After six frenzied weeks, we’ve got the dream Finals for everyone outside a few select fan bases — fans of other contenders, plus Lakers fans, who must now watch as Miami or San Antonio strengthens its claim to the honor of “best post-Jordan franchise.”
Miami has now made four straight Finals, something no team has done since the 1980s, and a win here would give them a three-peat — and four total post-Jordan rings. The Spurs already have four post-Jordan titles, and they’ve won 50 games every season since drafting Tim Duncan.1
They technically won 37 games in the 1999 lockout season, but their 37-13 record equates to a 61-win pace for a normal season.
The Lakers have won five rings since Jordan retired from the Bulls, including a three-peat, and they’ve been among the league’s elite for most of that span. But they’ve slogged through two sub-.500 seasons, including this season’s 27-55 stink bomb, and Miami finished two post-MJ seasons with even worse records than that. Perhaps the Spurs have already clinched the (fake) honor, win or lose.
Even if history isn’t your thing, this is a mega-event — a rematch of last year’s epic seven-game adventure, featuring the world’s best player, another all-time top-10 guy, and the two best passing teams in the league.
It also presents a clash of two competing trends:
1. The Heat have never lost a playoff series post-Decision in which they have been able to play small ball, or at least a facsimile of small ball, a majority of the time. They’ve lost only one playoff series with LeBron, and only the Pacers and Spurs have given them much trouble since Chris Bosh returned from an abdominal injury in Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
The Pacers, of course, play huge lineups, and have often forced the Heat to scrap small ball in order to survive on the block. The emergence of Rashard Lewis allowed the Heat to find a happy medium, and they blew Indiana away once Lewis proved he could fill the Shane Battier role. I’d be shocked if Lewis doesn’t start at power forward in Game 1. The Heat were disastrously bad offensively against the Spurs with the Bosh–Udonis Haslem combination in last year’s Finals, and they don’t really need Haslem in this series.
The Heat have shown no fear of playing small, and even playing super-small, against San Antonio. Tiago Splitter’s size and post game do not worry them. They swapped Mike Miller for Haslem in the starting lineup midway through last season’s Finals, and they ran Splitter off the floor with shooting and speed. The Spurs’ defense is by far at its best when Duncan and Splitter share the floor, but the spacing gets cramped on offense, and the Thunder just reminded us what an ultra-athletic defense can do against an offense with spacing issues.
Give a team of leapers and runners a player it can ignore, or even just reduce the space it has to cover, and those springy dudes can strangle an offense; the Spurs had to separate Splitter and Duncan against the Thunder, and they may have to do so again here. Last year’s Finals became a small-ball series, and the Heat have always won those.
2. The Spurs came about as close as a team possibly can to beating the Heat last season, and they’re better today. Manu Ginobili shot poorly and coughed up a hail of ugly turnovers last season, but he’s healthy now, and he just tore apart Oklahoma City. Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green are all improved players, and Boris Diaw has grown more assertive after another year munching on the Spurs’ buffet of options.
Patty Mills played 13 garbage-time minutes in last year’s Finals, but he’s a weapon now, and he gives San Antonio both a fail-safe in case Tony Parker’s ankle flares up and a tag-team partner for Parker in dual–point guard lineups — units San Antonio would happily use if Miami plays Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers together. The Mills–Marco Belinelli bench duo is a collective upgrade over Gary Neal, even though Neal took and hit some of the ballsiest shots of last year’s Finals.
The Heat, meanwhile, are a bit more fragile. Miller is gone, Battier is a shell of himself, Haslem and Lewis are on their last legs, and Burnie the Human Flame has been nearly as valuable as the Greg Oden–Michael Beasley combination.
Dwyane Wade, a borderline liability last time around, is healthy and productive again, and Lewis’s frisky play has given a thin roster new versatility. The Spurs outscored Miami by 54 points last season with Wade on the court, per NBA.com; Miami won the series only because it blitzed San Antonio by 49 points in the 86 minutes Wade sat, and that trend continued even as Miami recovered to win Games 6 and 7 at home. Those numbers reversed almost exactly when Miller was on the floor, and he was a valuable wild card for the Heat. They miss him.
