If Miami has earned a chance to win back-to-back titles, their aura of invincibility is gone. In San Antonio, the Heat’s last obstacle has the discipline, experience, resourcefulness, depth, and talent to dethrone the defending champs.
Here’s how and why the Spurs can win.
The challengers will not commit nearly as many damaging turnovers as the Pacers did. This will mean more shots for San Antonio and fewer easy run-out points for Miami.
The Spurs virtually flawless offensive execution will take full advantage of every defensive mistake and hesitation. In particular, SA’s quick, coordinated ball- and player-movement will enable them to take advantage of the Heat’s aggressive perimeter defense and produce layups and uncontested jumpers.
Similarly, the same crisp, unselfish passing combined with alert off-the-ball movement will trump Miami’s penchant for blitzing high pick-and-rolls.
When Miami settles back into their habitual man-to-zone defense, the Spurs bevy of reliable three-point shooters will stretch that defense and create empty spaces that will be diligently exploited. Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner shoot a combined 39 percent from beyond the arc.
San Antonio’s brace of sturdy seven-footers – Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter – will control both backboards. Neither one will come close to equaling Roy Hibbert’s unofficial playoff record of most times a seven-footer is knocked to the floor.
While Duncan spent much of the regular season at the high post and on the left wing, look for him to take Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen into the pivot. Even though TD is not nearly the inside threat he used to be, he still has enough stuff to abuse Bosh’s lightweight defense, is too big and long to be impeded by Haslem, and his patience will put the always impetuous Andersen in foul trouble. Also, Duncan is as good a passer in the low post as Hibbert was a bad one.
Parker’s poise, overall quickness, accurate pull-up jump shots, and extraordinary ability to penetrate and finish make him a more dangerously aggressive point guard than any of his erstwhile defenders can hope to contain.
The ballhandling, shooting, and driving of both Parker and Manu Ginobili can break down most any defense.
The depth and versatility of subs such as Bonner, Diaw, Ginobili, and Neal are more productive (and more difficult to defend) than the likes of Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen.
Unlike Indiana, San Antonio’s weakside scorers will wait for the incoming picks to be firmly established before making their cuts.
The Spurs should have minimal trouble on the offense end of the game, but how to defend the Heat? Which essentially means how to defend LeBron?
There are several options: Double him whenever he touches the ball above the three-point line, and every time he touches the ball thereafter. This will force LBJ’s teammates to find, take, and make big shots. If Dwyane Wade is unable to consistently repeat the championship form he exhibited in the close-out game against Indiana, Miami will struggle here.
While San Antonio lacks a wing-stopper on defense, the mix of the long-armed and super-athletic Leonard, the physical and savvy Diaw, and perhaps even the quick-handed ball-hawking of Ginobili might prevent LeBron from dominating the game. The primary aim of this tactic is to avoid doubling James, to “let” him score his 30-plus points and keep a lid on his playmates.
Also, LeBron could be induced to drive right then have weakside help arrive on the scene to discourage him from executing his otherwise unguardable tight, fast, powerful spins-left. Above all, any help summoned when LBJ is hoopward bound should be limited to one big and just a show by a wing. As evidenced in the Indiana series, a preponderance of such helping defenders allows James to pass to open (corner) shooters.
Perhaps the most reasonable strategy is to play LeBron soft and simply let him shoot from the perimeter. For sure his shooting has greatly improved over the years and he will undoubtedly shoot the Heat to victory in a game or two.
However, by allowing James to shoot at will, his teammates will be uninvolved. Moreover, this offensive stagnation usually translates into a lack of hustling aggression on defense as players get used to (and frustrated by) being reduced to spectators.
The Spurs are likely to employ a judicious blend of the above strategies to try to keep LeBron from getting comfortable.
Also on defense: The Spurs will not duplicate the Pacers' practice of failing to tag Miami’s shooters in transition situations. And unlike Indiana, SA’s bigs will provide meaningful shows on high pick-and-rolls while the baseline rotations will be impeccable.
Above all else, Gregg Popovich is the best basketball coach on the planet. His in-game and between game adjustments are generally brilliant. By occasionally sitting his stars during the regular season, he has demonstrated his faith in his subs and prepared them to produce in high-pressure situations.
Also, Pop’s teams are always motivated, always play hard and smart, and never lose their composure.
Other factors: At this level, the home-court advantage is minimal. Teams on the road tend to band together more than home teams. Phones can be disconnected in hotel rooms to avoid constant calls from friends and relatives demanding tickets. There are no crying children, no distractions from wives or girlfriends. Instead, and especially for veteran championship-hardened squads like the Spurs, being road warriors enables having a total focus on the game at hand.
In truth, any player that needs the noisy energy, encouragement, and/or motivation provided by an arena full of paying customers lacks his own inner motivation. For sure, the background lighting and court surfaces vary slightly from court to court, but the sad reality is that the only critical home-court advantage lies in the subconscious intimidation of the three blind mice with the big whistles.
Prediction: It will take San Antonio two or three games to hone in on precisely what they must do to overcome Miami, yet the Spurs will win in seven.