2014 NBA Finals: Biggest X-Factors for San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat
You have all heard the expression "time flies"; sometimes, things that happened eons ago feel like they just occurred yesterday. It's a phenomenon that we have all experienced in our lives. Add the 2014 NBA Finals to the list, as the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat do battle for the second consecutive year.
Can you believe Ray Allen's game-tying three-pointer in Game 6 was 12 months ago? It's hard to fathom Tim Duncan missing that bunny and smacking the floor is nearly 365 days old.
Well, it doesn't matter if you can believe it or not, it is fact, and you know what? This rematch was meant to be. This was fate. This was destiny.
This is no disrespect to the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Indiana Pacers, but it simply would not have seemed right if the Spurs and Heat didn't face off again.
After all, the 2013 Finals gave us one of the best finals series—no, playoff series—we have witnessed over the past two decades.
And now, we get to experience it once more.
But this isn't just about the rubber finals match between Duncan and LeBron James (remember, Duncan beat James in 2007). There are so many other factors that are going to determine who comes out on top in this war.
As Terrell Owens once said, "Getcha popcorn ready."
Tony Parker's Ankle
Tony Parker has a sprained ankle, but he says he will play in Game 1, via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express News. That much we do know. What we don't know is how severe the ankle sprain really is.
While it certainly doesn't appear to be crippling, it drew enough concern out of Gregg Popovich to sit Parker for the second half of the Spurs' Game 6 win over the Thunder. Apparently, Parker sprained the ankle in Game 4, aggravated it in Game 5 and was then having problems cutting in warm-ups prior to Game 6.
Of course, Popovich understood that even if San Antonio dropped Game 6, it would have hosted Game 7 on its home floor, so he was willing to roll the dice on his team's depth to close the series out in Oklahoma City (which it did). Perhaps if it were an elimination game, Parker would have played.
The good news is that because San Antonio was able to end the Western Conference Finals in six, Parker's ankle was able to get five days of rest.
The Spurs certainly have more than enough depth to compensate for an ailing Parker, but things would certainly be a heck of a lot easier if he were ready and raring to go.
Parker can give the Heat absolute hell on pick-and-rolls, utilizing his blinding quickness to get into the lane and either finish with one of his patented teardrops or kick it out to one of San Antonio's many lethal shooters as the defense collapses.
"Last Finals, he (Parker) started off great but then was inconsistent, perhaps because of a nagging hamstring injury," said ESPN's Israel Gutierrez. "If Parker can shake off a left ankle injury this time around, he can make life miserable for Miami by constantly collapsing the defense."
So, if he is hobbled in any way, Miami catches a bit of a break.
If not, then the Frenchman's explosiveness could give the Heat major issues.
The Miami Heat's Reserves
These days, it's common knowledge that the Spurs bench is a lethal unit. It ranked No. 1 in scoring this season, per HoopsStats.com, and it has been just as deadly in these playoffs.
As a matter of fact, in the deciding Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio's reserves outscored Oklahoma City's 51-5.
This could spell trouble for the Heat, as their bench ranked just 21st in scoring this year.
In order for Miami to win slugfests against the Spurs and take some of the load off of its Big Three, the Heat's pine will have to at least put forth a respectable effort and keep the difference in bench production to a minimum.
ESPN's Royce Young made note of this in his key for Miami to win this series: "If Dwyane Wade plays at his highest level of the postseason. And that's saying something, because Wade has been tremendous thus far. But the Heat's bench is largely thinned, and expecting considerable production there is iffy."
Mike Miller is gone, and Shane Battier appears to have lost another step since last season.
That means Ray Allen, 38, will have to be knocking down three-pointers with regularity, and Norris Cole must provide a consistent spark. Chris Andersen, who is banged up, needs to hit the offensive glass and defend.
Even players such as Rashard Lewis and James Jones may be counted upon to put some points on the board.
Heck, if you're Erik Spoelstra, you may even have to consider giving Michael Beasley some minutes (and I still really can't comprehend why Spoelstra has put Beasley in the dog house to begin with).
While this series is mostly about star power, the reserves could ultimately decide which team comes out on top.
This won't be an easy task for Miami's bench, but the good news is that it has experience.
Boris Diaw's Defense on LeBron James
You really have to look hard to find something Boris Diaw can't do. He can score in the post. He can shoot from the perimeter and spread the floor. He can pass. He can handle the ball. He can hit the glass. He can defend.
Diaw is probably the most versatile player not named LeBron James in this series, and his contributions will be absolutely vital and could swing the Finals.
Perhaps the most important contribution Diaw can make, though, is on the defensive end.
Last year, Diaw did an outstanding job on James, particularly in San Antonio's Game 5 win.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, LeBron went 1-of-8 from the floor when Diaw defended him in that contest. James' first four shots against the Frenchman came from at least 19 feet away from the basket, and when he was able to get inside against Diaw, he didn't convert, going 0-of-3 in the post.
While your first reaction may be, "Huh? Boris Diaw? Really?", it really isn't that difficult to comprehend why the Spurs' do-everything forward was able to be so effective.
While LeBron is unquestionably one of the league's most athletic physical specimens, he generally relies more on his size and brute strength to overpower defenders. It's kind of hard to overpower Diaw.
He is listed at 250 pounds, but you kind of get the feeling that he is closer to 300. Plus, he has very quick and nimble feet, allowing him to stay in front of James on the perimeter, not to mention the fact that his girth makes getting around him an exasperating experience.
