The Spurs and Heat will battle for the Larry O'Brien trophy starting Thursday. Let's take a look at how both teams will try to hurt each other, but first let's start with a brief look at their season series.
Season series: Heat won both games
For the most part, season series are, at best, a tenuous indication of how teams match-up with each other and, at worst, completely irrelevant. The two-game season series between these teams falls into that latter category. Each team rested its stars in one of the games, with their bench players keeping the game very close until the final minutes. The Heat won both, but we can't extrapolate from those games any sort of relevant points to a conversation about the Finals.
How will the Heat try to hurt the Spurs?
When it's working well, the Heat offense is predicated on great spacing and drives to the rim by James, Wade and Bosh. The Heat shot the best percentage at the rim and the second best percentage at the three-point line, behind only the Warriors, in the regular season. They are efficient and get to the line a lot, thanks to the aggressive style and physical dominance of their stars. And when you take away one option, they have others to fall back on.
The Heat rely mostly on Wade and James to create offense. It is not rare watching James act as the de facto point guard, bringing the ball up court and running pick and rolls. While that is probably good news for Parker, who will get to rest a bit on defense, the rest of the Spurs will have their work cut out for them stopping Lebron from wreaking havoc while initiating the offense. There are no easy ways to stop James, but either enticing him to pull up or forcing him left are the best shot the Spurs have at limiting the damage LeBron can wreak both as a scorer and a playmaker.
James and Wade will try to get past the first line of defense on isolations, or after a screen, and get the Spurs' defense scrambling. If the rotations are too aggressive and predictable, Miami will pass the ball outside to one of their many shooters for an open look. It will be key for the Spurs to find the middle ground between helping enough to stop easy forays to the rim, without leaving themselves too vulnerable to open three pointers. The fact that Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs best help-and-recover guy, will be on the ball for most of the game doesn't bode well and will require a lot of discipline from guys that are prone to over help, like Manu, Gary Neal and Danny Green, to be mindful of their assignments while still providing help.
All of this is easier said than done, thanks to the great spacing the Heat have by going small and having bigs that excel on mid-range jumpers, a shot the Spurs struggle to contain. With Duncan usually choosing to stay back on pick and rolls, the Heat could exploit that propensity by setting up Haslem and Bosh for easy pick and pop jumpers. Splitter and Diaw are better suited to defend that play, but the Heat might force the Spurs' hand by going small with Bosh at the five. How well Duncan is able to hedge and recover will determine whether Bosh is a big factor or not. Bosh can definitely take advantage of a mismatch and the Heat are dangerous on the block, despite not having traditional post up threats, thanks to the physical dominance of James and Wade.
There is a reason the Heat won last season's championship and were heavy favorites throughout this season. Their best is better than any other team's. On paper, they are very, very hard to stop. But it's not all bad news. The Heat need their shooters to connect at a high rate when the stars kick it out; some key cogs like Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers are below 30% in the playoffs from beyond the arc. Mike Miller, who received the Battier minutes in Game 7 against the Pacers, is shooting 27.8%. The arguably best three point shooter in NBA history, Ray Allen, is shooting an unspectacular 36.5%. It's clear their shooters have been inconsistent in the playoffs.
Keeping Wade and James out of the paint is the key to success against the Heat. It becomes exponentially easier when they can't cash in on the defense over helping by having a teammate hit a three. The Spurs will likely make it a point to stop the fastbreak. Without those easy points, and the potential struggles from long-distance, all that is left is an offense that relies heavily on getting to the foul line. The Spurs excel at preventing free throws (ranked last in the league in the regular season in personal fouls per game) and will live with isolation ball.
How can the Spurs hurt the Heat?
