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It's taken us all year to get back here, to the place where the two best teams in the NBA — the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs — can once again take center stage and begin a heavily anticipated rematch to vie for the right to call themselves NBA champions. As we set about our previews, analysis and predictions, the question facing us is this: Which participants in Round 2 of this heavyweight battle will matter most over the games and weeks ahead?
In the interest of providing guidance to BDL's readership in a trying time, I submit to a trusting public a new installment of Dan Devine's Inarguable Power Rankings, identifying which items in a group of things are most powerful. In this episode: Dan Devine's Inarguable Who Matters Most in the 2014 NBA Finals Power Rankings.
Let's dig in and weigh in. And please remember, as always, that the list is the list.
32. Justin Hamilton, Austin Daye and Damion James (three-way tie). Hamilton, a mid-March signee who spent most of this year in the D-League, is the fourth-string center on a Heat team that works best when playing one big guy. He and James, whom the Spurs added on a 10-day contract in April to soak up some late-season small-forward minutes, have been inactive throughout the playoffs. Daye, who joined San Antonio at the trade deadline and had one memorable performance against the Philadelphia 76ers, played six minutes against the Dallas Mavericks and has been inactive for the past five weeks. If any of them appear in anything other than a suit in this series, then something has gone wrong.
29. Toney Douglas. Douglas comes out ahead of that trio for three reasons:
• He's a defense-first point guard, and you don't have to strain your brain too hard to envision Erik Spoelstra dusting him off as a last-gasp option to check Tony Parker before putting LeBron James on him;
• OK, there isn't actually a third reason, but there is some third person:
28. Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes (tie). Gregg Popovich might send in his depth-chart bruisers — who combined for 13 points, 10 rebounds and four assists off the bench when the Heat beat the Spurs by 12 back in January — if he needs some frontcourt heft, help on the glass or hard fouls given. With Miami's tendency toward playing small and the presence of several other, more talented and versatile bigs in San Antonio's rotation, though, it's unlikely we'll see them in non-foul trouble/garbage time scenarios.
26. Michael Beasley and Greg Oden (tie). It is probably asking too much of the Basketball Gods to draw up a situation in which Miami's so desperate for offense that Spo calls Super Cool Beas' number, or so bereft of answers for Tim Duncan on the block that he summons Oden. But a boy can dream, and despite the former top-two draft picks logging less than 11 combined minutes this postseason, they still "matter," both musically:
... and rhythmically:
... if nothing else.
24. Marco Belinelli. The Italian shooter has struggled mightily this postseason and seen his role in Pop's rotation dwindle down to just six minutes of playing time in Game 6 against the Thunder. That probably won't change in the finals, because in his last 10 games against Miami — two this past regular season, three last regular season with the Chicago Bulls, and five during the Bulls' playoff loss to the Heat — Belinelli has shot just 25.6 percent from long distance and is a combined -115 in 285 minutes. Arrivederci, Marco.
23. Matt Bonner. "The Red Rocket," a.k.a. "The Red Mamba," a.k.a. "The Sandwich Hunter" came off the end of the Spurs' bench to play a surprisingly large role late in the Thunder series, after Pop inserted him into the starting lineup for Games 5 and 6 to improve San Antonio's spacing by drawing defensive menace Serge Ibaka out to the arc. Bonner scored just six points on 2-for-10 shooting in 31-plus minutes over the two games, but the strategy of separating Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter paid off, as the Spurs roasted the Thunder defense in Games 5 and 6, whether the shot-altering Ibaka was on the court (San Antonio scored at a scorching rate of 114.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool) or not (118.9 points-per-100).
Given the Heat's non-shot-blocking-dependent defense and preference to play smaller more frequently, Bonner might get some chances in this series. But the more multi-faceted Boris Diaw presents a higher-class option than Bonner, who averaged just over six minutes per game in last year's finals, for prospective San Antonio hybrid big/small lineups.
22. James Jones. The 11-year veteran went from out of the mix to in the rotation during Miami's first-round sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point land. Spoelstra put him back on the shelf to start Round 2 against the Brooklyn Nets, only to reinsert him midway through the series, largely at the behest of LeBron, who lauded "the space James provides and his ability to shoot the ball." Jones made just three brief cameos in the Eastern Conference finals, as several other members of Miami's rotation found their long-range strokes to provide space and punch against the Indiana Pacers' defense; should that knockdown shooting continue, Jones' services probably won't be required. If the Heat's other shooters come back to Earth, though, Jones is just the sort of "in case of emergency, break glass" space-creator that could wind up tilting a game.
