NBA: Express Mail From Texas

By: S. Davis

Has anyone actually bothered to watch the San Antonio Spurs play this season; as in truly paid attention to the action on the floor? I’m not talking about the monumental statistical leap that Kawhi Leonard took this year. No. Which reminds me, I vividly recall the majority of talking heads around the sport questioning the Spurs’ future with him as the offensive fulcrum for the next decade, I do. We all knew his defense was established.

Fast-forward this year and now, everyone, predicted this surge from the best two-way player in the league? (LeBron James remains the best player in the world when he’s tasked with defending the opposition’s best threat.) This piece isn’t about Leonard though – at least not as the primary focus. This is directly in response to all the chatter surrounding LaMarcus Aldridge.

Of all noise surrounding Texas, from fans and analysts, I find it compelling that the Spurs’ “system” has escaped all criticism. Where’s the depth within the sets? Where’s the ball movement? Where are the quick passes and off-ball action that made the Miami Heat crumble in 2014? Has anyone seen the selective and effective post touches to hurt defenders in the frontcourt who have abandoned sound post defense because the league is pulling “bigs” further away from the basket every year? Where’s the style of play that influenced Steve Kerr to cook up a version of his own to feed to his Golden State Warriors?

It doesn’t exist. At least not in the form we’ve been accustomed to seeing.

By the time I publish this, Aldridge may be packing up his home on the way to another franchise that will use his skills as incorrectly as the Spurs have. I’ve liked him since his time at Texas and I’ve always felt he was underrated. When the Spurs signed him I was excited to see the partnership with Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich. As masterful as any head coach, in any sport, why did Popovich fail Aldridge? Why does all the blame fall on the player and not the coach?

Where’s the critique regarding how unbalanced the Spurs have become offensively?

Leonard – who’s great – has the entire game plan within his palms. It’s logical as he’s young, proven and their best player. There is no doubt there. He’s risen from his apprenticeship to take the mantle from Tim Duncan. However the offense has become easy to defend. How many times have the Spurs relied on Leonard play hero-ball, in isolation, when a basket is needed? Too many to count; more often than not he’s successful but the other four players on the court are stationary; as in late 90s, early 2000s, he’s-clearing-it-out-so-I-guess-we’ll-watch-this-from-here kind of motionless.

When’s the last time the Spurs executed their offense in that fashion?

“Trade Aldridge!”

“Get him out of here!”

“He can’t play!”

“He’s soft! It’s over for him!”

These are comments I’ve pulled from paid analysts over the last year and more frequently after the Warriors eliminated them from the playoffs. These are real quotes from the experts.

I don’t agree and it isn’t a terribly difficult argument to defend either. He was the prize of free agency TWO years ago and now he’s trash? Worthy of being express-mailed out of San Antonio? He arrived TWO YEARS ago. This isn’t a case of him failing to perform, the team has devalued him and turned their noses up at the thought of keeping him on the roster.

Popovich barely posts him, for one. Secondly, the offense has him attacking from the perimeter – which habitually leaves him with the choice between a long jumper or a three; shots he can convert – once Leonard dribbles the air out of the ball. But their problems are all tied to No. 12?

I don’t think sports fans are intelligent by any means so I’m not astonished that they are also blaming the former Portland Trailblazer. It’s the reporters, screaming heads and the like that are paid to watch basketball – who should have a deeper understanding of the game – and yet they have their eyes wide shut. It’s their profession. Side point: It’s akin to the issues involving Kevin Love. He’s a power forward with three-point range…but the Cavaliers deploy him chiefly as a stretch-four and he’s a “bum” now?

This is basketball and Aldridge is not utilized properly. This. Is. Obvious.

Is it a coincidence that Leonard’s MVP-level campaign coincided with Aldridge’s worst statistical season since his freshman NBA year? These two events transpired simultaneously. I can’t be the only person that sees that. How is that being ignored? Additionally, wasn’t the analytics movement buoyed by the reasoning that traditional methods of gauging a player’s value; e.g. points, rebounds, assists, etc, are incomplete measurements? Yet when everyone’s head is steaming and/or there’s a live microphone around, the first spotlight is on points per game? Lazy.

