Death by Finals preview: Stampler loses his mind discussing Spurs vs Heat

Looks comfortable, doesn't he? - USA TODAY Sports

If you start reading this now you'll finish just before tip-off. Of Game 3.

Neo-Ball vs. the Sentinels, for the fate of the Empire, there can only be one Highlander

Well, they're going to have to do it the hard way. Too bad. It would've been so much more fitting to play the Pacers, to bookend the Duncan era with another Finals nobody watches, another championship where it would've been almost like a privileged secret for us Spurs fans to truly appreciate the genius of these all-time great players, this historic team, this shrewd front office, this mastermind coach. It would've been like having The Cure make Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish but never get any more famous than they were for 17 Seconds.

I want to be selfish. I don't want everyone to watch this just because we're going against LeBron and the Heat. And I REALLY don't want everybody to be de-facto Spurs fans now. They're not going to root for Duncan to get his fifth ring or for Tony and Manu to finally get the appreciation and attention they should've received long ago. They're not going to suddenly gain some new-found appreciation for the Spurs and have this light-bulb epiphany, saying to themselves, "By golly, these guys aren't boring at all! This is beautiful basketball. Why have I never noticed this before?"

No, none of that will happen. They'll root for the Spurs simply because they're not the Heat, just the same as they'd have rooted for the Warriors, the Suns, the Grizzlies, whoever. I hate being the default, disposable, faceless good guys, when in any epic story it's always the villains who are so much more interesting.

I'd much rather be the villains, the bullies in the eyes of the public, happily dashing the dreams of some Eastern underdog and killing Stern's ratings. No, instead we're trapped in this BS narrative, where if Miami wins it's "Hey, is LeBron better than Jordan?" and if we win it's "Hey, what's wrong with the Heat? Are they overrated? Is LeBron a choker?"

It sucks.

At the same time, what better way for this story to end than to blow up the Death Star, right? I suppose maybe the only way the Spurs can ever capture the imagination of the casual fan would be to win as underdogs, but even then it probably won't happen.

Who cares?

I honestly don't know if I'll sleep at all for the next two weeks. I'm terrified. This is the worst thing that could possibly have happened and the best thing that could've possibly happened. If they're going to lose I wish the Flying Spaghetti Monster could just tap me on the shoulder with his noodly appendage and tell me now so I don't have to watch it. I've never vomited or cried watching a sporting event before but honestly I wouldn't be surprised if I did so in this series and I don't even know if that would be in a win or a loss. This is the most important sporting event of my lifetime, because of the circumstances, the opponent, everything, and I just want to hit the fast-forward button to the ending and then rewind only if the Spurs win.

Honestly just give me this and I'll never ask for anything as a sports fan again.

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So, what's at stake here, besides my sanity?

Beware, BS cliche sports columnist hyperbole alert: I really do think this series will determine, once and for all, who deserves the title, between Duncan and LeBron, as the "best player since Jordan."

Forget the numbers. Obviously LeBron will have the advantage there, due to being a perimeter, all-court player who has the ball the whole time. However, if Duncan and the Spurs win again, if he beats LeBron head-to-head in the Finals again, then a lot of James' historical credibility vis-a-vis Duncan falls off, does it not?

I think it would show, with the notable exception of Jordan, that basketball, even in this glorified small-ball era where nobody has a back-to-the-basket post-up game anymore, is still a sport where a dominant center still has the best chance to influence who wins and who loses.

Taking it one step further, wouldn't another ring solidify Duncan's place on the all-time starting five, as the power forward, beside Wilt/Russell/Kareem as your center of choice, with Bird at the three, Jordan at the two and Magic running point? It's become fashionable, in some circles, to shoehorn LeBron at the four, since he's the same height and weight as Karl Malone, basically, as a way of sneaking him into the starting five.

Well, if Duncan gets another ring on him, then he's officially unmovable at the four spot, every bit as Jordan is at the two. If James happens to get a few more rings after 2013, after the Duncan Era, then start the debate at the three between him and Bird, you dig?

So yeah, those are the stakes we're playing for, in case you were only kinda sorta interested before.

