A wild LeBron James three-pointer. A right-place-at-the-right-time rebound from Chris Bosh. A wide-open Ray Allen. The most clutch shot in NBA history. A Tim Duncan bunny he makes 90 times out of 100 clanking off the rim.
Those plays are what separate the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat from being the defending champions. The Heat got the clutch rolls when they needed them most, while Gregg Popovich's boys seemingly went down guns blazing in their final rodeo. LeBron James' legacy was cemented. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan had done all they could together. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers loomed as dangerous threats to their thrones.
Yet...here we are again. Each with six-game triumphs over their intra-conference rivals, the Heat and Spurs became the first NBA Finals rematch since the Bulls and Jazz tangoed in the late '90s. There are more than a few obvious parallels here. LeBron is his generation's Michael Jordan; Duncan and Popovich picked up on the prolonged success train where Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone left off.
And given that last year's Finals were among the handful of all-time greats, it's only fair that the basketball gods allow San Antonio another shot. Kevin Durant will get his chance to end the "second-place" narrative he uses as motivation; all the great ones do. But for now, this is about Pop and Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili getting one last crack at the athletic mongoloid version of the "Big Three" atmosphere they have cultivated in San Antonio.
This is their shot. Probably their last one. Maybe the last best-of-seven series period for future Hall of Famers on both sides. It's going to be great. It's going to be captivating. And the result will feature one of two brilliant teams going home an empty, hollow husk.
Now let's preview it.
|2014 NBA Finals TV Schedule|
|Date||Matchup||Start Time (ET)||Channel|
|Thu, June 5||Game 1: Heat at Spurs||9 p.m.||ABC|
|Sun, June 8||Game 2: Heat at Spurs||8 p.m.||ABC|
|Tue, June 10||Game 3: Spurs at Heat||9 p.m.||ABC|
|Thu, June 12||Game 4: Spurs at Heat||9 p.m.||ABC|
|Sun, June 15||Game 5: Heat at Spurs*||8 p.m.||ABC|
|Tue, June 17||Game 6: Spurs at Heat*||9 p.m.||ABC|
|Fri, June 20||Game 7: Heat at Spurs*||9 p.m.||ABC|
On the surface, not a whole lot. Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade still play for the Heat the last time I checked. Same goes for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for the Spurs. That Kawhi Leonard guy is pretty good again. Ray Allen could hit wide-open jumpers until he's an octogenarian.
The common fan is going to tune in, see the recurring characters of their favorite mid-June are back again and be perfectly happy.
But no contender can actually stagnate.
The most obvious changes for Miami are in its bench rotation. Mike Miller, who knocked down 61 percent of his threes during last year's matchup, fell victim to the amnesty provision. Shane Battier, who hit six threes in Game 7 alone, is breaking down by his own admission. Rashard Lewis has been dug up from his 2013 exile from the rotation to take the lion's share of the minutes that used to go Miller and Battier's way. After getting consecutive "DNP—CDs" in Games 6 and 7 last June, Norris Cole is arguably just as integral as Mario Chalmers.
I'm unsure any of this makes Miami better. Lewis has been solid defensively and finally found his stroke at the end of the Indiana series, but rarely does he engender the same confidence as Battier or Miller.
Battier is one of the smartest players to ever play the game; Miller has this one look when you know whatever shot he takes is going in the basket. At age 34 and his own body ravaged by injuries and Father Time, Lewis might be the series' biggest wild card.
Cole will be needed most defensively, where Erik Spoelstra will likely throw him on Tony Parker whenever the two share the floor. That would allow Wade and LeBron to conserve energy while still putting a formidable defender against San Antonio's most important offensive piece.
He won't do it, but I'd think long and hard about even starting Cole over Chalmers if I were Spoelstra. Cole will have to prove he can knock down shots consistently; his exile from the playoff rotation last season came because the Spurs ignored him entirely on the perimeter.
San Antonio's biggest changes also come via its bench rotation. Somehow, some way, the Spurs have managed to get even deeper than they were a year ago. Gregg Popovich played 11 guys in the Spurs' Game 6 win over Oklahoma City, none of whom got into the game because of foul trouble.
Patty Mills is now a vital bench scorer after not even being active for the final few games last year. Mills was so far down the rotation that he stayed inactive behind Tracy McGrady—who, yes, "played" for the Spurs last season!
Marco Belinelli has had an up-and-down postseason—mostly the latter—after mostly filling his expected role during the regular season. The wild variance in his play makes him a decent replacement for Gary Neal, whose post-Spurs career has been, umm, not so great thus far.
In short: The main characters are the same. The recurring cast, though? There's been an influx of new faces who may help decide the series.
What Do I Need to Watch For?
Tiago Splitter's Minutes
The book on Miami since it found its small ball identity midway through the 2012 postseason has been to pound them with two bigs. The Pacers' entire core was built around the tentpoles of David West and Roy Hibbert doing damage against an increasingly strained Bosh and the smaller power forward.