If you watch basketball and you understand more than a highlight or a flashy pass then this truly isn’t difficult to comprehend.

Every team can’t try to copy what’s on deck for the Warriors. The galaxy lined up for them so perfectly and now the league is in a frenzy to bottle it. It isn’t alchemy. They drafted their dynamic backcourt and then signed Steph Curry to a below-market extension due to his ankle troubles which gave them the flexibility to focus cash elsewhere (namely Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston). Then they got lucky enough that when their all-star, David Lee, was injured Draymond Green turned into a complete force that NO ONE expected. Oh…and then they win an NBA championship, follow that year with a 73-9 season (but lose in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers after blowing a 3-1 lead) and sign Kevin Durant. He then helps lead them into another dance with the Cavaliers in which they finish the series in five games. The Warriors were built organically and then looked to free agency.

The league is killing itself to replicate their style. I get it. However there’s a reason why the Spurs have been able to beat them. Size. Aldridge gives them trouble for that same reason. When the Spurs defend and the offense is run through both of their top players, they can compete with the Warriors. There isn’t a team that’s going to beat the Warriors playing small – and to their strengths. A roster needs to have a perfect mix of shooting, defense, size and speed in order not to get blown out by 30 – and the Spurs are pointing all the blame at Aldridge without taking a look at their offense. If Popovich did, I’m sure he would reconsider trading his power forward. At least he should.

But again, by the time this is published he’ll probably be in another city.

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Lottery Bound

By: S. Davis

It was going to be a “pure basketball decision.” Those were the thoughts emerging from Kevin Durant – and his representatives – as the superstar was preparing for his first invitation into the madness of NBA Free Agency. He took his meetings, flew to the Hamptons and Boston for a few more – and then made his decision. By now the choice has been evaluated and discussed across most media outlets so you won’t find that here.

After the yelling, cheering and horror (from the Oklahoma City Thunder supporters) where is the franchise headed? Just four years ago, the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It was almost taken for granted at the time that they would be challenging for the trophy every June into the foreseeable future. They have yet to win the NBA championship, traded James Harden a week before the 2012-13 season began, let a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Golden State Warriors slip through their hands…and now Durant is on this way to the Bay Area. That unfolded swiftly.

Is this how a dynasty that never was disintegrates? Over the last decade there’s been a chorus supporting the notion that market size doesn’t matter anymore (the obvious test case being the San Antonio Spurs) but it’s hard to ignore that Oklahoma City is facing a future with just one star in Russell Westbrook…who is in the last year of his current deal. Is this franchise headed for the lottery?

This isn’t a knock on Oklahoma at all. The question is whether the franchise will be able to recruit top-tier free agents for the first time that they will definitely need to. They’ve had the comfort of having their own stars in-house and now the coin has flipped and they’re going to have to enter the same free agency dance that other teams are well-versed in going forward. It’s going to be a tough sell without having Durant and Westbrook, together, under contract. Major free agents haven’t viewed the Thunder as a destination and now the franchise needs to pitch players on why it is one.

With the trade of Serge Ibaka, Westbrook is the last of the four cornerstone players expected to compete for titles as long as they remained healthy throughout their respective athletic primes. The top-tier free agents have mostly agreed-in-principle to deals so the options remaining on the market are the scraps in the bargain bin. (Bargain being a loose term when factoring the amount of money being handed out to journeymen and unproven NBA talent over the weekend; it’s eye opening.)

Can general manager Sam Presti construct a playoff contender; better yet, a championship contender around Russell Westbrook? The worst thing in the NBA is to be mediocre because all that does is cement a four-to-six seed in the postseason, an exit in the first or second round all the while killing the chance to get a high pick in the draft to (possibly) acquire a franchise changing player to make the team elite. Presti is sure going to try but the clock is ticking loudly on Westbrook’s time; it started yesterday morning.

