2014 NBA Finals Preview: Can Spurs Learn from Past, Finally Unseat Heat?

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2014 NBA Finals Preview: Can Spurs Learn from Past, Finally Unseat Heat?
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Gregg Popovich and TIm Duncan came heartbreakingly close in 2013, but have the right pieces this year to take down the Miami Heat.

A year after a classic series, the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs will meet in the 2014 NBA Finals for the first championship rematch since 1998.

Last year’s series was one of the best in recent memory, including Miami’s wild Game 6 comeback and LeBron James’ dominating performance in Game 7. Another great series is on tap for 2014, with a number of compelling storylines and very little to separate the two best teams in the league.

For James and the Heat, it is about history and achieving the three-peat. For Tim Duncan and the Spurs, it is about that fifth ring and getting revenge on the only team to beat them in a finals series.

San Antonio was not that far off last year. Game 6, of course, came down to a matter of seconds, with Game 1 and Game 7 also coming down to the fourth quarter. Both teams also won two games apiece by double digits and the overall numbers for the series ended up nearly dead even.

Along the way, the Spurs learned some valuable lessons on how to slow down the Heat. This season, the Spurs are more equipped to apply those lessons and end Miami’s impressive run.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Tony Parker's ankle could derail the Spurs, but he says he's ready to go Thursday night.

In a series that is so evenly matched, the health of both teams is critical. The big concern for San Antonio heading in is Tony Parker’s ankle, as the Spurs obviously cannot afford to lose his playmaking ability and expect to win the series.

Parker did not play in the second half or overtime of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder due to the lingering ankle issue. He told a French radio station that he has been dealing with the injury for a while, but will be able to go for Game 1, via CBSSports.com

I twisted my ankle in Game 4 of the first round against Dallas. I continued to play with the pain and I again twisted the ankle in Game 4 of the conference finals against Oklahoma City…Today, I spend my days in treatment. 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% but I'll be there.

Even if Parker is not fully recovered at the beginning of the series, he will be the key facilitator for San Antonio’s offense. The Spurs’ creative passing attack and improved offense is ready to exploit Miami’s aggressive defense if a couple of other players can step up.  

One of those players that needs to be better than in last year’s finals is Manu Ginobili. Ginobili had a wild, up-and-down 2013 finals. It was brutal at times, including 12 combined turnovers in Game 6 and Game 7.

After the heartbreaking Game 6 loss, Ginobili talked to Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated about his ugly performance

“I was very insecure. I had a career high in turnovers in a really bad moment. It really helps to make me feel terrible. Even with all of that, we were so close to winning it. It’s one of the many things I’ll be thinking tonight.”  

Larry W. Smith/Associated Press
Ginobili knows he will have to play more under control in this year's finals for the Spurs to win.

Ginobili has had a year to think about that now and appears primed to play much better in this year’s finals. He looks healthy and played well in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks and in the conference finals. If Ginobili can walk that fine line between outstanding playmaking ability and being out of control, San Antonio is in good shape.

On the other side, Dwayne Wade is primed to have a much better series than a year ago. ESPN Insider highlights that Miami struggled with Wade on the floor against the Spurs in 2013.

No, the Heat are not better off without Wade, as he struggled dealing with multiple injuries late last season. Wade looks physically stronger one year later and should be a bigger factor in this series.

That does not mean the same defensive principles should not apply for San Antonio this year. The Heat’s offense relies on Wade and James (and occasionally Norris Cole)  getting penetration and freeing up Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and other shooters who can hit from anywhere on the floor.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
The Spurs dared LeBron James to take open jumpers - and it often worked.

San Antonio attempted to deny that penetration last year, making Wade and James take jump shots. It worked quite well at times, as Wade’s numbers were off and James was slowed down for the first three games.

Of course, James stepped up in a big way when it mattered most, as James tends to do, but the Spurs have to like their chances if they can hold him in check for three games again. Miami also lost three-point specialist Mike Miller, which could have a significant impact on the series.

The player who has improved most since last year is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard’s overall offensive skill set has improved and his numbers have gone up across the board as he moves towards stardom in his third year out of college.

Leonard showed his offensive ability to Serge Ibaka and the Thunder to set the tone in the deciding Game 6.

Leonard has improved offensively and could push the Spurs over the top

He will give the Spurs another weapon to use in their polished offensive scheme. Of course, Leonard’s best skill is his defense.

Leonard will get the assignment on James. James will continue to put up his typically great numbers, but Leonard is up to the task of at least keeping James from taking over the series.

The Spurs also are getting meaningful contributions from Matt Bonner, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw. That means San Antonio is a deeper, more versatile team who is more suited than the Heat to adapt to opponents’ weaknesses.

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Gregg Popovich knows how to use that versatility to his advantage. Miami will struggle defensively against San Antonio’s bigger lineups.

Duncan is too strong for Bosh to guard in the post and Miami does not have an effective enough rim protector to help out. Diaw is a tough matchup for Miami and playing his best basketball in years, with great creative passing ability to go along with Parker and Ginobili to stretch the Heat defense.

That could help free up Danny Green for three-point barrage similar to what happened through the first five games last year. San Antonio knows it has to get Green going, as the Spurs are 25-1 when he hits three or more 3-point shots.

Many of the pieces are the same as last year, but the Spurs have improved just enough to win this time around. San Antonio has the right game plan and coach to learn from last year and end Miami’s streak at two.

Prediction: Spurs in seven.  James does his thing and Wade looks better and healthier. However, a refocused, determined and improved Spurs team takes another back-and-forth, classic series. Duncan and Popovich prove they are too good to be beaten twice in a row.

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