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So, how do we beat the Heat? Once again we'll borrow liberally from L.J. Ellis over at Spurstalk and I'll rebut his pessimistic points one by one, and add a few nuggets of my own.

1. The Spurs can't replicate the Pacers. It's true the Spurs are much better than the Pacers. It's also true that the Pacers were close to beating the Heat. Unfortunately, those two statements aren't related. Playoff basketball is all about matchups. Indiana, even though they aren't that good, match-up very well with Miami. First of all, Roy Hibbert is in a class of his own when it comes to protecting the basket. Advanced stats point in that direction and I wholeheartedly agree. He's tall, long, strongly-built, fearless, smart, and quick enough. While I'd classify Duncan as the superior all-around defender because he's better out on the court and better defending opposing post players, Hibbert is better than Duncan at defending the rim. Just as importantly, LeBron James was obviously intimidated by his presence. Hibbert has about three inches and 50 pounds on Duncan. Add in the rest of the length and athleticism on the Pacers (as Frank Vogel said of his team: "We're f**king huge!") and they're a totally different beast than the Spurs. Indiana also has a lot of interchangeable defenders, which further helps in terms of dealing with the Heat. The Spurs don't have that luxury. On offense, the Pacers can hit the Heat in their two main weak spots. First, their offensive rebounding takes advantage of Miami's iffy work on the glass. Secondly, the ability to put multiple post-up threats on the court at the same time takes advantage of their lack of quality true bigman depth. The Spurs, on the other hand, don't go after offensive boards and they only have one tried and true post-up threat. Long story short, the Pacers aren't very good but their areas of strength work very well against the Heat. Thus, the susceptibility of the Heat in the ECF was more a product of match-ups than anything else.

You'll forgive me if I yawn at the match-up hokum because the Grizzlies were supposed to match-up well with the Spurs, who obliterated them in four. My personal theory on why Heat-Pacers went seven games? It's because Indiana was the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and they had a terrific starting five that played, like, 30 minutes a night together.

So what if Duncan is a tick worse than Hibbert defending the rim? He showed he's plenty good in that regard the previous series and Splitter is a longer (and better) second banana defensively than David West is. Since when is two not better than one? The Spurs throw 14-feet of big man at you in the paint, and while I'm not a historian by any means, I do seem to recall that working out okay in 1999 and even 2003.

It just continues to blow my mind that people --even some Spurs fans who should know better-- refuse to accept the plain facts in front of them, that this is a terrific defensive basketball team, with an absolutely dominant starting five. Their only weakness is that they don't play as many minutes together as some of the more celebrated starting units across the league, but Ginobili and Diaw aren't huge drop-offs from Green and Splitter. Leonard is just as long as Paul George, Green is more reliable than the combustible Stephenson (and again, has a better backup), and while Parker doesn't have Hill's length, he is smarter at funneling people where he wants them to go.

That's just defense, where until proven otherwise I absolutely refuse to accept that the Spurs will be any worse off than the Pacers were, holding Miami to a mid-90's average and in the low 40's in shooting percentage. The Spurs lead the league in defensive efficiency (95.4) in the postseason. The Pacers finished at 101.6. The Spurs are also second offensively, the Pacers were tenth.

2. The Heat's pick-and-roll defense will slow the Spurs' offense. The way Miami defends the pick-and-roll night in and night out is how the Thunder defended the pick-and-roll after the start of Game 3 in last season's WCF. They are going to blitz Tony Parker and force him to either play in a crowd or give the ball up. Most teams can't get away with this strategy but it works for the Heat (and worked for the Thunder) due to elite athleticism on the weakside when recovering to shooters. Plus, Miami is even better at this style of defense than OKC because they do it so often. I expect them to blitz Parker relentlessly in an effort to make someone else beat them. In the starting unit, there really isn't a pressure valve for TP. Can Danny Green or Tiago Splitter pop open and create plays after Parker gets trapped? Hopefully; but obviously far from certain.The obvious solution for the Spurs would be to pair Parker and Ginobili as often as possible. Thus, when Parker gets trapped, he gives it to Ginobili so he can create with a 4-on-3 advantage. Again, hopefully that works, but at this stage of his career does the Argentine have the wherewithal and stamina to create consistently in a seven games series against an athletic and aggressive rotating defense? Boris Diaw is another possible remedy … but will he be enough of a scoring threat for the Heat to respect his shot? If not, could Bonner come in and knock down the biggest shots of his life? I just don't have confidence in any of these scenarios.