At this point he’s faced with trading one of the few, true, superstars in all of sports or running the risk of losing him this time next year for nothing at all. It’s easy being a general manager when things are humming along like a brand new sedan. What does it take to steer a franchise clear of the abyss? After their inaugural season in 2009-10 they’ve made the playoffs every year (with the exception being last year due to the foot injury to Durant).

The franchise was incredibly lucky to relocate to Oklahoma City with Durant and the newly drafted Westbrook in tow. Through exceptional scouting and draft positioning Harden and Ibaka joined the fray to complete a devastating, young core. They’ve never faced two losing seasons, consecutively; a small comfort on this summer evening but one that could change dramatically depending on the next few months.

Presti will have the decision on Westbrook, the future of the franchise and his job, obviously, all in his hands and they are all connected. Across social media, basketball fans in Seattle are claiming “karma” for Durant’s decision to join the Warriors. Maybe.

What’s in the future for the Thunder?

Through sheer will and force Westbrook can lead his team to a playoff berth in the upcoming season. The locks in the Western Conference seem to be the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. That’s five slots and adding the Dallas Mavericks makes six so the last two seeds will be open among the Thunder, Houston Rockets and the team too-many-love-too-soon, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Selfishly, it’s sad that one of my favorite tandems will no longer be together but no one can say the NBA is absent of stories next season…or obscene contracts due to the salary cap spike.

 

NBA: San Antonio Spurs

By: Shawn Davis

So life got in the way and I never got a real chance to give a review of the NBA Finals that the San Antonio Spurs snatched away in five games from the Miami Heat. Is it surprising? Not at all, however the way in which it unfolded was either beautiful or awful to watch (depending on your rooting interest).

I wrote that for the Heat to have any shot in the series they would need to keep scoring “in the high-80’s to low-90’s” and we all saw how great they were in trying to make that a reality. That didn’t happen and the Spurs margin of victory was 18 points in their four victories. Their offensive pacing and passing would always keep the Heat fearful of the scoreboard hitting triple digits because LeBron James would have to carry his team just to reach the 90’s. Mind you, the Heat topped out at 98 points – in their Game 2 victory – and scored 86 and 87 in Games 4 and 5, respectively.

For all the “fans” who say James didn’t “score enough,” well, he could have put up some 40-point outings but that would have played right into the Spurs’ defense. You see outside of him – and Michael Beasley who should have been given ample minutes as this series was going to come down to offense for Miami – the Heat are lacking shot creators. I understand that Beasley had his issues grasping the defensive sets and terminology but his ability to shoot, put the ball on the floor and score in the post would have been a heavy load for Boris Diaw while also pulling Tim Duncan away from the rim.

Like Gregg Popovich in last year’s Game 6, Erik Spoelstra tried to be too clever. His biggest mistake was refusing to tailor his Finals lineup towards offense. His rotations weren’t consistent from game-to-game; guys would collect DNP’s and then find their way into the starting lineup. I openly admit that I was wrong in picking the Heat to win the series in seven games but my rationale was that it would be a tight series and the best player in the world would tip the scales. Was that crazy of me to think? No.

All that considered the Spurs were not going to let the trophy out of their grasp a second year in a row. Watching Game 5, I paid close attention when they clawed back after taking the Heat’s initial, emotional, punch. They looked focused and invigorated while the Heat looked like Ivan Drago once it became clear that Rocky Balboa would have to be killed in the ring for him to stop fighting.

The Spurs (seemingly) endless offensive attack of passing, 3-pointers and unselfishness was a joy to watch. Seeing Manu Ginobili erase the filth he played under last year was inspiring and the driving lefty slam was a vintage play that, maybe, broke the Heat. Tony Parker closing strong after missing all his shot attempts in the first half was clutch and seeing Tim Duncan, my favorite, active, player, get his fifth championship made for a great viewing experience.

Kawhi Leonard playing James as close to even as just about anyone in the league has while having to defend him every play is worth of mention – and that’s why I’m mentioning it. See what I did there?

