By Michael Pina
Heading into this season, everyone who cared to see NBA basketball played at its highest level craved another clash between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Last year's championship wasn't just a series, it was uncut, entertaining joy, filled with clutch shots (remember Tony Parker's tear drop in Game 1?) and hundreds of other memorable moments and fascinating coaching adjustments that helped foster a serendipitous and depressing outcome.
In the Big Book of NBA History, not every Finals is worthy of an entire chapter, but that series deserved its own novella -- the first 20 pages or so consisting of heart-wrenching "What if?" questions that will tragically go unresolved forever. (My two favorites: "What if Parker didn't hurt his hamstring?" and "What if LeBron James' headband never came off?") Now, by the grace of the Basketball Gods, we get to watch it all unfold again, with higher stakes, juicier subplots and even greater historical relevance.
In one corner sits the eternally parch-less Spurs. They have the greatest trio in NBA history and perhaps its best coach, too. (Father time is undefeated, but right now the Spurs have him on the ropes in Round 11.) In the other corner: the Heat, a modern dynasty that bestows us with a virtuous player who'll one day be remembered by many as the most complete basketball player who ever lived.
Nearly a year has passed since those two battled in an epic Game 7. But from a personnel standpoint, the Spurs are essentially the same team then as they are now: Patty Mills replaced Gary Neal and they added Marco Belinelli. The Heat amnestied Mike Miller but have yet to feel any detrimental effects from his absence (shout out to Shard Lewis). They also added Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, but neither has done anything of value.
Both teams are confident enough to plug in a COMPLETELY unknown commodity (hello, Aron Baynes) without skipping a beat. Both teams are a year older, a year wiser and have thoughts from last June etched in their memory that will live (or itch) for the rest of their lives.
So, how will this year's title bout turn out? Here are five questions that deal with on-court issues, sideline strategies and personal predictions that won't fully be answered until the series is over -- after one organization is crowned, and the other is doomed to spend its summer picking up the pieces of a sorely missed opportunity. Here we go.
1. How often should LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard guard each other?
Basic logic says James and Leonard will spend quite a bit of time preventing the other from being comfortable on offense. But to assume they'll lock horns on each and every possession is premature; the match-up might be too grueling.
No offense to Kawhi, but pondering aloud whether James can guard him is a bit insulting, no? Maybe? The world's greatest player slid all the way down to the NBA's All-Defensive Second team this year (huge slacker), but still possesses tremendous instincts and the response time of a man who slaps his thigh before a mosquito even lands. He's a panther on the ball, and still represents who you'd most want guarding the other team's best player with five seconds left in a tie game.
But Leonard is shaped from the archetype LeBron perfected. A freakishly athletic hell spawn who, once or twice every game, figuratively and literally rises above the fray to pull off a move nobody else on the floor could half-finish in an empty gym. (Also: huge hands.)
No other Spur creates such an exhausting, all-encompassing challenge. Leonard is a brute in the post (top-10 in efficiency for both isolation plays and post-ups, per Synergy Sports), and shouldn't be left alone in the corner. Nobody else on San Antonio, save Parker, needs to be defended intently for the duration of a possession like Leonard. He'll force James to crash the glass every single time a shot goes up. Needless to say, it's a taxing experience.
This sounds crazy, but given his relative poor play on that end in these playoffs, James could find himself at Popovich's mercy. The Spurs will unleash Leonard and do their best to either put LeBron in foul trouble or physically wear him down with myriad forms of attack. As the series drags on, James' energy might be more valuable somewhere else. He spent meaningful portions of the Eastern Conference Finals on George Hill, which allowed him to rest, roam and stay out of foul trouble. Maybe we see the same thing here.
Conversely, should Kawhi spend almost every minute he's on the floor hounding James, or are his services better utilized doing other stuff, like, for example, completely shutting down Dwyane Wade? This strategy goes back to the Conference Finals, when the Indiana Pacers moved Paul George from James to Wade midway through the series, figuring the wiser decision might be to eliminate Miami's second option instead of putting a few speed bumps in front of its first. (Wade's scoring average in the first three games of that series was 24.3, and in the latter three it fell to 15.3. That includes a Game 6 blowout where he was only needed for 25 minutes.)
Leonard showed his versatility along the way as well, moving off Kevin Durant to sink his fangs into Russell Westbrook when San Antonio desperately needed some way to slow down Oklahoma City's rambunctious point guard in the Western Conference Finals. Wade's athleticism and offensive effectiveness are nowhere close to Westbrook's, and Leonard could legitimately swipe Miami's starting off guard off the board if Popovich thinks another Spur can handle guarding James one-on-one (obviously a hitch in this plan). But if so, Miami could be better off replacing a bulk of Wade's minutes with a three-point shooting threat (more on this later).
(Quick note: When Leonard defends Wade, the normally problematic LeBron/Wade pick-and-roll is hardly a problem for San Antonio because the Spurs can just switch, with Leonard going back onto James and Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw or whoever sliding onto Wade.)
Leonard is raw meat to LeBron's hanger steak. He can't make plays off the dribble or single-handedly lift a teammate's value simply driving toward the basket. But somatically the two are near equals, and how they do battle against one another will be one of the most fascinating subplots in a series overflowing with them.
