The 2013-14 NBA season is now more than eight months old, and the league itself is 12 months removed from where it was this time last year – the Miami Heat are set to defend their championship against the San Antonio Spurs. Don’t act like you’re not into that.
Read on, as Ball Don’t Lie's triptych of scribes breaks down the Finals that await us all.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
A few rogues can’t topple a system. That’s the idea, at least, bashed over our heads while reading lines culled from Magic’s Showtime runs and Michael Jordan’s triangle-based dominance. Once you pair up against a system that allows for individuals to contribute to something greater than what would be the sum of its parts, all hope is lost.
The San Antonio Spurs have a system. They are literally a decade and a half removed from the inside-out attack that propelled them to their first championship in 1999, making heroes out of Jaren Jackson and Avery Johnson along the way. They’ve watched the defensive modus operandi – encourage midrange jumpers, don’t foul – that eased them into a 2005 NBA title grow up around them. They’ve inspired NBA teams to scout players from all corners from Bolivia to Barrytown. The league has caught up, and yet the Spurs stay a step ahead.
More specifically, a pass ahead. Movement upon movement mixed with space and timing and unselfishness and, oh yeah, actual talent that allows its particulars to either toss in some spectacular shot in the paint, or nail a long-range bomb 23 or 25 feet away from the goal. The Spurs have a system that is begging you to react, to lunge for a pass or crowd a penetrator or try – just try, punk – to block a shot. You’re just an eyebrow twitch, usually involuntarily tossed out, from watching your guy hit the open man that you forgot about five seconds ago.
This isn’t to discredit the Miami Heat’s work on the offensive end, the Erik Spoelstra-led outfit features its own mystifying sets involving misdirection and work away from where you think the work is actually taking place, but the two-time defending champs don’t improvise or share nearly as much as these Spurs. This is because, most of the time, the team’s most prominent players don’t have to.
This is Miami’s great hope. That they won’t have to. This is also why this series, should trends continue, works as a coin-flip scenario.
Miami is banking on broken plays, transition work, and its own brand of extra passing to take down San Antonio’s five-to-a-play workings for the second year in a row. The Heat have every rightful reason to believe that a core featuring LeBron James in his prime, a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade and the “I’ll-do-anything-you-ask-me-to-if-we-win” stylings of Chris Bosh is enough to handle a Spurs outfit that has been obsessed with getting to this point since letting the 2013 NBA Finals slip away.
San Antonio will likely once again beg James to shoot from outside, and should he rely on rhythm rather than over-thinking things (as was the case in the 2011 NBA Finals), James will swish his way to a third consecutive title. The Spurs will ask Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to bail their teammates out offensively should plays break down, and if they perform as they did during last year’s Finals, Miami will win its third straight title. If Wade continues the level of play he’s come through with during the current postseason – playing just 15 games in 47 days entering Thursday’s Game 1 – then the Heat will win a third straight championship.
It doesn’t matter that four games out of potentially seven will be played in San Antonio. It doesn’t matter that Spoelstra could end up fielding seven different starting lineups. San Antonio’s furrowed brows, nearly a year removed from letting a 3-2 series lead over Miami get away from them, will not matter. The Heat have LeBron James. And, to a lesser extent, all those other guys.
He’ll make decisions. He’ll finish broken plays. He’ll finish plays of his own that he shouldn’t. He’ll make you feel better about your own shot, knowing he just tossed in a reverse left-handed layup after being bashed on the head by two 7-footers at once, when he dishes you the ball on the next possession.
The Spurs? They have a system.
A glorious system. One that, when the system gives a possession a miss, falls back on perhaps the best play-caller this league has ever seen in coach Gregg Popovich. Equal parts motivation, smarts, talent, creativity and depth going up against a potentially weary team that has played deep into June every season since bragging over its newfound roster in the summer of 2010, with an Olympic run and a couple of knee surgeries thrown in.
There should be no reason why these Spurs should lose, this time around.
Save for one element, I suppose. He wears No. 6.
Prediction: Heat in 7.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can Miami crank its defense up enough to shut the Spurs down four times?
So, the Spurs do stuff like this:
… which is basically impossible to stop even if you play near-perfect positional defense, because the spacing is perfect, and the options everywhere — Tim Duncan rolling to the cup, Danny Green sliding along the arc to the right wing, Patty Mills above the break on the left wing, Boris Diaw in the left corner — are terrifying.
San Antonio's offense isn't this indomitable all the time — we're looking at Peak Spurs here — but the philosophical approach, collection of weapons and team-wide excellence in execution bend toward this sort of result. Plug one hole and another leak springs; before long, if all goes according to plan, you're drowning.
The best way to short-circuit San Antonio, then, is to sell out in pursuit of preventing that plan from coming together, on some anti-Hannibal. Keep pick-and-roll ball-handlers from getting to the middle of the floor, fight through screens, disrupt handoffs, prize deflections, create turnovers and get out in the open court. Do what the Oklahoma City Thunder did in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, when Russell Westbrook's interruption-gambling gambits paid off handsomely (and loudly), when steals and Serge Ibaka/Steven Adams swats turned into pell-mell runouts, and when all those long arms and quick feet made San Antonio miserable en route to a laugher of a finish.
So, in sum, be The Thunder At Their Best for two straight weeks … which, y'know, the Thunder couldn't do. To be fair, though, the Heat couldn't do it last June, either.
It's easy to forget now, given the way things ended, but through five games of the 2013 NBA finals, San Antonio beat the brakes off the Heat's defense. Miami's D allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions during the 2012-13 regular season, the seventh-best mark in the league. They'd knocked that down to an ultra-stingy 97.6 points-per-100 through the first three rounds of the playoffs. In the first five games of the 2013 finals, though, San Antonio roasted the Heat to the tune of 107.9 points-per-100, an offensive efficiency mark that would've been the league's fourth-best over the course of the full season.
