If you believe Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs really wanted a rematch in this year’s NBA finals. The Miami Heat? I’m not so sure this was the rival they were dreaming of, because of history and simply because the other option, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are a much better matchup for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to handle.
When trying to dive into the number and dissecting what’s going to happen in this series, try to forget about the regular season. Nothing that happened there between the teams actually matters. The Heat lost to the Nets four times in the regular season and needed five games to beat them in the Eastern semifinals. The Spurs lost four times to the Thunder in the regular season and needed six games to beat them in the Western conference finals.
There’s also some myth busting to do. Some love to say the Spurs were able to hold off LeBron James in last year’s finals. That’s true, but only when looking at the first three games, with the Spurs winning two of them. James, having to go through Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter on his way to the basket, and also getting Boris Diaw on him for some minutes, found it hard early on. He averaged only 16.7 points while shooting 38.9% from the field in those three games.
The rest of the series? The Heat won three of the final four games, as James rose to a different level. He averaged 31.8 points in those games, shooting 47.9% from the field. Not exactly Mr. efficiency, but it’s a completely different game with James playing like an MVP (he also had two triple doubles in the series), than him acting like one of the guys.
Against the Thunder, the Spurs’ key was finding a way through the Oklahoma City defense. It means less opportunities on the open court for Westbrook and Durant. Against the Heat, the key might be defense. The Heat don’t clog the paint like the Thunder do, but they do love chasing shooters around and often handle that by trapping early to create turnovers. It’s a risky tactic, but it worked in the playoffs as their defense played in a completely different level compared to what we saw from them in the regular season.
Playoffs are about adjustments. The Heat started giving Rashard Lewis big minutes and they won the series against the Pacers by finally finding someone to hold off David West and give them another player to stretch the floor. Popovich gave up on Tiago Splitter and started with Matt Bonner while Boris Diaw got more time on the floor to win the last two games of the series.
The Heat forced the Spurs to get rid of Splitter in last year’s finals, and there’s a chance Popovich is more prepared for that now, although Diaw isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere. Kawhi Leonard is a much better offensive player than he was last season, and is extremely dangerous on the open floor. The Heat need to avoid turning the ball over, especially when Leonard is involved.
As always, there are so many moving parts to consider – the Spurs might be the deepest team in the league, but they always struggle against Chris Bosh, who had some big games in the second half of the series against the Pacers. Norris Cole has been fantastic in the postseason, and Ray Allen… well, he still appears in nightmares for some Spurs players and their head coach. The one who makes the better adjustments during the series has the advantage. Popovich might be the better, more experienced coach, but Spoelstra has proved again and again he is much more than just a video interim who happened to turn into a head coach.