The crazy thing about all of this is that Diaw wasn't seeing the same kind of hefty minutes during last year's postseason. As a matter of fact, Diaw did not even play during Game 3 of the Finals.
Compare that to these playoffs, where Diaw is getting 22.8 minutes a contest and averaging .158 win shares per 48 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com, and you'll realize that 2013-14 Boris Diaw is an entirely different animal. His 26-point outburst in San Antonio's clinching Game 6 win during the Western Conference Finals is concrete evidence of that.
Now, Kawhi Leonard will more than likely see the bulk of the time guarding LeBron, but Diaw will probably be next in line when Leonard goes to the bench. If he is able to force James into long twos and use his size to stonewall James on the block like last year, the Heat could be in for a very long series.
Dwyane Wade's Endurance
Dwyane Wade certainly looks healthier this year than he did last season. That's for darn sure.
The accomplished 2-guard is averaging 18.7 points per game off 51.9 percent shooting as opposed to the 15.9 points he posted off a 45.7 percent clip in 2013. He is also recording .147 win shares per 48 minutes, a stark contrast to the .108 he tallied a year ago.
The question is, can Wade maintain it, and can he do enough to help LeBron lift a third consecutive Larry O'Brien trophy?
While Wade definitely looks more spry this time around, it is asking a bit too much to expect him to turn the clock back three or four years and consistently post around 25 points a night again.
He has absolutely been efficient, but the issue is that he does not get to the free-throw line with the same kind of frequency that he once did. This is in direct correlation with his drop in explosiveness, as he is not the same deadly slasher we became so accustomed to seeing during his prime.
Well, against the Spurs, Wade is going to have to be more aggressive.
The Heat will need the Wade we saw in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, where the three-time champion posted 24.3 points off of 62 percent shooting—but not just for a few contests, though. They will need that all series, as the San Antonio Spurs are not the Indiana Pacers.
Will Wade's knees hold up over the course of what will surely be the toughest series Miami will endure this postseason? If they do, then the Heat will have a very good shot, as the tandem of James and Wade is almost impossible to stop when it is firing on all cylinders.
Popovich's approach on how to handle it should be interesting.
"Pop likes mind games," said Wade, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick.
Indeed, Dwyane. Indeed.
Chris Bosh and the Spurs' Floor Spacing
This one may seem obvious, but it stands out quite a bit in this series.
Here is where the Spurs' floor spacing could be absolutely devastating.
Miami doesn't have anyone who can consistently defend Duncan one-on-one. Its best option is probably Udonis Haslem, but it will be risky for Spoelstra to give the veteran heavy minutes due to the fact that it would hurt his team offensively and against an offensive powerhouse of an opponent, no less.
That leaves Bosh and Andersen, two guys Duncan used throughout much of the Finals last year.
Against most ballclubs, you could send double-teams, but if you do that with San Antonio, Duncan will just kick it out to whomever is open on the perimeter, and chances are that it is going to be a good three-point shooter.
This makes Bosh all the more vital in this series. While he may not be able to stop Duncan, he must do everything in his power to at least ensure that the future Hall of Famer doesn't dominate down low.
That means trying to force Duncan to catch the ball out of post position and aggressively front him if he isn't able to do that. That means getting his hands up to inhibit Duncan on hook shots and layup attempts.
James and Wade may be the Heat's two best players, but Bosh may very well be the most important one in these Finals.
At the bare minimum, he must contain and limit Duncan. If not, Duncan will dominate the one-on-one matchup and force Spoelstra's hand in deciding to double down. That could mean a perimeter party for Danny Green and Co.
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," Duncan told TNT's David Aldridge after the Spurs' series-clinching win over the Thunder, via ESPN.com. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time."
Duncan later added that San Antonio was "happy" that the Heat are the team it is facing for all the marbles, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports.
Of course, Duncan made those statements in his typical stoic, non-confrontational demeanor without a hint of belligerence. But make no mistake about it: Beneath the big man's cordial interior is a cold-blooded assassin whose one and only focus is destroying his opponent.
Regardless, this was uncharacteristic of Duncan, someone who is rarely expressive and seldom provides a juicy quote. For Timmy, that stuff was about as juicy as it gets.
As this outstanding 2012 Spurs commercial featuring Mobb Deep's famous "Shook Ones Pt. II" instrumental tells us, talking a big game is not San Antonio's modus operandi, so the fact that Duncan strayed away from that creed, if ever so slightly, speaks volumes about the kind of disdain that he and his teammates have for Miami.
"They don't like us," said LeBron, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "I can sense that from Tim's comments the past couple days."
And you know what, who could blame them?
It's not that they necessarily dislike the Heat players, per se, it's that they despise the symbolic meaning of the Miami logo.
The Spurs were 28 seconds away from capturing their fifth championship last June only to have the Game 6 victory snatched right from underneath their noses. Throw in a close loss in Game 7 that featured Duncan missing a very makeable shot in the lane late in the contest and you can understand why San Antonio feels the way it does.
Now, the Spurs have an opportunity to right their wrongs from a year ago, and opportunities like this don't come around very often. After all, this is the first time Duncan has ever made back-to-back Finals appearances, and it's only the first time since 1998 that the Finals feature a rematch.
Plus, let's not forget what we heard from George Karl back in February on SportsCenter regarding Duncan: "...this is going to be his last year...," via Paul Garcia of Project Spurs.
San Antonio not only has redemption on its mind, but this unit also surely realizes that this may truly be its final chance to hang another banner.
Talk about a great storyline.