7 Factors That Will Determine 2014 NBA Finals Winner
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs weren't built the same way, aren't coached the same way and don't play the same way.
The means couldn't be any different, but the ends for these two clubs are strikingly similar.
Both are generational powers, remarkably consistent and overwhelmingly dominant. The Heat are just the fourth team in league history to punch four straight NBA Finals tickets. The Spurs are riding a mind-numbing 15-year streak of 50-plus wins.
When these teams tussle, this is the basketball world's version of a heavyweight prizefight. Both pack devastating knockout power, but also the iron chin needed to withstand such punishment.
The Heat and Spurs have squared off 11 times since the start of the 2012-13 campaign, including their seven-game slugfest in the last championship round. That hasn't been enough to put a single degree of separation between the two. San Antonio has outscored Miami over those 11 contests by a whopping 10 points (1,082 to 1,072).
This promises to be coin-flip close, a series certain to be decided by the details. So, which will be the most important ones in determining this outcome?
From the stars down to the supporting casts, these are the factors sure to leave the biggest imprints on the 2014 NBA Finals.
Tony Parker's Ankle
For now, everything sounds promising on the health front for six-time All-Star point guard Tony Parker.
"He's getting better every day, and I expect him to play," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Tuesday, via Raul Dominguez of the Associated Press.
That's as good as it can get at this point for Parker and the sore left ankle that sidelined him for the second half of San Antonio's Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Returning to the floor is only the take-home portion of this exam, though. His real test will start with Thursday's series opener (9 p.m. ET on ABC).
That's when Miami will get its first crack at containing the head of San Antonio's snake. Parker had a brilliant start to the 2013 Finals, notching 21 points and six assists with no turnovers in Game 1.
His combination of quickness and intelligence makes him the perfect floor general to dissect the Heat's swarming defense.
"He is probably San Antonio’s best one-on-one player, and isolations can be weirdly effective as trap neutralizers against Miami," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote. "He is by far the Spurs’ best transition threat, and getting early points, before the Heat prime their defensive energies, will be a point of emphasis."
The Spurs have other ball-handlers, playmakers, slashers and scorers, but none as consistently capable of filling all those roles as Parker—provided he's healthy. A hamstring strain slowed him midway through the 2013 Finals, and he looked spent by the end of the series: 14.5 points on 25.7 percent shooting in Games 6 and 7.
A healthy Parker won't guarantee the Spurs a championship win, but an injured one would assuredly seal San Antonio's fate.
Each team plots a different path to the paint, but slipping inside those lines is the desired result for either side. It's not the paint steps themselves that key those attacks, but rather the chain reactions set off by those ventures.
These are never-settle offenses. No teams better understand the importance of patiently passing up good shots to hunt for great ones than these two.
The Heat have unleashed a wildly efficient offensive attack on their playoff foes, pacing all postseason clubs by scoring at a blistering rate of 113.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com. Only one other team has managed better than 110 per 100 trips: the Spurs, who have tossed in 111.2.
Both Miami and San Antonio put a premium on collapsing a defense.
Nearly 10 percent of the offensive plays the Heat finished this season (ending with a shot, foul or turnover) were isolations, via Synergy Sports (subscription required). Miami converted those sets at a rate of 0.94, third-best in the NBA.
If LeBron James hits the paint with a full head of steam, there's no good way to stop the 6'8", 250-pound freight train. That's why San Antonio will look to keep those drives from ever starting, hounding James with a long, physical defender like Kawhi Leonard and supporting the swingman with four extra sets of eyes.
"Leonard will have the assignment of defending James, but the entire Spurs defense will be focused on him," NBA.com's John Schuhmann and Sekou Smith noted. "Leonard will go under screens and sag off James on the perimeter, trying to entice him to shoot jumpers."
It's more damage control than prevention, but that's the case whenever a future Hall of Famer is on the floor.
As for the Spurs' offense, their pick-and-roll ball-handlers finished 16.9 percent of their offensive plays while roll men ended another 6.4 percent.
Players like Parker, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills explode around screens with countless options at their disposal. They might result in kick-outs to open shooters or passes to a popping big, but the guards will look for high-percentage plays first: strong drives to the basket or dump downs to a crashing big.
