2014 NBA Finals: Projecting Winners and Losers for Every Key Matchup
The last time the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat tangled in the title round, the storylines could have written themselves before the series started.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker did the heaviest lifting for San Antonio, but the Spurs found their best success in the lopsided numbers game. Five different players averaged at least 11 points (compared to only three for Miami), as Danny Green, once a waiver-wire addition, emerged as an all too appropriate NBA Finals MVP candidate behind a record-breaking perimeter performance.
Eventually, though, Miami's stars shined brighter than San Antonio's could.
The Heat got an incredibly clutch triple from an incredibly clutch shooter in Ray Allen. LeBron James recovered from a rocky shooting start and erupted for 37 points, including five threes, in the series clincher. Mario Chalmers, always good for one huge outing, supplied two (39 total points in Games 2 and 6).
Plenty has changed over the past 12 months, but the potential series-changing matchups seem just as obvious this time around.
Some of them are still the same. The Heat need to control Parker—the head of the Spurs' snake—and his dribble penetration game. The Spurs must find a way to limit James' high-powered offense while exploiting their size advantage at the opposite end.
It's far easier said than done, but both clubs know that already. A lot of what makes each team great are the same things that secured the other's championship ticket.
"Both teams are playing with incredible urgency and desperation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "Two teams that play fairly similarly in terms of what kind of actions create ball movement, the spacing, the three-point shooting and the attackers who can get in the paint."
If the systems were easy to stop, the NBA wouldn't have its first Finals rematch since before the turn of the century.
From the coaches deploying the attacks to the players responsible for executing them, nothing about this series will be easy to handle.
Except for tracing the key storylines to this series, all of which can be captured in the matchups that follow.
Tim Duncan's Size vs. Chris Bosh's Spacing
Winner: Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan wins this matchup, as well as anyone selling purified water in San Antonio. If people are still searching for the Fountain of Youth, it seems like most would start with the longtime home of Duncan and his decade-plus of dominance.
The 38-year-old seems like he still hasn't lost a step. He's putting up 16.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting and 8.9 rebounds for this postseason, with six games of 19-plus points already under his belt.
He dominated the undersized Heat in last year's championship round to the tune of 18.9 points and 12.1 boards. He shot 49.0 percent for that series, and that number included his 3-of-13 shooting dud in Game 2. Take that contest off his stat sheet, and he was a 52.8 percent shooter in the other six games.
He's a terror on the low block, with a lethal mix of size, strength and skill. He's too smart to double in the post, and he's more than comfortable finding offense away from the basket.
Expect Spoelstra to throw multiple looks Duncan's way, and expect the fundamentally sound veteran to exploit them all.
Loser: Chris Bosh
Since migrating to South Beach in 2010, Bosh has become one of the NBA's hardest players to grade.
Fans have a hard time forgetting the image of him as a No. 1 option with the Toronto Raptors, so some struggle to properly place his statistics now that he's trailing two others on the food chain. His regular-season numbers seem so underwhelming (16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds), but they're simply the sign of him playing his part.
"It takes a certain type of strength and character and belief in yourself to play the role he plays," Shane Battier said in May 2013, via Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated.
Bosh's role varies widely but rarely in a way that's conducive to tallying numbers. As a floor-spacing big, he frees up room for James and Dwyane Wade to attack the basket; he's far more of a decoy than a shooter. Often the only source of rim protection in Miami's frontcourt, he's constantly pulled out of rebounding position to challenge shots or derail drives.
In other words, it might not be easy to tell how he's doing in this matchup.
Last time around, he lost all offensive efficiency (46.2 percent shooting from the field, 0-of-6 from three) and got torched by Duncan at the opposite end. Bosh enters this series playing some of his best basketball of the season (23.3 points on 55.3 percent shooting over his last three games), but he's probably due for some regression.
It might not be a big slip, but any decline is likely to cost him this matchup. Duncan is too talented and important to San Antonio's offense for Bosh to survive off the occasional long jumper.
Battle of the Bench Mobs
Winners: Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen
The Spurs enter most series with a quantity advantage in terms of the second team, but the quality performances are the ones that stand the test of time.
To that end, each team in this tilt has a pair of players who will leave their fingerprints on the history books.
Boris Diaw enters this series on a tear after torching the Oklahoma City Thunder for 13.2 points on 49.1 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in the Western Conference Finals. He's a nightmare matchup when his perimeter shot is falling, as he's too big for wing defenders in the post and too quick for post-oriented players away from the basket.
Patty Mills is more of a wild card, but his quick-strike ability could change the outcome of a game. He's had six double-digit scoring outbursts this postseason, four of which were Spurs wins.
Ray Allen's Game 6 dagger might still be the lasting image from last season's championship round, but truth is he was a terror throughout that series. He scored nine or more points in five of the seven games and shot a sizzling .543/.545/.923 for the championship round.
