The San Antonio Spurs travel to play the Miami Heat on Thursday in one of the most hyped games of the 2012-13 NBA season. These two franchises have both started their campaigns strong, beating quality opponents and looking every bit like the contenders so many fans expected them to be.
The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, have parlayed a strong all-around game into several wins over quality opponents while the Heat's high-octane offense has helped them reach the Eastern Conference's top spot in the year's early goings.
While it is still incredibly early in the season to be predicting Finals matchups, these two teams are as good a bet as any to be squaring off with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line come the summer months.
Both of these teams have the talent and experience necessary to win their respective conferences and earn the right to duke it out for the most coveted trophy in all of basketball.
Without further ado, here are six reasons basketball fans should expect to see the Spurs and Heat playing in June with a banner on the line.
The resurgence of Tim Duncan has been one of the more surprising storylines of the 2012-13 NBA season. The perennial All-Star big man appeared to no longer be one of the league’s elite power forwards, but has averaged 18.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 blocks per game on 52.4 percent shooting from the field.
As the Spurs have transitioned from a defensive, grind-it-out style to a free-wheeling, fast-paced team, Duncan’s role has been marginalized in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs, but this year Gregg Popovich has been looking to him offensively early and often.
Though it is still early in the season, Duncan has been shooting better than he has in any season since 2006-07. In addition, his 14.1 shot attempts are his highest since the 2008-09 season, and he is looking quick and healthy while he is out on the floor.
San Antonio has the depth and talent to win with Duncan playing subpar basketball, but when he is locked in, as he has been in 2012-13, the team is practically unbeatable.
Duncan is the anchor of a strong San Antonio frontcourt that boasts versatile talent in Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter and has the ability to wear down practically any team in the league on the inside.
He has truly been playing like the Duncan of old, scoring with his back to the basket, hitting his mid-range jumpers and rebounding and passing as well as any big man in the league. He has also been a menace defensively, using his veteran savvy to block shots and guard the post extremely effectively.
Obviously, San Antonio will look to get Duncan some rest at the end of the season and there is always the possibility he cannot sustain this high level of play, but through 15 games Duncan has been an absolute revelation.
These Spurs would be a top four team in the Western Conference without Duncan, but with him playing this well they should be considered a Finals favorite.
The Miami Heat are among the league’s leaders in team field-goal percentage at 49.4 percent from the floor and a staggering 43.2 percent from three-point territory, making them one of the most efficient teams in recent NBA memory.
The team may not have a traditional point guard or center, but they move the ball brilliantly and boast several extremely talented passers that can make plays for themselves and their teammates. Led by LeBron James’s 6.5 dimes per game, the team’s offense seems to always be crisp and they rarely struggle with offensive stagnation.
Miami has the highest scoring offense in the NBA at 104.8 points per game and with their ability to penetrate the lane and either attack the basket or make kick-out passes they truly have a “pick your poison” offense where teams cannot completely shut them down.
The NBA has become a perimeter-oriented league where teams live and die by their outside shooting, and with the acquisitions of Allen and Rashard Lewis they bolstered their three-point shooting and can space the floor as effectively as any squad.
No team in the league today can pour in points like the Heat, who are capable of going on a huge run at any given moment thanks to their ability to run off of turnovers and get out in the open court for easy, uncontested shots at the rim.
In the playoffs, points can come at a premium—particularly against elite defenses—and the Heat’s ability to capitalize on their offensive possessions is critical. With their ability to score consistently and in a myriad of ways, there is no team in the Eastern Conference that can keep pace with Miami’s high-octane offense.
Just like it happens every year, the NBA season has begun with everyone either not talking about the Spurs or talking about how no one is talking about the Spurs. San Antonio boasts a 12-3 record through 15 games, second in the Western Conference behind the Memphis Grizzlies, but they are still flying well under the radar.
Most fans and pundits are talking about the Grizzlies’ and New York Knicks’ tremendous starts to the season, the struggles of the L.A. Lakers and Indiana Pacers or at the very least the adjustment of the Oklahoma City Thunder to life without James Harden.
One thing they are not discussing is the Spurs’ all-around excellence and elite depth. They are currently fourth in the league with a +6.6 point differential, have a top five offense that scores 102.1 points per game and shoot an impressive 47.8 percent from the field.
Their defense, though not airtight as it was during their past title runs, is still very sound and they have the depth to run their opponents absolutely ragged if they push the pace.
Perhaps because they are not in a major media market the Spurs tend to be overlooked by the national media, but that fits their low-key style. Never do they have to face media scrutiny for every mistake they make, instead they can focus on building a cohesive squad and methodically mowing down their competition.
Though San Antonio has plenty of big-name talent, they manage to never get wrapped up in ego issues. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are all more than willing to sacrifice for the good of the team and they have established a culture where even the most marginal role players buys fully into the team system.
