There are no true unheralded gems on either the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat. No otherwise unrecognized cogs ready for stardom that haven’t already been pegged, accurately scouted on national TV over and over again. Most statements about this series will run the obvious route – we know that Kawhi Leonard’s all-around gifts could turn him into a Scottie Pippen clone, eventually, and that a healthy round from Dwyane Wade can turn the Heat into something legendarily special. We’re aware of these fine fellows, already, and thankfully we’re about to be treated to an NBA Finals that could possibly approximate the legendary 2013 battle between these two squads, one that went seven thrilling games.
There are X-factors here, though, players that could tilt the series just enough to secure a win for their team in – gasp! – fewer than seven games. Let’s meet the Heat’s triptych of tilters:
The Miami Heat are notoriously indifferent when it comes to chasing after offensive rebounds, partially as a function of the team’s rotation setup, but mainly because they and most of the league’s other headier teams have decided that stalking out zones to deny an opponent’s potential transition foray is far more important than stalking down a carom that they have a dim percentage chance of taking in.
Chris Andersen is the exception to this rule, glomming onto weak- or strong-side misses in the face of a defense that has been left staggering as it attempted to collapse upon either LeBron James or Wade, or dash out to cover Chris Bosh on the perimeter. Andersen's offensive rebound rate was far and away tops amongst Heat rotation players, more than doubling that of Bosh, and he’ll be asked to bring his near-iconic brand of chaos into a series that will see teams calling out their opponent's sets from halfway across the court nearly every time down.
Andersen played well enough against the Spurs in last year’s Finals, missing Games 4 and 5 as Erik Spoelstra juggled his lineups, but otherwise sustaining his high-percentage scoring around the basket. He wasn’t a killer on the offensive glass, just six in more than 71 total minutes, but in Miami’s world this counts for quite a bit. He also showed that he wasn’t afraid to send opponents to the line, something that could drive an up-and-down foul shooter like Tiago Splitter batty.
Norris Cole has come alive in this postseason – he turns the ball over too much and he’s not much of a passer, but his pressure defense and 42 percent 3-point shooting have turned him into a reliable force on a Heat team that most assumed was lacking surprises at this point in its run. Chalmers’ production has dipped in the playoffs, but if he can help harass Tony Parker into dodgy perimeter shooting during this Finals turn, as was the case last year, he’ll more than make up for continuing to play the role of the Anonymous One in this postseason.
The Heat typically abhor gambling on defense, despite some of Wade’s loping attempts, but they should encourage Chalmers to keep an eye on those passing lanes from time to time. The Spurs use your defensive aggression against you, but they’re more concerned with keeping bigs and swingmen on their heels, so Chalmers (if timed properly) could play the role of the pest to some acclaim, while possibly adding to his above-average 2014 playoff 3-point shooting.
If you’d surmised that Lewis’ shootin’ legs had left him earlier this spring, you wouldn’t be off. Just five years removed from leading the NBA in both 3-point makes and attempts while making 40 percent from long range, Lewis stumbled to a 34 percent mark from behind the arc this year, while seemingly afforded wide-open look after wide-open look. That’s the same mark he’s averaged since 2010, and the former All-Star missed 18 of his first 21 looks from 3-point land over the first 13 Heat playoff games this year – two of which Lewis sat out.
In Games 5 and 6 against the Indiana Pacers, however, Lewis seemed to suddenly realize that he didn’t have to jump like a 25-year old in order to get his shot off, and appeared to structure his release in ways that allowed for more of a flat-footed approach. That approach also resulted in him hitting nine of 16 from long range, working as a starter, putting Indiana away and giving the Heat hope that they have yet another floor stretcher with which to drive the Spurs’ bigs batty.
As noted in the Pacers series, though, Lewis’ presence alone (even when he wasn’t hitting shots) is enough for undisciplined defensive teams to drive themselves nuts. The Pacers may have led the NBA in defensive efficiency during the regular season, but they were an uncommunicative and (some would say) poorly coached lot that did not react well to the new Rashard wrinkle.
The Spurs? They talk. Lewis has quite the challenge ahead of him.
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