We have nothing to complain about.
Outside the cities of Indianapolis and Oklahoma City and their surrounding areas, the NBA playoffs have gone about as well as humanly possible. We were never going to be able to keep up the nightly fever pitch that was the first round, but after an up-and-down few weeks, fans get the rematch that's been a year in the making.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are the two best teams on the planet. Just as they were a year ago. There are changes galore on both rosters—ones that could define the series—but this feels like familiar summer programming with a slight cast reshuffle. Oh, San Antonio Heat is back for a second season! And they added Greg Oden; I always enjoyed his work on E.R.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra are back. So are Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. And, apparently, so are a lot of "ands." (I'll quit now.)
This year's Finals will prove a proper resolution to the story that we never wanted to end last year. The one that featured the clutchest shot in NBA history, Tim Duncan's heartbreaking missed bunny and infinite sequences of beautiful basketball. It was one of the most memorable Finals in league history, and now it's back for a second go-around.
Let's hope this sequel goes a lot better than The Hangover reduxes. With that in mind, let's preview our return to Spurs-Heatdom, highlighting when and where you can watch all seven games and predicting the overall series outcome.
|2014 NBA Finals Schedule|
|ate||Matchup||Start Time (ET)||Channel||Stream|
|Thu, June 5||Game 1: Heat at Spurs||9 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Sun, June 8||Game 2: Heat at Spurs||8 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Tue, June 10||Game 3: Spurs at Heat||9 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Thu, June 12||Game 4: Spurs at Heat||9 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Sun, June 15||Game 5: Heat at Spurs*||8 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Tue, June 17||Game 6: Spurs at Heat*||9 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
|Fri, June 20||Game 7: Heat at Spurs*||9 p.m.||ABC||WatchABC|
Heat vs. Spurs NBA Finals Preview
Let's start with the fun part: Not even the sportsbooks can figure out which team is going to win. Odds Shark has the Heat and Spurs both at -110 coming into the series, which is as close as you're going to get at even odds at this point. The books are so uncertain in this series that they're almost entirely counting on the vig to ensure a profit.
For good reason. Going through and rewatching some of the 2013 Finals, both regular-season matchups and then what I've seen from both teams this year, you're not going to find two better-matched teams.
These are brilliantly coached, uber-talented teams with intelligent players who know one another intimately. The series will be won not in Game 1 or Game 2—but via the adjustments Spoelstra and Pop make from Game 1 to Game 2 and so on, and whether they pull the right strings along the way.
The chess moves begin with the lineups submitted for Game 1.
A year ago, the Spurs came into the Finals with many citing their size advantage over the small-ball-adoring Heat. Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan had finally become the reliable big-man duo they'd always dreamed, with the former even taking most of the difficult defensive responsibilities. Miami, still reeling from its seven-game slog against Indiana, played right into Popovich's hands in Game 1 by starting Udonis Haslem.
Spoelstra won the series when he began steering into the curve. Rather than forcing Haslem onto the floor for matchup purposes, the Heat turned Haslem into a starter by name only by Game 3 and abandoned him almost entirely as the series went along.
Haslem's irrelevance combined with the increase in minutes for Mike Miller and Shane Battier at the small-ball 4 wound up mitigating San Antonio's size advantage altogether. Splitter's defensive effect is rendered moot when forced near the perimeter, and Duncan is too old at this point to be chasing shooters around screens.
With Splitter unable to make Miami pay, he was relegated to the bench as Popovich played his long-standing ace in the hole—moving Ginobili into the starting lineup. The Spaniard played just four minutes in Game 7 and did not start for San Antonio against the Heat during the regular season. Oklahoma City was also able to remove Splitter from the equation, so this might be another disappointingly quiet series for the $36 million man.
Given Battier's struggles this season—back-to-back years of guarding 4s will do that to a mid-30s dude—the Heat will probably start out with Rashard Lewis in the starting lineup. Lewis came up huge as a floor spacer and defender against Indiana. We've already gawked at his ridiculous plus-minus, but more important was the revival of his outside shot.
In his first 11 postseason appearances, Lewis made three of 20 shots from beyond the arc. In Games 5 and 6 against the Pacers, he poured in nine shots from deep and 31 points. Lewis is too inconsistent to expect that level of performance at age 34. His shot-making ability is all about respect. The Spurs will blatantly ignore him on the perimeter to collapse the paint and play help defense if he doesn't make them pay. But making the San Antonio defenders reconsider their steps into the paint for even a split second can help swing the series.
Expect Spoelstra to be quick with a switch to Battier if Lewis can't knock down shots. Battier will get respect on the back of the horrors he inflicted on San Antonio last season alone.
Both sides are also monitoring the health of Parker. Parker sat out the second half of the Spurs' Game 6 win over Oklahoma City after reaggravating a sprained ankle for the third time in as many games. Missing for even the first game would be enough to push the odds significantly in Miami's favor.
But that doesn't seem to be a concern at the moment.
"Today, I spend my days in treatment," Parker told reporters Tuesday. "But the good news is that I will play the first game of the Finals on Thursday against the Heat. I may not be 100 percent but I'll be there."
Parker even at 75 percent gives the Spurs comfort. Patty Mills is improved but nowhere near ready to lead an NBA offense in the Finals. Ginobili, for all his heroics, is wildly inconsistent at this point in his career. Parker is San Antonio's best passer, one of the best pick-and-roll players in NBA history and a savant at reading floor spacing.
The Spurs do a fantastic job of using an opponent's aggression against them, an important point given Miami's historically aggressive defense. The Heat, like Oklahoma City, like to trap and chase ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls. Their athleticism and length allow them to disrupt passing lanes and create turnovers, but those are the types of schemes in which San Antonio thrives.
Last year's Finals was won by another Miami adjustment: It toned down the traps. Heat bigs rested with a foot inside the paint instead of chasing as the series went along, a change they've adopted for much of this season. The Spurs wound up averaging just 0.708 points per possession when a pick-and-roll ball-handler took a shot, drew a foul or turned the ball over, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Parker averaged only 15.7 points on 41.7 percent shooting in last year's series.
Playing the Heat is still hell for a ball-handler; it's just a different, slightly more traditional version.
What we're left with, again, is a series of adjustments. How LeBron and Wade will counteract a San Antonio defense designed specifically to take away their strengths. Whether Norris Cole can knock down enough shots to stick on the floor long enough to bother Parker. Whether Duncan still has enough in the tank to bully Bosh down low. Whether Leonard has improved enough in 12 months to earn the LeBron Stopper mantle everyone bestowed upon him early in last season's series.
It's a bunch of stuff that makes you say "Dude, I don't know." When looking at the rosters, though, Miami proved better at adjusting last June and has the best player in this series by a ton.
I smell three-peat.
Prediction: Heat in 7
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