These teams enter this series ranked in the top-two spots of restricted area shooting in the playoffs (Miami first at 69.9 percent, San Antonio second at 64.3 percent), via NBA.com. Those numbers could conceivably increase given the lack of intimidating rim protectors within their ranks.
If either team experiences any leaks on the perimeter, they could encounter major flood damage in the middle.
San Antonio's Post Production
Tim Duncan may have had more than revenge on his mind when he told reporters the Spurs were "happy that it's the Heat again," via Sam Amick of USA Today.
Few teams help the 38-year-old ward off the hands of Father Time more than the undersized Heat.
Miami has no good answers in how to deal with San Antonio's ageless star. Duncan is too big for Chris Bosh and too strong for Chris Andersen. Udonis Haslem had modest success slowing Duncan last time around, but the Heat's offense has stalled with Haslem on the floor this postseason (94.0 offensive rating, 118.9 offensive rating when he sits), via NBA.com.
Miami needs Bosh's ability to space the floor, a fact that should have Duncan salivating over his upcoming feast. Duncan had 20-plus points in four of the seven Finals games last season and averaged 27.0 points on 53.8 percent shooting plus 14.5 rebounds over the last two games of the series.
The calendar says 12 months have passed since that battle, but Duncan's internal clock might disagree. He terrorized the Heat in two regular-season matchups (23.0 points on 69.2 percent shooting) and already has six games of 19-plus points on his 2014 playoff stat sheet.
The obvious strategy might seem to be doubling Duncan on the low block, but that only fuels San Antonio's offensive machine.
"When Bosh needs help on Duncan in the post, the Spurs can exploit that assistance by whipping the ball out of the double-team and around the perimeter until they find an open shooter," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted.
Beyond Duncan, the Heat will also need to find ways of stopping Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw near the basket. The former shot 52.3 percent from the field this season, while the latter has the bulk to bully small defenders on the block—when he's not lighting up slower ones on the outside.
The Heat must keep these one-on-one interior battles respectable, because the Spurs will punish opponents for bringing either too much help or not enough of it.
Miami's Floor Spacing
This is where the series' chess match starts to take shape.
Miami will hope that anything it gives up on the interior at the defensive end it will get back on the perimeter at the opposite side. As soon as one style surges ahead of the other, the losing coach will adjust, leaving fans free to marvel at two of the most versatile minds in the business.
Heat head man Erik Spoelstra could fill his starting frontcourt in a myriad of ways, but look for him to ride his floor spacers out of the gate. As for which shooter he'll deploy, that remains to be seen.
Rashard Lewis came alive at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, using his length and athleticism to wreak havoc defensively and dropping in three-point bombs at the opposite end. He averaged 15.5 points over the final two games, hitting a ridiculous 56.3 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also did not appear in the first two games of that series, so his rotation spot seems fluid at best.
Shane Battier, who's sat out three games this postseason and served spot duty in the others (14.1 minutes per game), could see an expanded role for his defensive versatility and intelligence.
No matter who gets the nod, expect Miami to let if fly early and often. The Heat have connected on a playoff-best 39.5 percent of their long-range attempts, opening the floor for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to relentlessly attack off the dribble.
The Spurs packed the paint the last time around, and the Heat struggled to hit open looks on the outside. Battier misfired on 12 of his first 15 threes, Bosh missed all six of his long-distance tries and Lewis was restricted to mop-up duty.
If Miami doesn't force San Antonio out of the interior, then James and Wade will be left trying to probe crowded lanes. That wouldn't render these Hall of Fame talents useless, but a little extra room could do wonders for their efficiency and its impact on this offense.
The Spurs' Wild Cards
The Spurs' second team gets a ton of attention, and rightfully so. This is the NBA's highest scoring reserve unit, providing 44.5 points a night, via HoopsStats.com.
Pop's bench mob isn't short on quantity, but there's a quality aspect that's often overlooked.
After shuffling and reshuffling his deck throughout the season, Pop seems to have settled on his best playoff hand. He's deployed only two different starting lineups in the postseason, or 28 fewer than he had during San Antonio's 82-game trek to basketball's biggest dance.
