NBA Finals Predictions: Legacies, Storylines, Titles at Stake in Heat-Spurs Duel
One season after the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs treated fans to one of the most memorable NBA Finals in years, the same two teams will meet again for the 2014 championship.
Once again, the series promises every manner of storyline, from the legacies of LeBron James and Tim Duncan to bold coaching strategies and discovering which team will win the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
1. Who Has More at Stake: LeBron James or Tim Duncan?
Howard Beck: Duncan. Granted, people will obsess much more about LeBron's legacy than Duncan's, in part because Duncan already has four rings. If Miami loses, pundits will dredge up all of the same, tired themes about LeBron and question his worthiness as an all-time great. But LeBron is just 29, squarely in his prime, with many years left to burnish his legacy. This is probably Duncan's last shot. He's 38, and though he seems indestructible, he can't go on forever—at least, I'm pretty sure he can't.
Ric Bucher: LeBron, easily. Three titles in a row puts him in truly rare company, particularly paired with four consecutive trips to the Finals. Both Magic and Bird won it all twice in four years, but not even Jordan won three in a row while making that long march four consecutive seasons. Conversely, if he loses, he will have lost more times in the Finals than won. Perhaps that shouldn't matter as far as legacies are concerned, but over the course of time, you know it will.
Kevin Ding: James will have his chances down the road, but it's asking too much to believe the Spurs can keep piecing it together and piecing their aging bodies together to do this year after year. Who knows what's in store for James in Miami or elsewhere in the future, but there will never be as great a chance at a title again for Duncan.
Ethan Skolnick: It's LeBron, because it's always LeBron. Duncan's legacy is virtually assured, regardless of what occurs over the next week or two. He'll be widely regarded as the top power forward—even if he often played center—and ideal superstar example of his era. If he wins, then, sure, he'll pass Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in the eyes of many as the true bridge of greatness between Michael Jordan and James. But if he loses? The attention will fade quickly, and he'll be no worse for wear. James is another story. He has openly set his sights on being the greatest player ever, and a 2-3 record in the NBA Finals would render that argument much more difficult to make.
Jared Zwerling: LeBron. In an NBA where the individual star is always front and center compared to the team, and being that LeBron is the face of the league, he constantly has a mountain to climb—on and off the court.
2. Which Storyline About the Series Intrigues You Most?
Howard Beck: The Spurs' quest for redemption. They've never been in this position before. They'd never lost a Finals until last year. For the totality of the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era, the Spurs have been viewed as this metronomic machine, pumping out victories and championships. They've never looked like underdogs or lesser in any way. Even last year's loss to Miami seemed almost like a fluke—a bounce here, a shot there and the title was gone. If the Spurs win this series, they cement the dynasty: five titles in 15 years. If they lose again, do we view them any differently?
Ric Bucher: That the country, by and large, wants the Spurs to win and what that says about the dislike for LeBron and the Heat. Usually when a team or player backs up their bravado with success, they are embraced. But it seems no matter what James or the Heat do, there always will be a resentment over how they came to be and how they behaved nearly four years ago. Will a third title finally change that?
Kevin Ding: The Heat believe they have been pacing themselves nicely and have been ramping it up to be at their best. I'm not at all convinced the Bobcats, Nets and Pacers pushed the Heat as much as they think, so I'm interested to see if the Heat really are at max power and focus here in the NBA Finals—as they assume they are despite it being their fourth consecutive max run.
Ethan Skolnick: The obvious one—that the Spurs, somehow, are back. After the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs and the 1986 Red Sox also squandered Game 7, a similar roster finished fifth in the American League East the next season. The Spurs not only got off the mat, they pinned a series of Western Conference powers to get here. In a sense, they've already won.
Jared Zwerling: The Heat's attempt at a rare three-peat. Only five teams have done it in the league's 67 years, and the Heat have some extra incentive: Team president Pat Riley owns four trademarks to the varying versions of the phrase "three-peat," and according to ESPN.com's Darren Rovell, he's going for a fifth "to use the phrase '3-peat' on jewelry, namely rings and sports memorabilia."
3. Which Matchup Looms Largest?
Howard Beck: It's tempting to say Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James, but, really, there's only so much any defender can do against James. The real key matchup is the Spurs' role players vs. the Heat's role players. The Spurs have a lot more depth: Leonard, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli are all useful contributors who could turn a game or the series. The Heat's supporting cast has gotten thin and creaky. Does Ray Allen have another 20-point game in him? Does Shane Battier have a few more timely three-pointers up his sleeve?
Ric Bucher: Tony Parker-Mario Chalmers. The point guard position always has been, and always will be, the Heat's Achilles' heel. For two years now, no one has been able to fully exploit it.
