Finals preview: Who has the edge between Heat and Spurs?
The most experienced team in the league takes on its glitziest (and the NBA's best player). Who will be the last ones standing? Sam Gardner breaks it down.
Either LeBron James (left) or Tim Duncan will add to their Finals legacy with this series.
FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP
By Sam Gardner
The last few weeks have made for one of the wackiest NBA playoffs in recent memory, but in the end, a Spurs-Heat Finals is the matchup we all wanted and expected -- regardless of Miami's seeding in the East.
After shimmying past Dallas in the first round, San Antonio dominated its way to a Finals rematch with the Heat, who have faced little in the way of true adversity in these playoffs. But now that they've reached this peak, neither team should expect to see much to exploit in the game plan of the other.
Last year around this time, the Spurs lost to the Heat despite being arguably the better team in this series, but all season long, San Antonio has looked like a well-oiled machine, somehow unimpacted by the effects of time, as the team keeps getting older, but no one seems to be getting worse.
Miami, meanwhile, appears to have perfected the art of being just good enough from November through April before turning it on in the postseason and really raising hell. It's led them to cakewalks over Charlotte, Brooklyn and Indiana, and now the Heat hope their buzzsaw can slice through one more opponent.
Truthfully, this year's NBA Finals seems like the type of series that could be a sweep as easily as it could go seven, if only because both teams can be so dominant when they're on their best behavior. But given how last year's championship played out, don't be surprised to see the latter in another battle for hoops supremacy.
Coaches: This year's NBA Finals features a matchup of the two longest-tenured coaches in the NBA -- a reality that doesn't seem possible but also feels totally appropriate, given the success both Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra have had during their time on the bench with their respective clubs (Popovich since December 1996 and Spoelstra since April 2008).
Much like Popovich really put himself on the map with the Spurs' success during the early part of the Tim Duncan Era, Spoelstra has solidified his status as one of the league's best coaches -- and not just a figurehead on a team full of superstars -- during the Big 3's run of four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Not just anyone could take over a team featuring the contrasting styles of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and meld it into a champion, much less two or three-time champ, as seemingly effortlessly as Spoelstra has, and his lack of bravado about doing so is part of what has earned him so much respect both inside and outside the locker room.
It really wasn't all that long ago that Spo's makeup was being credentialed in the wake of "bumpgate" and a handful of other mini-controversies, but he, like his team, has persevered, and he seemingly has coach-for-life status in Miami -- though the NBA is a cruel league, and that could easily change. The same goes for Popovich, an enigma of a man who has been pushing all of the right buttons for forever.
If you're forcing me to choose, I suppose I'd rather have Pop drawing up a play with a game on the line than Spo, if only because Popovich has been in the head coach's chair for so much longer and, to borrow a phrase, has been around the block a few more times than Spoelstra. But these guys are the two best in the league at what they do, you can't go wrong with either and it's unlikely this series comes down to a mistake by the guy holding the clipboard.
X-Factors: For the two-time defending champion Heat, Chris Bosh will be the man to watch, because while everyone else usually keeps their eyes on the four-time MVP LeBron James, and for good reason, it's often Bosh leaving the biggest mark on a given game -- especially when that game comes against the Spurs. In each of Miami's two games against San Antonio this season, Bosh was the team's leading scorer, and shot a combined 19-of-26 from the floor in the two contests.
Bosh wilted in the spotlight of last year's Finals against San Antonio, particularly as he went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting in Game 7, but he's become a real go-to player for Miami in these playoffs and will be crucial to the Heat's success over the next couple weeks. Bosh scored 70 combined points in Games 4-6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and if he can find his 3-point stroke again in the Finals, San Antonio may not have an answer. Defense, of course, could be a problem, as Bosh isn't a traditional center -- a fact the Spurs will certainly look to exploit down low, but if he can just hold his own, he'll have done his job.
On the Spurs side, Kawhi Leonard is a man who deserves your attention. Leonard will be given the unenviable task of defending LeBron James for most of the Finals after spending the conference finals doing the same to the other most dangerous scorer in the league, and his goal, as it was with Durant, will be to make life challenging on the league's best player. Leonard was inactive (along with Tiago Splitter and Danny Green) for the Spurs' loss to Miami this year, and not surprisingly, LeBron had his way, with an effortless 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting. In the one Spurs win, however, Leonard helped restrict LeBron to a 6-of-18 night from the floor, and if he can duplicate that performance at least a few times this series, the Spurs will have a chance.
In any case, there won't be any stopping LeBron in the NBA Finals, but there will be opportunities to contain him and make him feel uncomfortable, so if Leonard -- whom Popovich says should be the next face of the franchise -- can help on that front with any regularity, there will be few complaints out of the Spurs or their fans. On top of that, any offense the versatile Leonard can add to the fray will be crucial, and if he can put together a couple repeats of Game 6 of the conference semis (22 points, 9-of-15 shooting), it may be the unexpected source of scoring the Spurs will so badly need.
Breakdown: In a way that is vaguely reminiscent of the Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and Thunder, the Spurs and Heat traded routs during the regular season, with each team winning convincingly at home and, in doing so, telling us very little about what it could mean for a Finals rematch.
The Heat shot 58.1 percent and led by as many as 29 points in their January win over San Antonio, with everyone from LeBron to Michael Beasley contributing significantly to the victory, and in March, the Spurs led by as many as 24 in their win, as the San Antonio D held Miami to just 43 percent shooting from the field. Fortunately for fans seeking a watchable Finals, the regular season blowouts should mean next to nothing with a championship on the line, and if it's a cakewalk you're after, you should look elsewhere.
The Heat will be in great position if they can force the Spurs to beat them from the outside, with a hand in their faces. Miami's most exploitable flaw against San Antonio is its lack of size inside, and if Duncan and Splitter are able to have their way with Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen down low, it will force the Heat to devote more attention to the post in the form of double teams, leaving shooters open around the perimeter for the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the league. (And trust me, if there's an open man to be found, the Spurs, masters of ball movement that they are, will find him.)
For the Spurs, they'll be looking to make anyone other than LeBron beat them -- daring the Heat to bank on a secondary star to carry them to the promised land for the third straight season. Miami, of course, has shown in the past that it can win even when LeBron isn't at his best, but they'd probably rather he just keep steamrolling opponents like the runaway locomotive he's been all playoffs long, lest they end up seeing another showing like Game 3 of last year's Finals, instead.
It's tough, of course, to quantify exactly what desperation means to a team in the NBA Finals, but the Spurs will also enter this year's championship series knowing that it may be their last before the band breaks up. And between that and a mind set on revenge after coming within one missed Ray Allen 3-pointer of a title in 2013, San Antonio may prove hungrier than the Heat -- if ever so slightly. It wouldn't surprise a soul if Miami adds another championship banner to its collection over the next couple of weeks, but it's tough to argue with San Antonio's play of late, and in this instance, I'll give a slight edge to experience and home-court advantage.