Heat vs. Spurs: Breaking Down X-Factors for Each Team
As always, what we'll remember about the 2013 NBA Finals down the road will center upon how each team's respective stars perform.
And that's fitting, because more than any major North American professional sports league, for a team to win in the NBA, superstar talents are required.
That's why LeBron James and Chris Bosh were so eager to join Dwyane Wade in Miami in July of 2010, and it's also why the Spurs have remained relevant on the backs of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for so long.
But in order to win a title, every champion needs sizable contributions from unsung heroes. We saw it in 2011 when Jason Terry played a key role in Dallas' upset of Miami, and we saw it time and time again when Robert Horry emerged as a clutch performer for the Spurs, Lakers and Rockets during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Yes, this edition of the Finals has more than its fair share of star power, but if history has told us anything, it may well be the foot soldiers that determine the outcome of the series.
Heading into Game 2, here's a look at the X-factors for each team.
As the No. 15 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, there were certainly long-term expectations that lay before Kawhi Leonard, but the Spurs couldn't possibly have hoped for better returns than what he's provided in the short-term.
That's because Leonard has steadily developed into one of the Spurs' most consistent contributors at both ends of the floor and has blossomed into a legitimate offensive threat for Gregg Popovich, averaging more than 11 points per game.
But Leonard will face what will be undoubtedly the most difficult challenge of his career during the Finals, as ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz points out:
Imagine the hardest, most complicated task you've ever faced at the job. Multiply that by 100, and that's Leonard's Thursday night. The thought process will go something like this: Take away the drive, but if you can't, make sure to send him to the right spot, and if that doesn't work, know where the help is, and if he doesn't have the ball, stay on him, but also don't disrupt the general defensive scheme.
Obviously, Leonard won't be expected to shut James down completely, because at this point, we all know that's impossible for any NBA player. But if he can force James to feed the recently struggling Bosh and Wade and they continue to toss up bricks from the field, the Spurs will have a chance at hanging with the Heat offensively.
It also won't hurt if Leonard continues to put up points, as he's managed to score in double figures in all but two of the Spurs' 15 postseason games.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Manu Ginobili has been relatively underwhelming at times during the postseason, as the two-time All-Star averaged just under 12 points per game during the regular season.
However, after putting up 10 a game during the Western Conference Finals, Ginobili has to be better against the Heat, because the Spurs simply don't have the offensive horses to keep up with Miami's gunners.
If completely healthy, Ginobili could be a difference-maker in this series, but at 35, one has to think that if this series goes the distance, his impact will get smaller and smaller as the Finals wear on.
He's a three-time NBA champion, so there's little reason to doubt whether he'll show up when the chips are down, but it'd be better if that happens sooner rather than later.
To recap, Shane Battier posted double-digit scoring efforts in three of Miami's five NBA Finals games in 2012, including back-to-back 17-point showings in Games 1 and 2.
But this year, Battier has been invisible, playing a combined 13 minutes during the Heat's final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.
Now, with Miami set to face the Spurs, not much is expected of Battier, but given how clutch the former Duke star has been throughout his career, any sort of production would be a bonus for the Heat.
This is exactly the type of situation the Heat signed Ray Allen for last summer.
As the best three-point shooter ever to play, Allen's stroke from the outside gives Miami an added offensive dimension against anyone, especially during clutch moments in big games.
Allen's been to the top before, as he played a key role during Boston's title run in 2008, and though part of Miami's supporting cast these days, he's got the ability and the ice in his veins to decide the outcome of a game with a clutch three.
If Bosh and Wade continue to struggle offensively, the Heat will need Allen to come up big, because otherwise, Miami will be counting on James to do a little too much at San Antonio's end of the floor.
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