First things First
Let's talk about the Eastern Conference Finals. In four of the seven games, Miami played poorly. The Heat looked like the defending champs just three times, in Games 3, 5 and 7. (Although in Game 5, I would argue it was more the Pacers playing poorly than Miami playing great.) So, I guess everyone is pretty sure that the elite version of the Heat is going to show up to the Finals. I don't understand how anyone can feel confident about that assumption given what we all just witnessed. If Miami couldn't play consistently well against Indiana, why does everyone seem to think they will against the Spurs?
Well, many seem to think that the Spurs are essentially the same team as the Pacers, just not as good defensively, so the Heat will have an easier time dispatching San Antonio than they did the Pacers. Wait, what? Did no one watch the Spurs or did no one watch the Pacers? You couldn't watch both teams and think they were the same, right?
If you are under the impression that the Spurs are essentially the West's version of the Pacers, here are some statistics to fix your terrible, terrible ideas. Playoff rankings out of 16 teams: Offensive Efficiency, Spurs 2nd, Pacers 10th; Turnover Ratio, Spurs 3rd, Pacers 13th; Effective Field Goal Percentage, Spurs 2nd, Pacers 9th; Defensive Efficiency, Spurs 1st, Pacers 8th.
The Pacers were 8th in defensive efficiency! After hearing nothing but how great their defense was for what felt like a month, they finished 8th? How is that possible? I would have bet my life that they HAD to be in the top three given the amount of hours TNT and ESPN devoted to talking about just how elite they were. So, stop with the ridiculous comparisons. The Spurs are far superior to the Pacers and Miami will not have an easier time against San Antonio.
The match-ups are why I think the Spurs should win this series. If you were building a team to beat Miami, you'd create the Spurs. Miami has two of the best backcourt players in the league in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. So in building a team to beat them, you'd want two elite wing defenders. The Spurs have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. In the entire NBA, you'd be hard-pressed to find a tandem that's as elite defensively as those two.
Miami is athletic but short. If you watched the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers were able to punish Miami with their superior size. So in building a team to beat Miami, you'd want some size underneath. The Spurs start Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, and have Boris Diaw coming off the bench. Diaw's weight is going to be a problem for Bosh, Haslem and Birdman. Those three are way undersized relative to Tim and Tiago. Throughout the year, one of the Spurs' main weaknesses was their ability to control the glass. The glass is a strength for the Spurs in this series.
Tim and Tiago are also important because to give the Heat problems, you need rim protectors that are great help defenders. Tim is one of the best in the League at help defense and Tiago has shown great improvement in his defense this season. The two of them together on the court with Parker, Green and Leonard formed the best 5-man defensive group in the league during the regular season, as Stampler pointed out. (Please read this if you haven't. He shows that the Spurs' 5-man unit is best. 2nd and 3rd were Memphis Grizzly lineups. Miami came in 7th.)
The Spurs' attacking point guard and elite offense will also cause the Heat problems. Miami hasn't faced a team as offensively capable as the Spurs in the playoffs. That's an understatement. Miami hasn't faced a team capable of consistent offensive production in the playoffs. The Bucks, Bulls and Pacers are all offensively atrocious. Miami looked great in Game 7, but all they really did was play against a Pacers team that turned the ball over and struggled offensively throughout the entire regular season and playoffs. How much of it was Miami and how much of it was just the Pacers playing like the Pacers? It's subjective, but let's not build the legend of this hobbled Miami team just yet.
Hobbled and hurting
Oh yes, Miami is hobbled. Dwyane Wade is playing on a bum knee. He's scored 20 points just twice in the playoffs. While he looked his best in Game 7, you can't expect he's going to replicate that in every game of the Finals. He's going to be hobbled Dwyane more often than all star Dwyane.
Chris Bosh turned his ankle and has since played like he's fragile. Bosh's role this season has greatly kept him out of the paint, but since his injury, he seems to be even more scared of contact than usual. Bosh has failed to score in double digits since turning his ankle in Game 4. While two of Miami's Big 3 are injured, the Spurs are healthy and peaking.
Miami has looked extremely mortal in these playoffs. Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier are all shooting significantly worse in 3-point percentage this postseason than they did in the regular season. Chris Bosh stopped rebounding. Dwyane Wade's field goal percentage dropped from 52% in the regular season to 45% in the playoffs. Miami's bench consisting of Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Chris Anderson are far inferior to the Spurs' bench.
Is the best basketball player in the world enough?
The Heat do, however, have the best player in the world. You could make the case that LeBron James is the only relevant Heat player that's elevated his game in the playoffs. Everyone around him has succumbed to injuries or the spotlight. LeBron has been a one-man wrecking crew. Typically, when the nine players around you play worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, your team loses. This team is in the Finals. That's unbelievable.
Unfortunately for Miami, if LeBron goes back to his "Cleveland days" in this series, the Spurs will be waiting where they left him off in 2007, with brooms. While six years is admittedly a long time ago, the Spurs are too well-coached to lose to a team that depends so heavily on one player. Gregg Popovich will use the Spurs' elite defense to force this Miami team to win this series; he will not allow LeBron to singlehandedly win his second trophy.
