Over the next few weeks, we should all look forward to this new idea of a team being bought versus being built.
On one side of the spectrum, you have a San Antonio Spurs team with a three-man core that represents everything a franchise must complete in order to have a dynasty on their hands. They drafted Tim Duncan with the number one overall pick 16 years ago and have since instilled foreign powers in Tony Parker, a late first-round pick, and Manu Ginobili, a second-round pick, to round out their version of a ‘Big Three’.
They’re everything a small-market team should look up to; starting out small, drafting correctly, making smart moves to pick up role players and creating a system that gets the best out of everyone on the floor.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat have only given reasons to be a despised sports franchise. They were fortunate enough to have an already established superstar in Dwyane Wade, taken in a draft where he fell to the number five spot because of three future All-Stars being taken before him, and were then even more fortunate for Wade to be good friends with LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
And while their system and coach Erik Spoelstra deserves praise, the Heat are a LeBron-centric team that would be lost without him.
James and Bosh took enormous paycuts to team up with Wade, Miami has since signed on veterans gone ring-chasing who also took paycuts, and are now representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season.
They didn’t spend an egregious amount of money to get their team, they rank 4th in the league in salaries, but it took them one offseason to become a championship contender. It’s tough to blame the fans of the opposition who endorse the team that’s built. After all, they have watched as their franchises attempt time-and-time again to make the right moves, while the Heat did it in a week.
The narratives will come out in full force. And, as we have over the past two seasons with LeBron as our cornucopia of storylines, we will love every second of it, because who doesn’t love a good story that could make-or-break a player’s career?
No, it won’t all be about LeBron and his quest for a second ring, as well as his attempt to exact vengeance on a similar San Antonio team that had swept James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007.
Let’s not forget about the narratives of Tim Duncan going for a fifth ring, the Spurs’ three-man core going for a fourth, and even Dwyane Wade possibly continuing to cement his legacy with a third ring, even if he was a sidekick for two of them.
Outside of the oh-so-compelling narratives that will eat up time in between games, there will be the games themselves, which will possibly equate to one of the best NBA Finals in a long time.
Because not only do we get narrative on narrative, we also get two teams that are equally as dynamic and creative on offense as they are on defense. Two teams chock full of motivated and ambitious Hall-of-Famers. Two teams that were among the league’s most efficient on both sides of the ball.
Two teams that knew they were going to be in the spots they’re in today at the beginning of the season.
The Miami Heat knew they would be in this position. As did the San Antonio Spurs. Even with the distractions posed in the East by the likes of the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers and out West with the new-look Los Angeles Lakers and hungry Memphis Grizzlies, the Heat and Spurs have always been the favorites this season.
And if this series isn’t for you, then there’s a whole lot of baseball you can watch because, obviously, great basketball just isn’t your thing.
Both of these squads finished in the top ten in offensive efficiency in the regular season, Miami at the top and San Antonio seventh, and were also in the top ten in defensive efficiency, with San Antonio third and Miami seventh.
There were three teams in the league that finished in the top seven in offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season, and we’re going to watch two of them in the NBA Finals.
And not much has changed since, as the Heat and Spurs are currently first and second, respectively, in offensive efficiency in the postseason and fourth and first, respectively, in defensive efficiency. These two teams have a grasp on the game like no other and they have maintained this stunning efficiency through nearly 100 total games.
To get to the point, however, feature two completely different stories. The Spurs are a near-perfect 12-2 in the postseason, only two losses coming to the Golden State Warriors, and are coming off a sweep of a Memphis Grizzlies team that would have probably ended up posing more of a challenge to the Heat, rather than their current competition.
Meanwhile, the Heat team that some expected to actually sweep through the NBA postseason, on account of just how well they played in the regular season, has had their fair share of struggles.
They breezed through a sub-500 Milwaukee Bucks team in the first round, but ended up running into problems with a depleted Chicago Bulls team that stunned them with a win in Game 1. Although the Heat would run off four consecutive wins to end the series, three of the four were wire-to-wire.
Miami is coming off an arduous and tumultuous series with the Indiana Pacers that went the distance, finally capped off with a blowout win by the Heat that made us all scratch our heads and ask, “Well, where has this team been?”