Kevin Ding: Same as it was in the Western Conference Finals: It's all about the Spurs' fantastic team offense. The Thunder defense, when Serge Ibaka is around, is far superior to the Heat defense (16th in the NBA in field-goal percentage allowed), and Oklahoma City couldn't lock up the sweet-passing Spurs. Miami's trap-dependent, strong-side-focused defense is just the sort the Spurs like to carve up for open shots.
Ethan Skolnick: The easy place to go is James vs. Leonard, since the Spurs' long, strong defender has given the four-time MVP some trouble. However, everything with the Spurs offense starts with Tony Parker, and if he's healthy, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole must stay in front of him—at least until James takes over the duties late. Cole has had a strong postseason after an uneven regular season, but he was virtually unplayable against Parker in the 2013 NBA Finals.
Jared Zwerling: LeBron vs. the Spurs. In the first three games in last year's Finals, when the Heat went down 2-1, he only averaged 16.7 points. After Game 1's loss, he told reporters, "They're going to put you in positions where you feel uncomfortable offensively and defensively." In the final four games, LeBron catapulted to 31.8 points per game. How LeBron—the bull's-eye of the Finals—handles all of the different schemes the Spurs throw his way will initiate the biggest differences (positive or negative) in the series.
4. Which Team Faces the Biggest Adjustment Going into the Series?
Howard Beck: The strength of both of these teams is that they are flexible. They can play big or small and not miss a beat. The Spurs prefer to start games with Duncan and Splitter, but they have shown they can win small, starting Matt Bonner over Splitter late in the Western Conference Finals and inserting Manu Ginobili for Splitter in the Finals last June. The Heat prefer to play small, with Chris Bosh at center and a shooter at power forward. However, they're also comfortable starting Udonis Haslem. We'll see who blinks first.
Ric Bucher: Spurs. Can they make their big lineup work? If it doesn't, can they find a way to play small better than the Heat? Tall order.
Kevin Ding: Just as Rashard Lewis solved a lot of problems for the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals against a bigger Indiana team, Boris Diaw looms as a huge piece for the Spurs to maximize in this series against a smaller Miami team. Diaw doesn't feel like he did all he could in the Finals last year, and he's coming off a strong finish in the Oklahoma City series when San Antonio decided to go smaller. If the Spurs can implement Diaw at power forward against the Heat and milk his unique passing, post-up and three-point skills, it will be an enormous boost for them.
Ethan Skolnick: The Heat, if only because they can't turn to Mike Miller as a floor-spacer the way they did last June. Lewis has the role for now, but he was 3-of-21 from three in the playoffs before hitting a hot stretch late in the Eastern Conference Finals. If he goes cold again, someone other than Allen—Shane Battier? James Jones?—needs to space the floor as the Spurs pack the paint.
Jared Zwerling: The Heat with their perimeter rotations. The Spurs have a new three-point shooter in Belinelli (43.0 percent this season) to go along with Mills (42.5 percent), who has become a main trigger in the rotation compared to last year's playoffs. Miami, because of its pick-and-roll traps and passing-lane gambles, has broken down at times while guarding the perimeter, such as when the Heat allowed the Brooklyn Nets to shoot 15-of-25 from downtown in their only loss of the second round.
5. Who Are the Biggest X-Factors?
Howard Beck: For the Spurs, Diaw. For the Heat, Allen, which is a little weird to say about a future Hall of Famer. But at this stage of his career, you never know what Allen will bring each night. Miami needs another scoring source, and Allen's clutch shooting is always a key. Diaw is one of those guys who can get hot and change the complexion of a game. He scored 53 points over the final three games of the Western Conference Finals.
Ric Bucher: Splitter, Diaw, Allen, Lewis. If Splitter and Diaw make an impact, it will mean the Spurs are imposing their size. If Ray and 'Shard are forces, it means the Heat are winning the three-point contest.
Kevin Ding: Strange as it is to say about the guy Popovich told USA Today's Sam Amick is "our best player," Parker hasn't quite been right with his ankle and hamstring woes draining him in recent weeks. His aggressiveness starts the Spurs' engine. For Miami, there is reason for optimism on the health front with how potent Dwyane Wade looks after a season of nursing him along and trainer Tim Grover powering him up lately. Wade being unstoppable at times in this series is an absolutely necessity for Miami.
Ethan Skolnick: Can a former Finals MVP be an X-factor? He can when he missed 28 games, and no one knew if he'd still be standing at this point. Wade's health program was designed to have him peaking at this point. Expect him to average 20-plus points per game in this series. On the other side, it's Ginobili, who was a liability in the last NBA Finals (a team-high 22 turnovers) but looks as spry as he has in years.
