The Heat and Spurs staged a classic seven-game battle in last year's NBA Finals. What will they do for an encore?
San Antonio Spurs
Let's do this again
The 2013 NBA Finals were brilliant. All a reasonable fan could ask for when the series ended was more. Well, we got it.
Finals rematches don't come about too often, but the Basketball Gods blessed us this season by doling out another helping of Spurs vs. Heat. What makes this serving so rich is that the last course was basically perfect ... provided you aren't a heartbroken San Antonio fan. Last June, we got a compelling basketball series that focused almost entirely on basketball, a wonderful feat in today's media age. With loads of future Hall of Famers, stunning moments and seven games of drama, you couldn't really ask for more.
The question now is whether this edition will live up to that standard. In essence, that's a question for the Miami Heat, who don't seem to be quite as good as they were in 2013. Coming off of back-to-back titles, Miami took it easy this season. Dwyane Wade rested plenty, LeBron James put less effort into his defense and the team seemed totally content to get into the playoffs healthy, even at the expense of home court advantage.
And that's exactly what happened: Miami finished in the East's No. 2 spot and well behind a few West contenders in the standings, but ended up with a refreshed Wade and a healthy roster. The plan worked.
But the Spurs made sure to rest key players heavily too and still ended up with the NBA's best record. That's what makes San Antonio the favorites to win this series: the Spurs had the same goals as the Heat and still blew most opponents out of the water. That Miami is back in the Finals should tell us that the Playoff Heat are a different squad than the one we saw for about six months of regular season ball. But the Spurs just cut through the nasty West. San Antonio is better than they looked in the regular season too!
The best thing about the 2013 Finals was that the teams were so evenly matched that any single player on either squad could be the difference. And we're not just talking about the legends of the series, the Duncans, LeBrons, Wades and Parkers. Danny Green could be the difference. James Jones. Kawhi Leonard. Chris Andersen. When two teams match up well, every little thing matters. That makes for compelling basketball.
LeBron isn't used to being the underdog. The last time his team wasn't expected to win may have been in the 2007 Finals, when the Cavaliers faced the rampaging Spurs. San Antonio swept Cleveland easily.
San Antonio has talked about wanting revenge for last year's title loss to LeBron and the Heat. Perhaps they are missing that 2013 was LeBron's revenge for 2007. No one really cares about legacy all that much, but the result here could decide whether the Spurs are seen as a persistent foil to LeBron's reign or one of the Homerian challenges King James overcame in the end.
Regardless of what narrative springs from the loins of this series, the basketball itself figures to be beautiful and compelling. That's all we want in the end: something to make our heart flutter. Here's to the Spurs and the Heat, purveyors of sport magic and worthy champions.
When Miami has the ball
This is a particularly ugly Miami Heat possession from early in the first year of the Big 3.
The spacing could not be worse. Chris Bosh is next to the ball at the elbow. LeBron James is inside the three-point line in the right corner. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is by himself, but he can't shoot threes. Dwyane Wade is underneath the basket, directly in the way. And ... yeah, that's the immortal Carlos Arroyo with the ball.
It's a far cry from the Heat we currently know. Over time, Miami evolved into a pace-and-space juggernaut, capable of spreading the floor with three-point shooters around James and Wade and accepting any trade-offs for going small.
But there were points in last year's Finals where San Antonio turned Miami back into the awkwardly-spaced unit it was in 2011. The Spurs created a five-man shell around the paint , took advantage of Wade's shaky perimeter shot and dared the Heat to beat them from the outside. Miami normally used enough three-point marksmen to prevent teams from doing this last year, but San Antonio was relentlessly disciplined and toyed with the Heat's shooting confidence.
Miami used different tactics to help generate a little more room. They started setting bottom-side screens (here's what that means) much lower on the court, giving their ball-handlers space to surge into the pick with a full head of steam. They succeeded with two-man action involving James and Mario Chalmers, at least in their wins. They often had James advance the ball straight down the left side of the court, clearing out the side to give him space to attack going to his right. They tried posting up James and Wade more often, but this worked less effectively because it's hard to move Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw or Danny Green.
But the Heat eventually solved this puzzle most effectively with a simpler move: taking Wade out. Replacing Wade with an additional shooter finally opened the floor and made San Antonio come out of its shell, which in turn gave James wider driving lanes. The Heat outscored San Antonio by 57 points with James in and Wade out; they were outscored by the same margin with both men on the court. James was at his peak powers in these situations, most notably when he wiped San Antonio off the court in Game 2 and led a furious rally early in the fourth quarter of Game 6. In Game 7, James regained confidence in his jumper and dropped the very shots the Spurs wanted him to take.