Much of Spoelstra's greatest difficulties this season have come from finding the right balance with that identity. Playing small is hard. Bosh is logging so many defensive miles against bigs that he doesn't even entertain the notion of post play at this point; he took only 21 of his 80 shots against Indiana inside of eight feet. Battier probably took at least a full year off his career by willingly guarding 4s.
Spoelstra has bounced back and forth between lineups "big" (with Udonis Haslem at power forward) and small throughout the postseason—switching on a dime within the same series. Battier, Haslem and Lewis have each started games at the 4 so far.
On paper, the Spurs have two big men who should make life difficult in Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Both are big, tough and the express types of players who start the "should Spo go back to Haslem?" rhetoric.
Only reality did not match perception last season. The Heat totally defanged Splitter last season by stretching him beyond the arc defensively, mitigating his rim protection while daring him to beat them offensively. Splitter isn't that type of player. By Game 7, Splitter was on the floor for only four minutes as Pop countered the Heat's small lineup by starting Ginobili.
We may see a similar adjustment this year. Popovich started Boris Diaw in the teams' first regular-season matchup, and Splitter missed the second with injury. With the Thunder proving that San Antonio hasn't quite figured out how to use Splitter versus stretch 4s—Serge Ibaka's return made him a glaring minus offensively and mitigated his effect on the other end—Diaw and Ginobili will get long looks from Pop's end of the bench.
This wasn't exactly what R.C. Buford envisioned when he signed Splitter to a $36 million deal last summer.
Tony Parker's Health
Everything discussed previously is obviously one big burying of the lede. If Parker can't go, even if it's for only Game 1, the momentum swings heavily in Miami's favor. For all of the (rightful) bloviation about a team-first mentality, Parker is the axis around which the Spurs' beautiful offense rotates. Without him, Popovich is leaning far too heavily on the inconsistent Ginobili and for freak accidents like a 26-point game from Diaw.
Parker sprained his ankle in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and aggravated it in both Game 5 and Game 6. Though he toughed his way through the first half Saturday night, Parker pulled himself from the game as San Antonio was preparing its second-half game plan.
“He came to me about eight minutes on the clock (before the second half) and said he couldn’t go,” Popovich told reporters. “He couldn’t cut. He was limping on it. He couldn’t cut sideways or forward really.”
Two sources told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that Parker "should be ready" for Game 1. A four-day layoff can do wonders for an ankle, and in typical Spursian fashion, they won't be divulging any more information than they have to. A smart bettor would lean toward Parker playing—it's the Finals, dude—but it'll be interesting to see whether he's as effective.
The Heat did a fantastic job of limiting Parker last season, holding him to 15.7 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting.
Spoelstra, as he's wont to do, turned to James to defend Parker often in crunch-time moments, with Chalmers mostly handling the duty otherwise. Keeping Chalmers and Cole handling Parker duties—a job they could do well if he's not 100 percent—would allow James to conserve energy for offense, where the Heat are more reliant on him than at any point in the Big Three era.
Health luck is a real factor here, and it mostly comes down to Parker.
How Will the Heat Defend the Pick-and-Roll?
High pick-and-rolls and the hammer action. Anyone who has watched San Antonio for even two back-to-back games can begin identifying those sets and the Spurs' counters within those actions—specifically with Parker handling the ball against a pick.
Attacking the pick-and-roll. Anyone who has watched Miami over the Big Three era for, hell, back-to-back possessions can note the unique style that has become part of its identity. The Heat's freakish athleticism and overall intelligence of their roster allows them to blitz hard against the pick-and-roll, trapping the ball-handler beyond the three-point arc in hopes of forcing a turnover or at the very least disrupting the initial action.
The Spurs are so precise with their ball movement and understand spacing so well that they're one of a select few teams not intimidated by the traps. In fact, they might prefer them. Parker and Ginobili are excellent at anticipating when a big defender is going to jump out against the pick, often quickly rocketing a pass to the screener to set up a four-on-three situation.
There is no winning against the Spurs when they have a numbers advantage, as Oklahoma City learned during the Western finals.
Even if Parker is injured, San Antonio will attempt to goad Miami into similar traps to manufacture open threes or high-percentage looks near the basket.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out during the Indiana series, though, the Heat have begun shying away from those all-out attacks. Against the Pacers, who arguably know how to attack Miami traps better than anyone, Spoelstra had his big men take a step inside the three-point line instead of chasing ball-handlers 30 feet away from the basket. It's something Miami practiced all throughout the regular season—likely with these two teams specifically in mind.
You could see the infancy of those chances last season. Especially with Parker handling the ball, the Heat tended to hang back a beat or two more than typical. Bosh is still meeting Parker farther out on the perimeter here than most teams would in a similar situation, but it was a far deviation from the Heat's reputation.
It's worth noting that San Antonio averaged just 0.708 points per possession when a pick-and-roll ball-handler took a shot, drew a foul or turned the ball over, per Synergy Sports. Speaking of deviations from the norm.
The teams are a year older and the faces doing the defending are different. But if Miami is able to mitigate the pick-and-roll to a similar effect this year, the Spurs are going to walk away empty-handed. And this time the Heat won't even need a miracle Allen three to do it.
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