Three wins in a row, downing the same squad over and over and over again. That’s hard against any team, and yet that’s what the San Antonio Spurs are attempting to deliver on Sunday night. The Western champs are trying to win their fifth title in 15 years, downing the two-time defending champion Miami Heat along the way, and avenging the Spurs’ 2013 NBA Finals loss in the process.
Three wins in a row, though, against the Heat? Yes, San Antonio dominated Miami on its home court in Games 3 and 4 and is just 48 minutes away from a shockingly-tidy five-game championship turn, but the laws of playoff basketball seem lined up against these beloved Spurs. After all, San Antonio was only able to win three in a row against one (sorry, Portland) of its three previous playoffs opponents, and a Heat team working with the NBA’s best player has always done its best work with backs pressed firmly up against the figurative wall.
Are the Spurs different, though? Can they defy basketball orthodoxy yet again? And have the Heat, despite their between-game bluster, given up?
Here are three things to watch, in what could be the final game of the 2013-14 NBA season.
San Antonio’s offensive confidence
The Spurs, frankly, are playing as if it doesn’t matter who is standing on the other side of the ball. It’s true that Miami is not to be feared as a defensive unit, but you also get the feeling that San Antonio would be pulling off this sort of incredible offensive play even if the Pacers or Grizzlies or, heck, the 2005 San Antonio Spurs were lining up to guard things.
San Antonio’s read and react offense is absolutely humming right now, it has improved considerably with the addition of Boris Diaw to the team’s starting lineup, and it remains potent even when struggling big man Tiago Splitter hits the floor. Miami’s small lineup would seemingly have an edge in keeping up with the Spurs’ ball movement and spacing, but various incarnations of it haven’t had success in cutting off angles and anticipating the pass before the pass before the pass that leads to a score.
The Spurs won’t lose confidence in its offensive action anytime soon, and the Heat’s true best hope moving forward is that San Antonio falls victim to its own brand of ennui. Things are that desperate, for Miami, and while they’ll once again look to crank up the pressure and hope that San Antonio goes into more orthodox pick and roll sets to end plays (as opposed to merely starting them, with five more passes to count until the shot goes up), but really this is all about San Antonio’s choice. Do they want to end things on Sunday?
It almost makes you want to root for a Heat win, just so we don’t have to say goodbye to this Spurs offense until October.
Dwyane Wade showing up
The three-time champion has been terrible during this Finals run, tossing up pedestrian (for him) offensive stats to go along with defense that can’t be blamed on age or those fading wheels.
Wade is giving up on plays. He’s not chasing his various charges around screens and he’s lazily closing out on the perimeter. Wade’s turned head or inability to get back in transition is also drawing the attention of various Heat help defenders, which in turn allows for San Antonio to pinpoint its attack with both Dwyane and the help defender’s attention focused elsewhere. This isn’t just about D-Wade complaining about calls as he lopes up court, or shooting the gaps for steals – though there still is plenty of that – this is about a player who should be better than this, mixing indifferent defensive play with bum knees and a pouty disposition to boot.
The knees can’t be fixed, some eight and a half months after training camp started. The fundamental defensive play can, though, and even the whining and moaning with the referees (long a Wade trademark) can take a hike for at least one civil Sunday evening. If Wade can somehow manage to not act as a minus defender while playing competent offensive basketball – moving without the rock, getting to the line – the Heat could have a chance to extend its season.
History in the making
One doesn’t want to write too many legacy-defining tomes at this point, though lord knows we’ve tried. There is still a summer to suss out, and potentially as many as three games of basketball left to play. San Antonio looks like world-beaters right now, and they’re working from home, but one mustn’t ever completely count a team featuring LeBron James out.
With that in place, and regardless of Sunday’s outcome, it’s imperative that we appreciate what we have before us.
On the Heat’s end, you have a squad that has made four straight Finals, something Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Shaq and Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers were unable to pull off. Even if the team only splits the four and walks into opt-out addled history with “just” two titles, the team will have still dragged a series of aging and/or ineffective role players to the brink of taking it all for the fourth consecutive season. Miami may be top-heavy and boast the game’s best players, but there are five to a side, and Miami hasn’t always had the best five, to say nothing of its deeper rotation.
There is a very good chance that the Miami Heat team that we’ll see on Sunday will look quite similar to the one that suits up for 2014-15. Shane Battier is certain to go and Ray Allen could be on his way out, but the team’s stars could finagle some series of free agent creativity and sustain the core while banking on yet another group of role players wanting to take their talents to South Beach. Or, this group could be blown up, and LeBron James could decide that his next best option is to head somewhere else.
The San Antonio Spurs, after a few years of reshaping following the team’s 1999 Finals win, blew up in 2003. That title-winning team’s core is still in place some 11 years later, something that is just about unprecedented in NBA history.
When Bill Russell’s Celtics won their first title in 1957 – with John Havlicek still in high school and Bob Cousy dashing around – the team looked nothing like the squad that would take the ring in 1969. James Worthy’s late-game heroics and Byron Scott’s all-around guard play were integral to the Lakers’ 1988 title run, but both players were years away from joining the Lakers team that first earned the championship in 1980. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were set to retire some 11 years after they won it all in 1981, and far from championship contenders in the years leading up to that point. Michael Jordan’s Bulls were still sub-.500 first round fodder 11 years prior to his final title win, and Kobe’s 2010 Lakers team looked nothing like what Los Angeles fielded in 1999 – right down to different uniforms and a change of number for Mr. Bryant.
The helpers have changed, the x-factors turn over year by year, but San Antonio’s core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still the most important players on the floor night in and night out for San Antonio. Nobody is talking up retirement just yet, these guys still have too much left to give, but the idea that this triptych is still turning things over in a championship-contending way in 2014 is borderline astonishing.
They’ll still have to dethrone the two-time defending champs in order to put that expected stamp on things, and even with Miami’s defensive struggles that’s no sure thing at this point. Even if things drag on to a Game 6 or even (ohpleaseohplease) a Game 7, though, what this trio (with a little help from that irascible coach of theirs) has done in just the last two years is legacy-defining enough. Years after it was supposed to be over, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are still ending teams’ seasons far earlier in the spring and summer than their opponents had hoped for.
Plenty to watch, on Sunday evening. Plenty to take in. Something to say “goodbye” to, perhaps.
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