When playing at their optimum potential, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, whose NBA Finals series kicks off Thursday on ABC, are supernovas of offensive basketball.
Spurred by the ingenious Gregg Popovich, the vastly undervalued Tony Parker and the legend Tim Duncan have been five steps ahead of the NBA curve for more than a decade-and-a-half. It was Pop who made the switch from the Duncan-featuring, post-heavy offensive system of the team's first dynasty to a Parker-featuring, barrage of pick-and-rolls and three-point shots.
On nearly every play, the Spurs start with a motion to get Parker a head of steam. He will either run through a standard pick-and-roll, of which San Antonio has a ridiculous amount of variations for such a simple play, or come barreling off a series of off-ball screens designed to have Parker's man just a step behind when the point guard catches the ball—usually on the wing. From there, the Spurs have a series of actions designed at finding good shots for a group of players who primarily play under the rim.
There were many folks who would, lovingly or dismissively, call this system European when it was first employed. It was merely pre-evolutionary NBA basketball.
The Heat, while manufactured in a lab by evil genius Pat Riley in the summer of 2010, represent an evolutionary version of Popovich's vision. Yes, they have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, three superstars fully in the prime of their careers. The Spurs, minus Parker, don't have such a luxury. But you can see the influence in the ball movement, the spacing, the emphasis on eliminating unnecessarily perilous shots.
The process is different, relying far more on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lulling the defense to their strong side via post ups and other measures, but the end result is jarringly similar. The Heat finished first in the NBA during the regular season, attempting 717 corner three-point attempts—widely considered the most efficient shot outside the paint. The Spurs were third, behind only the analytics-heavy Houston Rockets.
Overall, the Heat and Spurs share almost mirror image shot distributions. Just for reference, here is a look at how the two sides compare, with help from NBA.com's statistical database:
From a pure basketball standpoint, that should make for titillating action. We can conjure a decent mental simulation of Game 1, mainly because we've gotten to know these teams over time. The Spurs will run a fusillade of picks for Parker, hoping to get him open or draw a double-team, setting up a four-on-three action at the top of the key. The Heat will take advantage of San Antonio not having a Roy Hibbert-like rim protector, using James and Wade (to a lesser extent) to draw the defense inward
There's obviously more minutiae, which I already covered here. Those are just the basics of the sweet science these teams play on a nightly basis. We're not here to cover X's and O's in this space, but merely to appreciate how this series might go down as one of the most memorable in league history.
Outside of the individual basketball moments that we basketball nerds love pointing out, this series carries a spectacle of storylines richer than a mountain of Noir de Cacao.
It's easy to start with LeBron James, whose 2013 postseason has been filled with verification upon verification of his greatness. Throughout the postseason, James has put his entire team, Wade and Bosh included, on his back Cleveland style and did so while showing perhaps the most multifarious skill set in NBA history. He's dominated in the post, boasted a three-point percentage that hovers around 40 percent, destroyed two top-tier NBA defense (Chicago and Indiana) off the bounce and covered the opposing teams' best player when asked.
He's one of the 10 greatest players of all-time. That we pretty much know and where he falls within that lineage will ultimately depend on the rest of his career—and somewhat on this series. Should Miami lose this series, James would be 1-of-4 in NBA Finals appearances. Smart fans and analysts will know how little that matters in defining him as a player. Believe it or not, those aren't the people who define legacies; fans do. And the majority of those fans will look at James' Finals appearances as missed opportunities.
On the other side, Popovich and Duncan are trying to continue their streak of never missing opportunities. The duo are 4-0 in NBA Finals appearances together, having been so dominant in three of them that the result almost felt pre-ordained. They are also trying to win championships 14 years apart from their first, the type of historical feat that will undoubtedly appear someday on Jeopardy.
One of those Finals appearances was James, defanging his Cleveland Cavaliers in four games in 2007. Should San Antonio win, it would just add another layer to this team's history—LeBron Killers.
And those are just the two major overarching storylines. There plenty more. Dwayne Wade's battle with immortality, Tony Parker's quiet ascent up the all-time point guard ladder, Shane Battier and Ray Allen's shooting woes and the burgeoning Kawhi Leonard all hold a place in this series.
And that's why this series is so unbelievably thrilling.
The best postseasons series aren't mere competitions between the two best teams in a respective sport. You can get that every year. Historic series are the ones that tug deep at your insides, to the core of your heart as a sports fan. They're the seven-game slogs that carry connotations vast and wide-reaching for all the parties involved; ones that involve luminaries that we'll someday be deifying to our grandkids as they look at their iPad 67s, the same way we once did when our grandparents mentioned Bill Russell or Jerry West.
LeBron James, Gregg Popovich, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are all guaranteed Hall of Famers. In the case of Popovich, Duncan and James, they're among the 10 greatest to ever do their respective jobs.
Miami and San Antonio are so evenly matched heading into this series, for reasons of both injury and momentum, that it's impossible to predict the outcome. Doing so with any veracity is a fool's errand, posturing just to hear oneself speak.
As for the range of outcomes? Those are innumerable as well.
It's possible that Miami's struggles have all been a gigantic tease. That Dwayne Wade will suddenly morph back into the Robin role he played so well last year despite injury; that Battier and Allen will find their three-point shot; that Bosh will remember the post exists; that Indiana was simply a bump in the road and we're all just continuing to watch the coronation of LeBron James, G.O.A.T., and we should just shut up and allow greatness to happen.
It's also possible that the Spurs have finally figured it all out. That Parker will eviscerate the Heat's trapping scheme with his brilliance; that Popovich will mop the coaching floor with Erik Spoelstra; that Duncan will finally cement itself as the best player of his generation.
Or it could be a seven-game thrill ride. Who knows. And, frankly, who cares what someone thinks before the action gets underway.
The series is mere hours from getting underway, and I for one cannot wait to see what these teams have in store. Something tells me we'll want to remember this.
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