Given its relative success, one should expect the Spurs to follow a similar game plan this year. San Antonio used a combination of Leonard and Diaw on James, prioritizing length and width over speed. They weren't afraid to leave Wade or Chris Bosh and often sagged off shooters on the opposite side to provide more support.
Coach Nick shows where LeBron James likes to get the ball.
Can Miami crack the code more easily this year?
There's certainly reason to be pessimistic. The absence of Mike Miller stings: his big shooting performances, as well as his ability to function as a secondary ball-handler, will be missed. Rashard Lewis emerged in the conference finals and allowed Miami to somewhat replicate that small-ball approach, but he is less of a threat than Miller. San Antonio will not respect his shot the way the Pacers too often did. Shane Battier has declined since last season, and more minutes for Norris Cole may not be a good thing if he goes cold.
But there are also reasons to be encouraged. Wade's return to health should make life easier. He didn't have the legs to hit many of the jumpers necessary to make San Antonio pay and his cuts were often poorly timed. With a year to study and more confidence in his legs, he should be better.
Also, don't underestimate the effect of Bosh's improved shooting. Bosh took a total of six threes in the seven games last year, hitting none of them. This playoffs, he's taking over four per game and hitting a fantastic 41 percent. Once the Heat found a combination that allowed them to play small without suffering defensively in the Eastern Conference Finals, it heightened Bosh's enhanced ability to drag Roy Hibbert out of the lane and open up the floor. The Spurs did not have to worry about Bosh hitting threes last year, allowing Duncan a shorter path to help at the rim. But Duncan will need to honor Bosh this year, and that'll help open driving lanes.
All this is to say that we shouldn't assume San Antonio uses the same strategy. Miami will be prepared and may have better tools to defeat it. If so, Gregg Popovich may need to dig another item out of his bag of tricks to slow the Heat.
When San Antonio has the ball
The perfect antidote to Miami's hyper-aggressive defense can move the ball at rapid speeds, spaces the floor with fantastic shooters, uses trickery to prevent Miami from keying in on their sets and has enough of a post presence to make the Heat pay for their lack of size. The San Antonio Spurs fit the bill.
This is a major step up for Miami's defense. The Heat got to the Finals by beating three offensively-challenged, slow-paced teams in Charlotte, Brooklyn and Indiana. Their defense was a tad off by its standards during the regular season, but no opponent has been good enough to challenge those creaks in the playoffs. San Antonio will be.
It starts with the Spurs' pace. The Spurs consistently beat the Heat up the floor in last year's Finals and the Heat can't let that happen again. Tony Parker freely pushed the ball, wings and bigs ran accordingly and Miami lacked proper attention to detail. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were slow to get back far too often in last year's Finals and San Antonio was brilliant at exploiting that lack of effort.
Consider this screenshot. Manu Ginobili beat Wade up the court, which forced Ray Allen to leave Kawhi Leonard open in the corner. San Antonio noticed this and got Leonard a wide-open three. Many more obvious transition buckets occurred in the series, but that one is spotlighted because it shows the ripple effects of just one man getting back a little too slowly.
Bottom line: the Heat's transition defense has to be on point. No ifs, ands or buts.
In half-court situations, the Spurs smartly used the Heat's pressure against them and will do so again this year. They adjusted against the Thunder's similar scheme in the Western Conference Finals by stationing a wing player on the same side of a pick and roll to act as an outlet against particularly devastating traps. A quick pass to the wing got the Thunder's defense moving and opened the delivery to the roll man. The most exquisite possession of the playoffs happened because of this change.
And the Spurs were so good at involving all their players in each play. Miami's defense rotates on a string, which leaves it vulnerable if the third or fourth player in the rotation is in an unusual spot. This was how Danny Green kept getting open last year even though he was shooting the lights out. San Antonio snuck him along the baseline when the rest of the Heat players were watching the ball, and nobody saw him in time. This was also how Kawhi Leonard was able to attack the offensive glass unimpeded.
Miami adjusted by switching a lot of assignments in last year's Finals, with mixed results. Sometimes, these switches were properly executed and San Antonio's offense stagnated. Other times, poor communication led to embarrassing missed assignments. The Heat have to be careful, because switching too often can breed lazy habits. The good news: Mike Miller, who was involved in several of the worst breakdowns, is no longer on the team. Rashard Lewis did a nice job against the Pacers and has more length to cover the court on help rotations.
