Let’s give a round of applause to the Indiana Pacers, who despite looking like they’d never played organized basketball together Monday night, did two things in taking the vaunted Heat to a Game 7.
1) Gave the Spurs, and the rest of the league, at least somewhat of a blueprint for attacking Miami’s vulnerabilities.
2) Gave the world the gift of the yapping caricatures on ESPN and elsewhere only having two days – rather than the week we’d have had if Pacers-Heat ended in 5 – to break down and overanalyze this series before it begins.
This is the matchup the NBA needed, featuring two teams that have combined to win five of the last 10 titles. As soon as Russell Westbrook’s knee collided with Patrick Beverley’s in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first round series, this became the clear-cut marquee finals matchup, and despite Indiana’s best efforts, it’s here.
You hear a lot about legacies around this time of year, and what it means to the NBA afterlives of guys should their team triumph or come up short in the finals. You’ll hear what it would mean to Tim Duncan’s status as the game’s best power forward to win a fifth title, how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can cement their Hall-of-Fame cases with a fourth, how Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches if he can join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley in the five-timers club.
Ignore it. Duncan is the best power forward ever, and that doesn’t change even if he shows up for seven games of this series drunk and wearing Tobias’ “The Thing” costume from Arrested Development. Parker is a Hall of Famer. The Spurs have won SEVENTY-FOUR percent of their regular-season games when he’s been in the lineup, he’s a five-time All-Star who has been the game’s best point guard (sorry, Chris Paul) for the past eight seasons and has won a finals MVP. Ginobili may be as well based on his international achievements, but these finals won’t make or break his case.
But the one legacy that will at least take somewhat of a hit, fairly or unfairly, is that of the man Joe Thiesmann thinks can be an NFL quarterback.
Look, LeBron James is already one of the five best players to ever set foot on the hardwood. He’s transcendent in every sense of the word, a true showman who is, right now, arguably at the apex of his powers. Every night you turn on the TV to watch the Heat – or in Justin Bieber’s case, show up at center court looking like an M.C. Hammer video vomited on you – you’re witnessing perhaps the pinnacle of the best basketball player ever.
And that’s why he’s the only one with much at stake here. A loss to the Spurs isn’t going to take away from James’ accomplishments. It’s not going to take away his status as the league’s premier player. But it would leave him 1-for-4 in NBA finals appearances.
Let’s take a look at some of the other greats of the game. Any reasonable top 10 list of NBA players would include Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Duncan. Those seven in the finals are a combined 37-13. Only Wilt, more interested in individual awards and being a Ladies Man, had a losing record in the finals of that bunch (2-4).
When you look at many of the 13 series losses of that group, though, many came against another player on the list. Chamberlain’s teams lost twice to the Russell-led Celtics. Kareem and Magic’s Lakers lost to the Bird-led Celtics and again to a 76ers team led by Moses Malone, who’s not far down that list of all-time studs. Bird lost twice to the Lakers.
Neither of the teams LeBron has lost to in the Finals even won its division in the regular season. Not that that’s some sort of all-encompassing barometer of measuring failures, but getting swept by San Antonio in 2007 – even if Sasha Pavlovic was prominently involved – and losing three straight against a clearly inferior Dallas team in 2011 are hardly resume highlights.
And that brings us here. This Spurs team isn’t exactly an all-time great – San Antonio’s plus-6.4 point differential during the regular season was only the EIGHTH-BEST of the Duncan era – but it’s still a machine with two slam-dunk Hall of Famers, Ginobili, the best coach of the last 15 years, Matt Bonner’s non-tan and Tracy McGrady’s warmups. This isn’t a green Oklahoma City team from a year ago that the peaking Heat saw as ripe for the picking. This is the best organization in the league since Jordan left.
Potential free agency is a year away. Dwyane Wade’s career is aging as well as hot milk. Chris Bosh is a replaceable third banana.
Lose here and the LeBron era in Miami officially becomes a lame duck.
1.) Miami vs. 2.) San Antonio
What’s in the past: For the Spurs, a lot of rest. The last time a team had as long a layoff between the conference finals and the NBA finals was also the last time there was a conference finals sweep – the 2003 Nets had TEN days off between sweeping Detroit and facing – you guessed it – San Antonio in the finals. A lot of help that did the then-Jersey dwellers – they lost Game 1 by 12 points and the series in six stale, uneventful games.
For all the credit they get for going 4-for-4 in the finals, this is really the Spurs’ first legitimately interesting matchup in the championship round. San Antonio got the eighth-seeded Knicks after the lockout season in the 1999 finals, a Nets team that had very clearly gone as far as it was going to go four years later, a Pistons team that was on its 212th game in a 20-month stretch by Game 7 in 2005 and a woeful Cavs team in 2007 that James willed through a watered-down Eastern Conference.
The Heat have only had two days to recover from what was a toll-taking seven-game series against the Pacers, while the Spurs have had nine days off since finishing off Memphis. Might those brittle old bones get a bit stiff from going more than 200 hours without playing competitive basketball? Think again. San Antonio is 7-0 in playoff series openers on five or more days of rest since its Big Three has been together.
