MIAMI -- The NBA Finals won't be decided by a coin flip or rock-paper-scissors, but Spurs vs. Heat could very well require the basketball version. It's that close between two teams with a handful of players capable of being a hero.
Game 1 was in doubt until LeBron James developed muscle cramps and sat the remaining four minutes, which likely was the difference in a deceiving 15-point Spurs win. Game 2 saw plenty of back-and-forth until the very end, when the Heat grabbed the lead while the Spurs grabbed their own throats.
If this is how the next championship will be won, then who are the most qualified to bail their team out in the moment of truth? To determine that, entering Tuesday night's Game 3 we asked a veteran assistant coach to assess the most important players in the Finals and weigh their clutch ability, based on years of observation and scouting.
He was refreshingly honest in exchange for anonymity, and here's his report:
Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs forward is the latest to grow up in the organization and be groomed by Gregg Popovich. Leonard had a semi-breakout performance last season, and his defense on LeBron James drew raves in the 2013 Finals. Athletic and aggressive, Leonard has his hands full this time and is averaging only nine points while battling foul trouble through two games.
Coach's Take: "He's a well-rounded offensive player who can create his own shot, but of all the players in the rotation, the Spurs tend to rely on him the least in big moments. I'm not sure if that's because of a lack of confidence in him. Maybe it's just they have more proven weapons. Whatever the reasons, Miami shouldn't be too concerned with him when San Antonio needs a big shot. He probably won't see the ball. And for some reason, he's having an atrocious series so far. He's too consumed with guarding LeBron, and rightly so. But he seems totally lost on offense right now, just caught in a fog."
Tony Parker. The Finals MVP in 2007, which was the last time the Spurs won a title, Parker once again has established himself among the point guard elite. His postseason was temporarily derailed by an ankle injury, which hasn't slowed him in this series.
Coach's Take: "More often than not, the ball's in his hands, so Parker gets to decide whether it belongs to him or someone else. What really makes him dangerous is his mid-range game. He could be the best shooter from 15-20 feet in the league, certainly in this series. He can pull up for a jumper or get into the lane and hit a floater. And he's not shy about taking the three. Guys like Parker, in that situation, are really tough to guard because they're dangerous all over the floor. Sam Cassell was a lot like that, and he made big shots for the Rockets when they were in the Finals. The only knock against Parker is sometimes, in this situation, he can take too many risks. He plays out of control and makes mistakes. We've seen that in both games so far. In Game 1 he had turnovers and the Spurs were lucky that LeBron couldn't play the last few minutes. In Game 2 he missed those two costly free throws, and that killed San Antonio's chances. For all of the obvious things he can do for you, Parker can also break your heart. It doesn't happen much, but it's possible."
Tim Duncan. He's a two-time MVP, 10-time All-NBA choice and three-time Finals MVP who refuses to act his age. Now 38, Duncan appears just as fresh and motivated to capture a fifth championship before the sun sets on his brilliant career. After being kept on a minutes leash by Popovich during the season, Duncan is properly prepared to become a headache for Miami, much like he was last June.
Coach's Take: "Look, he's the greatest power forward of his generation, if not all time. He's so disciplined, very functional, amazingly competitive and wants the ball in any situation. Tim will spend the season allowing his teammates to bail out the Spurs, but when the playoffs roll around, he takes it upon himself to be the most dangerous player on the floor. Remember when Derek Fisher hit that shot for the Lakers with a fraction of a second left on the clock to beat the Spurs in the playoffs several years ago? Well, how many people know how Duncan took an inbounds pass and made a jumper off his wrong foot right before Fisher's shot? I think Shaq said, 'One lucky shot deserves another,' or something like that. Anyway, the one problem I have with Duncan is you don't want him at the free-throw line in those situations. And that's the risk you take when you ask him to win a game. When he gets fouled, you've got to hold your breath. He's just not very good, maybe average at best, and the Spurs found out once again when he missed those free throws down the stretch in Game 2. He and Parker cost them the game at the line."
Manu Ginobili. Maybe the greatest sixth man of all time, Ginobili gets the most of his minutes. Other than Popovich, Parker and Duncan, no one has meant more to the Spurs over the last dozen years. While Ginobili averaged only 22.8 minutes during the season and 25.2 in the postseason, he's on the floor when it counts.
