NBA Finals preview: Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs
Miami and San Antonio earned a trip to the NBA Finals in very different ways -- the former having clawed its way through an unexpectedly trying series with Indiana, and the latter the victor in a clean sweep over Memphis. Yet in spite of that contrast, this is about as balanced and complex a Finals matchup as any NBA fan could hope for. The coaching and level of preparation on both sides is impeccable, and stands to inform the play of two balanced, flexible rosters in fascinating ways. Miami's defensive energy and San Antonio's supporting cast will be tested in particular, with the ultimate prize hanging in the balance.
The Eastern Conference finals proved to be an exceptional series for many reasons -- perhaps the foremost of which is the fact that the Pacers' size directly challenged the Heat's basketball ideology. Erik Spoelstra and his staff have engineered Miami's offensive and defensive systems to maximize the speed and flexibility of their roster, and yet throughout that series the Heat had little choice but to abandon much of that approach and fundamentally change the nature of their execution. It takes a uniquely problematic matchup to coax Miami out of the strategy and rhythm responsible for the 2012 title and the 78 regular-season and playoff wins since, and Indiana proved to be just such a foil.
Though they pose a far greater challenge in many ways, the Spurs simply don't have the same capacity to punish the Heat for going small. Deep-post catches and woeful defensive rebounding triggered the Heat's previous shift, but Tim Duncan (who posts up, but with less frequency and a less glaring size advantage than the Heat faced in the ECF) and the Spurs (who ranked 29th in the league this season in offensive rebounding percentage) won't likely compromise Miami's rotation in the same way. As a result, shooters such as Shane Battier and Mike Miller will help space the floor and pull San Antonio's bigs away from the rim.
That isn't to say that this series will be easy for the Heat. The playbook will be bigger and the chemistry greater with an extra shooter on the floor, if only because that was the approach Miami employed through the bulk of its season. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will have more room to play off of one another with cuts and drives. Chris Bosh will have his openings and will at some point convert (he shot just 37 percent from the floor in the East finals), as the Spurs will need to draw help from his defender more frequently than the Pacers did with David West. Considering that this will likely be a series won on the grounds of relatively minute differences, the ripple effects of this kind of shift matter.
Gregg Popovich and the Spurs understand that the Heat will do everything within their power to mitigate Tony Parker's impact. Miami will ramp up the pressure on Parker every time he comes around a screen, in the process relying on three quick, scrambling defenders to account for the other threats on the court. Keeping up with San Antonio's ball movement in those situations will be tricky, but shifting control of the possession away from Parker could prove to be an essential gambit for Miami.
This is where a player like Manu Ginobili becomes essential for the Spurs. Although Ginobili's decision-making has been shaky at times in this postseason, he'll provide Parker with a safety valve as he looks to momentarily escape the additional defenders that Miami throws his way. From that point, it's a matter of one of the best-passing teams in the league exploiting a frenetic, scrambled defense -- a situation that would put the Spurs very much in their element.
How San Antonio goes about re-establishing Parker in those scenarios remains to be seen, but he's too good away from the ball and Popovich is too clever in his play design to allow Miami to minimize his role in this series. We can expect the Spurs to employ a number of off-ball screens and pick-and-rolls in their attempt to free up their most talented individual scorer.
Duncan, too, figures to make an indelible mark on this series, both as a valued interior scorer and a last-chance defensive stopper. There's no denying that Duncan's game has drifted out to the perimeter, but the Spurs' restful week (they will have had nine fulls days off) and the Heat's hard-fought win put him in a position to work over Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen from the post -- particularly when Parker leaves the game.
Defensively, he'll be the default at-the-rim option to halt the progress of James and Wade, both of whom played with incredible energy in their Game 7 rout of the Pacers. Duncan -- with help from Splitter, who has been fantastic as a help defender in these playoffs -- is capable of cutting off driving lanes and challenging their shots at the rim without fouling. Neither Duncan nor Splitter may be as imposing as Roy Hibbert when it comes to basket protection, but the combination of the two gives the Spurs a chance to establish a strong defensive foundation.
From there, it's up to Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to keep up their terrific coverage on the perimeter against two trying matchups. Green would seem to have a better chance in covering Wade than Leonard against James, but both will need to prove relatively successful in their assignments -- and both are capable of doing so. The notion of fully stopping James may be an impossibility, but if Leonard can funnel James into the help consistently and put his length to good use in hounding James' dribble and shots, he could help create the window necessary for the Spurs to eke out a close series win.
Manu Ginobili. His fast-and-loose style could either pick apart the Heat's rotations or feed their fast-breaking engine, and yet the Spurs desperately need him to both relieve Parker and help facilitate against pressure.
Heat in 7. I'm compelled to pick the Heat based on a potential return to normalcy. Lost in the micro-analysis of the Heat's up-and-down Eastern Conference finals was the fact that Miami had compromised its small-ball style and changed its lineup structure out of necessity against Indiana -- a concession that deprived the Heat of optimal spacing and sapped their scrambling defense of its effectiveness.
As fantastic as the Spurs are, their big men won't be able to force the Heat out of their comfort zone. Tim Duncan should have a great series, and Tiago Splitter will be essential in guarding the rim. But neither is enough of a low-block threat nor so prolific an offensive rebounder as to push Miami away from what it does best.
Even with that in mind, this should be a wonderfully competitive series. Tony Parker remains one of the postseason's unsolvable problems, and with his shooting and penetration the Spurs should pose a considerable challenge. But the fact that Miami has the best player on the floor and will likely play in its preferred style doesn't bode well for San Antonio. All of that tilts the series slightly in the Heat's favor.