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Sam Smith previews the NBA Finals
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By Sam Smith | 06.05.2014 | 8:45 a.m. CT
The NBA is the league of dynasties. In the 1960’s, it was the Boston Celtics; there was none in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s it was the Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers; in the 1990’s, it was the Bulls. And in the last decade it’s been the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, who have been the teams of the 21st century.
Ok, along with the early 2000's Lakers. But the Spurs and Heat are now. They have combined for six titles in the last 11 seasons, making them the elite teams of the new millennium. And they’ll add yet another title in the next two weeks as the Spurs and Heat open the NBA Finals Thursday (8:00 p.m. CT | ABC) and will make it a combined seven championships in the last 12 years.
For this era, and just about any other, that’s dominance.
It’s not quite as celebrated as it was previously.
No team ever has been quite as supreme as Bill Russell’s Celtics, who won 11 titles between 1957 and 1969. In the 1970’s, the Knicks and Celtics each won a pair of championships, but no true rivalries emerged like it did in the 1980’s with the Celtics and Lakers splitting eight titles between 1980 and 1988. Then it was Michael Jordan’s Bulls with six titles in eight years in the 1990’s.
There are not supposed to be dynasties and rivalries any longer. But this Finals is the first back to back since the Bulls and Jazz in 1997 and 1998. And even though the Spurs and Heat have not met previously in the Finals, they have emerged as the predominant teams in their conference for the last decade.
It’s with grudging respect for the Spurs, often accused of being uninteresting. Though that’s more a product of their laconic star, Tim Duncan, who has been something of an efficient machine under coach Gregg Popovich with five Finals appearances and four wins since 1999. The Heat have been the stars of every Finals they’ve been in with LeBron James, now their fourth consecutive and the first time a team has done that since Boston from 1984 through 1987. Only those 1960’s Celtics previously had accomplished that. Though the 1960’s Lakers were in eight Finals in 11 years into the early 1970’s, losing all but one.
Are the Spurs a dynasty? They have never won consecutive titles.
Is the Heat a dynasty? This would be three straight if they win, though the Bulls weren’t a dynasty until they won three straight twice.
But this is as close to basketball royalty as the NBA has to offer anymore, the stubborn Spurs and the smokin’ Heat. The irony is the supposedly dull Spurs play at a much more wide open, faster pace with higher scoring than Miami. But the Heat has the ultimate star of the game, LeBron James, who is the elite player of the era and the biggest star.
It makes this series a tough one to call.
The conventional wisdom is you cannot beat the No. 1 star of the game four times in two weeks. No one ever could against the Bulls with Jordan, and there seem some similarities to the Bulls and Jazz series when Utah got close in 1997, only to be turned away by the illness-ravaged Jordan in his memorable food poisoning/flu game and then again in 1998 with Jordan’s farewell shot in Salt Lake City to avoid a Game 7.
Of course, that wasn’t the situation in the 1980’s as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson traded series losses almost every other year.
It just takes someone better, and the Spurs have their stars, if aging a bit, in Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, though the latter is coming off an ankle sprain in the conference finals. That complicates things as Parker was the Finals’ MVP the last time the Spurs won a title. Both James and Dwyane Wade have been Finals MVPs for Miami.
Miami comes in off the easier road in the Eastern Conference with a 12-3 record. The Spurs with a seven-game first round are 12-6. But the Spurs are the far deeper team with a roster that employed 12 even in the playoffs. And we may see that again with two coaches in the Spurs’ Popovich and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra who both have used multiple lineups and starters all season and during the playoffs.
In fact, the conference finals concluded with the Spurs’ Matt Bonner and the Heat’s Rashard Lewis getting their first starts of the playoffs. During the regular season as the Spurs regularly rested their top players and the Heat did likewise with Wade, the Spurs used 31 different lineups and Miami used 21, the latter with 14 different starters.
The series also will lend itself to multiple adjustment and matchup changes as the teams will both work to impose their styles on the other.
The Spurs have a size advantage as their main starting lineup this season included Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. But the Spurs ended up downsizing with Bonner and Boris Diaw to open the court and bring the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka away from the basket to inhibit Oklahoma City’s defense.
The Spurs, though, prefer to use their two big men. But the Heat play small, emphasizing perimeter shooting with Chris Bosh starting at center, though he mostly shoots three pointers and brings the opposing big man away from the basket. That could change the Spurs thinking and have them back to a smaller lineup again, but this time to defend the perimeter better rather than, like against the Thunder, when they went small on offense.
In last season’s Finals, the Spurs started with the Duncan/Splitter front line duo along with their regulars Parker, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The Heat went with Bosh and Udonis Haslem along with their regulars of James, Wade and Mario Chalmers. But after a bad loss and going down 2-1, the Heat switched to start Mike Miller for Haslem. The Spurs stayed with Splitter and lost Game 4. The Spurs then moved Ginobili into the starting lineup and both teams remained smaller through the seventh game, which went to Miami after the Spurs were that infamous five seconds away from a win in Game 6.
