For one whole week, the San Antonio Spurs waited for a worthy opponent to emerge from the Eastern Conference to join them in the 2013 NBA Finals. Now, they have gotten one: the defending champion Miami Heat, fresh off a 99-76 shellacking of the Indiana Pacers in Game 7. Will the old, rested Spurs be able to keep up with the athletic, but taxed Heat? Let's look at five keys for the Spurs to pull out a series win against the Heat.
1. Win the battle of the Big Threes
When the Heat's Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010, they looked like the obvious choice as the best trio in the game. LeBron James was the reigning Most Valuable Player, Dwyane Wade ranked fifth in MVP voting, and Bosh tied for 12th place, despite averaging 24 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game.
The Spurs? Manu Ginobili ranked 11th. That's it. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker received zero points in the voting.
Nearly three years later, the circumstances are different. For the Spurs, Duncan is playing at roughly the same level. Parker has become a superstar and MVP candidate, and injuries have robbed Ginobili of some of his effectiveness. All three have showed up this playoffs, averaging equal to or more points than they averaged in the regular season.
The Heat's Big Three has had great success, but as of late, two-thirds of it has come up very small. Wade's athleticism has been greatly diminished by a knee injury; in fact, he is only averaging 14.1 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting this postseason. Bosh has let the big men of the East bully him inside—he is averaging 12.3 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting in the playoffs.
But there is always that LeBron James guy. He is playing like the best player in the world should play. But will he get more help from his two sidekicks?
The Big Threes for the Heat and the Spurs both have very capable supporting casts, but I believe these role players will cancel each other out in the end. Therefore, the onus is on the Spurs' Big Three to outplay the Heat's Big Three.
Duncan has the best opportunity in this series to play at his highest level. The post defense of the Heat is a weakness, as the Pacers showed in the Eastern Conference finals.
Goal #1: Parker, Duncan and Ginobili outscore James, Wade and Bosh in the series
2. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard's defense
Luckily for the Spurs, the positions of the Heat's best offensive players (shooting guard, small forward, center) correspond to the Spurs' best defensive positions.
The players holding down those positions? Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Duncan.
We all know Duncan will show up on defense whoever he guards, Bosh or otherwise. He has already contained Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard, two elite centers at very different ends of the power/finesse spectrum.
Green and Leonard are a different story, however. Green, 25, and Leonard, 21, are both still relatively new to the world of playoff basketball.
They were able to shut down Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors in Round 2, but those are different players than Wade and James.
Green will most likely deal with Wade, while Leonard will have the unenviable task of guarding James.
But Leonard won't back down from the challenge. According to Kurt Helin at NBC Sports, Leonard is the best defender James will see this playoffs, including All-Defensive Second Team selection Paul George of the Pacers. Danny Green is quickly approaching elite status as a defender, as well.
The most important thing about guarding Wade and James is keeping them out of the paint. If they have trouble penetrating, Wade will start to settle for mid-range jumpers, and James will start jacking three-pointers.
Wade has shot just under 48 percent from the field in Heat wins this postseason. In losses, he has shot 37.5 percent.
Meanwhile, although James is shooting a solid 38.7 percent from three-point range this postseason, his long bombs are actually hurting the team.
In the 12 Heat wins this postseason, James has attempted just over 3.4 three-pointers per game. In the four Heat losses, that number jumps to 5.3 per game.
Goal #2: Green keeps Wade's field goal percentage in the low 40s (or lower) and Leonard keeps James three-point attempts at 5 per game (or higher)
3. Limiting the turnovers
It's a well-known fact that Miami is one of the best transition teams in the NBA. Once they get a steal, they are off to the races and usually get a dunk on the other end. During the regular season, Miami forced the sixth-most turnovers in the league, and forced 21 in their series-clinching win over the Pacers.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, turnovers are a relative team weakness. They did a mediocre job protecting the ball, committing the 13th-most turnovers in the league (14.1) in the regular season. While they have done a great job remedying that so far in the postseason (only 12.0 per game), two of the teams they played (the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors) were some of the worst teams in the league in turnover differential.
Manu Ginobili, in particular, is a big turnover culprit for the Spurs, with his risky drives and daring passes. In the postseason, he is averaging 2.4 per game in just 25.8 minutes per game. He also had six turnovers in the series-clinching win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals. If Ginobili and the Spurs stay under control, the Spurs should be in good shape.
Goal #3: Average fewer than 14 turnovers per game
4. Keep the ball moving
While the Spurs need to be careful with the ball, it still has to move. The Pacers got in trouble against the Heat when they isolated players who just dribbled for a while without moving the ball.
The Spurs, however, don't often stand around without movement. They have a constant motion offense involving several on-ball and off-ball screens to get people open. In the regular season, they led the NBA in assists, at 25.1 per game.
In postseason wins, according to the Spurs' official website, the Spurs have dished out 24.2 assists per game. In postseason losses, they have dished out just 19.5 assists per game.
The Heat often trap the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll, in order to create turnovers. Tony Parker is one of the smartest point guards in the league, so he should be able to make quick decisions to force the Heat to ditch the trap.
Goal #4: Average more than 22 assists per game
5. Discourage the Heat
"I'm a much better player – 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals," said James after Game 7 against the Pacers, referring to the last time he faced the Spurs in the Finals, and got swept.
I don't know about you, but that sounds like a little much. Remember, that year was the same year he scored 25 straight points at one point for the Cavaliers and 48 points total in a win against the powerhouse Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Yes, James is better than he was in 2007, but not by that much. If James is going into this series thinking he is going to run roughshod over the Spurs, he will mostly likely be taken aback.
To that point, the Spurs must come in ready to play Game 1, rested and energized, and steal one in South Beach. If they do, LeBron and the Heat will lose some of the confidence and edge they will have going into this series.
Goal #5: Win Game 1
Final Prediction: Spurs in seven. They won't achieve all five goals, but they will achieve some of them, and win a close game in Miami in Game 7 as Tim Duncan wins NBA Finals MVP for the fourth time.
Note: All stats are from Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted or linked