The Spurs just played what was, by most accounts, the best defense in the league and they riddled them full of holes. They found plenty of open shots on the corners, Parker solved every puzzle they threw at him, and Ginobili found plenty of guys for easy layups.

Before addressing the fallacy of your main argument, lets go back to the fiction of the Thunder beating the Spurs with their defense. Pop has stated, ad nauseam, that it was the Spurs defense that let them down in that series, not their offense. In games 4-6 they scored 103, 103, and 99 points, and that was without any contributions from Splitter and next to none from Leonard and Green.

Game 3, you throw out. The Spurs had no legs at all, the Thunder were at home and absolutely desperate at 0-2 and a 20-game winning streak had to end eventually. Game 4 was the real anomaly. Ibaka-Perkins-Collison are never going to shoot 22-of-25 again. Ever. Just a freak occurence that came at the worst time. Game 5 they just couldn't get a stop down the stretch as Harden and Durant refused to miss. That game, more than any other, was what Pop showed to the team in training camp and he wasn't pointing out the offensive failings. Game 6 was a refereeing atrocity, as blatantly 8-on-5 as any game in league history.

Ironically, L.J. has pointed out, numerous times, how the Spurs lost because the Thunder shot historically well from long-twos, the least efficient shot in basketball. Whether it was Ibaka, Durant, Harden or even Westbrook they just shot the lights out when it mattered. Now he's changing his tune and saying the offense lost the series. Good lord.

Now, that tangent aside, lets get back to the main point, Spurs offense vs. Heat defense. I find it adorable that LJ linked to offensive rebounding and post play as the only way to score on the Heat when the Celtics took Miami (a better Miami, I'd argue, with a better Wade and Bosh) to seven with ZERO offensive rebounding and next to no post game.

How'd they pull off this feat? Well, they had a good defense (check), but they also had a superduperstar point guard (double check) in Rajon Rondo.

I know it seems like eight years ago when the Spurs last played a playoff game, but really the Grizzlies series wasn't that far back. I contend that the specter of a "fearsome defense with athletic lengthy defenders" will be far less of a culture shock for the Spurs than playing a great point guard who can score and pass will be for the Heat, since they haven't faced an animal like that like since March. With all due respect to George Hill, he's no Tony Parker. Tony is faster. Tony can dribble. Tony knows a few tricks. Tony also plays with a few smart guys, too.

I'd argue that the 2013 Spurs, much like the 2012 Spurs, are a superior squad to the 2012 Celtics. Parker is better than Rondo, with many more clubs in his bag. Duncan is better than Garnett. Splitter is better than Bass.

Maybe the Heat just play close series against good teams? Could that be it? Maybe the Finals last season would've been close if Harden didn't miss a million open shots and Scott Brooks didn't play his worst player 30 minutes a night? Just throwing it out there.

I'm not freaking out about the notion of Parker being trapped. The Spurs bigs screen too creatively for him to be limited consistently. The offense doesn't have him dribbling around for 23 seconds looking to make something happen, a sitting duck for traps. They run him off the ball around screens to mix it up. And even if he doesn't have the ball, I'll take the Spurs 4-on-3 every time. What makes their offense so great is that virtually everyone can pass, not just the point guard, and everyone is unselfish and hellbent about looking for the best possible shot (except for Gary Neal).

If the Heat defense are the sentinels, than the Spurs offense is Neo. It's that simple. If you watched Game 7 against the Pacers, you saw these rare sequences where every now and then Indy strung six, seven passes together and got a wide open three. Maybe you missed it because these looks were bookended by turnovers or stupid contested shots. Well the Spurs are smart enough and disciplined enough to get the very best of what the Pacers got, not as the exception but rather the norm. The Spurs will not lack for open shots against the Heat. Whether they knock them down or not will tell the tale.