Coach's Take: "This is going to sound very weird, and a lot of people won't agree with me, but if I'm the Spurs, I'd rather have the ball in Manu's hands than anyone else's. He's their best clutch player. That doesn't mean he's always going to come through. That doesn't mean he'll make the right decision every time. That doesn't mean he'll play under control. In fact, he was awful for most of last year's Finals. But he's fearless, and that's what you want from a clutch player. He doesn't worry about failing and missing a shot and what the media or fans might say. He just goes for it. The defense is nervous about Manu because he has a tricky dribble, he'll charge hard for the basket to try to draw contact, and he'll take the three-pointer. Most of the time, he's going to keep the ball himself rather than look for someone else. He's a better three-point shooter than Parker and better at the free-throw line than Duncan, and that's why I give him the slight edge over those two. He's got guts."
Chris Bosh. After being a franchise player in his own right in Toronto, Bosh is the third wheel in the Miami equation, though sometimes he'll serve as shotgun rider to LeBron. For example: Against the Pacers in the East finals, he finished with a pair of 25-point games and a 20-pointer. He's a stretch power forward who feels more comfortable away from the rim.
Coach's Take: "There's so much about Bosh's game that doesn't get much credit, and this is one of them. You want to know why LeBron is always looking for Bosh? Because he trusts him, that's why. When the greatest player on Earth is looking for you, that counts for a lot. Bosh is too skittish around the basket to post-up on an important possession. Instead, Bosh will just drift out by the three-point line while LeBron attacks the rim, and when the double team comes, Bosh is all alone. He scares me more than Dwyane Wade and almost as much as Ray Allen."
Ray Allen. He brings 17 years of experience and too many important three-pointers to count (well, 2,973). Allen turns 39 next month and still is better conditioned than players 10 years younger.
Coach's Take: "The guy's been doing it for so long that it's almost habit for him. There's a reason why Ray arrives at the game before anyone else. He shoots for an hour or more because he knows, at some point, the ball will find him in a big spot. He keeps his body sharp and his muscle memory sharper. If you added up all of his pregame hours over the course of his career, weren't they worth it when he hit the Game 6 shot last year? Of course. Ray stays prepared, and even though he's almost 39, the defense is absolutely terrified of him outside the three-point line. You can leave anyone else open. Not him. Now, he's not as precise as he was years ago. He needs to be in rhythm. He's a catch-and-shoot guy. If Ray needs to do a pump-fake, which you rarely see from him, or if the defense forces him to move slightly to his left or right or makes him put the ball on the floor, it throws him off a bit. That's what made his Game 6 shot so great. Ray had to take a step backward, then let it fly. He really wasn't in rhythm."
Dwyane Wade. Now a historic fixture in the South Florida sports scene, Wade is trying to extend his career through the normal challenges that come with middle age and health. He's averaging nearly 18 points during the playoffs and hasn't missed a game due to injury, both positive signs for a Heat team looking to three-peat.
Coach's Take: "It's great to see him move around the floor again, and he's almost back to where he was a few years ago. Obviously, he's not the Wade of 10 years ago. When Miami won the title with him and Shaq, Wade was as clutch as it gets. He took over in that series, and even though he got the benefit of a few calls, Wade forced the issue by being so aggressive. He's still a challenge but doesn't concern me as much as the other guys on Miami. He's not going to beat you from the three-point line like Bosh or Ray. He's not going to have the ball; LeBron will. So in that situation, Wade is kind of a bystander. He probably could decide games for Miami but they don't really draw up plays for him. LeBron will isolate and then pass to a shooter. That's their game plan, and Wade, for the most part, is written out of it."
LeBron James. A four-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP and widely considered one of the top five or 10 to ever play, James is trying to collect as many titles as possible to become a true legend. Rarely does a tight Heat game get decided, one way or another, by someone else in uniform.
Coach's Take: "He's not Jerry West, not Michael Jordan, not even Robert Horry. That said, in some ways, he's just as dangerous when it comes to winning games because he can hurt you in more ways than one. He'll size you up by the three-point line or take you off the dribble with either hand. He's comfortable either way. A lot of people don't like when he defers to others but when he does, it just makes so much sense. It's the right basketball play to find the open man. Why should LeBron try to plow through three defenders to the rim? In that situation he can get whistled for the offensive foul or miss the shot. Sure, he can also make the shot or get fouled, but LeBron plays the percentages, and anyway, he's wired differently than Kobe or Jordan. He's a total team player and can't all of a sudden change his personality even with a minute left. I get it."