There is not a single player on the planet that can guard James (Paul George can be effective in spurts, while Kevin Durant isn’t a good on-ball defender and is too thin to prevent being overpowered) but Leonard did about the best job I’ve seen. I do hope that the masses jumping on the Leonard bandwagon realize that he isn’t going to average 25 points next year, the Spurs DO NOT play that way. Their offense isn’t tailored to one player; it is focused on a concept: passing. Passing for a better shot that the good shot that you have. The offense will continue to run through Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili with Leonard taking on a bigger role. Remember what Popovich said after they clinched the title at the press conference: “I don’t call plays for him (Leonard), I don’t call his number. He gets his (offensive numbers) in the flow of the game.”

Congratulations to the San Antonio Spurs for continuing their run of excellence.

NBA Finals: Over?

By: Shawn Davis

For the life of me I cannot fathom that the Finals will decided this evening. It has nothing to do with the basketball mastery the San Antonio Spurs have shown or the Miami Heat having their on/off switch under construction over the last week. The basketball fan in me wants the series to continue?

Will it? I think so.

Writing about Game 3 didn’t inspire me because it was such an anomaly of a shooting night for the Spurs that anyone wearing their jersey – I’m including out of shape fans and others who don’t even play sports – could have checked into the contest and hit a shot. Nothing tangible would have come from that so I wanted to wait after Game 4 for some analysis; a larger sample to examine.

Over the last three years the Heat – even when their offense was disrupted on a given night – has always had a devastating, hyper-drive-like defensive gear. One that leads to incredible dribble pressure, steals, length-of-the-court passes and highlight reel plays for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The only player of the Heat capable of reaching that higher level of defensive intensity is James. He cannot do it on his own, it’s too tough a burden.

I don’t know if his knees are giving him problems, or he’s just truly a diminished player, but Wade cannot be relied upon on either side of the ball for long stretches of play. Chris Bosh has “elevator games” (up one day and down the next) which is hurting his effort defensively so it’s hard to tell what he’ll provide from one game to the next.

There is nothing the Heat can do to deal with the depth the Spurs trot on the floor. The ability to dress three stars is a luxury to have but a strong counter is to have three stars and five or six additional players with them that deserve a good deal of defensive attention in their own right. Sheer volume and endless options have the Spurs one game away – and the championship trophy in Texas this evening…waiting to be claimed.

Miami’s trapping defense which confounds most NBA teams, and turned Manu Ginobili into a drunk, dribbling mess last year, has been rendered inoperable. Why? The Spurs ball-movement and their extra-pass mantra has been moving the Heat all over the place, unable to locate the shooter until the ball has been released; which is bad when the Spurs have a high level of shooting prowess no matter which unit they have on the floor.

It’s hard for the Heat to counter the depth they’re facing unless James, Wade and Bosh all have great nights in the SAME game and it better come this evening or confetti is sure to fall. The role players of the Heat thrive when their stars are dictating terms (not the other way around) and they play to their strengths when they are simply asked to carry what their particular roles entail.

LeBron James is the only given on his team right now. Can anyone truly believe that Wade and Bosh are going to have dominant performances? Even if they are limited offensively, they must play great on defense. I don’t knock Bosh because he plays a ball-dependent position whereas Wade still has his hands on the ball in ways to make his presence known. He just hasn’t been able to be the true, second star, that he’s proved to be over the last two seasons. If the Heat falls in this series I am keenly interested in how the front-office handles his contract this summer.

Seeing the Heat for the second June in a row has armed the Spurs with a familiarity that can only be gained through repetition. They’ve seen, studied and lost to their Finals foe and that has been a valuable tool in this season-long quest to get back to this exact position.

If the Heat plans on getting back to Florida, for, you know…a basketball game, they better find that missing defensive flair. The Spurs have averaged 106 points per game in these Finals compared to the Heat’s 92.7; a 14 point score differential says it all. If the Heat cannot keep the game in the high-80’s to low-90’s, there will be a parade in Texas one day next week. Triple-digits are the death of the defending champions because they are not a formidable offensive team and the Spurs have been taking good care of the ball since Game 2 so no easy buckets there.

