The Miami Heat have been a prohibitive favorite since lifting the trophy last June, and the Spurs regarded as an aging afterthought after being overrun by the Thunder last Spring. Tomorrow they play in the NBA Finals, and recent history has spun this story line considerably. The Spurs rolled into the final and appear as healthy as they have in years, while the Heat had to dig deep to outlast the Pacers with Wade and Bosh performing poorly. Both teams played each other at reduced strength during the regular season meaning their is no recent sampling of how these teams will match up.
First off, neither team matches up well with the other’s best player. The Spurs will defend Lebron with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green neither will come close to what Paul George offered. A peripheral effect is that defending Lebron could effect the offensive contribution of two critical role players for the Spurs. The Heat will throw Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole at Tony Parker, and while both are athletic, they lack the savvy and offensive role to trouble Parker. To effectively contain these stars each team will have to tweek it’s defense. I think the Heat are at an advantage here as their propensity to blitz ball screens will naturally get the ball out of Parker’s hands and force other players to make decisions at high speed.
The Spurs are healthier and this is big. The Heat’s aggressive defense is fueled by their exceptional athleticism, but with Wade and Bosh unfit this advantage is negated. Against the Pacers, the Heat could only play elite level defense in spurts, and this will not be enough to unbalance the Spurs as the Thunder did a year ago. As evidenced by Russell Westbrook’s injury against the Rockets, health is an unpredictable, but series altering factor.
Exceptional performance by rotation players is a game-changer. Udonis Haslem turned two games against the Pacers with exceptional mid-range shooting. When teams are as good as these two are, decisions are made to concede certain shots or decisions to offbrand players, and their response can and will determine the outcome.
The weight of history will undoubtedly burden the Heat more. The Spurs have four titles in the bank, and no particular expectation of having reached this final let alone win it. Miami has one, and aspires to be a dynasty. Should the tide of the series go against them, pressure will build to extraordinary levels.
I favor the Heat winning in six.