3. The Spurs will find it difficult to stay big. Having Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the court is preferred when going against this team. The Pacers were able to punish the Heat by keeping David West next to Hibbert. But I don't think Pop is going to be able to go long stretches with that duo. On defense, Splitter would probably have to chase someone like Shane Battier or Mike Miller out on the perimeter. That'll be difficult -- but not impossible. But the big difference between West and Splitter is on offense. West will absolutely punish smaller defenders. Battier, for example, had no chance against him. Splitter, on the other hand, really struggles to post-up smaller defenders. I don't think I have to remind Spurs fans how Derek Fisher was able to guard him in the post a year ago -- or Klay Thompson a couple weeks ago. Is Splitter going to be able to destroy Battier? I haven't seen any evidence to be confident he will. Hell, I'm not sure he could bully Miller. Splitter has a high center of gravity and has trouble when short players use strength against him. He's actually better against bigger, less mobile defenders. So, if Splitter can't make the Heat pay for going small by scoring in the post, it's unlikely having him roam around the perimeter chasing Battier or Miller on defense is going to be worth keeping him on the court. The result, IMO, will be Pop going more to Diaw, Bonner or small ball instead of the preferred tandem of TD and Splitter.

One, I'm not so sure Battier will even be in the rotation for the Heat. He could be cooked. Two, even if he is, I think Splitter would have an advantage over him because nobody buys Battier's flops anymore. And I definitely like Splitter down low against Miller. That's laughable. Mainly though, looking at Splitter from the sole prism of a back-to-the-basket post game is faulty. His meat-and-potatoes is being the roll man and against those above-mentioned 4-on-3 situations, that's where he'd clean up. Splitter scores at a pretty good percentage when he's guarded by nobody, and nobody was his most common defender vs. the Grizzlies.

Defensively if Splitter can't hang with the Heat's small lineups, I'm still more than happy to go to war with Duncan-Leonard-Green-Ginobili-Parker vs. Bosh-James-x-Wade-Chalmers. I'm not saying we have a clear edge in this scenario, but if these quintets face each other I think the Spurs can hold their own, with a couple of defensive pigeons in Miami's fivesome, just as there were with Memphis'.

4. The Heat have been coasting. During the regular season, the Heat were one of the best teams I've ever seen. It's not much of a stretch to say this was one of the top 10 best regular seasons ever by any team. They've been a relative disappointment in the playoffs but I think they realized what we all knew: the East was terrible and getting to the Finals was a formality from the beginning. Sure, they needed to try a little bit to put the Pacers away but I don't think they've even taken it out of first or second gear yet. They have a ton of room to improve entering this series -- and now that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I expect them to play by far their best basketball of the postseason. As far as Wade and Bosh are concerned, I think they realized a LeBron-led team could make it to the Finals by himself. Where they injured? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but I think their struggles were more to do with coasting. In these Finals, I expect both at or near 100%.

Yes, the Heat were so good during the regular season that they finished 1.3 points worse in scoring margin than the Thunder and were basically the same in that stat as the Spurs before San Antonio took April off. Miami won a lot of close games against a lot of crap Eastern teams, going to the mattresses twice against Orlando, against Sacramento, against the Cavs B team, trailing by 20+ against the Celtics and Knicks, so on. Hell, their 27-game win streak was snapped by a worse Chicago lineup than the starless Spurs defeated.

I'm not saying the Heat aren't good, but they are overrated, and if they've been coasting during the playoffs, then I fail to see when during the regular season they weren't coasting. I think Dwyane Wade is legitimately limited, that Bosh is basically Andrea Bargnani at this point (with better defense), and they have the same high-variance role player problems from game to game that every contender deals with. This notion that Wade and Bosh consciously or unconsciously gave less than their best for three rounds of playoffs and forced LeBron to do everything because they're lazy jerks is ridiculous. They gave what they had. It could just be that those guys peaked too early, which numerous Spurs teams have done these past six years. Furthermore, I don't think it's exactly the smartest strategy, to wear down your best player to the point of near exhaustion, just because you can. It would've been smarter to just win each series in four games and get the maximum amount of rest, if it was that easy, no?

