LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat take on Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Spurs in the NBA FInals. (Heat Facebook)
After a marathon of an NBA regular season that saw multiple storylines and contenders fade in and fade out of the limelight, here we are. After hot streaks by the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and even the Houston Rockets that propelled them into prime candidates to bring new drama to June basketball, it turns out that the most boring predictions were the correct ones. Maybe the pundits who picked the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat to make it back to the NBA Finals weren’t afraid of going out on a limb, maybe they just had the foresight to see through all the clutter.
It makes you wonder whether there was ever a chance of anything else happening. It makes you wonder whether we were all just naive victims of the hype machine for the past seven months. The reason it feels like we’ve all been duped is because the Spurs and the Heat have shown this postseason that they’re unequivocally the best two teams in the league, and I’m not sure there ever should’ve been a doubt.
Had Ray Allen not made arguably the most clutch three-pointer in the history of NBA Finals to steal the championship from San Antonio in game six last season, the storylines may have been different all season and heading into the playoffs. But even if that outcome did affect the moves and strategy of each of the teams for the past year, there’s no doubt both squads would prepare for the road that brought them back to the future.
The Spurs are the first team in NBA history not to have at least one player average 30-plus minutes per game in a regular season (Tony Parker led the team with 29.4 mpg.), which is obviously a testament to their depth, but more importantly, something coach Greg Popovich believes will have the Spurs well-rested before Game 1 Thursday night.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra took a similar approach, but only with some of his players. LeBron James led the Heat with 37.7 mpg, while Dwyane Wade was second on the team with nearly five mpg less than James. Another obstacle for James this regular season was that Spoelstra was sometimes overly cautious in bringing Wade back from injury, often leaving James to carry the load to ensure a healthy Wade was ready for a long playoff run. This may have paid dividends for Spoelstra against the Indiana Pacers, but after four consecutive NBA Finals appearances and a summer Olympics for James, the Spurs will look to capitalize on that trade-off.
For their part, the Spurs have been preparing for the Heat by experimenting with their lineup by starting 30 different player combinations and tinkering with their rotations throughout the year to ensure there was no scenario any opponent would present that Popovich hadn’t already prepared his team for. This was evidenced by the way they responded in key moments against a tough, gritty Memphis Grizzlies team in the first round and a freakishly athletic Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
But much like the boring, old predictions of many pundits that said these same two teams will meet in the Finals again this year, the Heat will win this series in six games for many of the same reasons they won the title in seven games last year (Though there probably won’t be an iconic Allen three-pointer to save the Heat’s season this time around, but who knows?).
As much as we make of the genius of Popovich and of his partnership with Tim Duncan that has made them one of the most successful player/coach duos in the history of basketball (They made the Finals 15 years ago, which is the longest gap between Finals appearances for a player/coach duo ever.), we tend to overlook the importance of James in any series.
I’m not sure if it’s something we did with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in their respective primes, but sometimes when the best player in the game is far better than anyone else (James and Kevin Durant made a case this postseason for why they should wait until after the post season to crown the Most Valuable Player.), we tend to forget how sometimes having the consensus-best player trumps everything else.
This will undoubtedly be a memorable NBA Finals, but when it’s all said and done, after all the in-game chess matches, the best player in the world will mark the difference.
Prediction: Miami in six.
NBA Finals Schedule (all times PST)
Game 1 in San Antonio: Thursday, June 5, 6 p.m., ABC
Game 2 in San Antonio: Sunday, June 8, 5 p.m., ABC
Game 3 in Miami: Tuesday, June 10, 6 p.m., ABC
Game 4 in Miami: Thursday, June 12, 6 p.m., ABC
Game 5* in San Antonio: Sunday, June 15, 5 p.m., ABC
Game 6* in Miami: Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m., ABC
Game 7* in San Antonio: Friday, June 20, 6 p.m., ABC
* — if necessary