Wade can’t shoot from long range, and he was always hanging around the baseline, mucking up Miami’s spacing:
It took Miami so much work to generate LeBron’s gorgeous floater in overtime of last season’s legendary Game 6 because Leonard ignored Wade in the right corner to help clog up LeBron’s first attack:
That isn’t as damaging when Miami plays small ball, since Wade effectively functions as a second “big” man. But it makes Miami a bit easier to guard. The Heat are a different team if Wade is healthy enough to counter by working his floater game, cutting off the ball, and generally being a terror in all those in-between spaces.
Still: Miami on the whole is probably a bit worse than it was last year, the Spurs a bit better.
San Antonio has been a stronger and more complete team all season, including in the playoffs, by almost any measure, and it faced a tougher road than Miami in reaching this point. The gap is largest on defense, which is kind of important, since Miami so far in the playoffs has scored at a rate above what any offense in league history has put up over a full season, per Basketball-Reference.
And yet: Miami has LeBron.
What in the hell is a thinking person supposed to do with all of these crisscrossing trends? Let’s suss it out by focusing on some key things to watch:
On Small Ball
The Heat dared to go even smaller against San Antonio in last year’s Finals, swapping Miller and even Ray Allen into the Battier slot — and leaving LeBron and Bosh as the only two “big men” on the floor. Such lineups played a much larger share of Miami’s minutes in last year’s Finals than normal, and they are basically unguardable.
Diaw is San Antonio’s chubby futon, capable of shifting functions depending on the need. If the Spurs want to play big against Miami’s small-ball groups, pairing Diaw and Duncan, Diaw can punish a smaller player in the post and find some workable place to slide around on defense. He guarded LeBron some in last year’s Finals, and though he can do that credibly, LeBron began to figure it out in Games 6 and 7.
If the Spurs don’t want Diaw on LeBron, he can manage on Lewis or Battier just fine. Try this San Antonio lineup on for size: Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Diaw, and Duncan. That lineup logged just three minutes in last year’s Finals and 33 minutes over the full playoffs, but Gregg Popovich has already rolled that bad boy out for 81 minutes in these playoffs.
It might be a little light on shooting, depending on Leonard’s stroke, but it’s a diverse group without a one-dimensional shooter on which Miami can hide a weak defender like Allen.
Miami didn’t respect Diaw’s post-up girth enough to not go super-small, with lineups like Chalmers, Allen, Wade, LeBron, and Bosh. If Diaw proves unable to defend LeBron over the long haul, where’s he hiding on defense against lineups like these? The Spurs tried both Diaw and Splitter on Wade last season in these scenarios, a humiliation for Wade, but Wade was hobbled and creaky then. The Pacers and other teams prefer facing Allen on defense, but ask David West how hard it is for a big fella to chase that ageless dude.
Using Diaw together with Duncan also makes it trickier for the Heat to have LeBron defend Parker, a matchup Miami reserved for crunch time before leaning on it more in Games 6 and 7; if Bosh and LeBron are the only bigs on the floor, and LeBron is on Parker, the Heat have to hope a smaller guy can contain Diaw’s scoopy post game.
But the Spurs’ defense has taken a step back with the Diaw-Duncan pairing in both the regular season and especially in the playoffs; those groups have allowed 109.3 points per 100 possessions through three series, per NBA.com, a mark that would have ranked dead last in the regular season. (They’ve also scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked right around “ridiculously insane.”)
The Spurs, of course, can go super-small themselves, and they’re better positioned to do that given the strong play of Leonard, Belinelli, and Mills. But it was telling how rarely they went that route against the Thunder, even with Oklahoma City playing Kevin Durant at power forward a ton. The Spurs’ offense, that beautiful machine, is designed to feature two bigs — two guys to man the elbows, set picks on each side of the floor, deliver handoffs, and do other big-guy stuff.
San Antonio can slide a wing player into a “big” role, but those guys aren’t as familiar with the job; the Spurs lose a bit of their structure and defense going that route. And in an all-small-ball setup, the smart money is on Miami. Always.
The Spurs’ Shell and the LeBron Project
The Spurs in last year’s Finals took the idea of allowing midrange jumpers to a new level. They played multiple body lengths off Wade and James, going way under screens on the pick-and-roll and daring them to shoot wide-open midrangers:
All that mattered was protecting the rim. The Spurs were even willing to switch big men onto James to maintain the integrity of their force field around the paint.
