As expected, the Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs rematch has delivered two games of unexpected storylines and late-game drama. With the NBA Finals knotted at one game apiece, there has truly been almost no separation between the conference champions.
Each team has had moments of brilliance juxtaposed with stretches of frustration, the byproduct of playing against a team that represents your equal. While the Heat now have home-court advantage after their Game 2 victory, the Spurs are capable of turning around and nullifying that advantage immediately.
After seeing the first two games, what should fans look for the first of the series? Using those two contests as a template for expectations, here are some updated predictions for the remainder of the NBA Finals.
Dwyane Wade Emerges as Heat's Pendulum
Games 1 and 2 revealed plenty about Miami's so-called newly discovered depth. LeBron James has been the Heat's most important player since his arrival, but Miami exhibited an alarming reliance on the four-time MVP, often eschewing its offensive sets in favor of isolation plays.
That strategy worked in James' sublime Game 2 performance, but it's difficult to imagine the Heat winning the championship in such a fashion. Though the likes of Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis have provided fairly steady production over the first two games, it appears Miami's ability to win this series will hinge upon Dwyane Wade.
Wade averaged a respectable 16.5 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field over the first two games, yet he never seemed to really leave an imprint on the game. Indeed, despite the ostensibly passable numbers, he has opened himself up to criticism regarding his offensive tendencies:
Wade has an eyebrow-raising minus-13.5 rating in this series, highlighting a postseason trend in which Miami has been significantly better offensively and slightly better defensively without Wade on the court, per NBA.com. Therefore, basketball observers have been quick to point out his freelancing defense as well, something that can be death against the uber-efficient San Antonio offense:
This isn't new against the Spurs, as Wade held a minus-5.0 rating in last season's Finals. However, whereas the Heat were the deeper and more talented team a year ago, Miami now relies upon its stars more than ever. This postseason, each member of the Big Three has compiled a usage rating over 20 percent, and both Wade and James have exceeded their regular-season marks.
But Wade has yet to make a significantly positive impact for all his touches. It appears the series lies upon his ability to recapture his vintage form, a proposition that isn't a sure bet for the Heat.
Spurs Shooting Stabilizes
Though San Antonio's red-hot fourth-quarter shooting was the story of Game 1, the Spurs' typically slump-proof offense once again fell off in Game 2. As Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News opines, the loss stemmed from uncharacteristically inconsistent offensive execution:
More than Duncan's momentary loss of temper, the real problem for the Spurs in the final 11 minutes of the first half was horrid shooting. After making their first two shots of the second period, they missed 15 of 20.
NBA.com's Jeff Caplan noticed similar issues in San Antonio's ball-movement offense down the stretch:
But San Antonio’s crisp passing and player movement turned uncharacteristically chaotic down the stretch. Four consecutive missed shots and a turnover did them in as Miami executed with poise, making highlight-reel passes for easy baskets to secure a 98-93 lead with 9.4 seconds left.
Overall, the numbers are fairly respectable. The Spurs' offensive rating against Miami is only slightly lower than it was the first three rounds of the playoffs; besides, their 110.5 points per 100 possessions mark is certainly nothing to scoff at. However, a quick look at the contrast in fourth-quarter shooting illustrates why they only split their first two home games:
A closer look reveals that the Spurs are turning the ball over more at a slower tempo, one that plays into the Heat's hands. As the link above shows, San Antonio has had about 3.5 fewer possessions per 48 minutes in the Finals and turned it over 5.5 times more per 100 possessions, as compared to its first three rounds.
However, the Spurs' true shooting percentage (61.1 percent) and effective field-goal percentage (59.0 percent) all actually belie excellent shooting, as both marks would have led the league during the regular season. As San Antonio adjusts to Miami's tweaks to its pressure defense, expect the Spurs' scoring to stabilize.
It seems reasonable to expect some regression to the mean after a couple of wacky games. LeBron is unlikely to ever miss the last seven minutes of a game again, just as the Spurs are unlikely to continue gifting Miami with long stretches of offensive ineptitude.
While the Spurs have no real answer for LeBron, they have given themselves the advantage by forcing inefficient shots from his supporting cast. Even while San Antonio's offense receives most of the national attention, its defense has been the key for most of the first two contests.
If the Spurs offense regains some of its efficiency, that could spell trouble for Miami. While James is certainly capable of winning multiple games on his own, look for San Antonio to steal a game at American Airlines Arena at some point and prevail in seven.
*All stats via NBA.com.