You wanna see coasting? Go see the Spurs in April. Go see teams tanking for lottery balls. Maybe I'm naive, but I think playoff teams play hard.

5. Miami has the more trustworthy shooters. This series could very well come down to which team's role players are hitting their three-pointers. And looking at the respective resumes, it's difficult to not side with the Heat. They haven't shot well in the playoffs so far -- but let's not forget how well they shot in the Finals last year. When the lights got bright, they seemingly couldn't miss. For example, take Battier. Like this season, Battier struggled in the Eastern Conference portion of the bracket in 2012. But come the Finals, he shot 57% from deep. His has hit less than one-fourth of his threes so far in these playoffs but I wouldn't be surprised if he snaps out of that slump in the Finals. Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller; those are some of the players you'd most want taking pressure shots.The Spurs on paper have very good shooters but is anyone really confident in Bonner in the Finals? How about Kawhi Leonard after spending so much of his energy on D? Green doesn't exactly have a sparkling resume in this department. Ginobili has been streaky -- to put it kindly. Neal? Yeah, no.

In the playoffs the Spurs are shooting .362 from deep, the Heat are shooting .356. The Spurs are allowing .336, the Heat are allowing .325. Man, I hope the Spurs will be able to overcome that .005 net difference.

Ray Allen shot a whopping .350 from three (and a whopping .377 overall) in the Finals. He shot .293 from downtown in 2010 for the Celtics against the Lakers in his Finals appearance before that. He did light it up at a .524 clip in 2008 vs. LA, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the "heat of the Finals lights" don't really affect Allen and he shoots what he shoots and is subject to to whims of the small-sample gods as anyone else.

Yes, Shane Battier shot .577 from three against OKC, but is that any more telling than the .350 he shot from three in seven games vs. Boston the series before that or the .273 he shot in six games vs. the Pacers the series before that? If you want to slice the micro-splits even further, you could conclude that Battier, in Game 4 of the Finals, the most important game of the series since it was the one which tilted the series firmly in Miami's favor, shot only .250 (1-of-4) from downtown. What a choker!

Your goofiest example is Miller, who was 0-of-3 from deep in the first four games of the finals and then 7-of-8 in the last one. If you want to attach meaning to that, then you might as well retire Steve Kerr's jersey at the AT&T center.

Is one game of a sample size that much less significant than five? My guess would be that Allen, Battier, Miller, etc. will all shoot somewhere close to their career norms in the Finals, and if they don't, then it's simple dumb luck and nothing as dumb as being clutch or a choker. It's random variance. Green and Bonner are right there with them in career numbers, with Ginobili and Leonard a notch below.

More significant to me is what form guys are in lately, and I'll take the ones who have good strokes going and have fresher legs.

6. The Heat have LeBron James More often than not, the winner of a playoff series is the team with the best player. LeBron James is that man. He's not only the best basketball player in the universe, he's a top five talent ever and he's in his absolute prime. Which players in history would you rather have on your team than 2013 LeBron? Personally, my list probably begins and ends with Michael Jordan. I don't think I need to explain how great LeBron is right now. When the best athlete in the NBA is also the best passer in the league, the best finisher and now suddenly one of the best shooters, that's a recipe for a monster. Add in his experience and his newfound maturity and it's going to take a Herculean effort to beat his team four times in a series.Don't get me wrong, Parker is damn good. I've called him the second most dominating player in the league when he's healthy. But there's a wide gulf between first and second on that list. Current LeBron is in that class of superstar that is impossible to stop regardless of defensive gameplan. Prime Jordan, Prime Duncan and Prime Shaq are three other examples. Parker, for as great as he has become, lacks that final trait to move him up into that rarefied air. You can slow Parker if you make that your team's No. 1 objective. You can't slow LeBron. That will, unfortunately, prove to be a gigantic difference.

