The San Antonio Spurs know the when and the what of their upcoming endeavor, but they've yet to find out the where or the who.
The Indiana Pacers dismantled the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, extending the series to a do-or-die Game 7 on Monday. This means the Spurs, who have been resting since May 27, will have to wait even longer to start officially scouting their NBA Finals opponent.
But it's not too early for a little preliminary scouting, parsing through the matchups and figuring out what, exactly, to look for in the Spurs' next series—regardless of their opponent.
Here's how San Antonio would match up with both the Pacers and the Heat.
The Spurs won the season series 2-0, beating the Pacers 101-79 in San Antonio and 104-97 in Indiana. But both of those games took place in November, when the Pacers had a losing record and were struggling to find a rhythm, so it's hard to divine too much from those results. The Indiana team the Spurs might see in the Finals is unrecognizable from the team they saw seven months ago.
Indiana's strength, obviously, lies on the interior, where they've bullied Miami all series long. TNT's Charles Barkley has joked about David West and Roy Hibbert being made to look like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, which is scary because it's not that untrue.
But the Spurs excel at taking away teams' strengths, particularly this strength, which they just nullified against Memphis en route to a four-game sweep. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are an even stronger post duo than West and Hibbert, but the Spurs didn't allow them to look like future Hall of Famers...they made them look like D-Leaguers.
Hibbert and West are too good not to get theirs, at least in small doses, but Indiana won't be able to count on them possession after possession. Against San Antonio, their offense would need to be more cerebral and less predictable. They would need to win in a new way.
Perhaps their biggest advantage would be George Hill, a former Spur who understands San Antonio's personnel and game plan. He averaged 13 points and 6.5 assists in the two games against his old team, good for third- and first-best on Indiana, respectively.
In the teams' first meeting, Hill did a magnificent job guarding Tony Parker, the man he backed up for three seasons, whose presence ultimately made him expendable. But after holding him to six points on 3-for-13 shooting in San Antonio, he allowed Parker to go off for 33 points on 15-for-23 shooting at home. After a relative "off" series defensively against Miami, where more time has been spent helping than guarding his man off the dribble, Hill will need to round into form against his former mentor in the Finals.
The wing poses a couple of very interesting matchups, too. Paul George is slowly rounding into super-star form, but he could have a rough go against Kawhi Leonard—the man whom the Spurs acquired by trading Hill. Unlike George's past two opponents, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, Leonard doesn't have to expend much energy on offense...especially when Popovich tells him not to. And against Indiana, the Spurs would happily spot Leonard up in the corner, let Parker facilitate the offense and keep their small forward fresh for the defensive end of the floor.
On the other wing, a matchup between Manu Ginobili and Lance Stephenson would be a fantastic contrast of styles. Stephenson is bigger, faster and stronger, but Ginobili is more experienced and savvy. On offense, he is exactly the kind of player who can make Stephenson pay for his defensive gambles and poor footwork. But on the other end, Stephenson's bull-headed drives to the rim might be physically overwhelming.
Overall, though David Stern would surely call for a few heads on spikes, a Pacers-Spurs Finals would actually be a lot of fun—albeit the low-scoring kind. Both teams are relative mirrors of each other, bastions of defense and team-first principles over isolation and hero-ball. Seeing them duke it out for six or seven games would be a nostalgic treat for fans of 80s and 90s basketball.
As I pointed out earlier, you can't read too much into the Spurs' two-game sweep of Indiana during the regular season, since both games took place in November. As it were, even less can be extrapolated from the Heat's two-game sweep of San Antonio, since neither game featured a full cast of characters.
Perhaps because he sensed this series coming and didn't want to show his hand, or perhaps because he simply enjoys getting a rise out of David Stern, Gregg Popovich opted to bench four starters—Tim Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green—for a nationally televised game with Miami in November.
Stern took Pop's caution as an affront and fined San Antonio $250,000, citing a disservice to fans who paid a premium on tickets for that game. When the teams met in San Antonio at the end of March, though, fans weren't treated to any more star power: Erik Spoelstra benched LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in a two-point victory.
So, no: We can't read too much into Miami's 2-0 record against San Antonio. LeBron and Wade haven't shared the court with Duncan, Ginobili and Parker yet this season. But we can deduce—from the fact that even with depleted rotations, both games were close—that a San Antonio-Miami series would be close, contested and a whole lot of fun.
So far as matchups are concerned, Miami could be in store for another long series down low. As mentioned in the Pacers' section, San Antonio excels at taking away what an opponent does best. But they're equally adept at amplifying what an opponent does worst. That's what roster versatility and Hall of Fame coaching can get you. And after watching the Pacers series, it doesn't take Gregg Popovich to figure out what Miami does worst.
Duncan was a revelation at the age of 37 this season, earning First-Team All-NBA honors, and posting a PER of 24.45—his highest since 2009-10. He doesn't have the pure, 7-foot-2 height advantage of a Roy Hibbert, but he has the most refined post game, perhaps, in league history and plenty of NBA Finals experience to boot.
Defensively, the Spurs try to take away what an opponent does best, and what Miami does best is giving the ball to LeBron James. It's impossible to keep the ball entirely out of LeBron's hands, but the Spurs' team defense is strong enough to curtail his effectiveness (at least as much as humanly possible). With Leonard—who has always done well against Kevin Durant—guarding him man-up, and a spate of technically sound bigs waiting in the paint, San Antonio would try to get the ball out of LeBron's hands as soon and often as they could.
The flop-fest at shooting guard between Wade and Ginobili, thus, wouldn't just prove wildly entertaining to watch—it could also prove to be the deciding factor in the series. Manu is four years older than Wade, but this postseason he's performed at a higher (or at least a more consistent) level. Wade is also prone to bouts of frustration, and no opponent inspires more of that (in everybody) than Manu. Wade would need to keep his wits about him in order to help his team.
The series' biggest X-factor would probably be Chris Bosh, whose mid-range shooting has been streaky (at best) against Indiana. He led Miami with 22 points and 17 rebounds when the teams met sans LeBron and Wade earlier this season. With San Antonio (wisely) diverting most of its attention toward LeBron, Bosh could sneak open for quite a few good looks.
He played his best in the Finals last season, consistently making Oklahoma City pay for over-helping on LeBron. If Bosh could do the same against San Antonio, there's a good chance Miami would see the same outcome.