The fact that any team won two consecutive games in this series is eye-opening but the thought of the Spurs getting a third seems too much. Am I wrong for thinking that?

Yes, the Heat are representing a weak Eastern Conference so maybe they’re not as good as they seem while the Spurs play in the death march that is the Western Conference but are they that much better than their opponent to end the Finals in five games?

Boris Diaw being in the starting lineup gives the Spurs two point guards whenever he is on the floor – and he has been incredible to watch. Directing the offense in the half court sets, making the extra pass, taking smaller defenders – usually Wade and Rashard Lewis – into the post and playing like he did in Phoenix gives them a lift they didn’t have last year. He’s not dominating in any area but he is excelling across the entire stat sheet.

Anything can happen in a closing game so be prepared to see the Heat play with desperation defensively, something clearly missing in Game 4. The game should be tight and I think James will have to be in the 30-42 point range (with a near triple double) to get this series to a Game 6.

Will the Spurs win it all this evening? Can the Heat beat the Spurs in three CONSECUTIVE games to make history?

NBA Finals: Game 2

By: Shawn Davis

Hey you conspiracy theorists, lunatics, media, and well…FANatics, LeBron James didn’t quit the other night because of cramps. Are we still in the moment of time that the public has to pile on the guy…for eveything? I guess the hate emanating from his arrival in Florida never really dissolved; it lay dormant for a while since he piled two championships on the back of The Decision.

“Michael Jordan would have played through cramps.” – Too many fans.

“Larry Bird would have stayed in the game.” – Other fans.

“Kobe Bryant would have died before being taken out!” – More fans.

You get where I’m going. Jordan wouldn’t have been able to play through cramps; Bird would have left the game and Bryant wouldn’t have died on the court as that would be bad for ratings, I think. Hell, the Tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park wouldn’t have been able to hunt with a leg cramp like James had after his layup versus Boris Diaw. (You fanatics forget that he did, indeed, check back into the game which led to the aforementioned play, right?) The body dictates when it’s had enough and that’s why he locked up completely after landing on his feet.

I’m no physician but I know that a cramp is akin to your muscles basically having a seizure and then becoming paralyzed. Also he’s suffered from the same malady in the past…when it wasn’t close to 100 degrees on the playing court. No amount of hydration was going to help someone that’s genetically predisposed to his condition. He wouldn’t have been able to prevent it just like someone genetically inclined to suffer from migraines – this writer here – cannot do anything before one renders them a heap of skin and bones.

The next time any one of you wake up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp and find your limb useless, rise out of bed, stand on your feet, go grab your basketball and call your friends to play a recreational game. Let me know how unstoppable how are in that much pain. Your body decides when it’s had enough.

Do you really think he wanted out of a game that was pretty even? You could make the argument that the Heat was where they wanted to be, being down by two points (94-92), on the road with 4:09 left in regulation. Why would he walk off and watch his teammates play without him unless his body said “NO!”?

Simple, he wouldn’t.

I’m not defending him because I picked the Heat to win the series (I’d prefer to see the Spurs win the rematch); it’s honestly because it’s so boring that people are STILL on his back. Give it a rest already! He left for a better opportunity and show me a human being that wouldn’t. How he did it was abhorrently repugnant but sometimes we don’t always do the rational thing. At least he raised money for charity and if any good came from that circus…that was it.

Secondly, do you think the San Antonio Spurs would purposely want the air conditioning to shut off…considering the mileage (and age on the bodies) of their top players: Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker? Use your heads, do not be sheep.

Regretfully, the ACTUAL game got overlooked in all the noise and what a game of basketball it was. At times sloppy – the Spurs passing – and exhilarating – Ray Allen reaching back to his Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle Supersonics days with a fearless air assault on the rim – I was happy I made it home in time to watch it all unfold.

Am I allowed to talk about Game 2 now without throwing a knife at James? Ugh.