I suppose this dovetails from LeBron's comment about being "40 or 50 times better" than he was in 2007. Now far be it for me to argue math with a dude who joined the NBA straight out of high school, but as I recall, the 2007 LeBron singlehandedly put the Billups-Hamilton-'Sheed-Prince-Big Ben Pistons away and had a 48 point effort in Game 5 of that series, scoring something like 25 points in a row.

That guy was pretty good, and the Spurs contained him in the Finals.

I wonder if James, perhaps by hypnosis, completely expunged the 2011 Finals from his memory. If he's 50 times the player he was in 2007, how much better is he now than June 2011, eleventy-billion?

James ran completely roughshod over both the Celtics and the Bulls that season and then promptly crapped the bed against Dallas. He was far worse in that series than he was against the Spurs six years ago.

I'm not saying James isn't great, because he is, and that he's not the best player in this series, because he is, but this isn't, pardon the pun, the Spurs' first rodeo and Pop and Co. have been pretty good in the past at containing the other team's best guy, and if not stopping him then stopping everyone else.

Look, if James and the other two guys in their big three all play well, then yes, the Heat will win. If only James plays well though and Bosh & Wade are stuck at their Pacers level, then I like the Spurs very much. If Bosh & Wade are good and we get '11 Mavericks LeBron, then I also like the Spurs very much.

Maybe if both teams were going into the series in completely equal circumstances as far as rest/injuries/play-off stress, then I'd give the Heat the edge based on having the best player and home court advantage.

However, if ever the Spurs were going to pull the upset, the 2013 playoffs have so far unfolded in the perfect scenario. The Spurs have played just 14 postseason games and have been off for nine days. That's nine days for the best coach on the planet and his staff to dissect every bit of Heat film. If those guys have any weaknesses to exploit, I'm betting that Pop has discovered it and drilled his charges on it.

Meanwhile, the Heat have just endured seven grueling games vs. a very physical Pacers team that forced James to use up a bunch of his fuel tank and knocked Wade around quite a bit too. The Spurs have their rotation set and guys know their roles. They've watched so much Heat film by now that they probably could put on a Miami jersey and run any play Spoelstra calls.

The Heat rotation, by contrast, is in total flux. Neither Miller or Battier have any idea where they stand. They've had almost no time to prepare for a Spurs team that is 180 degrees different from the one they've just played. They have almost no frame of reference for them and haven't faced Ginobili in over two years. It'll probably be like Game 3 before they figure out he's left-handed.

Also, DeJuan Blair, Nando de Colo and Tracy McGrady would've been the sixth-seventh-eighth men on the Pacers, and that has to mean something.

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Quickie Grizzlies series grades..

Tim Duncan: A-

15.5 ppg, 9.3 rebs, 3.3 asts, 3.0 blks, 0.8 stls, 2.3 TOs, .474/.615/NA, +45

The jumper was still mostly wonky, but otherwise Duncan was dominant, far and away the best big-man in the series and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he truly deserved to be named First Team All-NBA. He pretty much singlehandedly won the two overtime games and was incredible protecting the rim and shutting down Z-Bo. He didn't have to do much in the Game 1 rout and foul trouble prevented him from really putting his stamp on Game 2 until the extra period, but he was great in the road games.

Tiago Splitter: B+

8.8 ppg, 3.0 rebs, 2.0 asts, 1.8 blks, 0.3 stls, 1.0 TOs, .682/.714/NA, +14

Slowly but surely Splitter is starting to begrudgingly earn the respect of the pundits and naysayers who don't watch the Spurs with regularity. He made a statement against Memphis with the way he held his own against Randolph and Gasol defensively, thoroughly frustrating the former and limiting the latter. Plus, there were times on the other end of the court where he flat out made Z-Bo look foolish in his pick-and-roll defense. The Grizzlies were supposedly supposed to "dominate" the Spurs inside, primarily because people thought so little of Splitter's length and mobility, but he showed he's plenty good enough to hang with anyone, even in lineups without Duncan on the floor. Tiago's emphatic block on Tony Allen at the end of Game 4 was a perfect way to close out the sweep.

