Here we go again. The 2014 NBA Finals, same as the 2013 NBA Finals, features the Heat and Spurs facing off for the Larry O’Brien. Traditionally the NBA has been no place for rematches — in single games yes, but in playoff series not so much. Especially when it comes to the NBA Finals, where it’s been a full 16 years (the ‘98 Finals) since there’s been a rematch. How long ago was that? Tim Duncan was a rookie and LeBron James was in junior high. Much like in that Bulls/Jazz repeat, role players have changed, but the veteran cores have stayed the same. Will the results? In ‘98, the Bulls won in six, just as they had the year before.
This year? It’s a tough call. It seems unwise to bet on a repeat miracle like Ray Allen’s three-pointer, but it seems equally difficult to bet against LeBron James. As two already legendary teams prepare to square off, we try to break down exactly what’s important and who has the edge. One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be a shame to see it all end. Er, again.
Can the Heat Three-Peat?
Elena: Yeah but they’ll have to play significantly better defense to do it. Miami finished outside of the top ten in defensive rating for the first time in the Big Three era (11th, they averaged 102.9 points per 100 possessions.) That’s largely a function of lack of lineup cohesion and the fact that Dwyane Wade’s injury management plan has meant that Erik Spoeltsra has been trying to strike a balance between scoring and D all season. Wade’s been held out in order to be ready for this moment, so the Heat should be able to return to their optimal defensive lineup.
Russ: Well, they’re 11/12 of the way there, with just one more series to go — so they absolutely can. But in the 2013-14 Spurs they probably face their best, and most determined, Finals opponent. The Spurs know full well that they should have closed out last year (in which case we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all) and aren’t about to let that chance slip away twice. Of course the Heat know full well that the Spurs know this, and will redouble their own efforts. But the Heat don’t go as deep, and have thus had to rely on their own Big Three more than the Spurs. And in their fourth straight Finals season, four straight years of 100-plus games, this could be major.
How much does LeBron need to three-peat?
Elena: I mean, Miami will love him regardless but that third ring is the key to any GOAT talk and deads a lot of the critiques fans have when they’re talking about his legacy versus Jordan, Kobe and Bird. Bird got 3 rings, MJ three-peated twice and Kobe did it (albeit with Shaq.) LeBron’s numbers, his impact on the game, the history of carrying teams all get him a seat at the table in any convo but the greats dominate against the competition of their time and a three-peat would confirm that he’s a step above his current peers based on tangible victories, not subjective ones like MVP or All-Star voting.
Russ: Short answer? Not at all. He’s in his fifth Finals already and he’s not even 30 yet—win or lose this year, he’ll be back again (and perhaps again and again). But in the post-Jordan world where everything is measured by Mike, a three-peat wouldn’t hurt. It puts him in that rarefied Kobe/Jordan air, and he’ll have done it a) against arguably better teams and b) with a much less-heralded coach (although that could change as well). Of course the Jordan Stans will point out that he’ll have to three-peat AGAIN to really compare, although one would suspect a four-peat would be even better. But that’s getting way ahead of things.3 of 12
Are the Spurs too old for this shit?
Elena: Nah. Every team is old in spots and San Antonio’s got youth where it needs it: the guy who’s defending LeBron (Kawhi Leonard) is 22, the guy who’s gonna give a quick scoring punch off the bench (Danny Green) is 26 and the guys who are supposed to throw elbows around in the paint (Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes) are both under 30. Their marquee guys are, err, mature but they’re also well-rested thanks to Pop’s strategizing throughout the regular season. I don’t think age is as much of a real factor as it is an easy-to-pick-up storyline.
Russ: No! Manu Ginobili’s bald spot might be getting bigger each year and Tim Duncan may have outlasted his entire high school graduating class (and the next one), but they’re not quite ready for matinees and tapioca. Overtime of Game 6 should have set that to rest once and for all as Duncan — already past the 30 minutes played mark, as Reggie Miller pointed out 45 times — scored seven straight points to seal the deal. It’s been a long season (again), but being four wins from a title should give anyone a second (or third) wind. Plus, Pop’s management of minutes this year was nothing short of masterful, keeping everyone under 30 minutes per while still racking up 62 wins. Now it all goes to the center of the table.
Which team’s Big Three is better?
Elena: At this point it’s the Heat. If we’re talking about the optimum of what they’re capable of at this moment, LeBron is clearly the best player in the world, Bosh stretches the floor in a weird way that forces everyone else out of whack and Wade is rested enough to contribute on both sides of the ball (right? RIGHT?!?!) We know what Duncan and Parker are but the third of their Big Three, Ginobili, is coming off the bench and not hitting with any sort of consistency.
Russ: It’s a tough question, because I feel like they’re so different. The Spurs three are defined by what they do, while the Heat three are defined by who they are. That said, however, it’s gotta be the Heat. First off, LeBron James is simply the best player on the planet. At 29, he’s playing as well as he ever has, which means he’s doing things that haven’t ever been done before. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade is enjoying a bit of a resurgence, and Chris Bosh somehow remains underappreciated despite all of his accomplishments and accolades.
Which team’s bench is better?
Elena: Overall, Miami’s might be but only because they have no idea who is a bench player. Udonis Haslem has been relegated there at various points in the year (i.e. the entire first half of the season, the beginning of the Indiana series), Shane Battier’s been sitting more often because his shooting isn’t what it used to be and Norris Cole has been starting and defending at a higher level than Mario Chalmers. San Antonio has the advantage, though, because they have the benefit of knowing what they’re going to get from their bench; those guys have roles and the rotation is pretty much set, as we saw in that OKC series.