One interesting thing to watch for will be James’ aggressiveness from the opening tip until the beginning of the second quarter. This could be a 35-12-8 line from him and a Miami Heat win. Ever since the current version of the Heat has been comprised, they have never lost the opening two games of ANY playoff series. Be on the lookout for that.

With Allen supplying 16 points I fully expect him to be in double-figures for the remainder of the series but who else will help the Heat offensively? While the Heat can play a few different ways – and love to run as much as anyone – I doubt that they want the game scores being decided in the triple digits consistently.

Why?

The depth on the Heat bench is centered on the defensive end, meaning if they have to score 100-plus to get wins in this series, who, outside of Allen, will provide the scoring they need? Look there as well. This is a sector that the Spurs can completely dominate because they are able to bring offense, passing and defense off the bench. Sheer depth is the main reason many are picking them to win the title but role players like Danny Green aren’t the same when they take the floor in road arenas.

We just have to see what happens. Game 2 is going to be another must-see event, I’m sure. This series is a coin toss! Enjoy.

Can we make sure the temperature is controlled this evening? Please. I want to provide analysis and commentary on basketball…not cramps, migraines, or the heart of a player who has averaged 39.5 minutes per game over the course of his career.

Rematch

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.

NBA Finals: Tie You Say?

By: Shawn Davis

We can all agree that sleeping behind the wheel isn’t smart, right? Ok, I will touch on this a little later.

A few weeks back I went to a crazy yacht party for a friends’ birthday bash. There was a perfect mix of comfortable weather, scenic views of NYC, good music, and it was all capped with beautiful women in skin-tight clothing. Tremendous atmosphere; interested? Pay attention!

Later that evening – well, early the next morning – after dancing with some of the lovely ladies on the ship, I got behind the wheel and I was drained. Smart? Of course not and I don’t even own a car. In this analogy, the yacht party is the NBA Finals and the tired driver is Russell Westbrook.

Unless you live in a cave, you know that the Thunder got blitzed from the opening tip. Miami came out in attack mode, never relented and after seven minutes into the game they led 18-2. They were at the bar buying drinks and on the dance floor while Oklahoma City was still getting checked by the security guards. This game was over before the first commercial break because they trailed the ENTIRE game. Tired driver on the scene; wanna ride?

In my preview I said if Dwyane Wade was healthy enough to play Westbrook evenly – or get the best of him – the Heat would have a great chance of winning the championship because I think Kevin Durant and LeBron James are so great they cancel each other out. After two games in the series, that’s holding up pretty solidly – and I expect it to continue. It was great to see Wade catch the ball just above the foul line and attack the rim with very few dribbles and finish with force.

While the first quarter was unfolding (and Westbrook was taking bad shot attempts) I almost screamed at the television, hoping he would steady the team and get them into a decent set or two; instead he went on to miss six field-goals. He was playing faster than his body could contain and I was surprised Coach Brooks didn’t pull him to calm him down for a possession or call a much-needed timeout when the score was 13-2. James Harden or Derek Fisher should have been at the scorers table much earlier. He was out of control! I’m a huge supporter of his aggressive style but he played horribly and was the main culprit in why they couldn’t storm back.

Just look at this: Harden took 11 shots and scored 21 points, Westbrook took 26 shots to earn his 27 points. Ugh. Durant took 22 to tally 32 in the box score. He’s turning his back on the balance he seemed to find in the San Antonio series. It’s ONLY one game but if the Heat prevails in this series, ALL FOCUS will be on Game 2.

Shane Battier has emerged as Miami’s fourth option by scoring 17 points in both games of the Finals to give his team a reliable threat outside of the Heat’s marquee players. He’s going to warrant some real defensive attention and if he keeps this up he can help offset the human Swiss army knife that is Harden. People seem surprised by his play, as someone who has watched him since college; I’m not at all shocked.

Lastly, Oklahoma City didn’t get robbed on the James no-call foul on Durant. The first seven minutes was where they got assaulted by the visitors…and dug themselves a hole. Westbrook needs to make sure he hands over the keys and lets someone else take the wheel if the goal is to be happy when that confetti rains from the rafters.