six or seven down to win, 22-20.
How would that feel? Multiply that by a million and you get to (possibly) feel how the San Antonio Spurs felt after last year, especially Game 6 when Ray Allen made NBA officials wheel the trophy back into the dark rooms of American Airlines Arena.
It was that close. Not since the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz battled – consecutively in June ‘97 and ‘98 – for the prize atop the basketball world have basketball fans been treated to a rematch. The dominant narrative has the Heat going for the franchise-validating three-peat versus the Spurs quest to earn five titles (while writing a wrong from last year). They are equally important so don’t fall into the thought that an NBA championship is MORE IMPORTANT to one franchise over the other.
Talking heads are gushing way too much about the Spurs “giving it away” last year, and while that sentiment has legs, it demeans what the Miami Heat accomplished. Full disclosure: I’m not a Heat fan, neither are most of the people who now sit for their home games – but I do not hate them either. I am a fan of the Spurs and have been ever since my beloved Bulls were dismantled a year early robbing the world of a Bulls vs. Spurs NBA Finals in ’99, but back to the point…
Capitalizing on mistakes takes keen awareness and the Heat expressed theirs when Gregg Popovich over-analyzed the Spurs out of last year’s title. By removing Duncan from the floor in Game 6, on the possession that ended when Allen took the most clutch shot (probably) ever when you factor in degree of difficulty alone and all the gears that had to shift juuuuuust right, the Heat were able to turn a good bounce into great fortune. If put in a similar predicament this series, I DOUBT Duncan is watching from the bench.
LeBron James said that the Heat feel “slighted” because the media have labeled it as the Spurs loss of a title more than a Heat victory. Relax, Mr. James. If you need proof that you won last year, look on your finger, go to the internet…or simply listen to how the vitriol has dissipated towards you since the Dallas Mavericks prevailed over your team in 2011. You’ve won consecutive titles but all the greats need extra motivation, I guess.
Of course the focus will be on the matchups. For the Heat, the series going in their favor is going to be dependent on whether Dwyane Wade’s health holds and if that does I like their chances. James is going to continue on his postseason warpath to track down the game’s greatest talents so he’s going to show up. After Wade’s health, someone outside of the Heat’s big three will have to be a consistent presence. Be it offensively, defensively or on the defensive glass. (That’s one of the places the Heat can exploit if they choose as the Spurs favor getting back defensively over crashing for offensive rebounds.)
Provided Tony Parker is limited to less than 75 percent of his usual dynamic, slashing, collapsing-the-defense-and-just-causing-havoc self, the Spurs cannot win four of the next seven games. If someone sees that, deem him a better evaluator of basketball than I. Patty Mills can pick up some of that slack – he’s destroyed teams this year – but he isn’t as crisp in his decision-making and asking him to replicate Parker’s production could be too tall a task.
Like his sore hamstring in the latter half of last year’s Finals, the Spurs are just two steps slower without Parker at close to peak condition. Going position-for-position, Parker wins the point guard battle – and must dominate his individual matchup for his team to claim what they couldn’t last year. Miami had a migraine last year dealing with his ability to break their defense down, attack the lane to score, or to kick it outside to the three-point line. For viewing purposes, I hope that both teams are as close to 100% as they can be considering how late it is in the season.
While I agree that the Spurs are better than they were last year and the Heat don’t seem to be as complete as they were it’s not that large of a gulf. Last time I checked, having the best player on the floor is always a plus. LeBron James will do everything in his power to carry his team to another title. There isn’t a wing player he cannot overwhelm and even though he’ll see a mix of defenders over the next two weeks, Kawhi Leonard mostly, James will have (and make) plays. If the Heat fall, I highly doubt it will be because James couldn’t make a mark. Looking from a distance, the Spurs should try their hardest to handcuff everyone else forcing James to carry the bulk of the burden, limiting his effectiveness.
The Spurs can exploit the biggest weakness that the defending champions are clearly guilty of: reaching for their on/off switch. For some reason – probably just fatigue – the Heat has a glaring tendency to think they can hit the “on” button when the moment calls for it. It would be ill-advised to them to rely on that dial and expect to be happy when the inevitable confetti falls from the sky. For as long as this series is going to last, they have to be present – and in the moment.
Marco Bellinelli, (a lively) Boris Diaw, and Mills are a much better unit than the Spurs of last season, comprising a clear advantage off the bench. Who am I missing? Manu Ginobili. Why? Do not forget how inept and done he looked this time last year. He couldn’t handle the ball, his footwork and passing was sloppy…and he was playing with a 10-foot fork in his back. It was truly heartbreaking to watch. This year he came back resembling the player we’re used to seeing; it’s rare for a guard to reset himself at age 36 and play at a level close to his prime but that’s what he did all season. In this series, I don’t think he’ll carry as much blame as he did last year if the Heat prevails. Ginobili will be a positive factor this time around.
Chris Andersen, a vital piece for a Heat team lacking size, will be limited because of a thigh bruise and that could be a telling factor if the Spurs give Tiago Splitter the playing time he’s received all season. I have my concerns in that regard because the Heat rendered Splitter all but useless a year ago. He played like the shortest seven-footer ever and I wonder if Popovich has that on his mind when he constructs his minute allotment.
Predominantly, I see this as a small-ball series with the Spurs selectively choosing when to take advantage with their bigger frontcourt. Who is going to get consistent minutes on the Heat besides their triumvirate? I doubt that even Erik Spoelstra can answer that question but I think he likes it that way. It makes the Spurs contemplate all the shifts they are sure to see.
Who wins? Besides the fans, you ask? Here goes…
Over the last three years I have picked the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Spurs to beat the Heat. I could live with being 1-for-3 but I think I’m pulling even.
Three-peat, Heat in seven.