This Heat team has had its flashes of brilliance, naturally. Right when we’re ready to begin doubting them, they put together a game like Game 2 against the Bulls where they won by 37 and were up by as much as 46. Or something like a Game 3 against Indiana where Miami dropped 114 points on a Pacer team that had yet to lose at home and arguably possessed the best defense in the league.
Game 7 was that final reminder, though. A 99-76 beating that was never in doubt. Chalk up Indiana losing all you want to inexperience and age. What we really saw was a Heat team that was playing the pressure defense that has brought them to an NBA Finals setting three straight years and just the bare minimum of contributions from the supporting cast of Miami.
It’s mind-boggling to think what the Heat is capable of with some pressure defense and just two players having a good game alongside LeBron James’ consistent excellece. But we got that in their Game 7 win, marking the second consecutive season the Heat have made it to an NBA Finals via winning a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now, there’s no doubt the Spurs are a better team than Pacers. So naturally that’s going to call out the analysts who are going to assume, “If Miami had trouble with Indiana, then surely they won’t be able to handle a far superior San Antonio team, right?”
Well, not at all, really. Because if you know the postseason, it’s about matchups. And Miami would much rather prefer matching up with a Western Conference beast like San Antonio, instead of another Eastern Conference foe that’s going to grind you out with physical, ugly basketball.
Although the Heat’s pace during the regular season was only at 93 possessions per game, they like to run more than any other team in the league. Their lack of possessions stems from a lack of offensive rebounds and a lack of misses, since less misses means less opportunities to score.
Miami would much rather run at the pace of a Western Conference foe such as San Antonio, which ranks 8th in the postseason with 92 possessions per game. Of the top eight postseason teams in terms of pace, six of those teams are out West.
Meanwhile, the teams with the lowest paces that round out the bottom five all come from the East, including the Heat and their most recent opponent.
San Antonio is a better team than Indiana, but Miami would much rather play the Spurs in a series than they would Indiana.
All percentages are courtesy of SynergySports.
For one, the Spurs, as excellent as they have been on the defensive end, don’t have a defense like Indiana’s, which is almost specifically designed to limit the primary strengths of Miami. According to SynergySports, there is no team that defends spot-up shooters better than Indiana, who ranked first in the league allowing its opponents to only shoot 37 percent.
Where does Miami get a majority of its offense from? Spot-ups! And the Heat will be ecstatic to know that San Antonio only ranks 14th in the league at this aspect, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 40 percent overall and 38 percent from beyond the arc.
The Heat found it insanely difficult to get guys like Ray Allen and Shane Battier going against Indiana because of how well the Pacers can simultaneously defend the perimeter and the paint. They can cheat on the perimeter when they have a 7’2″ Redwood manning the paint and leading us to reminisce of days when Dikembe Mutombo once shut down driving lanes.
There won’t be as much resistance when they’re meeting Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan in the lane and not Roy Hibbert. There were instances throughout Miami’s series against Indiana where the Heat flat-out refused to challenge Roy, who was also given the benefit of the doubt on a number of “verticallity” calls and made driving for high-percentage baskets all the more difficult.
San Antonio does not have that. Although they rank second in the league in points given up per possession (go ahead and guess who number one was), San Antonio’s defense does not match that of Indiana’s where there are athletic guards on the perimeter and bullying defenders in the post.
What do the Heat rely on most? Starting out from the perimeter, having LeBron or Dwyane absorb the defense in the paint on drives, and then kicking-out to an open shooter. Indiana was matchup-hell for an offense like Miami’s, which is why the Heat were forced to adjust on offense after every single loss.
Meanwhile, San Antonio’s defense is supported by brilliant defense on isolations, ranking third in the league, post-ups, ranking first, and cuts, ranking first. Miami’s offense was reliant on isolations, using it for nearly 11 percent of their offense, but they only relied on post-ups for seven percent of their offense and on cuts for only eight percent.
Miami has an offense built on getting either drives or open spot-up looks in the half-court, or getting out in transition which they utilized for 13 percent of their offense. San Antonio ranked eighth in the league defending transition opportunities, but it was there ability to limit turnovers that could lead to Miami failing to get out in transition as much they would prefer.