So perhaps the question becomes who blinks first and goes small, though the Heat opened Game 1 against the taller Pacers in the conference finals with Shane Battier at power forward. After losing Game 1, Miami changed to Haslem and finished the series going back with a shooter in Lewis. Which could make this the most unconventional matchup series with each coach experienced in numerous changes. It’s also a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the first time since 1984 when the Celtics and Lakers were going coast to coast and the league decided on a 2-3-2 Finals format. Now it’s back to the same for all post season rounds. The Spurs have the extra home game if it goes seven by finishing 62-20 in the much tougher Western Conference compared to 54-28 for Miami, which made them No. 2 seed in the East. The Spurs had the league’s best record. But did Miami just cruise knowing the strain of going for a third consecutive title and the lack of serious competition in the East?
Can the Spurs exorcise the demons of perhaps the most excruciating loss in Finals history and make their claim with their fifth title since 1999? Can the Heat win three straight joining only the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers? Can anyone figure out who’ll be starting?
Point Guard: Tony Parker vs Mario Chalmers
This has been the big question mark coming in, though Popovich said Parker will start. Parker sat out the second half of the clinching game against the Thunder, which was impressive enough for the Spurs in winning despite that. The Spurs have adequate backups, but Parker has been, when healthy, their best player the last few seasons and crucial to breaking down defenses with his drive and mid range game. Chalmers is the Heat guy who gets yelled at if Wade doesn’t get back on defense. He’ll make some threes and throw balls away with his hustle.
Shooting Guard: Danny Green vs Dwyane Wade
The story of the Heat’s demise was to have been the decline of Wade. But Wade is averaging 18.7 points and shooting 39 percent on threes, of all things, for a generally poor three-point shooter. Wade isn’t as explosive as he was, but he’s been able to work in and get position for his mid range shots. Green was a revelation early in last year’s Finals with his three-point shooting, though he cooled later in the series and made perhaps the blunder of Game 6. Most point to Popovich taking out Duncan and Bosh getting key late rebounds. But Green leaked out when the Spurs didn’t need any more points, leaving James open for that late crucial three.
Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard vs LeBron James
It’s the highlight matchup, which basically is anywhere James goes. Leonard is an excellent defender who can stay with James and limit the necessity to double team. James hasn’t gone into the post much, anyway, and the question is whether you can beat the Spurs defense playing from on top as much. Leonard will try to make James work on defense as much as possible to try to tire him and hope Ed Malloy is there to get James in foul trouble as he was in Game 5 in Indianapolis. James is playing at a very high level and sees the finish line after the long season and appears highly motivated. Can you beat a great player four times when he is like that? No one ever could with Michael Jordan.
Power Forward: Mr. X vs Mr. Y
Really, I have no idea. No one does. I assume the Spurs start Splitter, who generally has been their center with Duncan a titular power forward, though the positions are interchangeable depending on matchups. After all, Bosh is the center and plays the farthest from the basket of all the Heat players. What the heck has happened to basketball? Though Bonner started late in the Thunder series, I wouldn’t expect to see him for defensive reasons. The Spurs will use Diaw, but they prefer to bring him off the bench. Thus starters will matter less in this series with starters at some positions just being auditioned. Battier about to retire has regressed. The Heat appeared to find Lewis after all season to fill that Mike Miller role, though they could go with Haslem figuring the Spurs go with Splitter. But then if they think the Spurs will go with the low scoring Splitter, they may just start with perimeter shooting to open the court immediately. Similarly, they like to bring Chris Andersen off the bench. The guess is they start Lewis.
Edge: Mr. ?
Center: Chris Bosh vs Tim Duncan
Duncan generally breaks out in hives if you call him a center. And as stated if you are by the basket you generally can’t hear Bosh unless he’s screaming. The edge for just about everyone against Miami is rebounding. You have to beat them by at least 10. If they stay close in rebounding they’ll beat you with accurate shooting and fast breaks from turnovers. And with Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs will commit turnovers. Duncan continues to amaze with his efficient play, but he won’t chase Bosh. And neither will Splitter. Then who?
The Spurs reserves are quasi starters with as much as they have this season among Diaw, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Bonner, Ginobili and Marco Belinelli. While Wade is the unexpected, in a sense for Miami, it’s Ginobili for the Spurs. He looked done last season, but has been a star in the playoffs. Miami still has Ray Allen hitting big shots and Norris Cole timely shots. Plus Andersen can be distracting with all those tattoos.
Coaching: Gregg Popovich vs Erik Spoelstra
Popovich is becoming a perennial coach of the year and star of the end of quarter interviews. It’s tough to compete against him, though Spoelstra has shown a willingness to take chances and make changes. But he still revolves mostly around LeBron.
Pick: Spurs in 7