The 2014 NBA Finals begin on Thursday night, signaling the official start to Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs II, a rematch of last year’s epic championship series.
While it is obvious that big-name players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan must play well for their respective teams to win, other key contributors will make the difference between a 1-0 series lead or deficit.
Viewers should keep an eye on two players in particular who will make a notable impact on Game 1.
Tony Parker is expected to play Thursday despite an injured ankle, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. Parker suffered the injury during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and it became serious enough that he was forced to sit out the second half of Game 6.
While Spurs fans everywhere are thrilled to have their All-Star point guard back in the lineup for the most important series of the season, it is unlikely he will play his usual 30 minutes per game. Parker admitted he isn’t 100 percent healthy, which opens the door for reserve guard Patty Mills.
Although Cory Joseph started at point guard when Parker missed time in the regular season, Mills has largely been the guard to replace the Frenchman when he is on the bench. While Parker will likely get the start, expect Mills to play more than his normal playoff average of 15 minutes per game.
Mills has proven to be an effective guard and has gained head coach Gregg Popovich’s trust. This postseason, Mills has logged 275 minutes, compared to just 31 minutes for all of last year. He has also made 44 field goals, a huge difference from the five he converted during last year’s playoffs.
Look for Mills to provide a spark off the bench in Game 1.
Let’s be honest, aside from an impressive Game 5 (24 points, 10 rebounds) and Game 7 (18 points, five assists), Ginobili was a no-show against the Heat during the 2013 NBA Finals. In four of the seven games against Miami, he scored in single digits, and on three occasions he had a plus/minus of minus-21, minus-22 and minus-23.
He also shot just 25 percent from deep.
Expect Ginobili to have a much better performance in Game 1, in part because he is having a terrific postseason run. Not only is he scoring over 14 points per contest, but he is also doing it on 42 percent shooting from the field and 38 percent from three, which is a huge improvement over last year’s playoffs (11.5/.39/.30).
As noted by USA Today’s Sam Amick, what a difference a year makes:
"The fact that Manu Ginobili is doing Ginobili-esque things again is a vital change from a year ago, when his confidence seemed shattered and he admitted to considering retirement."
The Spurs need Ginobili to be an aggressive scoring threat off the bench, something he was not in five of the seven games against Miami last June. This time around, the shooting guard is confident and playing quality basketball, a trend that will continue on Thursday.
Parker will play and he will be effective, but his minutes will be limited. Mills has gained plenty of valuable experience this season as Parker's replacement, so expect him to make valuable contributions in Game 1.
Ginobili will put last year’s championship demons behind him and play well, like he has all postseason, and provide the consistent playmaking off the bench that the Spurs need. Playing in San Antonio, where opponents have lost by at least 17 points in seven straight playoff games, the Spurs will win with relative ease and capture a 1-0 series lead.
Prediction: Spurs 107, Heat 98
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