It'll be interesting to see if Miami dials back the blitzing at any point. The Heat experimented with more traditional pick and roll defense at times this year, with Chris Bosh dropping back to contain the ball instead of trapping. They mixed in these coverages against the Pacers and they often worked well as a change of pace. The Spurs should be more prepared than Indiana, but it's an interesting wrinkle that Erik Spoelstra has in his back pocket.
Still, the Spurs present matchup issues. Tony Parker is dinged up, but he also was last year and was still too good for both Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. The Spurs often let Parker isolate against either player to prevent Miami from trapping last year, and neither Heat point guard could stay in front of him. Cole has been better this postseason and he'll need to keep it up; otherwise, James will be forced to expend lots of energy covering Parker like he did by the end of last year's series. Tim Duncan also has a size advantage on Bosh in the post, and when things get tight, the Spurs will throw it down there. Manu Ginobili should be significantly better than last year, when he couldn't hit a shot outside of Game 5 and was a beat off on his trademark risky passes.
San Antonio's bench is stronger too. It has even more flexibility to spread the floor thanks to Boris Diaw's strong play, and the Marco Belinelli/Patty Mills combination is an upgrade on Gary Neal, even with Neal's strong Finals last year. Diaw is a critical player in this series because of his ability to find open players in the high post, turn quickly to the ball on pick and rolls (this is known as a "short roll") and punish smaller defenders in the post. Look for Diaw to get the starting nod over Tiago Splitter sooner rather than later, if not in Game 1. Popovich can also go super small and play Leonard at power forward like he did in last year's Finals, though he resisted this temptation against the Thunder.
Discipline is the key for the Heat. They must get back in transition. They can't botch off-ball switches. They have to rotate without getting victimized by San Antonio's misdirection. They have to contain Parker and gets arms in passing lanes before the Spurs can whip the ball around.
Otherwise, the Spurs will pick them apart.
The key questions
-Kevin Zimmerman and Conrad Kaczmarek
Is Tony Parker healthy?
Tony Parker's probing of defenses worries opponents. Once he finds a crack, he's slipping to the hoop for a basket or causing rotations and then kicking it out to trigger San Antonio's hot-potato ball movement.
But Parker can't do his jabbing, starts and stops and lateral wiggling around when he's hurt. At some point during Game 4 of the Spurs' six-game series victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Parker injured his ankle. It was actually a flare-up of an ankle sprain suffered in San Antonio's first-round series against Dallas, which itself (Parker believed) caused a hamstring issue. Whatever the case, he averaged just 13.2 points in the conference finals after averaging 19 in the first two playoff rounds.
Parker will start Game 1, but he'll need to feel right enough to at least put together a few strings of dizzying drives for the Spurs to keep up with LeBron James and company.
How can the Spurs stop LeBron?
LeBron James says the Spurs didn't defend him last year in the NBA Finals, but that's semantics. San Antonio went way under screens and laid off the Heat's playmaker, putting him into so many forced open opportunities that it psychologically became a successful defensive scheme.
It resulted in James' hesitant chucking to start the series, but he adjusted. James learned to shoot selectively and figured out how to charge into the open space, stepping into his jumpers with aggression and rhythm.
Will Gregg Popovich attack James with the same shell defense this year? James certainly would be smart to expect it. The defense will keep him out of the paint and Kawhi Leonard out of foul trouble. Leonard is a year older, and his development will be something to watch. But there are other options on the board, including Boris Diaw, who has received more minutes this postseason and could be the sneaky James stopper the Spurs need.
Will Wade and Ginobili be better?
Lost between the yellow tape and Ray Allen's miracle three-pointer in last year's thrilling Game 6 was Manu Ginobili's clunker of a game. In 35 minutes, he scored nine points on 2-for-5 shooting and had eight of San Antonio's 15 turnovers. Ginobili averaged just 11.6 points per game on 43 percent shooting in the series and only hit a quarter of his threes.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade was up and down all series as well, and the Heat were actually better with him on the bench than on the floor.
But both Wade and Ginobili appear to be healthy this time around. With Miami's role players producing less this season and the Spurs needing consistency with Parker's health a concern, the two aging shooting guards will swing success for their respective clubs.
Will Danny Green go off again?
The Spurs had something completely out of the ordinary working in their favor last year: Danny Green's shooting. He set a record for most three-pointers made in a series. He made an average of over five a game in Spurs wins. He hit over 55 percent overall.