Chris Andersen missed Games 4 and 5 of the conference finals with a thigh injury but returned to provide 10 boards and nine points in 12 minutes and 35 seconds of action in Game 6. Miami is outscoring opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions during Birdman's floor time, via NBA.com, which is the second-highest net rating on the team.
Losers: Manu Ginobili and Norris Cole
Had Manu Ginobili simply disappeared during the 2013 NBA Finals, the Spurs may have survived his absence. Instead, he was noticeable for all the wrong reasons.
"Manu Ginobili was brutal at times during the 2013 Finals, teetering on the wrong side of reckless and costing the Spurs at a time when they needed their Big 3 to play at an elite level," NBA.com's John Schuhmann and Sekou Smith recalled.
The supersub enjoyed a strong bounce-back season, shooting 46.9 percent from the floor this year, but there's a worrisome volatility to his game when you consider how large a role he plays for this team. He's shot below 30 percent from the field seven times this postseason, and he doesn't dial back his attempts just because his shot is off.
With Tony Parker still dealing with an ankle injury, the Spurs might need even more from Ginobili both as a scorer and distributor. He's capable of doing both, but consistency is always a major concern.
Norris Cole has given the Heat great minutes at times this postseason, shining brightest as an energetic defender. If that's as big a role as he plays in this series, he'll be fine.
Where he gets into trouble is when the Heat ask him to be more than he is: a career 40.9 percent shooter who averages more than one turnover for every two assists.
Gregg Popovich's Experience vs. Erik Spoelstra's Versatility
Winner: Gregg Popovich
With multiple future Hall of Famers on the floor for both of these teams, it shouldn't be easy to recognize the importance of the coaches involved.
Yet, it will be widely apparent as soon as Gregg Popovich starts spreading his chess pieces all across the board.
During the regular season, he deployed 30 different starting lineups (second most in the NBA). He's used just two in these playoffs, making his one and only wrinkle (swapping in Matt Bonner for Tiago Splitter) for the final two games of the conference finals.
The reigning Coach of the Year emboldens his reserves to feel that they can make a major impact whenever they take the floor, and often they look like they can. Even end-of-the-bench guys like Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph have had their moments in this playoff run.
Pop has the pieces to go conventional or small with his frontcourt. He can overload his perimeter with athletes, slashers or shooters. He can deploy five competent ball-handlers at once (by putting Diaw at the 5) and hit a defense in waves, or he can run everything through Parker and Duncan.
Pop has options, plus a history that says he'll put them to their best use.
Loser: Erik Spoelstra
It's tough to pick a winner and loser in this matchup, particularly when the latter has to be the grossly underappreciated Erik Spoelstra.
Granted, he has had the luxury of heading up a historically significant collection of talent. But there's a double-edged sword to working with a roster like this. It's almost impossible for him to get credit for any success, and he's an obvious scapegoat on the rare moments when anything goes wrong in Miami.
He's a mastermind when it comes to managing egos, which is one of, if not the, most important responsibilities of an NBA head coach. He's established a pecking order between three former No. 1 options, made one-time key contributors (Allen, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis) appreciate diminished roles that don't always include playing time and always deflected praise away from himself.
He has superstar players, which allows him to compete at the highest level of this superstars league. But it's the way he's handled those superstars and the precedent that treatment set for the rest of the team that have made Miami a perennial contender.
That's not to diminish his strategic savvy, either. He all but closed the door on the Eastern Conference Finals by slotting Lewis into his starting lineup, something he'd done just six times in the regular season.
This coaching matchup looks an awful lot like a coin flip, but history says Pop deserves a slight edge over his counterpart.
Tony Parker vs. Miami's Point Guards
Winner: Tony Parker
Obviously, Parker needs a clean bill of health to leave a notable imprint on this series. If he can put his sprained ankle behind him, though, he'll give the Spurs their biggest lift in terms of individual matchups.
His statistics are a bit deceptive (16.7 points, 5.7 assists during the regular season). They certainly don't seem to belong to a franchise player.
Yet, that's exactly the role that he fills for the Spurs. As long as he can find his way into the paint—whether by beating his man off the dribble or navigating around screens—this offense can shred any defense that stands in its way.
He averaged 17.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting during the 51 Spurs' wins in which he appeared during the regular season, via Basketball-Reference.com. In the 17 losses he played, those numbers fell to 15.2 and 43.5, respectively.
His win-loss splits saw even more dramatic swings during the 2013 championship clash. He tallied 17.7 points on 56.8 percent shooting and had 6.3 assists against 1.7 turnovers in San Antonio's three victories. During its four losses, he managed only 14.3 points on 32.3 percent shooting along with 6.5 assists and 2.5 turnovers.
The Heat don't have a point guard close to Parker's class, and he'll need to remind them of that fact. If the Heat are forced to use one of their top perimeter defenders (James or Wade) to slow Parker, that could be a major lift for San Antonio. His stats might suffer, but he could deplete the energy of those tasked with chasing him around a steady stream of screens.
