Sometimes, in the course of the year, the NBA’s landscape is completely altered.
New titans rise. New superstars stake their claim. New rivalries are born.
This wasn’t really one of those years.
A season after they faced off in a seven-game NBA Finals that went down as one of the most competitive and exciting that’s ever been played—ultimately ending with the Heat’s second-straight championship—the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are at it again starting Thursday at 9 p.m. in the AT&T Center.
This 2013 Finals rematch has had a feeling of inevitability for some time. It was the consensus pick before the season began and where the smart money went before the playoffs. Now that we’re here, while the pundits give the Spurs a slight edge, the sharps—according to OddsShark—have the series dead even.
It should be an incredibly competitive championship round. Sound familiar? Even the players view the series almost as a continuation of the battle they locked in last season.
"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," Chris Bosh told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (h/t Grant Hughes).
The Heat, of course, managed to pull out a 4-3 win in this extended series' first seven games—and, while the Spurs have been the best team in the regular and postseason, it’s possible for them to turn the trick again. There’s only one LeBron James, after all, and Miami’s got him.
Miami’s game plan for the series will be a combination of sticking to its own strengths and adjusting to the Spurs. The first component belongs in the latter category.
Bullying the Ball-handler
Tony Parker tweaked his ankle in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, then reinjured it in the following game. While sources, and the guard's gutty track record, suggest Parker will play in the NBA Finals, the Spurs catalyst might be in a weakened state. Miami can pounce on this.
The Heat already play hyperaggressive trapping defense—that’s their thing—and minus Parker, the Spurs might be susceptible to just such an attack. Though, on paper, San Antonio moves the ball so well that it looks impervious to traps like the Heat’s, with Manu Ginobili—or an enfeebled Parker—handling the ball, will the Spurs be as flexible?
As ProBasketballTalk outlined, Ginobili already struggled mightily in the last Finals. As did Parker, at times, after his right hamstring was strained during Game 3 last season. While the veteran rebounded to score 26 points n 10-of-14 shooting in Game 5, he was clearly forcing things in Game's 6 and 7. During the two Heat wins, the point guard shot 9-of-35 from the floor for just 29 points.
The Heat surely have this on their radar and will look to fluster and flummox whoever holds the ball for San Antonio.
Small Ball, Big Tactic
ProBasketballTalk hit on another key factor in the series, as well. Miami wants to go small. Putting shooters on the floor allows the team to create space for, duh, shots, but it also widens the driving lanes for LeBron and Dwyane Wade. This matchup puts any team in a pickle, but it's an especially problematic one for San Antonio. The Spurs are terrific defensively when they play Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together, but it's impossible to run those guys out there together when Miami is in small-ball mode.
At risk of being reductive: Splitter and Duncan are both tremendous. By measure of wins produced, according to Box Score Geeks, both produced wins at a clip at least 50 percent better than league average the past two seasons, while, according to Basketball-Reference, each produced win shares at least 60 percent better than league average over the same period. The Spurs are worse absent these guys.
By embracing a strength here, Miami forces the Spurs to a position of weakness. Not a bad one-two.
The Heat also need to get Wade going. The star rested 28 games this season in preparation for this moment, and while it looks to have worked—he averaged nearly 20 points on almost 55 percent shooting in downing the Indiana Pacers—he faces a significant challenge this round: Danny Green.
Green was a major thorn in Wade’s side during last season's Finals, often a step (or two) ahead of the All-Star.
Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes captured the dynamic and its impact on the series.
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.
As Hughes mentioned, Wade does appear rested and ready to fire on all cylinders for Miami. It’ll need him. But not quite as much as it'll need this guy.
Kawhi Leonard is a very fine basketball player and is especially effective defensively, but he’s not going to be able to do much here. Leonard was reasonably successful against James last season, forcing him into more long jump shots than the efficiency-obsessed LBJ surely would prefer. But while James shot under 45 percent from the floor, he still carried averages of over 25 points, nearly 11 rebounds and seven assists per game.
Simply put, the Heat need LeBron to be as active as possible in this series. He’s just that good right now. James is leading the NBA in win shares and player efficiency rating these playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference. It’s the fourth-straight season and fifth time in six years he’s led the postseason by the former metric.
So this is a matchup James can win, in a vacuum, but on top of that he seems especially motivated. The Spurs have made no secret about relishing a rematch with Miami. That seems to rub South Beach’s star the wrong way.
"They don't like us. They don't," James told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "I can sense it from Timmy's comments over the last couple of days."
“They wanted this. They wanted us. And we'll be ready for the challenge," he added.