6 Differences in NBA Finals Repeat
Five rings for Tim Duncan. LeBron James hungry for his third title in a row. The Heat and Spurs clash in the Finals for the second straight season, and the storylines are endless. But is it the sequel, or just same story, different chapter?
The rosters of the Heat and Spurs seem all too familiar to us. Each team has the same core of their roster from a year ago. Each is loaded with the blessing of future Hall of Famers—the Heat with four and the Spurs with three.
So what can we expect to be different—if anything—about the Finals in 2014 compared to 2013? The Heat in 7 again? Do the aging Spurs knock the King off his throne? Here are six important details that make this year’s finals different from last year’s—and six potential reasons why the Heat could and should win it in six.
While deja vu starts to set in for NBA fans everywhere, let me remind you that these are not the same Spurs we saw in 2013, and they're definitely not the same Heat from a year ago either. Even if they were, both teams took entirely different paths to meet each other again.
Last year, the Heat took an unshaken route to the Eastern Conference Finals, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 and the Chicago Bulls 4-1. Then, for a brief moment, Indiana gave the rest of the league hope as the Pacers took a 3-2 series lead. But ‘Bron, per usual, rallied the troops for double-digit wins in Games 6 and 7.
The Spurs had a slightly different experience en route to meeting the Heat last year. San Antonio beat the Lakers 4-0 and the Golden State Warriors 4-2 before breezing through the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals 4-0 as well. The sweep in the final series gave San Antonio’s aging superstars some much needed rest—a luxury the Heat didn't have.
This year, the Spurs needed Game 7 to get by Dallas in Round 1. The Heat steamrolled everyone in their path and both teams enter the Finals after winning their previous series 4-2, giving no extra rest for the Spurs, which should benefit the Heat.
The rosters look pretty similar to last year if you’re only looking at stars, but it’s the role players who can give a team the edge in a tight game. The Spurs won three against the Heat in 2013, and two of them were by margins of 10 points or less. San Antonio’s only big win came in Game 3 as Gary Neal cashed in six three-pointers and dropped 24 points off the bench. The Heat’s Mike Miller poured in 15 as well in Game 3 on 5-for-5 shooting from deep.
Neal—now with the Bucks—and Miller—now with the Grizzlies—are the only players to score in the double digits in last year’s Finals who are no longer with their teams. Neal scored 10 and 15 in Games 2 and 4 respectively as well.
With less of a bench spark for the Spurs than a year ago—other than a sometimes extraordinary Patty Mills—the Heat get the edge in the roster category.
Expectantly, the Heat are hot right now–pun intended–and only getting hotter. They have yet to lose a playoff game at home this postseason, which means they might only need one win in San Antonio to close the deal.
On the other end, I wouldn't call the Spurs “hot” just yet. Though they have made the Finals, they needed overtime to avoid a Game 7 with the Thunder while the Heat rolled past Indiana in Game 6. No extra rest for San Antonio this year.
And while it's much about who's hot and who's cold at the right time, I'd say a banged-up Tony Parker adds a little fuel to the Heat's fire. Parker's ankle injury—suffered in Game 6 against Oklahoma City—won’t be enough to keep him out of a Finals game, but any hindrance to the Spurs’ biggest dribble threat gives the Heat a defensive advantage. If they can cover Parker’s penetration better, they can cover shooters like Danny Green and Manu Ginobili that much quicker.
Another new detail about the Finals in 2014 is the new format. Beginning this year, the Finals format is 2-2-1-1-1—the last piece of the David Stern era as NBA Commissioner. The change was adopted by the NBA Board of Governors last October before Adam Silver took over.
With the new format, the Spurs will host Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. The Heat will host Games 3, 4 and 6. The new format could play to the hands of both teams. If the Heat win one of the first two in San Antonio and continue their home win streak, it’s over in six. If the Spurs can get two wins to kick off the series, it could put the Heat in a position in which they have rarely been—the underdog.
The new format has led many to believe—myself included—that the Heat will need to win it at home in Game 6 or not win it at all.
Spurs role player Boris Diaw is one of the more underrated keys to the Spurs' offense. He has the potential to stretch the floor as well as most stretch 4 big men in the game, but he’s just a little less explosive off the dribble than most. From time to time, he channels Robert Horry—and looks like him too, when he barely leaves the court for his jump shot—as the sidekick threat to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in crunch time.
Diaw kept the Spurs alive in Game 6 against Oklahoma City, scoring 26 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the floor, including 50 percent from three-point range.
Diaw is averaging double figures in the playoffs for the first time since ’08, and he’s shooting 53.5 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from deep. And while he’s not Horry, he’s one late-game three away from being remembered like him. Often unaccounted for, Diaw can steal a game from Miami if left forgotten in the fourth quarter.
However, I doubt Diaw hits a big game shot. The stage is too important. On the other end, don’t forget that the Heat’s stretch 4—Chris Bosh—is capable of making a big shot down the stretch as well.
One of the more important differences from last year to this year is the reemergence of Rashard Lewis. Once the complementary shooter to Ray Allen with the Seattle Sonics in the '90s, Lewis seemed like he was drifting toward retirement until he joined the Heat last season to get one more ring—or so we thought.
Lewis didn't retire despite not playing a big role on last year’s team. Neither did Allen, and the two are still camping on the wings for LeBron to find when his drives go awry.
Lewis is still only averaging 4.0 points per game in this year’s playoffs—4.5 on the season—but two double-digit performances against the Pacers gave him the confidence to hit a big shot that could make the difference in this series. And even though the Heat still lost to Indiana in Game 5 (seen above), a resurrected Rashard Lewis on one wing with Ray Allen or Shane Battier opposite him is a nightmare for the Spurs.
If the Heat steal one of the first two in San Antonio and can keep their home streak alive, expect the three-peat in South Beach come Game 6.