After two dramatically different Conference Finals, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are just four wins away from the NBA Championship and greatly enhanced legacies. While there are plenty of storylines to cover, there are also more than enough writers to cover the off-the-court stuff. As such, I will focus on how the series itself will play out.
When Miami has the ball
Part of what makes the Heat so interesting is that the glue of their offense is scoring at the basket even though they are middle of the road in terms of how many attempts they get at the rim per game. The reason they stand out here is that they made an astonishing 71.1 percent of these shots, standing at No. 1 in the league by a clear margin. Unfortunately for the Heat, the Spurs have two effective interior defenders and held opponents to the third-worst effectiveness at the rim behind only the Nuggets and Pacers. While San Antonio has both Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter to man the paint, Miami would be wise to work on getting them in foul trouble because the frontcourt depth of the Spurs comes in players like Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner rather than rim protectors.
On the perimeter, the Spurs will probably throw different players on LeBron James because no one player has the stamina and ability to handle him for an entire game. Kawhi Leonard will take the lead, but I worry that he will not be able to deal with the quickness of James, especially since Leonard is not strong enough to exert that as an advantage over him. The other matchups should be reasonable for San Antonio since Danny Green and the rest of the swingmen will have the size, savvy, and support to handle Dwyane Wade and Gregg Popovich knows that the best way to defend Wade is to allow his bad jump shooting instincts to take over. San Antonio’s help defense will make posting up one of the perimeter players a less successful endeavor.
The Spurs’ biggest problem comes when Miami plays LeBron at power forward and has enough shooters at the other spots to keep either Splitter or Duncan out of position. The lack of defensive versatility of San Antonio’s collection of forwards, except for Leonard, will make this an incredibly difficult proposition for San Antonio since Splitter and Duncan cannot defend someone like Mike Miller or James and Miami has the ball rotation to ensure that the right players get the right looks. The first two games of the series against the Warriors showed how the Spurs can have problems with teams who have multiple dangerous perimeter scorers and Memphis did not have the offensive talent out there to exploit that matchup. Miami does.
When San Antonio has the ball
We have heard a good deal of talk about how the Spurs can exploit the Heat on the interior like Indiana did in the Eastern Conference Finals. The smaller lineups Miami employed so frequently during the regular season will be particularly susceptible since both Duncan and Splitter can score effectively on the interior. Interestingly, while the Pacers were fourth in the entire NBA in offensive rebounding during the regular season, San Antonio was second from the bottom and actually trailed Miami in this department. The Spurs will not give away as many possessions via turnovers but will need to ramp up the intensity on the offensive boards to generate additional quality scoring chances.
The biggest factor on this end will be whether Miami can handle Tony Parker. Part of what makes Parker so difficult to defend is that he can create for himself and others quickly and effectively with an excellent supporting cast that can maximize the opportunities they get. San Antonio’s ball movement has been phenomenal throughout the Popovich/Parker era and this year’s squad led the NBA in assist ratio (the proportion of possessions that end in assists) after many seasons of being close to the top. I fully expect to see LeBron defending Tony Parker during the fourth quarter of close games and Miami does not need Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole on the floor offensively so the team will not suffer from playing bigger if need be. A crunch time lineup of LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Chris Andersen and either Ray Allen or Mike Miller could pose problems for San Antonio’s offense and put pressure on Danny Green and Manu Ginobili to hit open shots and create offense for the rest of the team.
While San Antonio has the size to exploit Miami’s greatest weakness, they will use their advantage there differently than Indiana because their identity comes as much from Parker as from Duncan. Parker’s offensive skills will be put to the test when the most physically gifted perimeter defender in the league guards him and this series should be the greatest challenge for the rest of the offense in years.
If Bosh and Wade can combine for four or five quality games (meaning one, the other, or both did reasonably well), they should be able to ride LeBron and their potent offense to the championship. However, Wade and Bosh did not deliver even that much against Indiana. I see them bringing it just enough to give Miami a six game series win after they take both of the first two home games and then steal one of the three in San Antonio.