NBA Finals 2014: Position-by-Position Matchup Preview
No, the league hasn't altered the format of the championship round. But after watching this year's Finals participants do battle in seven hard-fought contests last year, the rematch feels more like an extension of that tilt than the beginning of a new one.
Chris Bosh said as much, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel: "Because we've played this team before, and because they've played us, it's kind of like picking right back up where we left off. So this is Game 8, so to speak."
These teams are well acquainted with one another, so the individual matchups and rotations won't provide any surprises...unless, of course, they do.
See, both teams have changed since last season, with Mike Miller leaving the Heat and Gary Neal bolting from San Antonio. Those two played key roles in last year's Finals, and their spots will be filled by new bodies.
Plus, both Miami and the Spurs have recently gone back to smaller lineups after spending most of the season playing bigger. The Heat dumped Udonis Haslem from the starting five three games into the Eastern Conference Finals, while San Antonio severed Tiago Splitter from the first unit midway through its series with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Familiar as they may be, the Heat and Spurs each have big decisions and intriguing matchup options heading into the Finals.
And with two teams as experienced, capable and hungry as these two, the slightest advantage could make all the difference.
Center: Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Bosh presents a matchup problem for the center tasked with guarding him—in this case, Tim Duncan.
Though everyone seems to forget that Bosh didn't hit a single three-point shot in last year's Finals, the threat of his long-distance stroke (which improved to 33.9 percent this year on 2.8 attempts per game) makes conventional bigs like Duncan uncomfortable.
What Duncan gives up in mobility, he'll get back with strength and smarts. He's bulkier than Bosh, and although the Heat center has been an admirable competitor against bigger foes all year, Duncan figures to have the edge on the interior.
In last year's seven-game series, Duncan dominated Bosh, piling up 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. Those figures dwarfed Bosh's averages of 11.9 points and 8.9 rebounds.
It would be nice if Bosh could improve his statistical production, but we've seen just how valuable his mere presence on the court is to Miami's prized offensive spacing. Expect Duncan to concede as many long twos as Bosh is willing to take, while help rotations come from multiple angles to contest his threes.
Therein lies San Antonio's key advantage at this positional matchup: Its defensive scheme is sound enough to leave Duncan on an island most of the time, but it can also send helpers to bother Bosh if he spaces out too far for Duncan's liking.
On the other hand, when Bosh needs help on Duncan in the post, the Spurs can exploit that assistance by whipping the ball out of the double-team and around the perimeter until they find an open shooter. Ancient as he seems, Duncan is still a load on the block, a brilliant passer and, frankly, a superior all-around force when compared to Bosh.
Power Forward: Rashard Lewis vs. Matt Bonner
Or Rashard Lewis vs. Boris Diaw.
Or Udonis Haslem vs. Tiago Splitter.
Or Shane Battier vs. ... oh, you get the idea.
The power forward matchup is easily the hardest one to predict in this series because we can't be sure who'll be involved. Both the Heat and Spurs started their conference Finals series with conventional bigs in the first unit—Haslem for the Heat, and Splitter for the Spurs.
That changed midway through both series, though, with each club opting for somebody who could stretch the defense out to the three-point line. The Spurs started Bonner to take Serge Ibaka out of the lane and basically never paired Splitter with Duncan again.
And Rashard Lewis dusted off the cobwebs to give the Heat more than anyone expected against the Pacers.
Because those two finished the last two series their teams played (and won) as starters, it's fair to assume they'll get the nod in the Finals.
But really, who knows?
How each team handles this position will say a ton about the stylistic tone they're trying to set. San Antonio started two big men all season long, only to abandon it against OKC. And we saw the Heat use Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh together far more frequently than ever before during the 2013-14 campaign.
If either club wants to go big, that's an option. If spacing and shooting are more important priorities, they've each got the weapons to do that.
Diaw is really the guy who swings this matchup in San Antonio's favor, though. He may never start, but he'll play critical minutes as a do-it-all big who can even give LeBron James problems on defense. Bonner is dangerous, and Splitter is criminally underrated, so the Spurs have two other great options who'll surely see minutes.
The Heat liked what they saw from Lewis in the last round, and you can never count out Haslem, Andersen (though he's really a center when on the floor) or Battier as guys who could potentially step up at the 4.
But Diaw is the ace in the hole in this series, and he'll be a matchup problem for whichever Heat forward has to check him.
Small Forward: LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard
We all agree Kawhi Leonard is a fantastic young player with stardom in his future.
But he's not on James' level.
In the 2013 Finals, LBJ averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists, but he shot just 44.7 percent from the field, which is a testament to Leonard's defensive abilities. Though aided by the occasional Diaw switch, Leonard spent the vast majority of his minutes hounding the game's best player.
Somehow, the Spurs small forward also found time to average 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds on 51.3 percent shooting during the series. And he even chipped in 19 points and 16 boards in Game 7.
Still, King James has the advantage over any opponent he faces. And it can only help that Leonard just spent six games chasing around Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It's unclear whether Leonard actually ever feels fatigue, but dealing with an athletic dynamo and an MVP in the same series must have taken some kind of toll.