Can the Heat shake off their injuries and emotionally move on from Indiana in just a couple days? Take a look at last year’s postseason and you may have your answer. After coming back from 3-2 down to beat Boston in Game 7 of the East finals, the Heat had exactly two days to recover before starting the NBA finals in Oklahoma City. Miami rode that emotion to a 13-point first-half lead but ultimately lost by 11 before winning the series’ final four games.
All those Rest vs. Rust angles would seem to give the Spurs an edge in Game 1. It’s hard to disagree.
What’s to come: It’s hard to believe, but the Spurs vs. Heat as currently comprised – and by that, we mean with their respective BIG THREES (remember, we’re in an era where each team MUST have a Big Three. Even if it’s Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions) – have played only twice in three seasons. They both came back in 2010-11, and don’t look to draw too much info from those matchups considering they traded 30-point home victories.
There are fascinating matchups all over the floor in this series, but the most interesting will be how Miami handles Parker. Parker doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player in the series for the Spurs to win – that LeBron guy figures to get his – but he most certainly has to be San Antonio’s best player. He’s been that throughout the postseason, and in a conference finals matchup with Mike Conley that some people felt was fairly close to even, Parker owned him, averaging 24.5 points and 9.5 assists.
Rajon Rondo has given the Heat fits over the past two seasons and Parker presents similar problems with his penetration – with the bonus of being a far better finisher. Parker had few issues getting into the lane against Memphis’ excellent perimeter defense, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have many issues with Norris Cole or Mario Chalmers chasing him through pick-and-rolls.
The game changes a little bit if Miami chooses to apply some ball pressure just past half-court to get the ball out of Parker’s hands. But Ginobili is capable of creating himself, getting into the lane and finishing at the rim or kicking out to shooters like Danny Green, Bonner or Kawhi Leonard. In crunch time, or possibly earlier than the final five minutes should Erik Spoelstra deem it necessary, look for James to be in front of Parker. When that’s the case, look for Popovich to counter by having Parker off the ball, where he’s still quite dangerous. The Heat will happily have James deal with Parker should he have the ball late in games, but they want no part of him chasing Parker off the ball.
Indiana had 54 more rebounds than Miami in that seven-game series but was ultimately done in by its lack of reliability in the backcourt. The Spurs won’t have that problem, but they’ll also want to trot out a big lineup whenever it’s prudent to keep the Heat off the glass. Miami’s four losses in the postseason have had a transparently common theme: The Heat have been outscored by an average of 12 points in the paint and outrebounded by 15 per game.
That should mean plenty of minutes for Tiago Splitter, who was outstanding in the final three games against Memphis, and plenty of time for the versatile Boris Diaw. Aron Baynes probably won’t get much time, but I’d be surprised if Popovich doesn’t give DeJuan Blair some run inside.
You want another key for the Spurs? Leonard is going to have his hands full defending James much of the time, but he can’t afford to give up his looks on the offensive end. Leonard has taken 59 shots from eight feet or closer to the basket in the playoffs and made FORTY-SEVEN. He’ll presumably spend much of the time here with James fronting him as well, so looks may not be as easy as they were against the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Klay Thompson.
We haven’t even gotten around to discussing Duncan, who is basically exactly what Miami just struggled with in Roy Hibbert on the defensive end. Duncan may not have the springy legs to get to and affect as many shots as Hibbert does these days, but he’s as intimidating in the paint as ever.
He’ll certainly challenge James at the rim, but I think if Miami is going to win this series it will be because of the re-emergence of their shooters. The Heat need to get more than they got from Wade and Bosh in the Indiana series, for sure, but they also need to recommit to making the corner 3 a priority after the Pacers largely shut their perimeter game down. Opponents are shooting 40 percent from the corners against the Spurs in the playoffs, while Miami has largely taken that shot away from their opponents, holding them to just 25.4 percent. These, of course, are advanced stats that our man Popovich isn’t necessarily a fan of.
“I think today we’ve had a proliferation of geniuses who have come up with new formulae to prove what wins and what loses,” Popovich told USA Today on the increased presence of advanced stats. “… So everything being copacetic, maybe shots and making stops on demand wins a lot of games.”
The Heat basically abandoned Shane Battier against the Pacers, and why not? He’s shooting 23.0 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. But Ray Allen gave them some big shots in Game 7 in Indiana and they’ll need him again here.
While the shooters must be better, Bosh, to me, may be the biggest X-factor for Miami. He’s averaged 23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and shots 60.5 percent in five games against the Spurs since arriving with James to South Beach, and if he’s anywhere near 100 percent, the Spurs don’t have a ton of great options to deal with him. They won’t want to have Duncan as far away from the basket as Bosh typically plays, and he’s capable of overpowering someone like Diaw if he’s right.
But I don’t think he is. James won’t shrink from the moment at all in this series, but I think San Antonio have just a little bit more in the tank and more around Parker than James has around him.
The pick: Spurs in 7