It is difficult for a team to live up to its full potential when the sports media is dissecting their every move, but San Antonio, thanks to a brilliant front office, has rarely been tabloid fodder and has always been able to quietly go about their business season after season.
Despite the continued stellar play of Kevin Durant and Chris Paul and the unexpected emergence of James Harden, LeBron James is still viewed almost unilaterally as the league’s best player. Coming off his third MVP award, his first Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal, fans expected James to enter the 2012-13 season with plenty of momentum, and he has yet to disappoint.
Through 13 games, the versatile forward has averaged 25.2 points, 8.8 boards, 6.5 assists and one block per game while shooting a blistering 53.1 percent from the floor and a phenomenal 43.9 percent from behind the arc.
Spending more time than ever at power forward, James has become the league’s first “power point guard”, taking the ball into the post and using his tremendous court vision to find open teammates.
He has also been rebounding at the best clip of his career, carving out phenomenal position in the paint and using his strength and athleticism to rip down contested boards against larger opponents.
Though he is not coming up with quite as many steals as usual, James remains one of the league’s best defenders and one of the few players in the NBA as capable of protecting the rim as he is chasing guards around the perimeter.
Most importantly though, he has become a crunch-time assassin and a player capable of raising his game on the biggest stages. No longer can the label of “choker” be applied fairly to James, who proved all of his critics wrong during his historic 2011-12 postseason when he throttled the Knicks, Pacers, Celtics and Thunder en route to his first NBA championship.
There are plenty of dynamic players in the Eastern Conference, but none possess the all-around talents and unparalleled explosiveness that James has. So long as he is healthy and capable of shouldering the load on both ends of the floor during the postseason, Miami’s Finals ticket might as well have already been punched.
Despite the hot starts of the Knicks and Nets, there is no question the Eastern Conference still runs through the Miami Heat. As the reigning NBA champions, the path to the Finals already runs through South Beach, and there is not a single team out east that should be favored over the Heat heading into the playoffs—barring injuries.
The Atlantic Division features four playoff-caliber ball clubs, but with Andrew Bynum’s health in serious question and the Celtics’ team defense looking less than stellar, they would have serious difficulty besting Miami four times in a playoff series.
The Indiana Pacers have a downright anemic offense despite their strong defense and the Chicago Bulls will need time for Derrick Rose to become acclimated, making neither of them serious title threats for 2012-13.
The Knicks are a tough match-up because of their team defense, but because they have such a veteran-laden roster it is plausible they will simply wear down by season's end.
The Eastern Conference is on an upswing, but for the 2012-13 season there is no team that can be outright considered a better squad.
The Western Conference is far more intriguing as it boasts several teams capable of earning the top seed, but there is simply no clear-cut favorite for the conference crown.
Memphis’s stifling team defense has them in the early lead, Oklahoma City still boasts the league’s best 1-2 punch offensively, the Lakers have one of the most talented starting lineups in league history and the Clippers’ improved chemistry and depth makes them quite dangerous, but all of these teams have clear flaws as well.
The Spurs are currently sitting at second in the conference but if the Grizzlies cannot continue their hot shooting or experience a significant injury San Antonio is in prime position to overtake them for the best record in the west.
Earning the top seed is no guarantee of a Finals appearance, but in a tight playoff series having homecourt advantage can be all a team needs to get that last crucial victory.
For as important as athleticism and explosiveness are during the NBA’s regular season, what really makes the difference in the postseason is having playoff experience and knowing what it takes to win the games that matter most.
When the Heat lost in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, it was their first season together and they struggled to rebound once the Mavs began to take control of the series with two straight wins.
However, they were able to use that disappointment as motivation for their championship run in 2012. They always managed to rise to the occasion when their backs were against the wall, coming back from a 2-1 deficit against Indiana, a 3-2 deficit against Boston and a loss on the road to the Thunder in the first game of the Finals.
The Spurs’ core has been together through four title runs and despite their change in playing style the squad still is capable of making clutch plays when necessary. Gregg Poppovich is one of the NBA’s most battle-tested coaches and one who is never rattled and rarely loses his composure. He always keeps the long-term goals in sight.
San Antonio’s young role players all gained extremely valuable playoff experience during their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and that will payoff huge for players like Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal when the 2012 postseason rolls around.
These players have experienced the most pressure a professional athlete can face and have thrived in the face of adversity; something that they will have the opportunity to use just as Miami’s young players did following their crushing loss to Dallas.
Both San Antonio and Miami feature a mix of savvy veterans and athletic youngsters, but the most important thing for these clubs is that every key member of their rotations, from Ray Allen to Mario Chalmers and from Boris Diaw to Tiago Splitter, knows how to step their game to ensure they will still be playing basketball in June.