Ultimately, James is going to get to his spots, find teammates and score as necessary. Leonard can make those things more difficult than most, but he won't stop the game's best player.
And though James has been somewhat disengaged on defense all year long, it stands to reason he'll muster some extra intensity and focus in pursuit of his third ring.
Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade vs. Danny Green
Dwyane Wade built his entire season around the desire to peak when the Heat needed him most.
And now that they're in the Finals, squaring off with the best team they've faced since...well, the last time they played the Spurs, the Heat need D-Wade to go full-out.
No more picking spots. No more rest. No more excuses.
And Danny Green is going to test him. We know that because the Spurs shooting guard buried 25 triples over the first five games of the Finals last time around as Wade struggled to close out quickly and often lost his man in transition.
This is a matchup in which Wade must be fully focused on both ends.
That's the mental side, and it'll be taxing. Physically, Wade appears ready to rock.
Having just finished dispatching the Pacers with 19.8 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field and an inexplicable 46.2 percent accuracy rate from long distance, Wade seems like a guy ready to let it all hang out against San Antonio.
Green can't be ignored, and he'll defend Wade as well as anyone. But this is a matchup between a seemingly healthy superstar and a specialist.
Point Guard: Mario Chalmers vs. Tony Parker
We haven't had to break out the "if healthy" caveat yet, which is a good thing because seeing the two best teams in the league at full strength should be every fan's hope.
But we're using it now, as Tony Parker's bum ankle cost him the second half of the Spurs' Game 6 win over OKC in the conference Finals and casts his health for the Finals into doubt.
Sources close to the Spurs told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that Parker "should be ready" to give it a go in Game 1, but don't expect much more specificity than that. San Antonio knows there's no benefit in providing much information on its point guard, and we've seen it take a stingy approach to injury information in the past.
This is all a roundabout way of making the following point: Parker, if healthy, is a significantly more impactful player than Mario Chalmers. And while it's fine to talk about how the Spurs survived against OKC in Game 6 with Cory Joseph and Patty Mills handling the point, Parker must be a factor for the Spurs to beat the Heat.
Chalmers is the equivalent of a game-managing quarterback in the NFL. He's out there to move the ball, avoid crippling mistakes and generally defer to the other weapons on the roster. Also, he's out there so James and Wade have somebody to yell at.
Blessed with irrational confidence, he'll take big shots and occasionally push the pace, but he's not going to be a difference-maker.
A healthy Parker will demand tons of help as he probes the lane and routinely leaves Chalmers in the dust.
San Antonio has some first-unit advantages in this series, but other than the edge Parker has over Chalmers, none are especially significant.
Its bench, however, is worlds better than Miami's.
With Manu Ginobili, Diaw, Mills, Marco Belinelli, Joseph and either Bonner or Splitter, the Spurs can toss out a half-dozen highly capable reserves to keep the pressure on when their starters take a breather. Because San Antonio is so strongly committed to its offensive system, there's often no notable drop-off in performance when backups check in.
Miami has plenty of veterans at its disposal—including Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Andersen—but none are as consistently reliable as the unit the Spurs can bring off their bench.
And Ginobili is in a class by himself.
After a troublingly poor performance against Miami last year, there were real concerns he was done as a big-time contributor. Retirement talk floated around freely.
But he came back for another run and has been as devastatingly crafty and competitive as ever. Whether handling the ball as a de facto point guard in relief of Parker or firing off cold-blooded triples late in the game, Ginobili is a ridiculously talented and intelligent game-changer.
On balance, San Antonio's subs outperformed the Heat's reserves this year, scoring 44.5 points per game to Miami's 29.6, per HoopsStats.com. But Ginobili, on his own, gives the Spurs a massive edge in bench play.
Even now, when the Heat's stars figure to log at least 40 minutes per game routinely, reserves still matter. So as this series plays out, expect San Antonio to make hay when Miami's big names either rest or succumb to fatigue on the floor.
Coaching: Erik Spoelstra vs. Gregg Popovich
Point the first: Erik Spoelstra is a fantastic, comically underrated coach who gets unfairly overlooked as a strategist and motivator because he happens to have the universe's best basketball player on his team.
Point the second: Gregg Popovich is better.
That's an oversimplification, but Pop's incredible ability to keep his team motivated for nearly two decades, adjust his offensive philosophy to keep up with the times and draw the absolute best out of every player he mentors elevates him above all of his peers.
The latest example of his genius came in Game 6 against the Thunder, when he improvised to replace Parker in the second half.
Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explains:
Out of these dire circumstances, Popovich did a particularly quintessential Popovich thing: he cobbled together a second half starting lineup that had played a grand total of zero minutes during the entire 2013-14 season and 2014 playoffs. Third-year, third-string point guard Cory Joseph, the second-to-last player taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, joined Danny Green, Leonard, Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner, who had been tapped to replace Tiago Splitter for matchup purposes. In the biggest game of the season, Popovich moved on without Parker by playing the role of jazz conductor, randomly pointing at various members of his Big Band to keep the music going.
Spoelstra won't get embarrassed by any stretch, and he'll make adjustments to keep pace with Pop most of the time.
But nobody's better than the master.