2. What if Tony Parker's ankle limits his playing time?
Parker was damaged goods for the latter stages of last year's Finals with a dinged up hamstring. He nearly missed Game 4, and for important stretches played like a shell of himself. Parker is obviously an important piece regardless, but the Spurs had no real backup point guard, and it limited their options on both ends of the floor. Things are different this year thanks to Patty Mills, the Australian who by rough estimation has only missed three or four open three-pointers all season. Whether it be hounding Mario Chalmers 90 feet from the basket or pulling up half a dozen times from 30-feet out, Mills will need to make his presence felt in an increased role.
Interestingly enough, for about the final four minutes of their Game 6 victory over the Thunder, the Spurs used a lineup that played precisely zero minutes together during the entire regular season: Diaw, Duncan, Green, Ginobili and Leonard. With Parker out, this group stepped up in a major way, with Ginobili serving as the lead ball-handler and primary decision maker. The best sixth man of his generation has arguably been San Antonio's most lethal weapon throughout this playoff run, but he was a train wreck against Miami last year, making brutal decisions on the pick-and-roll, throwing the ball at closed windows and fueling the Heat's lethal transition attack.
It's highly unlikely Ginobili melts again in the same way, but who knows? If Parker can't play, or isn't capable of handling his normal offensive load, Ginobili will be next in line to fill those shoes. Facing a Miami team that has very little rim protection, he should be just as aggressive as he was last year.
3. Does Boris Diaw start Game 1?
This question can be phrased in several different ways. "Will Gregg Popovich completely abandon his traditional starting lineup?" and "Does Tiago Splitter log less than 40 minutes in the entire series?" both work, but Diaw's name is in bold because, frankly, he deserves the attention. For San Antonio during the Conference Finals, only Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker averaged more assists, only Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard averaged more rebounds and only Duncan and Ginobili averaged more points.
Diaw was a monster (of the non-cookie variety), spacing the floor (42.1 percent from deep on 3.2 attempts per game), attacking the rim and making Kevin Durant look like Tyronn Lue in the post. Speaking of, Diaw is accounting for exactly one fourth of all San Antonio's post-ups in these playoffs, per Synergy Sports, and performing admirably when down there. His 1.07 points per possession are obviously nice, but being the tremendous passer that he is, what's more important is how Diaw forces the opposition to either play him straight up or risk an open three off a kickout.
He's a menace, and also defended LeBron a bit during last year's Finals. Popovich would be wise to use him in as many different roles as possible, possibly even at center whenever Duncan needs to rest, or beside Splitter in spots that allow San Antonio to go big.
4. How will Miami defend the pick-and-roll?
This is the Finals, where hyper aggressive activity can be deployed with almost no fear for how it'll tire out Miami's aging role players. For some guys (Shane Battier) there's literally no more basketball after this.
Last season, the Heat threw several different looks at San Antonio's relentless pick-and-roll attack. Mike Miller and Battier either showed or hedged each time their man was the screener, while Bosh did that and then some, trapping ball-handlers toward the sideline. But Miami also sagged back in containment. (This was Chris Andersen's specialty.) They did so many different things because they could afford to. No defense last season was better defending the pick-and-roll, be it against a roll man or ball-handler trying to score, per Synergy Sports.
Miami is older now, but it'll be interesting to see whether they dial up the energy (especially when they go small) or concede mid-range jumpers by having the screener's man stay put at the point of attack or even sagging back toward the free-throw line (not likely). Parker's ankle could dictate the bulk of what Miami looks to do here, but San Antonio will run a ton of pick-and-rolls regardless.
5. Is Dwyane Wade a liability?
Wade has looked like his former "Flash" self throughout this year's playoff run, and whispers of his unmitigated demise have been a bit premature. Over the past couple of months, he's been consistent and unstoppable. His scoring average, free-throw rate and field goal percentage have all seen a bump from last year's playoffs, and he's even knocked down a few threes, solidifying his stature as one of the game's all-time greatest trolls.
Now, let's go back in time for a quick second: In last year's Finals, the Heat outscored the Spurs by 30.6 points (!!!) per 100 possessions with Wade on the bench. When he played, Miami's offense dropped far below the league average level of efficiency, and its defense allowed as many points per possession as the Los Angeles Lakers did during the 2013-14 regular season.
What if history repeats itself and Wade reverts back to doing more harm than good, restricting LeBron of all the space he blossoms in? As good as Wade was against the Charlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers, the Heat were still far better offensively with him on the sideline, averaging 119.6 points per 100 possessions (highest on the team) in a 199-minute sample size. That isn't the same as saying they'd be better if Wade's elbow broke in half, but if mid-range jumpers aren't falling and San Antonio is able to clog James' driving lanes, Erik Spoelstra may have to seriously consider placing one of his best players on the periphery.
Nobody's entire legacy should swing on the outcome of one seven-game series, and this specific showdown is filled with great players and coaches who've already done more than enough to have their names echoed in conversation long after they're no longer with us. But the fact is, whatever happens in this series can't and won't be ignored. Will LeBron win three in a row? Will Duncan win his fifth? Will Miami enter next season looking to four-peat (wow)? Will San Antonio have an opportunity to finally win two in a row?
Sports breed hyperbole and sensationalism. But these Finals are void of any such thing; this is a truly epic rematch, deserving of all the praise and hype it's receiving. Not only is Spurs-Heat Part II a virtual lock to hold historical relevance for the next 75-100 years, but the actual on-court action on display has the potential to serve as the sport's very pinnacle of offensive and defensive execution. This is where the game's evolution has taken us. Enjoy it.
Prediction: Heat in 7