21. Udonis Haslem. He's been a rock for the Heat for more than a decade, but while Haslem — who will turn 34 between Games 2 and 3 — remains a tough (and, frankly, threatening) customer and important locker-room presence, he's just no longer a consistently positive on-court contributor. Miami's been nearly 35 points per 100 possessions better with Haslem off the floor this postseason, scoring more effectively when a long-range shooter replaces his midrange game and locking down defensively with a quicker defender to track opposing stretch fours around the perimeter.
This continues the trend we saw late last postseason, when Haslem had some success in guarding Duncan early in the finals, but Miami's offense seemed stuck in the mud in his minutes, prompting Spoelstra to insert Mike Miller into the starting lineup for Game 4. Haslem played just 21 total minutes after Game 4, and finished the series a -33 in 64 minutes of burn. If San Antonio stays big with the Duncan-Splitter frontline, Haslem's still got a role, albeit as an inferior option to Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis at this point; whenever either team goes small, Haslem's got no real place in the series.
20. Tiago Splitter. The Brazilian big man was pivotal in San Antonio's wins over the Mavs and Blazers, expertly defending Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge while contributing on the offensive glass. The tide turned against him in Game 3 against Oklahoma City, though, as the return of Ibaka erased his offensive game — whenever Splitter caught the ball in or near the paint, it looked like he was seeing four swarming Serges, often resulting in desperation chucks or forced-pass turnovers.
More worryingly, though, the Duncan-Splitter pairing — a lockdown defensive tandem for the past two seasons — got gashed by the Thunder during Games 3 and 4, which sent Pop to the bullpen for Bonner and Diaw. Splitter played just 22 minutes in Games 5 and 6 as the Spurs closed out.
The way the Western finals unfolded was, to some degree, reminiscent of how Splitter was essentially forced off the floor by Spoelstra going small with Miller-for-Haslem in Game 4 of the 2013 finals. While Splitter had struggled at times through the first three games of the series — most notably when trying to finish at the rim against LeBron — it was the introduction of a space-creating shooter at the four that screwed up San Antonio's matchups. (Remember, if you will, Splitter trying to guard Wade for a total of 47 seconds to start Game 4.) That led Pop to plug Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup for Game 5; Splitter logged a total of 22 1/2 minutes over the final three games of the series.
With its smaller lineups, whether featuring LeBron, Lewis or Shane Battier at the four, Miami poses a matchup problem for Splitter. If the Heat's lineups fare as well defensively against the Duncan-Splitter pairing as Oklahoma City's did in Games 3 and 4, it's a problem that could put Tiago on the pine more often than not.
19. Patty Mills and Cory Joseph (tie). The Spurs' backup point guards have played bigger roles this year than ever before, as Pop has looked to reduce Parker's workload. Neither Mills nor Joseph have the playmaking gifts of Parker and Ginobili, but they each bring something else to the table — the threat of 3-point bombing from Mills, who attempted 7.5 long balls per 36 minutes of playing time this season and knocked 'em down at a 42.5 percent clip, and the potential for an explosion from Joseph, as Ibaka recently learned.
Mills was the primary backup behind Parker throughout the regular season, while Joseph got more minutes in last year's finals (though that was inflated by 20 1/2 minutes in a Game 3 blowout). In a perfect world, Pop wouldn't have to rely on either for very much in this series; if Parker's sore left ankle flares up, though, they might matter way more than Spurs fans would like.
17. Chris Andersen. Birdman was a big part of some really effective Heat lineups during the 2013 finals, including the group that ripped off the monster second-half run that won Game 2. His combination of effective pick-and-roll defense, board-crashing and high-percentage finishing around the rim made him an ideal complement to Spoelstra's LeBron-at-the-four, multi-guard units predicated on speed and chaos creation. But he also had a really hard time checking Duncan on the block in the early parts of the series, leading to DNP-CDs in Games 4 and 5, as Spoelstra searched for other answers before coming back around to the tattooed marvel for difference-making stints in Games 6 and 7.
At this stage, Bird's a superior option to Haslem behind Chris Bosh at the backup five spot. He can make an impact with his rim protection, defensive activity on traps and weak-side lurking for dump-off passes on dribble penetration, giving Miami the kind of jolts of energy that can spark runs. If he can't deal with Duncan, though, or suffers a setback with the thigh bruise that kept him out for Games 4 and 5 against Indiana, Bird's wings could again get clipped.
16. Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers (tie). When Chalmers contributed offensively in last year's finals — Games 2, 4, 6 and 7 — the Heat won. When he didn't — Games 1, 3 and 5 — they lost. Cole was scarcely a factor in last year's series, but he's been a difference-maker during this postseason, shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range while playing aggressive and effective on-ball defense.