They understand LeBron can breeze by any 7-footer, but they’d rather LeBron suck a few more seconds off the shot clock while he thinks about it, and as LeBron revs the engine, help defenders can slide into his path near the rim. The Spurs will make him see bodies:
It worked, to a degree. The Spurs held the most potent offense in the world to a manageable scoring number, and they forced Miami to heave more long 2-pointers; about 39 percent of Miami’s regular-season shots were midrange jumpers and paint shots outside the restricted area, but that share jumped to 47 percent in the Finals, per NBA.com. Miami also got to the line at the lowest rate, per field goal try, of any series it has played since LeBron signed there — by a huge margin.
Bosh got heaps of open midrangers off pick-and-pops and other screening actions. He may turn more of these shots into triples this season, and he has shown he can hurt both Duncan and Splitter by pump-faking and blowing by them off the bounce.
This isn’t some can’t-miss strategy. LeBron and Bosh are elite midrange shooters, and the Heat won last year’s Finals, but it can stagnate a Miami offense that thrives by bending the defense with high pick-and-rolls and whipping the ball around the floor until the juiciest shot emerges. It’s harder to puncture a defense that doesn’t bend at all.
Miami will respond by posting the hell out of LeBron, who has become perhaps the very best post-up player in the league. (This is the part where Cleveland fans weep.) If you can’t dribble the ball close to the rim, you can still pass it there to a monster sealing his man near the edge of the paint.
About 19 percent of possessions LeBron finished2 came via post-ups in last season’s Finals, up from 12 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. Problem: LeBron shot 30 percent on those plays and barely drew any fouls. The Heat averaged an almost unbelievable .556 points per possession on LeBron post-ups against San Antonio, per Synergy, a number that would have ranked 116th among 117 players with at least 50 post plays to their name. Take a bow, Vitor Faverani.
With a shot, drawn foul, or turnover.
Leonard can’t match LeBron’s bulk, but he’s strong, with giant arms that bother LeBron on the way up. And if LeBron faces up for a dribble attack, Leonard has the speed and footwork to contain him.
He’ll also get plenty of help. The Spurs will tilt their entire defense toward LeBron, pinching the floor and forcing him into tougher pass-or-shoot choices:
The Spurs were also good at surprising LeBron with late help on post-ups — guys flying in from the top side, or from the baseline, only as LeBron started his move and temporarily lost sight of them.
Wade’s lack of shooting was especially hurtful in enabling the Spurs’ shell defense. Green and other defenders flat abandoned Wade to clog the paint on any Miami drive (this one from Bosh):
This is a different series if Wade can make San Antonio pay, and LeBron figures to do better as a post-up bully this time around — especially since the Heat will have at least three long-range shooters around him at almost all times.
LeBron doesn’t leave a lot of room for cute matchup games, either. The Spurs slid Green onto Durant in the conference finals so Leonard could defend Russell Westbrook, and Durant isn’t a cruel enough post player yet to punish a shorter guy like Green.
LeBron is a bruiser, and he brutalized Green last season when he found himself in that matchup.
The Heat have other ways to penetrate the shell, including a pick-and-roll variation they broke out specifically for last season’s Finals:
That’s a standard LeBron-Bosh job, only Bosh sets the pick low near the foul line3 and slips hard to the rim — playing against his tendency to pop out. The nearest wing defender would normally crash down on Bosh here, but that defender is guarding Allen, and leaving that dude is freaking scary. Miami got a lot of profitable stuff out of this action, and out of similar side pick-and-rolls in which Bosh rolled clear to the hoop behind the shell:
This helped Wade gain a head of steam and start pick-and-rolls within his shooting range.
It’s a Trap!
The Heat don’t get as funky as they used to, but they’re still a pretty aggressive team, and they’ll have two defenders attack pick-and-roll ball handlers both up high and on the side. That leaves the other three Miami defenders guarding four opposing players, and any series against the Heat largely comes down to which team wins those 4-on-3 battles.
Miami is more berserk with its traps on the side of the floor, which happens to be where Parker loves to come flying off picks at the elbow:
That trap on the Splitter screen triggers the Heat’s defensive machinery — a third defender has to rush over to Splitter, and the defenders on the other side of the floor have to position themselves so that Splitter doesn’t have an easy pass to an open player. Hesitation by Splitter is death, since it gives Miami time to recover from its initial trapping binge.
The Spurs are the best passing team in the league. They are built for this. Their role players, particularly Diaw and Leonard, unleashed a new level of aggression with the ball when Oklahoma City’s defense forced the Spurs to swing it around. They have been hesitant in the past, especially against the Thunder’s crazy jumping length, but in Games 5 and 6, they both caught the ball, put their heads down, and took the damn thing toward the rim.4
Game 5 especially was a collective masterpiece from San Antonio.
