If I had to give people a reason about why I love basketball so much, I’d submit Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. There was great strategy. There were great performances. There was a throwback performance by one of the legends of the game. There were the incredible narratives surrounding the best player in basketball (Will he fall apart? Will he come through?). There were clutch plays made by about ten different players in ten different ways (incredible one-on-one play, steals, rebounds, blocks and of course shots). And the intensity of the game coupled with the execution made it one of the most heart-pounding sporting experiences you can ever watch as a neutral fan.
So we get Spurs-Heat the rematch, a basketball purist’s greatest delight. Two of the best coaches in the NBA will be playing chess with each other. Two of the most unselfish teams in the NBA will be moving the rock until it finds the net. Two of the best schemes in the NBA will showcase plenty of ball movement and player movement. And it all culminates in seven glorious games. Three of the greatest players of the modern era will try to pull off an historic threepeat and make true to the legacy they promised those first brash days in South Beach. The old cagey veterans (counted for dead yet again) will try to pull off one last incredible run, wipe away last year’s demons, and cement their
Neither team has anything to lose but the title. Almost everyone’s legacy in this Finals is secure. All the primary principals have championships (outside of San Antonio’s new crew), which should encourage a fairly high quality of play. There will be excellent ball movement and fearless play by both sides, and it should be an outstanding group of games. Tony Parker’s ankle aside, most of the main stars will be healthy and ready.
Big 3 vs. Big 3. LeBron is LeBron. He is the best player on the floor and will have to be that way at least once on the road (probably twice, since the Spurs generally are good enough to take one back on the road). His defense picked up in the last round. The biggest difference between this year and last year is the health of Dwyane Wade. Wade was not healthy last season. He only played well in 2 of the 7 games in the series. This year he is pretty well-rested and has become one of the most efficient basketball players. I never thought Wade would age well, but here he is dropping floaters, tear-drops and generally making it impossible to double-team LeBron James without Flash punishing you. Chris Bosh also seems more comfortable nailing every jump shot that comes his way, forcing big men away from the hoop and stretching the floor for attack lanes by Bosh and James.
Tim Duncan is still chugging along and should be his usual consistent self, and he is probably one of the few bigs comfortable with playing Bosh away from the basket. Tony Parker’s ankle will be analyzed ad nauseum the longer this series goes along–San Antonio will want to take control of this series early by going up 2-0 or 3-1 to make sure it doesn’t become an issue further down the line. Parker generally eats Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole alive, but I don’t think you can say the same for Patty Mills or Cory Joseph if they have to take their places. But just as important as Wade’s health is the return of a healthy and active Manu Ginobili, who played excellent basketball to help key the Spurs to their final wins over the Thunder.
There’s the bench. San Antonio last year had to downsize their rotation last season as Miami’s athleticism ran players off the court. Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili, and Gary Neal were the only ones really seeing any minutes last year by Game 5. This year the Spurs seem to trust almost all of their bench players to step up their game, and home court advantage should help them greatly. Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner, Patty Mills have all been entrusted to the point that they all saw action in the clinching Game 6, and in various degrees did their part to push them over the top against the explosive but eventually exhausted Thunder youth. And Miami’s athleticism is on the ebb–LeBron is not the superhuman defensive behemoth he was last season. He just has to do too much offensively.
Miami’s bench will also have a role to play, but they are much more unsettled. Outside of Chris Andersen and Ray Allen, you have Udonis Haslem (who never plays well against the Spurs), Rashard Lewis (found money against Indiana, but he definitely has to be hidden on defense against San Antonio). Norris Cole will have to make big leaps and try and prove he can stay on the floor.
Matchups. The biggest issue for Miami: How do you defend San Antonio’s two big lineups (whether Duncan/Diaw, Duncan/Splitter, or Splitter/Diaw) with a small lineup? LeBron is many things, but he is not going to bang in the post at the four for very long. Haslem might be forced to play and try and contribute, but it’s likely that Spoelstra will ask Battier and Lewis to sacrifice their bodies down low to try and just slow the big men down. The Heat might just say “to hell with it”, stay small, and just try to win with LeBron/Wade/Bosh shooting the lights out and the Heat nailing a bunch of timely 3s. It’s gotten them through before.
The biggest issue for San Antonio: How do you defend LeBron and Wade? Danny Green’s threes were the big story, but he also gave Wade fits for most of the series. Ditto Kawhi Leonard on James, who just didn’t know how to handle having the ball stuck in his hands for much of the series as Leonard conceded his jump shot but didn’t allow him to drive and kick to three point shooters. LeBron and Wade have both brushed up since them and are wrapping up the most efficient seasons of their NBA careers, so they are clearly more ready for the schemes the Spurs threw at them.
That’s what makes this series so fun. It’s so even. You don’t know if anyone has a clear advantage anywhere. It should be close once again, and it could come down to the bounce of the ball and one final rebound and kickout to the corner again.