Some of Miami's best stretches in last year's series came without a point guard on the floor, with James running the show flanked by three shooters on the wing and one big man to screen and rebound. But it's harder for the Heat to go that route with Miller gone, and by having LeBron run point while guarding Parker, you risk running your top gun into the ground when you need him most. Getting some semblance of consistency at the point from the Chalmers-Cole duo, especially when checking Parker, will be critical.
14. Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis (tie). Battier went from forgotten man to sharpshooting, Denny's-celebrating savior in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 finals, rediscovering his 3-point stroke when afforded more playing time by the mid-series downshift in size. Battier hasn't struggled so much this postseason, shooting 50 percent from the floor and from 3, but the march of time (he turns 36 in September, with nearly 33,000 NBA minutes on his legs) and the pounding he's taken while defending power forwards to save LeBron over the past couple of years have cost him steps, consistency and reliability on both ends of the floor.
In the Indiana series, with Battier unable to effectively defend David West, Spoelstra turned to Lewis — an afterthought for most of his two seasons in Miami — and was rewarded by the former Seattle and Orlando star working hard on defense and helping create space with the threat of his long-range shooting. That threat, which had been mostly empty at the start of the postseason, actually became credible in Games 5 and 6, as he exploded for 31 points on a combined 9 for 16 from long distance.
Miami's offense functions best when it has dangerous shooters all over the place around LeBron and Wade at the controls. In each of the past two finals, the Heat have had to find a combination of floor-spacing, shot-making and defensive activity/versatility from a veteran small-ball four for pivotal stretches. Either Battier or Lewis has to fit the bill this time around. If neither can, Miami will have a much harder time threatening San Antonio's excellent half-court defense and matching up when the Spurs spread it out on the other end.
12. Danny Green. Through five games, he was the story of the 2013 finals, a former D-Leaguer and role-player shining on the national stage en route to setting an NBA record for made 3-pointers in the championship round. In Games 6 and 7, with the Spurs one win away from hoisting the O'Brien, he shot a combined 2 for 19, missing nine of his 11 3-point tries, as the Heat defense absolutely refused to give him the breathing room to catch, rise and fire in the season's most critical moments.
It seems unreasonable to expect him to replicate the fresh-dipped-in-flames performance from last year's first five games ... but then, he's fresh off shooting 54 percent from 3 against the Thunder. Stopping the likes of Parker and Ginobili from getting into the paint remains Job No. 1 for the Heat D, making it possible that Green will again see plenty of chances to let it fly before a hard-charging Miami defender can complete his rotation. If he can connect often enough, he could redeem his late-series swan dive.
11. Ray Allen. Just seven weeks removed from his 39th birthday, Allen's a step slower, not quite as clever with the ball, and a defensive liability against guards that can either post him up or give him the slip off the bounce. That said, he still changes games by virtue of the sheer terror he strikes in the heart of opposing defenses — the Heat are scoring just under 120 points per 100 possessions with Allen on the floor in the playoffs, an insane number miles above what the NBA's best offenses managed over the full season.
It's hard to envision Allen having a more dramatic impact in this year's finals than he did in last year's, of course. But with his ability to draw attention, create openings for other Miami players to get to the basket, and make the defense pay for collapsing — especially considering that he's hitting his stride at the right time, having knocked down 40.4 percent of his 3s over the last two series — he's sure to influence this series one way or the other before it's all said and done.
10. Boris Diaw. The Frenchman was a major key to the Spurs' last two wins over the Thunder, using his combination of shooting touch, passing talents, footwork and strength to score a game-high 26 points in the series-clinching Game 6 victory. He can hold up as an interior defender while also tracking quicker opponents out to the perimeter, and he can both space the floor and take advantage of smaller defenders on the block; this allows San Antonio to "be big and small at the same time," as Miller said during last year's finals.
Pop has turned to that hybrid look a lot this year. Duncan and Diaw played 962 minutes together this season — nearly 300 more than Duncan-Splitter, although that's due in part to Splitter missing most of January with a shoulder injury — and the Spurs outscored opponents by a very strong 5.7 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. It was similarly successful in a smaller dose against the Heat during the 2013 finals — 73 total minutes over six games, +3.9 points-per-100. But while the Spurs' offense hummed when those two shared the floor against Miami in their two regular-season meetings this year (109.5 points-per-100 scored), Miami tore San Antonio's D apart in those minutes (116.3 points-per-100 allowed).