Those role players weren’t quite ready for this last season in the half-court, but they might be now. The Heat want to scramble your offense until the shot clock is expiring and someone has to make a one-on-one play off the bounce. The Spurs scored well, but they did so outside their comfort zone; only 51.4 percent of their buckets in the Finals came via assists, a mammoth drop from their regular-season 64 percent assist rate, and a number that would have ranked last overall.
Miami isn’t quite as nutty on high pick-and-rolls, preferring to have the big man guarding the screener slide side-to-side with the ball handler instead of blitzing him. It still functions as something like a trap, and the Spurs will have to dribble and pass their way out of it. They will revive the technique they used in their Spursgasm against Oklahoma City, positioning a second player along the perimeter so the ball handler has an easier pass than trying to thread the ball to the big rolling into the lane.
That was Ginobili’s job on this eerily similar Green triple from last season’s Finals:
Parker also had a ton of success waiting out the trap and then attacking Miami’s point guards one-on-one in glorified isolations:
Parker’s health could swing the series. He is probably San Antonio’s best one-on-one player, and isolations can be weirdly effective as trap neutralizers against Miami. He is by far the Spurs’ best transition threat, and getting early points, before the Heat prime their defensive energies, will be a point of emphasis. Peak Parker fools hyperaggressive defenders by faking at the pick and then driving away from it, and the Spurs against Oklahoma City got some traction by having other guards screen for Parker.5
They did that sometimes via staggered screens, in which two players set consecutive screens for Parker.
The Spurs have to do all of this without committing too many turnovers. San Antonio can contain Miami well enough in the half-court to win this series, but it cannot survive an onslaught of fast-break points.
Duncan is too tall for Bosh and too strong for Chris Andersen, who played a key role off the bench in last year’s clash. The Spurs went to Duncan on the block far more than normal; he jacked 6.1 post-up shots per game in the Finals, up from about 3.8 in the regular season, and he nearly took the Spurs home with some old-school post work in Game 6.
Bosh will try to front Duncan, but the Spurs have no issue passing around the front. They aren’t the Knicks or Pacers, simplistic offensive teams that approached Miami fronts as if they were an impenetrable new strategy.
Fronting can also open up driving angles for San Antonio ball handlers:
Duncan can do damage, but the Spurs have to make sure they don’t shift their offense out of rhythm in pursuit of tough isolations down low.
In a series this close, every possession matters, even the miscellany that doesn’t fall into any of these larger categories. Green went wild over the first five games last season, and while the Spurs deserve a lot of the credit for springing him via a cut the Heat had never seen before, Miami also just lost him way too often. Defenders spaced out ball-watching, and botched switches. Both Wade and LeBron committed treasonous acts by whining to officials instead of getting back on defense.
A lot of the switching mishaps involved Miller, dusted off late in the conference finals after a long period of inactivity, and the defense might be cleaner without him this time around.
Ginobili will guard a bunch of guys, but he has to raise his level of alertness in chasing Allen. And when Allen has to guard Ginobili — when there is no safe stash spot — Ginobili must punish him.
These are two historically indifferent offensive rebounding teams, but both amped up their activity level on the glass last season, with the Spurs grabbing their own misses at a league-average rate — a miracle for them.
Duncan has a size edge for tip-ins, and Leonard, a beast on the glass, slithered around lazy boxouts from Wade and James. When both teams play smaller, the rebounding game becomes a little more unpredictable; whichever team can earn some extra chances by sliding into the right spots at the right times will build a small edge.
But the Spurs especially will have to do that without sacrificing transition defense. If they free Leonard to hit the glass along with their two bigs (when playing that sort of lineup), Leonard must be judicious, and the Spurs cannot position themselves like this as a shot goes up — with four players below the foul line.
Holy crap. I’ve been going back and forth on Heat in seven, Heat in six, and Spurs in seven, and I was leaning toward the Spurs before Parker aggravated his ankle injury. The Spurs need him at close to peak functionality for the full series to dethrone Miami. I’ll choose to be optimistic here and assume Parker gets through this thing.
The Heat have played a dangerous game, summoning their best effort only when absolutely necessary. The Spurs are too good for that; the Heat needed an all-time comeback to snatch the title last season. These Spurs are better. Spurs in seven.