What the San Antonio Spurs Learned About Miami Heat in Conference Finals
Winter is indeed coming for the San Antonio Spurs, right smack in the middle of June.
The Indiana Pacers made the Eastern Conference Finals interesting, but the Spurs would have been watching anyway. And chances are they had their eyes on the Miami Heat all along.
The NBA Finals could produce some breathtakingly beautiful basketball on the court, a not-at-all accidental consequence of the extensive planning going on off the court—planning that started roughly a week ago for Gregg Popovich's staff.
It remains to be seen just how much the extra scouting helped, but at least the Spurs—along with the rest of us—were treated to some outstanding theater. They might have even learned a few things in the process.
We're Really Not So Different, You and I
A glance at San Antonio and Miami's respective rosters might lead you to believe the NBA Finals will be an epic clash of apples and oranges. Their similarities, however, lie in their styles of play—their ability to succeed at different paces and against a broad range of foes.
Both NBA finalists treasure the fast break and capitalizing on others' mistakes. The Spurs don't have the same presence above the rim, but they do have guys who can finish when they get there.
When games slow down—as they often do in series like these—both teams boast opportunistic playmakers, stars in Tony Parker and LeBron James who've made their living getting to the paint and threatening to score or pass with equal acuity. Both teams are fundamentally premised on the belief that sharing is caring, that movement of the ball and players alike is a good thing.
So maybe watching the ECF wasn't quite like looking in the mirror for San Antonio, but it's no coincidence these two teams have survived the postseason despite such contrasting composition. In many respects, they do business much the same way.
It's Not About the Talent Gap
Enough with the "Miami Heat are just too good" mantra. Yes, of course they're good, but that's not what made the difference against the Pacers. LeBron was exceptional, but not exceptional by his standards. Wade and Bosh certainly weren't overwhelming anyone with their All-Star talent.
Ray Allen, this generation's luminary long-range weapon, was virtually a non-factor throughout the series.
The difference-makers were, by and large, the blue-collar guys. Udonis Haslem hit baseline jumpers like his life depended on it in Game 5, and Chris "Birdman" Andersen narrowed Indiana's inside edge with a heretofore unprecedented mixture of energy and weirdness.
Most importantly, Miami sometimes rendered Indiana's offense helpless. The Heat were deceptively physical, doubling Roy Hibbert and pushing him off his spots early and often in Game 7. They controlled passing lanes and forced the Pacers into the kind of bad shots and turnovers that fuel all those high-flying open-court antics.
They also proved there's no one way to dominate the paint. The Heat don't feature a traditional post presence, leading some to believe the Pacers could ride Hibbert and David West to an upset. After each of Indiana's three wins, though, Miami responded by winning the paint, according to NBA.com/stats, and four games along with it.
That's the scary thing about Miami—or anyway, one of several scary things. Whether Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers are cashing in from range, this team still finds ways to gut out easy baskets.
If the Heat are to be beaten, it will take more than strategy. It'll take a lot of poise and hard work too.
Hey, Haven't We Seen This Team Before? I Want to Say 2007, Maybe?
Though Indiana deserves no shortage of credit for forcing a seven-game series, the Heat beat themselves, too. Thanks to some combination of physical ailment and frosty shooting, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were missing in action for most of the ECF.
The supporting cast's D-list performances led LeBron to "go back to his Cleveland days" in Game 5, a comment that might have been awkward were it not so obviously true.
Wade averaged just 14.5 points a game up until his 21-point Game 7 "explosion," and that was still more than he averaged in either the first or second round. In that respect, at least, Wade seems to be headed in the right direction, albeit in a meandering sort of way.
The Spurs have to be prepared for Wade to be more effective. Odds are, he won't rattle off 20 points at will, but "bad games" for this guy are still a relative term. He had nine rebounds in Game 7, six on the offensive end—a stark reminder that even when Wade's mid-range game is compromised, he's still strong and determined enough to outwork opposing guards in the paint.
San Antonio will ask Danny Green to stay in front of him, and they won't even have to ask Manu Ginobili to annoy the you-know-what out of him. Popovich eagerly exploited Stephen Curry's ankle troubles in the second round, running him around the floor and unleashing a flurry of merciless screens. Wade should expect similar treatment.
As bad as Wade's been, Bosh has been worse—at least in the conference finals. You could live with the lackluster production, but he's been wildly inefficient in his last four games, going a combined 8-of-34 from the field.
Spurs fans will cautiously hope those four games were only the beginning of Bosh's problems.
Manu Meets His Flopping Match
If Manu Ginobili has yet to endear himself to you, it probably has something to do with his internationally renowned flair for the flop. He's played make-believe with the best of 'em and could make a strong case for having the NBA's new flopping rule officially named "The Manu Laws."
But whatever the Spurs' concerns about passing some dynastic torch, there's little doubt that LeBron and Co. have already supplanted Ginobili as the NBA's most unapologetic floppers.
For basketball purists who utterly abhor all forms of hardwood disingenuousness, these finals could be painful at times. You may find yourself on the verge of nihilism and bemoaning the loss of an innocence that probably never was.
Just try not to think about it.
Who You Callin' Old?
If Tim Duncan has proven that age is a state of mind, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have proven it might also have something to do with the state of one's health.
And some guys (cough, Ray Allen) are proving that age is a state of...well, how old you are.
In any event, the eldest of the supposedly ancient Spurs will be a very well-rested Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The bigger question is how quickly Miami will recover from a protracted series, how often Wade can will himself to 20 points and whether any of Miami's veteran shooters will play with fresh legs and some semblance of rhythm.
After the 37-year-old Duncan made a mockery of Memphis' transition defense, the Spurs may see a chance to outrun the league's premier sprinters. Paradoxes have never stopped these guys before.
The Takeaway to End All Takeaways
It takes a village to stop LeBron James. A village of athletic, disciplined, high-motor defenders. Or robots—they might work too.
Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, no such fanciful village exists—not in Tom Thibodeau's grit-and-grind locker room nor amongst Gregg Popovich's well-trained disciples. And even if it did, that whole rule about having only five guys on the floor complicates things.
It goes without saying, then, that neither Kawhi Leonard nor Danny Green will fare any better than Paul George did.
Though Popovich isn't a fan of doubling the other team's best scorer, he's certainly shown a willingness to throw a mix of help-schemes when individual defenders have their hands full (see his treatment of Dwight Howard in Round 1). He may well do the same this time if James takes control early in the finals.
Then again, if all else fails—and it probably will—San Antonio will just have to score a lot of points, conceding that James will get his. They'll need to make three-pointers, create some breathing room and hope to deflate Miami's sometimes suffocating defense.
They'll need to do the things they've been doing all season long—even as the Heat are struggling to do just that.
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