If Parker's wheels are at all compromised, it will be even more critical for Pop to keep Diaw on the floor for his ability to facilitate offense. If the Spurs can't limit Miami's scoring with Diaw replacing Splitter, Pop will face some difficult rotation decisions.
9. Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich (tie). Last season's finals was a fascinating chess match — Pop packing the paint to influence LeBron into shooting jumpers, Spoelstra countering by putting Miller into the starting lineup, Pop countering with Manu to match small-for-small, Spoelstra going back to Battier and Birdman, etc. Both coaches have played integral parts in getting their rosters to this point in the season, both with minutes management — Wade for the Heat, everybody for the Spurs — and with tactical adjustments, like Pop's Bonner/Diaw moves against OKC and Spoelstra's Lewis revival against Indiana.
Neither coach would suggest he'll play as significant a role as anybody on the court, but at this level, with teams this good, every decision matters. Which coach can push the right button more times than his counterpart could prove vital.
7. Manu Ginobili. He careens from transcendent to troubling more often than any other player in this series. His passing, attacking and shot-making often verge on the sublime, giving the Spurs a level of daring and explosiveness that can elevate their offense to unstoppable heights. He can also go absolutely frigid for stretches, and when he's wrong about passes, they can turn into turnovers that unleash transition opportunities for the opposition.
Against Miami, obviously, San Antonio must avoid the latter, especially if — as he did in the second half of Game 6 against the Thunder — Ginobili takes on more point-guard duties for an ailing Parker. He'll be insanely motivated after his poor eight-turnover performance in Game 6 of last year's finals helped keep the door open for Miami's comeback. He's in form, averaging 15 points in 22.9 minutes per game against Oklahoma City on 50/50/94 shooting splits, with a 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference finals. He will be heard from, in one way or another; whether Good Manu or Bad Manu shows up more often could decide the series.
6. Kawhi Leonard. After spending the last two weeks dealing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the rising star swingman will now draw the primary assignment on LeBron James for the second straight year. He did a pretty fantastic job the first time around. James shot 44.1 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from 3-point range with Leonard on the floor in the 2013 finals, compared with 46.9 percent and 57.1 percent from deep with Leonard sitting; he averaged 8.5 fewer points per 36 minutes of floor time when Leonard was out there than when Kawhi sat.
Leonard obviously had, and will have, help — the entire Spurs defense will be committed to putting bodies in front of LeBron to keep him from bulling his way to the basket. But as much as possible, the 22-year-old will be responsible for using his long arms, fantastic balance, instincts, strength and massive hands to redirect and stymy James, and to dampen the damage the four-time MVP does. He'll be asked to do that while also helping to lock down the defensive glass. And taking advantage of poor box-outs by Heat wings to scour for put-backs on the offensive boards. And knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off dribble penetration. And using his evolving floor game to get to the rim himself.
An awful lot's going to be asked of Leonard over the next couple of weeks; stars rise to these challenges. How effectively he can supplement the Spurs offense while keying their half-court defense will go a long way toward determining the Spurs' fate, and indicating where exactly he is on his own personal journey.
5. Dwyane Wade. This is it. This is the reason for all those nights off, for the careful management, for the career-low in minutes per game. The returns, thus far, have been sensational, with Wade's production improving in each round:
• vs. Charlotte: 17.5 points, 3.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 33.1 minutes per game, shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 70.8 percent from the free-throw line
• vs. Brooklyn: 18.2-4.2-3.8-1.4 in 35.2 mpg, 50.7 percent from the field, 85 percent from the line
• vs. Indiana: 19.8-4.7-4.3-1.7 in 35.4 mpg, 54.5 percent from the field, 85 percent from the line
He's looked comfortable working out of the post, better at getting into the paint and sharp on his off-ball cuts along the baseline. Against the Pacers, he even made six of 13 tries from long range, just three fewer than he hit during the entire 2013-14 regular season.
Questions will persist as to whether a healthier Wade can consistently come up with star-caliber performances like the one he authored in Game 4 last year. The bigger issue, though, might be whether his legs are in good-enough working order for him to wreak defensive havoc in Miami's rotation-heavy scheme, forcing steals, blocking shots, disrupting the Spurs' finely tuned offense and getting the Heat out in transition. Miami beat San Antonio last year without peak Wade, but this year's Spurs are better and deeper; a version of Wade capable of augmenting Miami's best units rather than scuttling them, as was the case in last year's finals (item 1), is a must.
