Monday, June 9, 2014

Flashback to the 2013 NBA Finals

I just wrote a post comparing the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs to their counterparts from last year's historic series. I thought it would be interesting to revisit my comments previewing that series, indicate where I was right or wrong, and how things have changed. Original thoughts in italics, new thoughts in orange.

Here's the one all of you have been waiting for. In fact, I've been waiting for it too because as of this writing I have no idea who will win this. First, let's get some logistical stuff out of the way:

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. 

That paragraph turned out fairly accurate. Wade did have an operation on his knee. The Spurs showed absolutely no rust in their Game 1 win. 

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. 

I still think this stands, and will be interested in how the 2-2-1-1-1 affects this year. I think these teams are veteran enough that they can handle the crowd and would trade home court advantage in the last two games for a 3-2 lead going into Game 6.


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. 

It's tough that we'll never know how good the Spurs would have been if Tony's hamstring hadn't acted up. It sapped his explosion in the last several games. Also, having LeBron switch onto him in the 4th quarter was a genius move by Spoelstra. Erik wanted to avoid doing so due to nightmares of Jason Terry running James ragged in 2011, but Jet is a difference beast than Tony. He is a spot-up machine that loves running around screens, and while Tony can certainly do that, he is better at getting into the lane for floaters and passes. James bothered both.

That aside, boy did Kawhi, Danny, and Boris answer the call! They played better than I could have ever imagined - I certainly didn't expected Green to beat Ray Allen's Finals 3s record, and Kawih Leonard went chest-to-chest with LeBron the whole series. It seemed like he grabbed every big rebound except that one in Game 6 (the first one that led to the LeBron 3). In fact, the Heat charted it over the summer - of all the rebounds that touched Kawhi's massive hands, he only missed 2 and that was one. Even Diaw played well against LeBron until Game 6 when LeBron went all Jordan. The Spurs' role players continue to play well this year, but someone needs to take things to another level to dethrone the kings.

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 got that vintage Manu game and it got them within a game of the title. Can't ask for more than that. They'll need more of the same this year, and will need Manu to tighten is decision making down the stretch. He made some spectacular plays, but some of those were turnovers to Miami.

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.

The Spurs won Game 1 off Parker's off-his-knees heroics and nabbed Game 3 off a dominating shooting display stemming from phenomenal offense. Game 5 saw Manu take over as the best player, and Tim Duncan did the same for much of Game 6. The Spurs had done it. They had the best players in two games. Then insanity happened, Miami came back, and the Spurs had nothing left. 


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. 

That was a weird analogy, the leopard and all. But Wade did it. He was a force in Games 4 and 7 and has had similar success this year. 

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?

I was right! Spo got Miller some run and while the defense was hard to watch at times, he made the Spurs pay on offense. And I was happy to see Shane have his moment in Game 7. These guys prepare and practice so hard, and then they have their minutes yanked around as their coach searches for an answer against an all-time great on the other sideline. Then they come in and immediately catch fire? Unbelievable. And Allen? Wow.

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?

LeBron was weirdly hesitant for 5.5 games last year, confused by the space he was getting and by Kawhi's ascension as a defensive beast. He had one good run with the shooters to close game 2, and then wasn't able to do his thing for three straight. Then the headband came off, the shooters came in, and LeBron unleashed offensive domination to close Game 6 (And then Wade came back in, the spacing got gummed up, and LeBron served up two ghastly turnovers. But Ray's shot conveniently put away 12 months of "LeBron's not clutch" talk, right or wrong). In Game 7, he was decisive and in control, something he's exhibited more of this year.


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

Boy was I wrong about that. I seriously underestimated the Spurs ability to execute against Miami's defense. And I did not see Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green coming at all (in my defense, it doesn't seem like the Heat did either). This year, though both teams are playing at a high level, I feel like the games have gone Miami's way. Does that make me doubt my Spurs in 7 prediction? Not a chance. Not with Pop. Not with Duncan. Not with Game 7 in San Antonio. I think these old Spurs have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

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