Russ: One of the things that makes the Spurs the Spurs is their seeming ability to get effective minutes from literally anyone. If Pop sent a trainer in by mistake, he’d probably have an offensive rebound, a steal and a bucket before anyone realized he wasn’t even wearing a jersey. The Spurs bench doesn’t have a cool nickname or anything, but guys like Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and yes, Manu Ginobili, do exactly what they’re supposed to once they get on the floor. And when you add in Aron Baynes providing muscle and Cory Joseph dunking on Serge Ibaka, well, I’ll take the Spurs.6 of 12
Who needs their bench to step up more?
Elena: The Heat. Their rotation has been less consistent all-around so I think we’ll see someone surprising contribute, if only because there will be a little experimenting with minutes. The Spurs’ bench is gonna make it do what it do.
Russ: The Heat. They need to find ways to get rest for the big three — primarily Wade — and in order to do that, their bench guys need to be effective. They’ve gotten surprisingly useful minutes out of Rashard Lewis, and he’ll need to fill the Mike Miller role more in the Finals if a threepeat is going to happen. They’ll need the same from the soon-to-be-retired Shane Battier, as well as a judicious use of Udonis Haslem’s six fouls. And obviously Ray Allen needs to be Ray Allen. If that all happens — and Norris Cole can provide a spark — a Heat threepeat will be that much more probable.
Most important non-star to both?
Elena: For the Spurs, I’m counting Kawhi Leonard as a star because I’m a rational, sane adult. He’s not part of the Big Three nucleus there but I think we can all agree that he’s at star level, right? Marco Belinelli might end up being super important if Tony Parker’s calf isn’t one hunnid and they end up having to sub in ballhandlers and shooters to match up against the Heat’s backcourt thieves.
With the Heat, I think it ends up being Shane Battier. His defense is crucial to what they do but they can’t afford to play him if he’s not shooting well. Pretty sure they’d rather go into battle with him fully flourishing rather than giving those minutes to *gulp* Rashard Lewis.
Russ: This might not be the most popular opinion, but for the Spurs it has to be Boris Diaw. Maybe this is just because he had a huge (no pun intended) Game 6 against the Thunder, but Diaw is more or less the perfect Spur: He can score, he can pass, and he has the propensity for finding open space and being in the right spot at the right time. Whether it’s Ginobili finding him underneath for an open dunk (to be fair, he should be pretty easy to find) or him making the extra pass to get a more open shot, Diaw makes the best Spurs better and the role players, er, rollier?
As for the Heat, I’m going with Birdman. Shane Battier is essentially the Heat’s Diaw, but it’s going to be up to Chris Andersen — especially with Udonis Haslem on the decline — to keep the Spurs from scoring at will in the paint. Defense will be key in this series, and Birdman may often find himself the last line of it.
Who’s gonna win this coaching battle?
Elena: I legit think Spo’ outcoached Pop last year. If that happens two years in a row then nothing I know about basketball is true.
Russ: *long stare* *smirk*
Is this gonna play out the same way as last year or are these teams different than they were?
Elena: I think we’ll see some of the same battles happening. Wade and Ginobili will each have their nights but not be consistent scoring threats, and I still think Tony Parker can put either Miami point guard in a blender whenever he wants to. I’m not sure that Miami has cohesiveness that they had last year, though, and that was crucial to keeping them in position to win. There have been a lot of defensive lapses in these playoffs and when they go to matching up lineups to get offense I think Miami will suffer some breakdowns that they wouldn’t have last season. How they recover from those breakdowns is going to determine whether they can win.
Russ: Yes…and no. The end result may not be the same, but this still promises to be a hard-fought series that goes the distance, or at least close to it. Its hard to imagine a blowout either way.
But these teams are different, too. Both are aging — it’s not just the Spurs, as Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Udonis Haslem are all showing signs — and they know each other well, so there shouldn’t be surprises like Danny Green erupting for an NBA record number of threes. And key role players like Mike Miller and Gary Neal have ridden off into their respective sunsets (or at least the Memphis Grizzlies and the Charlotte Bobcats). At the same time, this could be the series where Kawhi Leonard becomes a household name. So, different but not. Kind of.10 of 12
How much do these finals matter to either franchise?
Elena: Fiscally? Obviously Miami GM Pat Riley has a huge personal stake in winning and we’ve already addressed what a three-peat would mean to LeBron’s legacy. But I think three-peating would cement this specific team’s impact on the league as a whole. Indiana went ahead and called them the Bulls of this era and the last CBA included provisions specifically targeted at preventing other teams from following the Big Three model. Three-peating is what other teams are trying to prevent, both on and off the court.
These Finals matter in a whole different way to San Antonio because their whole identity is based on playing a smarter more efficient brand of basketball that should beat any style. They’ve never gone to back-to-back Finals and come up empty twice. Losing wouldn’t mitigate their entire history together but it would be a mortal wound in that narrative.
Russ: I mean, obviously the Finals are a huge deal to both, even given they’re both somewhat regular visitors at this point. It’s beyond cliché at this point, but this is what you play the entire season for. If there has to be one answer, it’s probably the Spurs, as they have the murkier future — Tim Duncan is (fairly) certain to retire before LeBron, and San Antonio isn’t the destination franchise that Miami is. Miami can reload through free agency, San Antonio will have to rely primarily on the draft. If Duncan calls it quits this summer, or even next summer, there’s no guarantee they EVER get back to the Finals.
OK — who wins and in how many games?
Elena: Heat in 7. I see the Spurs advantage in a bunch of key areas but I still think that LeBron trumps most deficiencies until he proves me otherwise. I’m not tryna be on the wrong side of history!
Russ: Spurs in 6. They’re on a mission from God, er, Pop.