LeBron James and Tony Parker are still the two most important players on the court, but if Games 1-4 of this year's NBA Finals have taught us anything, it's that role players are equally capable of deciding this series.
Three-point explosions from Danny Green, Mike Miller and Gary Neal have been every bit as important as drive-and-kicks from LeBron or post moves from Tim Duncan. Those streaks have turned games upside down and kept them that way. They've altered this series indelibly.
Each team's purported Big Three (Manu is under review) will, obviously, play a vital role in determining Game 5's outcome. If one triad outperforms the other, its team is more likely to win.
But the same might go for the role players, the lesser-known pieces, the guys whose jerseys you don't own. And in the era of "LeBron James conquers all," that's a really curious thing.
Here are three role players who could decide Game 5.
C Tiago Splitter, San Antonio Spurs
In last year's NBA Finals, the Heat went small and made Kendrick Perkins, a pretty bad NBA center, look like a very bad NBA center.
In this year's NBA Finals, the Heat have gone small and made Tiago Splitter, a pretty good NBA center, look just as bad as Perkins.
That sentence might be confounding for some of you. "Why on earth," you might wonder, if this is the first time you've seen the Spurs play, "is this idiot calling Tiago Splitter good?"
Which is exactly my point. Splitter hasn't revealed his true colors this series—he's secreted them. The young Brazilian center has shown rapid growth since joining the league three years ago, averaging a PER of 19.62 the past two seasons. That's higher than Marc Gasol, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, who probably should have been First Team All-NBA, posted in 2012-13.
But you wouldn't know that from watching this series. The Heat have made Splitter look old and doofy in the post, which is crazy since they employ Chris Andersen who, himself, is one of the oldest, doofiest players in the league.
When Miami went small in Game 4, Splitter couldn't exploit the mismatches he was afforded. In turn, San Antonio had to do something it doesn't like; it had to adjust its personnel accordingly. It had to cater to the whims of its opponent, allow it to dictate the style of play.
If Splitter plays like he's capable in Game 5, Miami's small-ball lineup could backfire. That's exactly how Roy Hibbert punished the Heat in the last round.
But if Splitter continues to falter, his team, as a whole, could soon be following suit.
PG Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat
Yes, the Heat need a big game from Mike Miller on Sunday. But that's a one-way proposition. They need Miller's shooting, no doubt, and they can afford to live with an occasional defensive breakdown to get it.
Mario Chalmers can't think that way, and the Heat can't afford to allow him. Chalmers is one of the Heat's best shooters too, capable of making teams pay for clustering around LeBron James. But he can't just perform on one end of the court.
Not against Parker.
The condition of Parker's hamstring remains to be seen. Maybe he'll be gimpy and ineffective, but I doubt it. He knows the magnitude of Sunday's Game 5; if he's able to stand, he'll be willing to penetrate.
Chalmers struggled against Parker in the first quarter of Game 4. If Game 5 is close in the fourth quarter, they might want to put LeBron on Parker. But they'll also probably be playing their small lineup. If that unit is undersized with LeBron guarding a Spurs big man, how puny will it look with LeBron on the perimeter? And whom, exactly, does Chalmers end up checking?
No, Miami needs its point guard to defend its opponent's point guard, and it needs him to do it with decent efficiency. Otherwise, the Spurs will adjust from Game 4 and pick the Heat apart.
PG Gary Neal, San Antonio
Calling Green a "role player" in this series feels pejorative. He's been that important, and more importantly, that consistent. He's made himself into a bona fide factor, not one of the "X-" variety.
The same argument could be made for Neal, but it is far less convincing. He's been unconscious since Game 1—11-of-17 on three-pointers in that stretch—but he's still disappeared for stretches. He's still an "X-factor."
So what San Antonio needs is to keep getting "good" Neal instead of "bad" Neal. They need the guy who scored 24 points in Game 3 instead of the guy who fell out of the rotation in December. They need him to maintain the current status quo.
San Antonio can't keep up with Miami if its role players lag behind. Whether or not Dwyane Wade actually turned a corner on Thursday—my vote says he didn't—LeBron is bound to progress back to his mean. The Spurs have gotten a perfect storm, of sorts, through four games but still find themselves in a deadlock.
One off shooting game from Neal or Green, and San Antonio could end up needing to win two straight in Miami. Even Gregg Popovich might be out of his league with that task.
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