The Spurs’ turnover ratio, or the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in a turnover, ranks third in the postseason. They’re not like the Pacers, who coughed up the ball 21 times in their Game 7 loss, the Spurs can take care of the ball and they can also move it like no other, ranking first in assist ratio with 18.4.
Miami, ranking second, is only getting 17. The Heat, featuring a defense that’s heavy on pressure and double-teams, could end up getting into trouble if they run double-teams against one of the league’s top passing squads.
13 percent of Miami’s offense stemmed from transition opportunities, where they ranked first in the league in points per possession and shot 61 percent overall and 38 percent from beyond the arc. It’s going to be a huge test for Miami to find ways to get San Antonio uncomfortable on offense, but it’s going to have to come from their defense on pick-and-rolls.
Miami, who defended the pick-and-roll better than any team in the league and ranked first in defending the ball-handler and recipient, will have their hands full with a San Antonio team that is incredibly reliant on opening up their offense by having Tony Parker facilitate off of pick-and-rolls.
San Antonio ran 16 percent of their offense with the pick-and-roll man being the scorer. They rank seventh at that aspect and shot nearly 45 percent from the field, and it’s going to be quite the test for the likes of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole in limiting Parker off of these opportunities.
Parker ranked 17th in the league in points per possession off of pick-and-rolls, shot 49 percent, and stemmed his offense from that play a staggering 47 percent of the time.
In order for Miami to force turnovers and make San Antonio uncomfortable in its own skin, they’re going to have to cut off the head of the snake. And that means finding a way to wreak havoc at the top of the perimeter and creating discomfort for Parker in getting around the pick and getting into the lane either for an easy score or a pass to an open man.
This is where people will say, “Well, just throw LeBron out there.” Having LeBron on Tony Parker would be a solid idea for the fourth quarter, but having James fight through picks and chasing Parker is not something you want him having to waste energy on when he could be defending Kawhi Leonard.
Here’s some great news for Miami, though. It turns out that Norris Cole, who you will all recognize as one of the better defensive guards in this league, is among the league’s best when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll man. He ranked 25th in the league and allowed his opponent to shoot a mere 36 percent on those types of plays.
In two games over the past two seasons, Parker was held well-below his usual averages because of the defensive influence of Cole. Equipped with excellent lateral quickness and quick hands, Cole forced Parker into averaging 15 points on 42 percent shooting.
Their latest meeting featured Parker shooting 4-of-14 and scoring only 12 points in nearly 37 minutes. Cole played nearly 43 minutes of that game, actually outscoring Parker by one and getting to the line on three more occasions.
Mario Chalmers also hasn’t been too shabby defending pick-and-rolls, ranking 45th in the league and allowing a conversion rate of only 42 percent. It’s going to be on Cole and Chalmers to limit Parker, as Miami will need to do everything it can to make sure LeBron doesn’t have to exert himself on the defensive end.
Speaking of LeBron, it’s tough to get a bead on how well he’s going to play against Kawhi Leonard because of the small sample size. In fact, those two have played only a single game against each other, and it happened to be one of those games where LeBron was unconscious and ended up draining four three-pointers on only six attempts.
But you will hear all about Leonard’s physical attributes and how they make him the next in line to be a LeBron-stopper, as if we didn’t hear the exact same thing about Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the first-round, Jimmy Butler in the semifinals and, most recently, Paul George in the conference finals.
So many great defenders, yet LeBron is averaging 26 points on 51 percent shooting, converting 39 percent of his three-point attempts, grabbing seven boards and dishing out six assists per game.
It’s going to take far more than Kawhi Leonard and some good interior defense to limit LeBron, who went off for 30-plus on three occasions against an All-Defensive second team member in Paul George.
The only thing that’s been capable of stopping LeBron has been the right system, as evidenced by Rick Carlisle, Shawn Marion and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. However, a lot has changed since then and LeBron has become too well-rounded of a player to simply be limited into having as ghastly and horrific a series as he had against Dallas only two years ago.