They were shooting nearly 23 3-pointers per game and hitting them at a 44.2 percent clip, including a 45.2 percent success rate on the high-value corner 3s their offense prizes and that Miami tries like mad to take away. A full 60 percent of San Antonio's field-goal attempts came either directly at the rim or from beyond the arc; Miami didn't stop Gregg Popovich's team from getting the shots it wanted. Nor did they stop Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard from cleaning up misses at the front of the rim; San Antonio, a famously cautious team in the "crash-or-retreat" decision-making calculus, rebounded more than 25 percent of their misses in Games 1 through 5 after corralling just over 20 percent during the regular season, and scored four more second-chance points per game than their full-season average.
While the Heat did force turnovers on a slightly higher share of possessions (15.7 percent) than the Spurs' regular-season average (15.1 percent), Miami wasn't exactly making a four-course meal out of the mistakes. The 17.4 points the Heat scored per game off turnovers fell right between what they averaged during the regular season (18.6) and what the Spurs gave up throughout the year (16.4). With smart off-ball movement, judicious use of hesitation dribbles and well-timed passes to draw out double-teams and traps, and enough skill to beat (or at least not get overwhelmed by) the Heat's swarm, the Spurs' offense had, on balance, won the battle through five games.
And then, of course, Games 6 and 7 happened.
Tony Parker missed 26 of his 35 shots, with the combination of fatigue and a balky hamstring sapping his lift and explosiveness. Manu Ginobili broke bad after a brilliant Game 5, turning the ball over 12 times. Early-series flamethrower Danny Green turned back into a pumpkin, missing 17 of 19 shots and nine of 11 3-pointers. Leonard and Duncan still got theirs, but nobody else did, because the Heat defense was not just there, but everywhere.
Chris Bosh was a possession-wrecker whose arms seemed to cover the entire 50-foot width of the court, fronting Duncan on the block, protecting the rim and contesting shots all the way out to the 3-point line. (Just ask Green.) LeBron James enveloped Parker like Cloak. Dwyane Wade got his legs under him enough to make the right back-line rotations at the right times to wall off the paint. And on, and on.
The athleticism, intensity, attention to detail and willingness to sell out for stops reached a level that it hadn't throughout the first five games, and San Antonio's offense buckled beneath its weight in Games 6 and 7. The Spurs shot 40.7 percent from the floor and 29.7 percent from deep on just 18.5 attempts per game, posting an offensive efficiency (96.4 points per 100 possessions) that would have ranked dead last in the league in each of the past two seasons. And even with that, San Antonio was one defensive rebound away from finishing the job.
Miami's defense just hasn't been as good this year, allowing 102.9 points-per-100 during the regular season, ranking 11th out of 30 NBA teams. And as NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, the Heat haven't been dominant defensively in the last two rounds, allowing both the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers to score at a rate of efficiency that far outstripped their regular-season marks; instead, the Heat overwhelmed the Nets and Pacers with world-breaking offense. They're going to have a harder time doing that against a San Antonio squad that not only ranked fourth in the NBA in points allowed per possession this year, but has held three straight top-10 regular-season offenses (the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Thunder) well below their full-season effectiveness.
The Spurs won't stop the Heat, but they will slow them down. Can Miami muster the chaos necessary to do likewise often enough to win four times in seven games — this time without the benefit of home-court advantage — against a team that is a quantum leap up in level of competition from the Pacers? For the first time in four years, I think I'm going to need to see it to believe it.
Prediction: Spurs in 7.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, X-factors and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
I can’t help but be a little disappointed. Even if such a matchup was never assured, an NBA Finals meeting between Oklahoma City and Miami promised so much, from a face-off between the league’s MVP and its best player to regular highlights to Russell Westbrook doing his best impression of a rabid Dwyane Wade in front of the man himself. That series looked like it would be large, epic, a representation of the extremes that pro basketball does so well. It would be at least a little dangerous.
What we have instead is something much more familiar, and not just because these teams met last June. The Spurs are the best-known quantity in the NBA, if not sports as a whole. We know what roles Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and others will play; we know that Gregg Popovich and his staff will develop a sensible game plan; we know that various role players will perform greater than their objective talent levels would suggest simply because they’re so prepared for the moment. Meanwhile, the Heat will rely on LeBron James for pretty much everything a basketball player can reasonably do, Dwyane Wade will play like a star often enough to maintain that status, Chris Bosh will serve as the world’s most overqualified role player and various shooters will appear to have the simplest jobs in the league.
This predictability does not necessarily make for a boring series. Last season’s seven-game tussle was terrific, of course, full of dramatic moments and memorable performances. This one could very well offer more of the same. But there’s also a sense it lacks in glaringly exciting narrative hooks, in large part because the Spurs will never be a franchise to embrace a public dispute or a straightforwardly marketable role of any sort.
Yet it’s important to remember that narrative often develops where we least expect it. There is no better evidence of this process than the Spurs. Against all odds, this team has become a widely admired, somewhat beloved group that has come to represent an entire way of doing business. Popovich is surrounded by a cult of personality, perhaps against his own wishes, and is a legitimately popular subject of media coverage. This turn of events was not supposed to have happened, given everything we know about the Spurs, but their consistent success and character have given them a place in the record books and, maybe more crucially, the memories of basketball fans.
So let’s not assume we know the form of this series before we have it. Predictions are nice, but it’s usually more interesting to maintain some level of wonder over how the basketball could play out.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.