Losers: Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole
When Mario Chalmers is on, he's a disruptive defensive force, lights-out three-point shooter and capable creator off the dribble. Norris Cole's best games are defined by insatiable energy and welcome offensive contributions.
What makes those nights as special as they are, though, is the fact that they're so unexpected.
More often than not, Chalmers is a forgettable piece of Miami's offensive puzzle. He's been held to eight points or fewer in 11 of the team's 15 playoff games this season.
Cole is even less reliable. He's had more scoreless nights (three) than double-digit outbursts (two) during this postseason.
The Heat don't need a ton of offense from these two, but both have to prove themselves capable of slowing Parker's penetrations. The less Miami needs to help on Parker's drives, the fewer uncontested looks it will surrender to San Antonio's snipers.
Of course, that's far easier said than done. Parker is a six-time All-Star and the obvious choice for this head-to-head battle.
Danny Green's Shot vs. Dwyane Wade's Skill
Winner: Dwyane Wade
The careful minutes management that Erik Spoelstra and the Heat trainers used for Dwyane Wade this season had its share of drawbacks.
Miami struggled to find any sort of continuity during the regular season. No one seemed to know when Wade would stay or go, and ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst said the uncertainty "occasionally frustrated" some of Wade's teammates.
Regardless of how frustrating it may have been, it's now officially justified. Wade has been nothing short of remarkable this postseason, and he seems to be getting better with each series.
Over his last seven games, he's averaging 21.0 points on 54.7 percent shooting (46.2 percent from deep), 4.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds. He had only scored 21 points twice before the championship round last postseason and shot below 43 percent in five of the last six games leading up to that series.
Not only has his production improved, but so too has the way he's gone about getting those numbers.
"He's looked comfortable working out of the post, better at getting into the paint and sharp on his off-ball cuts along the baseline," Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine noted.
If the Spurs pack the paint to slow down James again, Wade seems fully prepared to punish them for that extra attention. He should win this matchup by a sizable margin.
Loser: Danny Green
Danny Green does two things extremely well inside the lines: play defense and shoot the long ball.
The Heat should know that by now after watching him explode for 55.1 percent three-point shooting in last year's NBA Finals, which included a paltry 2-of-11 showing over the final two games.
When Green gets run off the three-point line, his effectiveness drops dramatically. Of his 218 made field goals this season, 132 of them (60.6 percent) came from distance.
He has to be spectacular at the defensive end, because he'll be Miami's safety valve at the opposite side. As long as the Heat can stay glued to him behind the line, they can either buy one of their defenders (like James or Wade) some extra rest on him or leave one of their poor perimeter defenders (like Allen) to handle the assignment.
Kawhi Leonard's Aggressiveness vs. LeBron James' Execution
Winner: LeBron James
LeBron James may have lost his stranglehold on the MVP award, but his NBA throne remains unchallenged.
Video game numbers rarely look this good: 27.1 points on 56.7 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He's a jack-of-all-trades and a master of several.
He just lit up the league's best defense for 22.8 points on 55.9 percent shooting in the Eastern Conference Finals. Throw out his foul-riddled seven-point effort in Game 5, and those numbers climb to 26.0 and 60.2.
A well-versed student of the game, he's hungry for a(nother) spot in the history books. Oh, and he's motivated for the matchup too.
Not only did he pick up some bulletin board material courtesy of Duncan, but James was also left off the NBA's All-Defensive First Team, per NBA.com. For someone who has long fashioned himself a viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate, that snub could provide the spark for James to bring the top-notch defensive effort he seemed to give in spurts during the regular season.
If he gets dialed in defensively, San Antonio will have a major issue, because one can rest assured the King will flex his muscle at the opposite side throughout the series.
Loser: Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard keeps inching his way toward NBA stardom.
An All-Defensive Second Team selection like James, Leonard also set career marks in points (12.8), rebounds (6.2), assists (2.0), blocks (0.8) and field-goal percentage (52.2) this season. His scoring average has climbed to 13.3 during the postseason, where he's flashed a very respectable 48.4 shooting percentage.
He may need to find another offensive gear in this series—or several if Parker's ankle flares up—to make James work as a defender. The third-year pro has already shown both the effort and physical tools needed to make the four-time MVP fight for his offense.
"Leonard can’t match LeBron’s bulk, but he’s strong, with giant arms that bother LeBron on the way up," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote. "And if LeBron faces up for a dribble attack, Leonard has the speed and footwork to contain him."
Popovich won't put Leonard on an island against James, but the Spurs would like to give the least amount of help possible. The Heat pack a three-point punch almost as powerful as the Spurs', particularly if Lewis has rediscovered his stroke.
For Leonard, the challenge isn't winning this matchup—it's trimming the gap between him and James as much as he can.
This pairing clearly tilts in Miami's favor. The only question will be by how much.
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