For the first time in 16 years, we have a finals rematch. The Spurs and Heat will battle it out for NBA dominance just as they did one year ago.
Now, after the close series in the first round and the tough series against the Thunder, it seems like this outcome was inevitable. But very few people thought the Spurs were going to have the mental fortitude to bounce back after losing last season. Yet San Antonio not only achieved the best record in the league but were tested in the playoffs, first by the quirkiness of Dallas, and then by the overwhelming athleticism and individual talents of the Thunder's stars and came out winners. The Heat's only stiff test in the playoffs was facing the solid defense of the offensively imploding Pacers, which served as a reward for playing in the weaker East.
As generic and dull as the Heat's path looked in comparison to the Spurs epic journey, that's all in the past now. These are the teams that will battle it out in seven games. Series are about matchups, so let's see each team's strengths and weaknesses.
Miami's strengths and weaknesses
The Heat are the same team that won the past two titles: a three-headed monster that relies on Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and especially Lebron James to do the lion's share of the scoring and creation. Those guys are surrounded with shooters to space the floor and a defender or two to take pressure off the stars.
The Heat have been deadly from outside, averaging the highest three point shooting percentage of any team during the playoffs and have a lot of positional versatility at their disposal thanks to a rather long bench. They rarely turn the ball over, which limits opponent fast break points and forces teams to try and beat the Heat in the half court, where their pressure defense can force mistakes or prevent teams from running their usual offensive sets.
Despite lacking a true elite rim protector, they do a surprisingly good job of guarding the paint, allowing almost the same field goal percentage close to the hoop as the Spurs. The athleticism of James, the quickness of Bosh, the elite shot blocking (for a guard) of Wade and Chris Andersen's great weak side help defense all help them achieve their defensive stinginess at the rim.
The problem with the style of defense the Heat play is that, at times, it leaves them exposed at the three point line. When they trap on pick and rolls, someone has to help from the perimeter. Quick, coordinated ball movement can result in open looks from the corners, where the Heat have allowed the most shots of any playoff team. The Heat also struggle putting together productive units featuring two traditional bigs, so they often choose to go small with only one big. The problem then is that their bigs that anchor small ball units can't guard the post.
The biggest difference from last year's team to this year's is the improvement on the play of Wade in the post-season. After seeing Wade's numbers drop considerably during last year's playoffs, the coaching staff monitored his minutes and it seems to have paid off. Wade is putting up fantastic numbers in most categories and has upped his efficiency as a scorer. Whereas he looked helpless when he couldn't drive all the way to the rim last year, these playoffs he's been connecting on open jumpers and using his trickery to get to the paint and finish with a fade-away, hook or floater when the defense collapses.
Even though their role players have aged and they have not been getting consistent contributions from their off-season acquisitions, the Heat are still an incredibly dangerous opponent and that's because they have the best player on the planet, a rejuvenated Wade, and a versatile Bosh surrounded by a competent supporting cast.
How the Spurs match up with them
The Heat want to control the pace by limiting turnovers. They want to be the ones getting transition points while the other team has to work hard for points in half court sets. The Spurs don't play a particularly disruptive brand of defense, so the Heat might succeed in stopping breakaway buckets. But the Spurs need to push the ball after misses and made buckets like they did in the wins against OKC so they can attack before the defense is set. Miami will create easy points off turnovers, so the Spurs need to get theirs--either by attacking early or crashing the offensive glass.
On pick and rolls, the Spurs' bigs will need to do short rolls to both provide an escape valve for the ball handler in case of a trap and to exploit a scrambling defense by making the right pass after the catch. Duncan and especially Diaw should excel at this, as they can both take a dribble or two and attack the rim after the catch or pass to the almost certainly open corner man. The other option is to run extended pick and rolls, where the pass to the dive man comes after the ball handler moves the ball to another perimeter player to change the angle. That kind of action might be the best way to get Splitter going.
If Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green start the game guarding Lebron and Wade respectively, it will be hard to hide Tony Parker when the Heat run 1-3 pick and rolls looking to force the switch. If Parker is switched onto Lebron, the Spurs' best bet is for him to try to slow Lebron without fouling and for whoever is guarding Wade to leave him open to allow a big to overload the strong side. Swift passing could result in open shots, but the alternative is to have a hobbled Parker taking on one of the league's best post players by himself.
Recovering quickly to shooters might just be the key for the Spurs' defense. The Heat have six role players that are hitting from outside at an above 38% rate and have the best three point shooting percentage as a team in the playoffs. Helping on Lebron and occasionally on Wade is unavoidable, but the Spurs need to find the right balance or they could suffer from three point-fueled runs. The good news is the Spurs have done a very good job of contesting threes in the post season while the Heat haven't. That's why San Antonio, only trailing the Heat in three point shooting percentage, needs Patty Mills, Danny Green and Marco Belinelli to make them pay for over-helping and counter the threes that the Heat will convert.
Finally, the Spurs have a serious advantage offensively in the post. Whether it's Duncan backing down Bosh, Andersen or Haslem, or Diaw posting up Rashard Lewis, Battier or even James, the Spurs should be able to get some half court buckets by going to that well when they need to. If help comes, someone will be open. The key is to not overdo it, but when all else fails giving the ball to one of the bigs on the block is an enticing possibility.
It's very possible the Heat might not have been playing to their full potential during the playoffs and still racking up wins. They simply weren't challenged by any good teams, not in the way the Spurs were. That's about to change.
The Spurs clearly look like the better team on paper but it will come down to who is better in these next seven games, not the past 15 or 20. And the Heat still have all the elements that have allowed them to win two straight championships: a clear defensive identity, a bevy of deadly shooters, a dominant Lebron and two perfect complementary stars in Wade and Bosh. With a hobbled Parker, the Spurs will need contributions from everyone who plays if they want to survive the stretches when the Heat will inevitably look superhuman.
That's the bad news. The good news is the Spurs have faced pretty much every possible variation of basketball adversity this season and come out ahead. Nothing the Heat throw at them will surprise them. And with Diaw and Ginobili playing at a high level, the Spurs have the right amount of unpredictability to shake things up when the rigidity of the system is exposed by an aggressive defense that denies the built-in options. The Spurs just don't have a lot of weaknesses.
The Heat might or might not be better than last season; it's unclear. But the Spurs have been decidedly better than they were in 2012/13, at least so far.
This is an incredibly hard series to predict because these two teams are both well coached, have depth and have been, undoubtedly, the best two teams in the league for the past two years. The Spurs have more weapons but the Heat have Lebron. Both coaches are capable of making adjustments and have the versatile players to execute them. Both teams have experience in this type of situation and both teams are hungry.
Ultimately, I think it will come down to a few plays, like it always does between great squads. And I'm confident the Spurs have the talent and the ability to strike when they need to as a team while the Heat might have to rely on individual exploits. The Spurs will win in six, hoisting the Larry O'Brien in Miami and exorcising the last demon they have left from past playoff failures.