The 2014 NBA Finals offers the first rematch since the end of the Michael Jordan era, one that unites two of the greatest dynasties since Jordan's retirement. To many, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs represent a clash between the new South Beach kingdom and the old holdovers from the early to mid-2000s.
However, with the best record in the league, the Spurs have outstripped their reputation as an old team, one that is outdated in reality. As the early odds for Game 1 show, San Antonio is actually the favorite to stake out to an early series lead and steal Game 1:
|Game||Time (ET)||TV Station||Favorite|
|Miami Heat @ San Antonio Spurs||9:00 p.m.||ABC||Spurs -3.5|
via Odds Shark as of June 4, 1 p.m. ET
These two squads are familiar with each other after seven grueling games last season. So what adjustments can each team make in the second rendition? With each franchise gunning for its fifth title, here are keys for both to win the championship.
Miami Heat: Needing a Wingman
The Heat have terrorized the NBA with their small-ball lineups, allowing their uber-athletic stars to stretch defenses past their breaking points with the spacing provided by having a bunch of shooters on the floor. Indeed, when Miami went small against the traditional two-big Indiana Pacers, the Heat put up remarkable scoring numbers:
Miami's offensive efficiency w/ "small" lineups in Games 2-4: 124.8 points/100 possessions. http://t.co/tbXF7mOlIP [in]— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 28, 2014
However, the system only works if Miami can find a reliable wing to pair next to Chris Bosh, a task that has proven far more difficult this season than many anticipated. Between Shane Battier, Ray Allen and James Jones, the Heat have struggled to find the secondary shooting so vital to their offensive philosophy.
Similar struggles could prove fatal against San Antonio. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney notes, traditional lineups have proven suboptimal for the Heat:
In the case that none of those wings can be counted on to knock down shots or play respectable defense, Spoelstra could be forced to trot out lineups that are either smaller (and more vulnerable on defense) or larger (and clunkier on offense) than is optimal. James, Wade and Chris Bosh are good enough to carry Miami through stretches in either alignment, though limiting the length and frequency of those occasions will be vital.
Fortunately for Miami, Rashard Lewis proved a godsend in the Eastern Conference Finals, catching fire from beyond the arc and providing the Heat with a reliable bench scorer. Lewis, who averaged just 4.5 points and 16.2 minutes per game during the regular season, emerged as a vital part of the last series:
Rashard Lewis, by the numbers. - First 36 playoff games with Heat: 38 points, 3 3's. - Last two playoff games with Heat: 31 points, 9 3's.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) June 2, 2014
Outside of the Big Three, who is Miami's most important player in this series?
Whether Lewis remains as effective is impossible to say given his recent track record, but he could certainly make the difference in a tightly contested series. Just as Danny Green's shooting won the Spurs a game last season, Lewis could be counted on to do the same this year.
In the postseason, the Spurs' most frequent lineups have generally included both Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. That figures to continue in the Finals, so the onus is on Miami to bust San Antonio's traditional big lineup and force the Spurs to go smaller in an attempt to limit the spacing.
San Antonio: Handling the Pressure
One of the main appeals of this series is the numerous strength-on-strength matchups between the two teams. Whereas the Spurs operate one of the league's most efficient ball-movement offenses, the Heat's hyperaggressive pressure defense is designed to bust such systems. When Miami's defense hummed along at peak efficiency against Indiana, the Pacers were helpless to combat the Heat:
When the Heat play pressure defense it leads to their fastbreak offense and nobody can beat them.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 25, 2014
As talented as the Spurs are, they will likely face a similar fate if their ball-handlers crack. The series may consequently hinge on Manu Ginobili's ability to handle the offense when Tony Parker rests. Based on the last three series, that should sound like a comforting proposition to Spurs fans:
I think the word for Manu Ginobili's postseason play this year is "sublime."— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 30, 2014
Indeed, Ginobili has been a huge boon to the Spurs this postseason. San Antonio has outscored opponents by a whopping 12.3 points per 100 possessions with Ginobili on the floor. As Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin illustrates, the Spurs need Ginobili to shine against the Heat:
Two key things to watch when the Spurs are on offense. First, how does Manu Ginobili handle the pressure (especially if he gets more time as the defacto point guard with Parker having a bum ankle)? Last Finals he struggled, he was out of control and missed some big plays, and it cost the Spurs. San Antonio needs the Ginobili from the last series to show up.
Second, how does Chris Bosh work on the pick-and-roll? San Antonio will drag him out to be the big defending in that situation and he has to contain Parker, Ginobili and the rest of them and not let them get into the paint. Once there and with the Spurs ball movement even the athletic Heat can’t rotate fast enough to stop a clean-look shot.
Who will be San Antonio's best player in this series?
Ginobili floundered against Miami in last year's Finals, turning the ball over 3.1 times per game, as the Heat picked on him repeatedly. The Argentinian guard had a minus-4.6 plus/minus average in the series, and many will remember his turnovers and missed free throws at the end of Game 6.
Ginobili now has a chance to redeem himself against an older group of Miami wings. If he continues to catalyze the offense as he has thus far, San Antonio could avenge its first Finals loss in franchise history.
All stats via NBA.com.