Jared Zwerling: As long as Wade keeps doing his thing, the Heat's X-factor is Bosh. Go back to their Game 1 loss against the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals. Only two rebounds in 32 minutes? Inexcusable. Against the Spurs' skilled size in Duncan, Splitter and Diaw, Bosh—who stepped it up later in the Pacers series—will need to have a presence inside for the smaller Heat. As for the Spurs, Leonard and his huge hands. His defense against LeBron will be critical, as will his rebounding and improved outside shooting (52.2 percent this season).
6. Will the New 2-2-1-1-1 Format Affect How the Teams Perform?
Howard Beck: Well, everyone has to travel more if the series goes the distance. But I don't think it will have much impact on the players. They fly private charters, and they're used to the back-and-forth routine of the 2-2-1-1-1, which is used in every other round. It would be a bigger issue if a West Coast team made the Finals, because everyone would be jet-lagged for the final three games. However, San Antonio is only an hour behind Miami. People have long debated whether the 2-3-2 format was unfair to the higher seed—because going 1-1 in the first two games meant you might not play at home again—or the lower seed—because it's hard to win Games 6 and 7 on the road—but I can't recall any team ever claiming that the format decided the championship.
Ric Bucher: It won't. Big picture, it strengthens the home-court advantage, but both teams are too seasoned for venue to carry that much weight.
Kevin Ding: It won't. It's the proper, established rhythm to the travel in an NBA playoff series and both teams will be comfortable with the norm.
Ethan Skolnick: It won't. Each team can win on the road.
Jared Zwerling: Based on the playoffs already, the Heat are 8-0 at home and the Spurs are 9-1. So that's a big reason why the sixth or seventh game in this format could be the pivotal one. But the fact that the Heat closed out one series on the road (against the Charlotte Bobcats) and the Spurs had an impressive series-clinching victory in Oklahoma City suggests both of these experienced teams know how to steal a game.
7. And the Winner Will Be...
Howard Beck: The Spurs will get their redemption and fifth championship. Miami has the best player in this series, but San Antonio has the more balanced lineup and a much deeper, younger and more versatile supporting cast. Spurs in seven.
Ric Bucher: San Antonio in seven, although it really does depend on the health of Parker's ankle. San Antonio has an edge in depth this year that Miami had last year, and that depth proved to be the difference last time.
Kevin Ding: Spurs in six. The Heat are more fatigued than even they know from all these trips to the NBA Finals, and their defense and depth are fundamentally nowhere near what they used to be. Meanwhile, San Antonio is better than last year—with its offensive system even better established—has a tough defender to throw at LeBron in Leonard and will get extra edges via the best coach in the game.
Ethan Skolnick: Heat in seven. The Spurs are certainly better than last June, with Ginobili healthier, Mills and Belinelli deepening the rotation, and everyone on the team fresh after Popovich didn't allow anyone to average 30 minutes per game. So why pick Miami, especially without home court? Well, because I picked Oklahoma City in 2012 and learned never again to bet against James while he remains in his physical, intellectual and emotional prime. Oh, and having a springier Wade as a sidekick doesn't hurt.
Jared Zwerling: The Heat in six games, winning at home. After what the Spurs faced in the last round—the challenges of two superstars, coupled with youth and athleticism from the Thunder—now come two more superstars and something that OKC didn't have: a championship-proven team basketball from the Heat. Down the stretch, the older Spurs might get a little burned out from the Heat's increased athletic attack and swarming defense.
8. Who'll Be Named the Finals MVP?
Howard Beck: Duncan will claim his fourth Finals MVP trophy, moving him past Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal (three each), leaving him behind only Michael Jordan (six). For all of the talk about Duncan's age, the guy is still a beast. He averaged 17.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the Western Conference Finals against a tough Thunder frontcourt. Forgotten amid the Spurs' collapse in the 2013 Finals: Duncan averaged 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds in the series.
Ric Bucher: Parker. He was wrongly named the MVP vs. the Cavs—beating up single coverage by Boobie Gibson doesn't make an MVP, no matter what the numbers are—but if the Spurs are going to win this series, he is going to have to do what he did in Games 1 and 5 of the Finals last year more than twice.
Kevin Ding: Parker is the Spur who really has a sense of seizing a moment, and he's also the Spur who puts up the biggest numbers.
Ethan Skolnick: While it's tempting to go with Wade, whose cutting figures to give the Spurs some problems, LeBron will likely touch the ball more when it matters.
Jared Zwerling: LeBron, the Jordan of our era, as Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged to reporters after the Heat sent Indiana to an early vacation. LeBron has continued to expand his game inside and out—for example, NBA.com indicates that he shot a career-high 74.9 percent in the restricted area and 55.6 percent on corner threes this season—and he's too talented and cerebral of a player to be contained over the course of a series.