He needs gunners like Patty Mills (career 40.6 three-point percentage), Marco Belinelli (39.5) and Matt Bonner (41.7) to hit their marks, but he needs his top guns Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili to do a lot more.
Those aren't just San Antonio's only reserves averaging more than 20 minutes a night, they're the only two seeing more than 16.5 minutes of action. Pop has tightened his rotation in the second season, but he's still leaning heavily on Diaw's versatility and Ginobili's offensive creativity.
Diaw is a walking mismatch—a problem inside, outside and everywhere in between. He's light on his feet, heavy at his base and incredibly crafty with the rock. His overstuffed stat sheet from the Conference Finals (13.2 points on .491/.421 shooting, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists) shows how deep his bag of tricks goes, something that even produced a bit of serviceable defense on James during the 2013 Finals.
The Spurs have seen far more of the good Manu than the bad this postseason. At his best, he's almost an unguardable offensive force, slicing through driving lanes that don't seem to exist or ripping nets on shots he seems to have no business attempting.
At his worst, he's the trigger-happy, turnover machine that nearly played his way to retirement during the 2013 championship round.
These two are the chaos in Popovich's controlled world. They can add wrinkles that make the machine look virtually unstoppable, or they can derail the entire system.
The Heat's No. 4 Option
Last time around, Miami couldn't afford to worry about the fourth slot in the food chain. The Heat had enough problems finding consistency from the second and third options.
Wade suffered through the expected ups and downs of someone battling nagging injuries. He had his moments (23-plus points in three different games), but he had some rough patches (14.3 points in the other four contests), too.
Bosh's swings were even more violent. He had a forgettable 13-point, five-rebound performance in the opener, then he rattled off three straight double-doubles (highlighted by 20 points and 13 boards in Game 4). Then, he stumbled again needing 12 shots for 10 points in Game 6 before being held scoreless in the finale.
There's some hope the Heat will avoid repeat bipolar performances from their other All-Stars. Wade looks as healthy as he's been in some time, entering the series having averaged 21.0 points on 54.7 percent shooting over his last seven games. Bosh carries a streak of three straight 20-plus-point efforts into the championship round.
The Heat are obviously a handful when their Big Three are clicking, but it will take more than three players to topple the Spurs.
Someone needs to claim the No. 4 scoring role. It may well change hands throughout the series, but Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers should have the heaviest hand in filling this void.
Lewis and Battier could have a big shooting night, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen might change an outcome or two with their nonstop motors. Allen and Chalmers seem to have the best shot at consistency, though, as they can shine as spot-up shooters or off-the-dribble finishers.
San Antonio will sell out on slowing the Big Three. Spoelstra's others must help relieve some of the, well, heat.
Stars Being Stars
This series has two of the sharpest coaching minds in the business, two of the best-run franchises in the league and two of the more disciplined supporting casts in the NBA.
At the end of the day, though, this is still a superstars league. And superstars will more than likely decide this series.
LeBron James enters the Finals with the heaviest burden on his shoulders, but also the most complete skill set on the planet. The Heat ask him to do everything—create for himself and others, crash the glass, defend the opponent's top option when Miami has to get a stop—because they know he's capable of the assignment.
James needs to be unquestionably the best player on the floor for a good chunk of this series for Miami to pull off its three-peat. Wade and Bosh will help lighten the load, but history will remember this as James' win or loss.
The Spurs stars might be older than some of their counterparts, but their confidence comes from more than just added experience.
Parker and Duncan are built to exploit Miami's defense. Parker needs to relentlessly exploit the Heat's lack of rim protection, stopping only when he eyes a better look for one of his teammates. Duncan should drop the hammer near the basket, forcing the defense to collapse or simply accept the abuse.
Finding a killer instinct shouldn't be too difficult after spending the last year reliving those fateful 28 seconds when a fifth NBA title was ripped from their grasp. Still, the Spurs have to stay glued to the gas, with Parker and Duncan leading that aggressive charge by example.
These stars can't win the title by themselves, but they could easily lose it on their own.
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