For the Heat to win they will have to get better production from their supporting cast and given the Heat's playoff performance up to this point, I think it's safe to assume that they'll fall short. They'll need Dwyane Wade to make a miraculous recovery. He's been hurt for two months now. This didn't just happen over night. Unless the Heat's medical staff has been saving a special shot of cortisone just for the Finals, Wade is not going to play significantly better than he has in the last two months.
Chris Bosh has been underwhelming in the playoffs, even before he turned his ankle. His shooting dropped from 54% in the regular season to 46%. His 6.8 rebounds per game fell to 4.3 in the Indiana series. While his 3-point shooting improved from 28% in the regular season to 48% in the postseason, isn't it more likely he regresses to a more reasonable percentage than continue this torrid pace?
Miami's role players
Shane Battier has played so poorly in the playoffs that Erik Spoelstra benched him in the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. After not playing for most of the year, Mike Miller received relevant minutes in Game 6 and 7. Miller made both his shots in Game 6 and missed all three of his shots in Game 7.
Ray Allen is finally looking his age. Like the rest of the Heat, aside for LeBron, his game hasn't been what it was in the regular season. His field goal percentage dropped from 45% to 39% while his 3-point shooting fell from 42% to 37%. While he's still a very dangerous player, he's just not as scary as he's been in the past.
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are going to have their hands full. Neither is capable of handling Tony Parker. I assume Miami will defend Tony with LeBron at some point. This means that Chalmers and Cole will be forced to guard a bigger player. You can count on Popovich to exploit this matchup by running them through the myriad of Spurs screens. Even if the Spurs do not get a shot out of it, Danny Green / Gary Neal / Manu Ginobili is going to run them to death.
Will LeBron defend Parker?
LeBron James on Tony Parker does make me nervous because we haven't seen it often enough to know if it will be effective or not. Here's what we do know. Memphis, with their vaunted Grit 'n' Grind playbook, were a defensive force in the playoffs until they ran into Tony Parker. He was too quick for Mike Conley and the Defensive Player of the Year couldn't prevent Tony from taking over the series. The Grizzlies attempted to slow Parker with Tony Allen, known as one of the best defenders in the league. Parker shot layup after layup on Allen. Not only was Allen too slow, but his risky style of defense allowed Parker to burn him at will.
While LeBron will obviously have a strength and length advantage, I can't imagine that LeBron will be quick enough to stay in front of a healthy Parker. Let me emphasize that; Tony is finally healthy. Remember, he turned his ankle towards the end of the regular season. Before his injury, Tony was playing so well that the talking heads started mentioning him in the MVP conversation. Tony was absolutely tearing the League apart, and then he got hurt and the League forgot how good he could be. We forgot, too.
Tony spent much of the playoffs trying to recover his game. Against the Lakers, he didn't look right even though the Lakers had zero chance of defending him. Against Golden State, Tony began that series looking hurt. After Game 2, I wrote about how the Spurs couldn't hide him defensively. Whomever he defended attacked the rim mercilessly. The every-other-day schedule didn't allow Tony time to recuperate and in Game 4, Tony and the Spurs hit a low point. That was the worst shooting night the Spurs had had since 1997. After that game, with more days off, Tony turned the corner and has looked healthy ever since. He's playing as well as he has all season and the Spurs are peaking because of it.
I called the sweep of Memphis and after Game 1 of that series, I explained my reasoning. Basically, I felt that too many things had to go right for Memphis to win. I feel the same way about the Heat. LeBron has elevated his play in the postseason, but the rest of his team is struggling. Their numbers are down across the board relative to the regular season and remember, they played the Bucks and Bulls in the first two rounds. Those are not elite teams. Neither was Indiana. A team without an offense that turns the ball over constantly cannot be considered elite, regardless of their defense.
So, for the Heat to win, they will have to play much better than they have played so far in the playoffs against a team that's far superior to anything they've faced. You are your record. You are your stats. It's more likely that the Heat will continue to under-perform than flip a switch and suddenly play great. It's more likely that Dwyane Wade will continue to succumb to his injury than suddenly play well. It's more likely that Bosh, Allen, Battier and Chalmers will continue to shoot poorly than it is they find their stroke.
It should be expected that both teams play as they have been playing, and if that's the case, I think the Spurs win this series. But in how many games? Let me first say that I have always thought that the 2-3-2 format helps the away team more than it does the home team, relative to the 2-2-1-1-1 format. If the Spurs had home court advantage, I'd definitely dedicate a few hundred words exclaiming my displeasure at this injustice. Since the Spurs do not, let me explain how this format helps the Spurs.
In theory, all the Spurs have to do is split the first two games, and then win three games at home without having to venture back to Miami. That's much easier than playing two at home, going to Miami for Game 5 and then playing a final game in San Antonio. Split the first two and win at home. That's what I think will happen.
Rusty but rested
The Spurs will be rusty, but Miami will be limping. Once the Spurs shake the rust off, they'll be able to catch Miami. For all the reasons listed above, I think the Spurs should win in five. Obviously, this is the Finals and the best player in the world plays for the other team. Luckily for the Spurs, this is a team sport and throughout the playoffs, the Spurs have been the better team, facing tougher opponents than Miami has played.
If the Heat continue to play as they have, meaning LeBron plays great while the rest of the team struggles, the Spurs will win this series.