Kawhi Leonard: B

11.3 ppg, 7.0 rebs, 0.5 asts, 0.8 blks, 2.0 stls, 1.3 TOs, .594/.538/.000, +43

Leonard's freakish fingerprints were all over the sweep, as he affected every game of the series. In the opener he had 18 points and made 4-of-5 from downtown. In Games 2 and 3 he combined for 20 boards, helping out the bigs inside. In the finale he wrecked the Grizzlies offense with five steals, creating easy fast break points. Leonard's three point attempts have subtly risen in each round of the playoffs and he continues to hit them at a ridiculous clip. Hopefully those trends continue. Spent some time on Mike Conley late in games and after a while you almost felt sorry for Conley, who was helpless in that match-up.

Danny Green: B-

8.8 ppg, 4.3 rebs, 2.3 asts, 1.0 blks, 0.8 stls, 1.0 TOs, .464/.474/1.000, +41

Green was terrific in the first game and very good in the second, but struggled to have much of an impact in the road games once the Grizzlies put more of an emphasis on covering the three point shooters, letting Parker get his. Unfortunately Green's offense seemed to impact his defense as well, as he lost focus on that end of the floor and lost Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless at times. He's going to get more looks in this series with the way the Heat play defense, and he'll be more engaged defensively too, since there will always be a quality scorer for him to check.

Tony Parker: A

24.5 ppg, 3.5 rebs, 9.5 asts, 0.0 blks, 2.0 stls, 4.0 TOs, .532/.375/.867, +33

Parker's message to Conley: "Now, pay attention. This is me, up here. This is you, down there. Me again ::points up:: You again :: points down:: Me, way over here, then a whole lot of crap like Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, then you, down there. Any questions? I don't know if you have any questions because you really have to shout out loud for me to hear because you're so far below me. Also, I'm better looking than you."

Manu Ginobili: B

10.0 ppg, 4.5 rebs, 5.3 asts, 0.5 blks, 0.5 stls, 2.5 TOs, .407/.286/.778, +25

The numbers might not reflect it, but Manu actually played better this round than he did against the Warriors, in my opinion. Ginobili never had a standout game or one big moment, per se, but he also didn't have any games where he noticeably took things off the Spurs' table. Against the Warriors, he had a few stinkers. The thing that people have to understand --and this has been true virtually Ginobili's entire Spurs career except for maybe a stretch in 2005, the majority of 2008 and large chunks of 2010-2011-- is that he's Plan B, if not Plan C. He is just not going to force his way into the game if Plan A (in this case, Parker) is working. In case you didn't notice, Plan A kept working all four games against the Grizzlies. If Parker flags against Miami, if the team needs a boost to get going from a deficit, then you'll see Manu take some shots. If not, expect him to continue in his play-making role.

It just continues to bewilder me how points-obsessed the ESPN studio crew is, as in if a guy isn't scoring he must be playing terrible. Mike Wilbon said Ginobili had "one of the worst games of his career" in Game 4, when Manu created literally six layups for teammates. Not open shots, mind you. Point blank layups. He had a couple more of those of the hockey assist tic-tac-toe variety, working with Tiago and Boris. Also, if you noticed, all three of his attempts from downtown were in-and-out, as close to going in as possible without going in. And his free throw shooting is going in the right direction. Really, I'm not worried about him at all. (Does any of this sound convincing?)

Boris Diaw: C-

4.3 ppg, 1.8 rebs, 1.5 asts, 0.3 blks, 0.0 stls, 0.3 TOs, .368/.200/1.000, +13

Saved his best game of the series for the last one, but Diaw was a bit too quiet for my tastes and really has been worse than Bonner in two of the three series so far. His defense was acceptable, but his board work continues to be substandard, he still refuses to shoot much (and hasn't shot well when he has) and it's very disconcerting that we'll probably need him to have the series of his life against the Heat.