But when the Spurs lost Game 6 and Game 7, Green shot just 2-11. The Spurs are a deep team, but they missed Green's shooting in those games. It was a huge key to their success in their threes.
Can Green duplicate that effort? It'd be hard to repeat his record-breaking performance, and the Heat had a whole year to make adjustments. Dwyane Wade will probably guard him a little more closely. Then again, Green is connecting on 48 percent of his threes so far in the postseason, so you never know.
Are Miami's role players good enough?
Yes, the Spurs got an unsustainable level of production from Danny Green last year, but the Heat got a good deal of help from their role players as well. Everyone remembers Ray Allen's three-pointer to give Miami a second life in Game 6, but fewer recall Mike Miller's contributions. LeBron is going to be LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will play well, but who else steps up?
On paper, the supporting cast is worse. Shane Battier and Ray Allen are both a year older and seem to have lost a step. Miller is no longer on the roster. Norris Cole has improved and offers Erik Spoelstra a unique defensive option off the bench, but can he and Mario Chalmers stay consistent? Is Chris Andersen healthy enough after missing time in the Eastern Conference Finals?
This is the Big 3's fourth straight deep playoff run, and each year, they have to do a bit more. Will the rest of the Miami roster be able to give Erik Spoelstra enough to give LeBron and company some support?
Will the three-peat happen?
TOM ZILLER: San Antonio was just plain better over the course of the season. Miami's regular season suffered from Dwyane Wade's consistent rest, but the Spurs also played their best players less than usual. Now that we're in the Finals, everyone will play what's necessary to win. San Antonio's depth is a big advantage, and the Spurs count on supplemental performances from more reliable players (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green) than do the Heat (Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen). Tony Parker's health is the biggest factor. If he's fine, the Spurs exact revenge. Spurs in 7.
PAUL FLANNERY: I don't like picking against the best player on the planet, but I'm going with the Spurs anyway thanks to their better depth and home-court advantage. Tony Parker's health looms large, but otherwise the Spurs are stronger than last season. The 2-2-1-1-1 format makes it likely we'll go the full seven, and the last team to win a Finals' Game 7 in someone else's building was the Washington Bullets in 1978 in Seattle. Spurs in 7.
MIKE PRADA: Last year's Heat won the title despite a gimpy Dwyane Wade and having to play Mike Miller as a de facto power forward. Wade is healthy this year and the Heat finally found a way to maintain their spacing and defensive integrity at the same time when they dusted off Rashard Lewis last round. The Spurs are better than last year, but a healthy Wade and improved defense from the end of the regular season means Miami is better prepared for the matchup. Heat in 6.
RICKY O'DONNELL: If Tim Duncan says it, I'll believe it. After enduring 12 months of torture, I think San Antonio has enough to exorcise its demons from the 2013 Finals. The Spurs are a tribute to the very concept of a team, and they've proved to be a special bunch over the last two seasons. It's time. Spurs in 6.
J.R. WILCO, POUNDING THE ROCK: Last June, these two teams showed just how closely matched they are. Since last year's Finals, the Spurs have improved while the Heat have taken some steps backwards, particularly on defense. They're small steps, but it doesn't take much to separate elite from champion. Factor in a year's worth of brewing over their loss, Kawhi Leonard's development, Boris Diaw's newfound aggression and Miami's role players aging, and it points to a Spurs win. Spurs in 6.
SURYA FERNANDEZ, HOT HOT HOOPS: Miami doesn't want to play in San Antonio for a Game 7. They'll need to earn a split and then defend their home court to be able to accomplish that (as they did against the Pacers) but it's not out of the question for a team playing its best basketball of the season. Heat in 6.
NBA Finals schedule
Game 1 on Thursday, June 5 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CTABC AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Game 2 on Sunday, June 8 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CTABC AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Game 3 on Tuesday, June 10 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CTABC American Airlines Arena, Miami, Fla.
Game 4 on Thursday, June 12 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CTABC American Airlines Arena, Miami, Fla.
Game 5 on Sunday, June 15* 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CTABC AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Game 6 on Tuesday, June 17* 9 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. CTABC American Airlines Arena, Miami, Fla.
Game 7 on Thursday, June 19* 9 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. CTABC AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Editor: Mike Prada | Additional Text: Tom Ziller, Kevin Zimmerman, Conrad Kaczmarek
Video: Matt Ufford, Coach Nick
Developer: Josh Laincz | Designer: Ramla Mahmood
Photos: Getty Images and USA Today