4. Chris Bosh. The All-Star shook off a sluggish offensive start to the Eastern finals to score 20-plus in Games 4, 5 and 6, his first such three-game stretch since right after the All-Star break. He's become a valuable floor-spacer, extending his midrange proficiency out beyond the arc to become a quality volume 3-point shooter (41 percent from deep this postseason on 4.1 attempts per game). He's the foundation of the Heat's defense, responsible for both corralling Parker and Ginobili in the pick-and-roll and doing battle with Duncan on the block.
He'll never get the credit he deserves for the role he plays, he'll get his fair share of scorn if those jumpers don't fall, and he's in for an exhausting series of performing triage when the Spurs' Big Three get to work. But he's the most versatile player in this series not named LeBron James, and he might have more responsibility in this series than anyone else, too. Miami can't handle San Antonio if Bosh isn't up to the task.
3. Tim Duncan. The surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer dominated the glass against the Heat last summer, grabbing a shade under 27 percent of Miami misses and a tick over 20 percent of all available rebounds while he was on the floor — numbers he hadn't reached in the postseason since 2007-08. He took it to Bosh, Birdman and Haslem on the block, accepting the responsibility of acting as San Antonio's main offensive weapon to a greater degree than he'd had to in a while. He was the Spurs' primary deterrent in the paint, too — while the Heat shot 60.2 percent inside the restricted area with Duncan on the court, they shot a scorching 75 percent when he wasn't there.
With Duncan on the court, the Spurs outscored the Heat by 29 points over 254 minutes. With Duncan on the bench, Miami outscored San Antonio by 24 points in 87 minutes. At age 37, Duncan did everything he could to push the Spurs to a title ... except hit a layup.
He's fought all the way back to once again draw within four wins of a fifth ring, and he's coming off two of his biggest games of the postseason, averaging 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds to push San Antonio past Oklahoma City in Games 5 and 6. He's got to overwhelm Miami's bigs with his back to the basket, knock down the elbow looks he'll get off pick-and-pop action, and provide the second-line-of-defense lane coverage that keeps LeBron and Wade from getting into the paint and into rhythm. He needs to be the best big in the series again, and he needs to win that battle by a bigger margin than he did last year.
2. Tony Parker. San Antonio says he'll be ready for Game 1 after sitting out the second half of the clincher over Oklahoma City with a sore right ankle. They'd better hope that he not only gets ambulatory and effective, but stays that way.
The combination of an ailing hamstring and general fatigue wore Parker down late in last year's finals, resulting in 9 for 35 shooting combined in Games 6 and 7. He seemed less capable of getting to the basket for stretches, taking lots of jumpers off screen-and-roll actions; without the lift under his shot, he hit just 25.7 percent of those midrange tries. He had two big performances — the 21-point, six-assist Game 1 that he capped with that insane bit of Globetrotter-y magic and Game 5, which we remember most for Ginobili going off, but also saw Parker score a game-high 26. But he faded down the stretch, and the Spurs' offense sputtered as a result, scoring at a rate (96.4 points per 100 possessions in Games 6 and 7 combined) that would've been the worst in the NBA in each of the last two seasons.
On one hand, Pop has ball-handling answers if Parker's limited, with Ginobili, Mills and Joseph in the mix. And oddly enough, the on/off numbers indicate that the Spurs' offense has been a meat-grinder without Parker, too — 112.2 points-per-100 scored in 326 minutes without him this postseason (1.6-per-100 better than with him) and 108.9-per-100 in 1,954 minutes without him this regular season (1.4-per-100 better than with him).
On the other, though, it's Parker's ability to navigate whatever the defense throws at him — to hit from midrange to draw out sagging defenders, to blow by close man-to-man defense, to pick opponents apart in the pick-and-roll, to make the on-time and on-target passes that beat traps and doubles, etc. — that makes San Antonio so dangerous. Mills and Joseph, with all due respect to them, just don't have that. The Spurs need that.
If the ankle's healthy enough for him to be the guy who makes life miserable for Chalmers and Cole, who forces the LeBron assignment early and often, and who gets the Spurs' offense rolling, then Miami's going to have a hard time keeping up. If he doesn't have the legs to make the Spurs go, though, it all changes.
1. LeBron James. He is the best in the world until further notice, and the Spurs still came within a minute of beating him, twice, with a "keep him outside and force him to shoot jumpers" strategy that worked ... until he started making them. When the Heat need a stop, they will turn to him; when they need a basket, they will turn to him; when they need anything, they will turn to him.
The Spurs will try to turn him away four times in seven games, which nobody's been able to do in the last three years. In the biggest moment, on the grandest stage, nobody matters more than LeBron James ... until, of course, someone takes the King's throne by force.
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