Matt Bonner: C+

6.8 ppg, 2.5 rebs, 0.5 asts, 0.5 blks, 0.0 stls, 0.5 TOs, .450/.429/1.000, +1

Gets his grade pretty much on the strength of his great Game 1, but after that it was mostly typical Bonner, though I will give him credit for snatching a couple of contested rebounds, some comical jump balls, and showing good mobility and tenacity in his fronting defense. However, he also conceded bucketfuls of rebounds and wasn't very accurate from deep in Games 2-4 and I fear he won't be useful at all against Miami's small lineups.

Cory Joseph: C-

2.3 ppg, 2.3 rebs, 0.0 asts, 0.0 blks, 0.3 stls, 0.5 TOs, .308/.000/.500, +3

Joseph rebounded well in traffic and played some decent D (though he lost focus at times as well), but he pretty much gave up all playmaking duties to Ginobili and took some ill-advised shots. Pop reigned in his minutes more and more as the series went on, and one gets the sneaking suspicion Parker will be up to the 43 minute range against the Heat as long as the games are competitive, with Ginobili snatching the rest, with Green as the shooting guard.

Gary Neal: D

4.5 ppg, 1.0 rebs, 0.5 asts, 0.0 blks, 0.0 stls, 0.3 TOs, .412/.250/1.000, even

Surprisingly Neal actually played more minutes than Joseph in the series, but I really think he's the bigger candidate to be chopped altogether from the rotation, and his minutes were certainly headed that way against the Grizzlies. His defense continues to be an albatross and his shot selection is mostly gross. You know at some point he'll give up buckets to Norris Cole or an open three to Ray Allen and it'll make you furious. Pop historically has always opened the postseason with a 10-11 man rotation and steadily whittled it down to 7.5 by Game 4 of the Finals, and it'll be the same here. Besides Ginobili and Diaw there are just no guarantees. I continue to pine for McGrady because I'm an idiot.

**********************************

George R.R. Martin called, told Stampler to get to the point already.

Dreams I had last night, signaling that I may just be absorbing too much media...

1. I was at some party and Pop was there. I mentioned to him that I have an idea how to guard the Heat and since we're such close confidants he wanted my input, only he was so paranoid that someone would overhear that the second he heard me mention "defense" he sushed me and motioned for us to go into a back room.

I told Pop that I think Leonard and Green should just sag off James and Wade respectively letting them have any jumper over 15 feet and discouraging drives and that our other three guys should stick on their men like glue, preventing any open looks from deep. Pop explained that such a defense would be way too soft and would never work and that giving LeBron room like that would still let him pick us apart with his passing.

The thing I like about this dream is that in it I have the gall to suggest a defensive concept to Gregg Popovich, as though it'd be some revolutionary thing he'd never thought of. Because, sadly, that's completely accurate. If we knew each other and had a cordial relationship, I would totally do that.

2. I don't remember much of this, but Skip Bayless was like some kind of super terrorist or possibly a demon and I alone had proof that he was responsible for blowing up some building and killing lots of people. Not a sports arena during a game or anything like that, but maybe a concert hall I wanna say? Also, even though he projects this image of being a fit and trim exercise fanatic and relatively youthful for a 60-year-old, in my dream he actually needed a cane to get around once the cameras were off and it was all a hush-hush secret.

3. Also, I think I kissed Andrea on the cheek or possibly neck area. She was NOT happy about this. Obviously, this was clearly the most realistic of the three dreams.

***********************************

Speaking of Bayless, it's always struck me as odd and sorta of disrespectful that his "First Take" cohort Stephen A. Smith, whenever the subject of James switching franchises from Cleveland to Miami comes up, makes obvious references to the number of gorgeous women available to be uh.. romanced, lets say, in South Beach.

James is set to marry his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, the mother of his two sons, in September and as far as I know they've been a couple since James was in high school. Now Smith has always been a huge LeBron fan, and I'm sure he knows him really well, so is he just being a masochist douchenozzle here or is he implying that LeBron and his wife-to-be have some kind of understanding that he's allowed to fool around on the side?

Honestly, I'm not judging either way. I've just always been curious about this. I guess I need more going on in my life. Just start the series already. Spurs in six, taking Games 1, 3, 5 and 6.

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