LeBron has already seen some of the league’s best defenses and has already played against some of the league’s top defenders. He’s battle-tested. Those series against grind-out, ugly-style teams like Milwaukee, Chicago and Indiana is just what this Heat team needed to gear up for an NBA Finals that will likely feature more possessions and not having to defend a team that relies on taking bad shots and then having an imposing presence inside tip-in misses.
No, Miami is going to be its style of basketball. They’ll be playing a game where spot-ups will become more useful and prevalent (take time to re-introduce yourself to Shane Battier) and a game where they don’t have to find ways to adjust because of how dominant the opponent is in the post because of its big men.
The Heat and Spurs are first and second, respectively, in field-goal efficiency this postseason. That may be more indicative of how well the Heat have performed and the shots they have been able to get up against defenses such as Chicago and Indiana.
Although the Spurs are fresh off a series with the Memphis Grizzlies, an excellent defensive squad on par with the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio has also gone through defensive cupcakes in the Los Angeles Lakers, 18th in defensive efficiency in the regular season, and Golden State Warriors, 13th in the same category.
Miami, meanwhile, is coming off rounds where they played a Milwaukee team that ranked 12th in the regular season, a Bulls team that ranked fifth and a Pacers team that ranked first. The Heat have been given no time to relax, not even on their numerous off-days, as they have been constantly adjusting to their opponent’s elite defenses.
Basically, Miami will be ready for whatever San Antonio plans on throwing at them. They’re playing a team that gives up a lot of spot-up opportunities and are an average defensive team when guarding that, as well as one that only relies on offensive rebounds for four percent of its offense and ranks 11th in points per possession at that.
Indiana relied on offensive rebounds for seven percent of its offense. Like I said before, the Pacers were matchup-hell for the Heat. They are a team that has all the defensive components (packing the paint with big men, athletic individual perimeter defenders) necessary to beat a team like Miami.
And Miami should also give a warm welcome back to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Bosh will be ecstatic to leave the clutches of Roy Hibbert and into the warm embrace of Tim Duncan, who he has averaged 21 points per 36 minutes on 55 percent shooting against over the past three seasons. He’ll also be pleased to know that he won’t be having to defend a 7’2″ center throwing in hook-shots over him for up to 40 minutes.
If I’m Erik Spoelstra, I’m keeping Bosh out of foul trouble and on Tiago Splitter and leaving the assignment of Duncan on the shoulders of guys like Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and possibly even Joel Anthony.
Fellow ‘Big Three’ disappearing act Dwyane Wade has also shown he is still capable of being the player he was in the regular season before suffering a late-season injury. His 21 points and 9 rebounds in the Game 7 clincher should provide him with momentum heading into a series against a defense that isn’t as physical as Miami’s previous two opponents.
San Antonio is going to be a relief for Miami, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be any more difficult. Because what this Spurs team has that neither Indiana or Chicago could boast was championship experience throughout the roster. There isn’t a squad that features more players with more sustained success than the Spurs.
But there’s one thing Miami has gone through in the Finals that San Antonio has never experienced: losing. There is no feeling in the sporting world worse than working nearly the duration of a year to reach the highest level, only to be humbled by a jarring loss when it appeared all had been won.
The Heat know this feeling better than any other team. 2011 changed a lot. Not just the overall game of LeBron James, but of the entire dynamic and mindset of this team. They know what losing feels like and they know how painful it can be.
The Spurs can survive losing this year’s championship. Miami cannot. One championship in three years is not what everybody took paycuts and sacrificed statline glory for when joining up. And over the past two years, it’s become apparent that there are players on this team that will do whatever it takes to win.
Miami knows what’s waiting at the end of the long tunnel if they do end up falling this series. It’s not something they want to experience. They are a team built for situations like they one they are about to embark on and no amount of championship experience from their opponent should play that large of a factor to enable the Heat into a series loss.
Plus, one of these teams has LeBron James. And the team with LeBron has won seven consecutive postseason series’. He’s also not the same player he was losing in 2007 as a 22-year-old to a Spurs team that had a three-man core that was six years younger than it is today.
LeBron knows it, too:
“I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
Can we get this started already?
Prediction: Heat in 6