Most experts agree that the Spurs are a bad matchup for the Heat, because they have the type of selfless play and competent passers to pick apart the Heat's pressure defense. It's obvious that the good guys have the personnel to make the Heat pay when they trap or hedge too aggressively, but that doesn't mean it will be easy. Miami often overloads the strong side, knowing that they can get a steal off a trap or can feast on lazy passes. The ball handler will have to be aware of the roaming Heat players coming off the weak side to disrupt the passing lane, and the bigs will need to offer an outlet. Boris Diaw could be huge for the Spurs this series, if he can catch the ball after Parker is trapped and use his playmaking skills to find the open man.
Passing could be one of the determining factors in this series, since both teams seem to play much better when they share the scoring load and get assisted buckets, illustrated by the fact that the Spurs have lost 16 of 29 games in which their opponent has an equal amount or more assists. The Heat, meanwhile, have a slightly better record, having lost 18 of 37. So good ball and player movement and whether or not the outside shots fall will, as always, play a huge part on the Spurs' chances to win.
This means passes will need to be crisp, and shooters will have to pull the trigger without hesitation. The Heat's defense can be broken down momentarily, but they usually play large, athletic wings and mobile bigs that can recover quickly. The Spurs have decisive shooters in Green and Ginobili, but Bonner and his slow release and even Leonard could struggle a bit. A guy like Gary Neal, despite how he has underwhelmed in the playoffs, could be useful in this matchup, as long as he is not relied upon as a ball handler. Neal might find some open looks that weren't there in previous rounds, thanks to the Heat's gambling ways and his ice-cold ability to pull the trigger.
The Pacers exposed Miami's lack of a stout post defender, and I fully expect Tim Duncan to go to work on any big the Heat throw in there. I'm assuming Erik Spoelstra will try to protect Bosh from foul trouble by having Haslem on Duncan early. But when the Heat goes small, Duncan will have a go at Bosh. Miami will likely try to double team but, unlike the Pacers, the Spurs space the floor perfectly and can hurt the defense both on cuts to the basket and on spot ups. I wouldn't be surprised if Splitter gets post touches as well, and even Diaw, if he has a smaller player on him.
Finally, I expect the Spurs to use screens to get good positioning and open looks, considering the Heat are not great at guarding those plays (17th in the league). The Spurs often set three screens for Parker along the baseline, with him receiving the ball by curling through the left side of the floor and either taking a mid-range jumper or driving to the rim . The Spurs' guards also set nasty screen along the baseline for Tim Duncan, allowing him to get position in the post. We've seen them do that against the Grizzlies, and I'm betting we see a lot more of that against the smaller Heat, with more opportunities off screens for Green and Neal as well.
Final thoughts and prediction
I'm convinced the Spurs will score on the Heat at a fairly high rate. Miami's defense is geared towards stopping pick and rolls, and that would have been a death sentence for the Spurs in the past. But now, with a diversified offense and Tony Parker playing at a ridiculously high level, I see the Spurs picking apart the Heat's defense at pretty much every point of attack. Add Duncan on the post to those Parker dribble drives and mid-range shots, plus the Spurs smart cutters and shooters. Diaw should prove very useful when the Heat try to trap on pick and rolls, and Ginobili has a knack for passing to Duncan around the free throw line when he gets pressured by the secondary defender. So I'm not expecting as many turnovers as some might against Miami's pressure D.
The key for the Spurs will be on defense. Since Chris Bosh has range extending to the three-point line, Tim Duncan will likely be less effective as a rim protector against small lineups, which the Heat will dust off after having to stay big against the Pacers. So it will likely come down to Green, Ginobili, Leonard and Diaw (if the Spurs decide to stay big) to stay in front of Lebron and Wade without fouling or needing excessive help defense. Even then, the Spurs will have to pray for some cold shooting by the Heat's role players to really contain the offense. It won't be easy, but the Spurs have proved adaptable on defense throughout the playoffs and (at least on paper) should be able to do it once again.
My prediction is Spurs in six, closing the series out in Miami after splitting the first two and winning two out of three in San Antonio.
Stats via MySynergySports, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference