When Miami plays San Antonio in the NBA Finals, the end of the line will be near for both teams.
On Monday, I wrote about the fatalistic beauty of a Game 7 in the conference finals, how winning the game makes you a champion in the record books and how losing the game can break you permanently. Unfortunately, there was little poetry in the Miami Heat’s 23-point beat-down of the tough and gritty Indiana Pacers that had the eventuality of a mercy killing. As I watched the minutes tick down on the Pacers’ season and I looked ahead to the Heat’s upcoming match up starting Thursday night against the Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs, I started looking back. I began thinking about another Game 7 that happened three years ago.
It was the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics, and this one was for all the marbles. It was a mentally draining, low scoring affair with the Lakers outlasting the Celtics 83-79 to win the NBA Championship. It was the second time in three years that the Celtics had played L.A. in the Finals, and each team got their moment of glory over the other. I thought the same thing that many people believed at the time: The Lakers and Celtics had to finish the trilogy and face off one more time to settle the score. The stars on both teams were coming back and the stage was set for one last stand by the kings of their respective castles.
But it didn’t happen.
It turned out that epic game in Los Angeles was the last stand for both teams and we just did not realize it yet. A few weeks after that Game 7, the Heat concocted a devious plan to bring two-time league MVP LeBron James to South Beach to join forces with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a triple threat that would overtake the Celtics’ older model. The Lakers, and Phil Jackson’s coaching career, were unceremoniously swept by the Dallas Mavericks at the same time that the Celtics were eliminated in five games by the league’s new hot act in 2011. The Celtics got bounced by the Heat two years in a row, with their last gasp at the Finals being stopped in seven games by LeBron almost single-handily last year. The rubber match between L.A. and Boston was not to be, and we were left to realize that both teams had reached the end of the road more quickly than we had expected.
With the Heat and the Spurs, I feel that same sense of finality on the horizon for both teams; that time is running out on the chance to take the throne one more time, twice at most. This truth gives a lot of Heat haters the pleasure of knowing that LeBron will not win eight titles in Miami, which he foolishly blurted out in his introductory speech to the Heat fans. To win four championships during his pact with Miami would be unreasonable right now. The Heat have already lost in the Finals to the Mavericks and had to go the distance with two teams that were a combined 88-59 in the regular season just to get to the Finals this year. It is clear that although they dominate in the regular season, teams are slowly catching up to their small ball style of play in the slowed down tempo of playoff games. The code to ending Miami’s reign atop the East (and the NBA) is close to being cracked.
Wade’s and Bosh’s production have dipped mightily since they have eased back into their roles as sidekicks to the now four-time league MVP. Wade’s scoring averages the last two seasons have been his lowest outputs since his rookie season, not to mention his pedestrian 14.1 PPG this postseason, by far his worst. Bosh is headed in the same direction. His regular season rebounding was a career worst, and his scoring was second only to his rookie season in ineptitude at 16.6 PPG. His playoff numbers have dipped even more, with Pacers center Roy Hibbert glaringly outplaying him for most of the Eastern Conference Finals. Both players, along with James, have “opt out” clauses in their contracts in the summer of 2014. If Wade and Bosh decide to keep their deals going at the max level, they will continue to absorb the majority of the Heat’s salary cap and activate the dreaded super luxury tax that will triple in the next two years. All the while Pat Riley has to figure out even more makeshift signings of random role players at discount prices to stay competitive. If Wade and Bosh continue their downward slides around LeBron with so much of their costs against the cap, the Heat’s title hopes could quickly disappear. It would be the management equivalent of juggling bowling balls. It was a get-rich-quick scheme that Miami gladly bought into three years ago and disregarded the fallout. And the fallout is almost here.
The steadiness in how the Spurs methodically built their way to the top and how they will continue the process long after Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan retire has been remarkable. The Spurs have put their team together the old fashioned way, but even they had to slowly rebuild around their own Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Gone are Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, and Brent Barry, three players who won multiple titles in the previous decade under Popovich. They have been replaced over time by second-year star forward Kawhi Leonard, quick shooters Danny Green and Gary Neal, and a Brazilian center named Thiago Splitter. The most dramatic move the Spurs made was trading guard George Hill to the Pacers in order to draft Leonard, so no pyro-filled pep rallies needed at San Antonio’s press conferences.
The names I just mentioned sound like faceless drones, but it is the leadership of the four stalwarts (Popovich, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili) that binds the team together. You can call them the original Big Three, but “original” is also a code word for “old,” and time is ticking just as much on San Antonio’s chances as it is on Miami’s. Duncan’s contract expires in 2015 with all signs pointing to a retirement at the end of his deal. Ginobili will likely re-sign with the Spurs this summer but his game has clearly dissipated from its best days and he is not a starter anyway. Their one saving grace for the future (along with Popovich remaining the head coach) is Parker, who is in the prime of his career at 31 years old and has become the go-to scorer for the Spurs heading into this year’s Finals. The offense is meticulously built around Parker while Duncan and Ginobili are more than ready to step in during big moments to share the responsibility for the other players who lack playoff experience.
The reason there is not as much ink about the Spurs’ triple threat is not just because of their miscellaneous style of play, but also because each player peaked at different points. Duncan was the dominant force for the previous four titles, but Ginobili peaked in the 2005 Finals, and Parker was the Finals MVP in 2007. Although they slayed some mighty dragons in the Western Conference playoffs during that time (The Lakers in 2003, the Suns in 2007), you can make the argument that they never played a great team in the Finals to truly test their mettle. Their last championship was an embarrassingly one-sided and dismally-viewed sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers back when LeBron was just a pup. Six years since that last championship for the Spurs, they meet LeBron again, fully grown and at the peak of his powers.
The Spurs were a formidable 58-24 in the regular season, losing only two games in the Western Conference playoffs altogether, but in order to keep their NBA Finals undefeated streak alive, they must defeat the defending NBA champions who won 66 games in the regular season and went on an historic 27-game winning streak after the All-Star break. They may have not looked dominant all the time against the Pacers in the conference finals, but the numbers skew towards the Heat being a legitimately great team that will be favored to repeat in the Finals. It will also be the first time since 2010 that the Spurs will not have home court advantage in a playoff series, so a win in Miami, where the Heat have only lost four times since the new year, is essential to winning the title. The easy cop-out by writers is to label this Finals as the old guard of San Antonio versus the new school of Miami. In terms of team-building, that is a legit case, but in terms of style of play and personnel, you would be totally wrong. The Heat are actually older in terms of average age (30.5 years) than the Spurs (29.8).
The Spurs have garnered their reputation from their previous incarnations where they were elite defensive squads that ran the ball through Duncan with predictable halfcourt sets (The name of their official fan site is Pounding the Rock). In the four seasons that they won the title, they were 13th, 12th, 18th, and 14th in scoring offense, respectively. This season, they were 3rd in the league. They run a lot of pick and roll with Parker and screen action with open shooters and big guys that can post up when they get deep post position. They are a fun team to watch not just based on the general terms of team basketball, but also based on quick tempo, highly efficient shooting displays and Parker’s magnificence when he finishes in the paint. It was ironic when the Spurs played the Memphis Grizzlies, who were sort of a botched clone version of the older Spurs model that won those titles, and how they easily took apart Memphis on the interior. It was as if the Spurs threw their old identity right back at Memphis on defense and stuck to their quick-running guns on offense. Although their defense was 11th in the league, they were one of the best teams in the league at defending the paint. That sits fine with Bosh, who is more than ready to take his trademark 15-foot jumpers after seven games of Roy Hibbert and David West backing him down. Duncan and Splitter traditionally like to defend in the paint and stay there, so Bosh will have success if his jumpers start to go in. Duncan has slimmed down and has been a steady shooter this postseason from the field and from the line, so a pump fake could send Bosh flying while Duncan attacks the paint.
LeBron is more about paint touches than simply sitting in the post, but he has definitely improved at bullying smaller defenders. And if the lane is open, you better watch your head because LeBron is going to swoop in quickly on the slow-footed defense of the Spurs. Against the Pacers, James played the whole series one-on-one with Paul George, a burgeoning superstar who plays almost like a LeBron clone in terms of versatility and ball handling. Now LeBron will play against more of a throwback small forward in Leonard, who has been steadily impressive since he came in as a rookie. Leonard has great length to get a hand up on LeBron’s shots, but trying to keep him out of the lane with Leonard’s lack of strength is going to be a major disadvantage for the Spurs. Help defense by Splitter or Duncan from the weak side is going to be essential here regardless of potential foul trouble.
The greatest advantage for the Spurs will be what Parker is capable of doing to Heat guards like Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Parker not only gets good shots for himself off ball screens early in the shot clock, he ignites one-man fast breaks and can easily trigger a rhythm offense around the perimeter by penetrating the lane and whipping it around for three-point shooters. The Spurs were tops in the league in total assists per game, so finding the open man will still be the best option for the Spurs against Miami’s smaller defense. And Miami should be prepared for it, because they see it every day in practice. The Heat and Spurs were both top five in the league in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. The difference is that San Antonio’s three-pointers arrive in a swing offense where everyone makes the extra pass while the Heat’s three-point barrages come from either LeBron finding the hole in the defense or Chalmers finding the open shooter when LeBron is being double-teamed. People criticize Miami’s LeBron-dependent small ball offense, yet it worked like a charm against the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s Finals. We’ll see if the pressure gets to San Antonio’s rhythm shooters or Miami’s open shooters on a stage this big. But don’t sleep on Miami’s ability to close out on those shooters; they were 5th in scoring defense this season.
That leaves the X-factor to Wade, who Popovich will probably tinker his defense with to see what works on him. Although he has struggled in the postseason, Wade was terrific in the last two Finals he played in, so when the bright lights flash, Wade might turn on the jets. I suspect that the Spurs will throw at least two bodies at Wade on every slash attempt to divert him to just being a jump shooter, where he has shot a low percentage, and settle for one-on-one defense in isolation while doubling LeBron, while hoping to box him out from offensive rebounds. Wade does have major Finals experience (this is his fourth trip) compared to Neal and Green, who are both first-timers. Wade is so unpredictable as a player at this point in his career that nothing would surprise me. But without Wade being at least effective at drawing contact, Miami will have trouble winning the series.
If there is one thing that this year’s NBA Finals does not lack, it is hardware, especially at the top of the food chain. You have LeBron, who has won four league MVPs and a Finals MVP. Duncan has won two league MVPs and three Finals MVPs. Wade and Parker have each won Finals MVP before. The two franchises have won six of the previous fourteen NBA championships and if the Spurs win the Finals, Duncan will have won as many championships as Kobe Bryant, his contemporary as the best player of the previous decade. And don’t forget about Ray Allen, who set the Finals record for threes in a single game, and Ginobili, a three-time champion who also won an Olympic gold medal. Even if the games themselves do not stick the landing in terms of level of play, the history on its own is rich enough to keep your attention.
But when you win that many accolades and run that many laps in the race, that also means that you don’t have too many more laps to run. For the Spurs, their ultimate enemy is Father Time removing Duncan and Ginobili from the organization for good. For the Heat, their enemy is the new NBA economy possibly forcing their hand to find a new cast to surround LeBron. Even though we are not officially at the finish line for both of these teams, it’s in that last leg of the race where the victor tends to emerge. The Heat and Spurs will meet in the Alamo and duke it out for the NBA Championship, and it might not be their last chance but it might be their last best chance. Just like that infamous conflict in 1835, someone will survive the battle, but the war will be over pretty soon, too.