The Heat have had 3 days off, the Spurs a week. Strangely I think this benefits both teams. The Heat don't need a long layoff, they need a light at the end of the tunnel. Dwyane Wade's knee is not going to feel better with a few extra days may actually have felt worse. I wouldn't be surprised if he had an arthroscopic procedure after the season to clean up bone spurs or something. On the other hand, the Spurs are a veteran team; I don't think the layoff affects them but will give Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, and Splitter extra R&R. I just can't imagine the Spurs coming out flat in Game 1.
I think the 2-3-2 format benefits the away team. In a standard 2-2-1-1-1 format, if the home team goes 2-2 in the first two games, that 5th game at home to get back to your routine, your fans, your family, just break things up, I think that matters. And it's easier to win home games: Wages of Wins calculated the advantage to 4.51 points. So you have the opportunity to go up 3-2, which is huge. I don't want to talk about momentum, but I really think it helps. Now, if San Antonio steals one in Miami (esp. Game 1), they only need to go 2-1 at home to be up 3-2. Plus Miami never gets to go home and recover. I think it's hard to beat someone really good two times in a row to close the series.
WHY THE SPURS WILL WIN
The role players step up: As I've mentioned in this blog before, Tony Parker is the offensive key for this team. Only problem is, we've seen time and time again in Olympic play and in the playoffs that he can't play at a super high level for more than 30-32 minutes per game. Don't get me wrong. The other minutes he plays are still above average, but you have to hide him on defense and he starts wearing down after around 30 minutes. What this means for the Spurs is that Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner have to play well. One thing that really good teams like 2012's Thunder can do is take away these guys: Bonner was basically useless last year. Memphis was unable to take advantage of matchups against these guys, and paid the price. Bonner and Diaw are doubly important because they give Duncan and Splitter much needed rest. If Bonner and Diaw prove untrustworthy, Pop will have to play his starters longer than he'd like, and may even have to offset their minutes to keep them on the court, somewhat negating the Spurs' size advantage. And of the role players can hit shots, they open the game up for Parker to close with fresher legs.
Manu Ginobili has a throwback series: Manu hasn't really looked like Manu for a while. I saw flashes of it against Memphis and Golden State, but at this point he kind of holds down the fort, plays backup point, gets the ball to guys in space, and gives Parker a blow. Against the Heat, the Spurs need a classic Manu game: couple 3s, 18-20 points, 8 boards, 6 dimes, 2 steals, and 6-8 free throw attempts. The interesting thing will be to see if Ray and/or Wade are able to play Manu to a draw, especially defensively. Manu doesn't really want to score, so if Miami can play him straight up or trap intelligently, not giving up easy corner threes, the Spurs may be in trouble. One danger: he is one of the best at leaping, checking to see if the help gets to the roll man after a pick, and making a split second pass to either the rolling big or a shooter in the opposite corner. It's amazing.
The Spurs have the best player in two games: We know what LeBron will bring. No need to question his clutch status. But can Parker have a 30 point game that tears the heart out of the Heat? Can Duncan throw down a 24-12-4-4? The Spurs will likely have the 2nd and 3rd best players in the series. At some point, they will have to take down number 1.
WHY THE HEAT WILL WIN
Wade sees the light at the end of the tunnel: Like I've said, I don't think Wade needs rest. I think he needs to focus his body on a superhuman performance for 4 games, after which he will have a long summer to rest and get his knee right. Nobody knows how healthy he is or where is mind is. But when Miami smells blood, it's something else. It certainly is not a basketball game; it's more like a leopard stalking innocent prey. It's like what Indiana ran into in Game 7: the contest was over before it started. The leopard was in the grass, poised for the kill, only the antelope didn't see it yet. If Wade can summon the energy to be the 2nd best player a few times, it should put Miami over the top. If he can do it 4 times, look out.
Shane Battier, Ray Allen, and Mike Miller let it rain: Miller didn't play enough in the last series. He is a purer shooter than Battier, and while he can't guard 4s he scraps on defense, rebounds well, and has that sweet stroke. Shane needed a break. It wasn't fair watching him try to contain David West. Can he find space? And Ray Allen missed a ton of potentially game-changing threes against the Pacers, many of them wide open. Against a team that guards 3s better than anyone, they need these shots to fall. Miami really goes on runs against unsuspecting opponents in the dead points of the 2nd and 3rd periods, when LeBron plays with Andersen, Cole, and two shooters. They love canning threes, draining the confidence of opposing second units. If these shooters can force Pop's hand to insert the starters back, they've done their job. Indiana survived these units mostly unscathed. Can they up the game against the Spurs?
LeBron James makes it moot: Remember how the Spurs have the 2nd/3rd best guys? It may not matter. We know we are getting something special from LeBron. He is so different from the player that lost to Dallas. He is much more involved and doesn't shy away from moments. But he has the special ability to play a perfect game, and if he can, nothing else may matter. Think of the great players: Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Robinson, Pippen, Kobe. Now think of what separates them from guys like Bird, Magic, Jordan, Duncan. What's the difference? All have won titles. But those in the first group typically only dominate facets of the game. Barkley with rebounding and transition offense. Malone in the pick and roll with Stockton. Ewing/Robinson with offensive size. Pippen with defense. Kobe's shooting. But the guys in the second category can not only dominate these facets, they can control the way the game is played. They can pick and choose what they will do. They leave a personal imprint not on a quarter or game, but a series. They can play the perfect series.
What does the perfect series entail? Defense. Rebounding. Aggression. Getting to the rack and getting to the line. Passing. Shooting. Tempo. Feeding guys that need it, guys that are struggling and guys with a hot hand. Spacing. Mentoring. This type of play is breathtaking. It has been called transcendent, but I don't see it as that. It's more like tapping into the history of the game, into the root of what basketball is all about as a team competition.
LeBron is the one active player that can do this. Because of this, I can't help but watch him, knowing that I may get something special. He can control Wade's confidence, he can get Chris Bosh the shots Bosh desperately needs to be engaged, he can get Allen/Miller/Battier those wide open looks. He can guard Leonard, Parker Duncan, swallowing players like a rogue wave. He can get to the rim faster, stronger, and more balanced, defenders bouncing off of him like a surfer powering his way through nature's maw. He can do all these things. But will be?
Before I wrote this, I IM'ed BPix that I was picking the Spurs in 6. And I still want to. They match up so well. Their coach is the best in the business. They have a defender for LeBron in Leonard. They have a top 10 player (all-time) and a top-15 player (active). The format helps. And on and on. In fact, the Heat may not even be better with Wade/Bosh possibly hobbled. Either way, I'm rooting for 7 games of great basketball. But the Heat have something special: they have the ability to reach a place where it doesn't matter how well their opponent plays. I've only seen this from one team: Jordan's Bulls. They never lost in the Finals. The Heat have. But I don't think they will again, with the highest ceiling in the league.
Heat in 6