The Heat, The Spurs & Nine Thoughts On The 2014 NBA Finals

I’d like to say that somehow we knew last June, in the aftermath of the great 2013 NBA Finals battle between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, that this was a movie destined for a sequel.

I’d like to say that, but for the fact that my preseason picks were for the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder to make the 2014 NBA Finals. And at least when it came to the Spurs, I know I wasn’t the only one who felt their last chance had drifted away with Ray Allen’s game-tying three in Game 6 and then Tim Duncan’s missed bunny shot at the end of Game 7.

So I think it’s safe to say two things—none of us expected a sequel and none of us are complaining that we have one. This year, San Antonio has homecourt advantage, coming off a 62-win regular season, but Miami has blown through the playoffs with only three losses. As the Spurs and Heat get set to start it all over again tonight (8 PM ET, ABC), here’s nine thoughts from TheSportsNotebook to set the tone…

NBAFinalsBanner*This past Sunday, TheSportsNotebook reviewed recent NBA Finals rematch history and found that the edge goes strongly to the team that lost the previous year. The big exception was when Michael Jordan beat the Utah Jazz in both 1997 and 1998. But that only applies if the 2014 NBA Finals and the Miami Heat happened to have a star that many feel will eclipse Jordan one day…wait a minute, that’s exactly what they have.

Right now, I consider the comparisons of LeBron James to Jordan to be so silly I won’t even entertain the discussion. If Miami wins this series though, it’s a big breakthrough for LeBron. His supporting cast is the weakest it’s ever been. While LeBron has been clearly the Heat’s best player in their runs of 2012 and 2013, he just as clearly had a better cast around him than Jordan ever did.

Winning this year’s championship doesn’t put LeBron up with His Airness just yet, but I think it would separate King James from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the two players I’ve seen personally that I would bracket him with. And it then invites the question of what LeBron would have to do to earn a legitimate comparison to Jordan.

*Tim Duncan, the ageless wonder of the San Antonio Spurs doesn’t have the same kind of pressure (at least externally) that LeBron faces. If the Spurs lose, we’ll all still give Duncan enormous credit for being one of the best players on a Finals team at age 38, for having won four rings and reached the Finals six times.

But playing with house money doesn’t mean you can’t win a big jackpot. If San Antonio wins the championship and Duncan has a big series, it’s time to re-evaluate his place in NBA history. Does a fifth ring—something that ties Magic and puts Duncan two ahead of Bird—mean that the Spurs’ power forward could be in a discussion with those two, or even ahead of them?

Wherever you rate Duncan, I agree with a comment made by ESPN’s Michael Wilbon on Pardon The Interruption earlier this week—it’s time to celebrate Duncan, if nothing else than to celebrate someone for the right reasons—for playing good, sound team-oriented basketball, for shunning the limelight and just getting the job done over and over again.

*The presence of these two teams in the NBA Finals is yet another reminder of how, at least for veteran teams, the regular season really means nothing. In particular, as regards Miami. They went 54-28 and finished behind the Indiana Pacers in the East, in spite of the Pacers collapsing for two months. Miami’s statistical data over the regular season is not championship-caliber. They lost each game they played to the Brooklyn Nets. None of that mattered in the playoffs. The difference wasn’t quite as stark with San Antonio, and their league-best 62-20, but a common theme was the Spurs’ comparatively weak record against top teams, notably Oklahoma City. A six-game dispatch of the Thunder in the conference finals answered that.

*At the same time, how much can we read into what these teams have accomplished so far in the postseason, at least when it comes to predicting how they’ll match up. Miami’s 12-3 romp through the Eastern Conference took place against one of the all-time weakest conference brackets, particularly after Indiana fell apart. Conversely, San Antonio was playing a 49-win Dallas team in Round 1.

It’s not unreasonable to say that every single Spurs’ playoff opponent was better than the Pacers, at least by playoff time. I don’t know if this means San Antonio will be tired or that Miami will be soft, but I do know it means that statistical comparisons mean nothing.

*The health of Tony Parker is the single most underrated story of last year’s Finals. Parker was dominating for three games, when he pulled a hamstring towards the end of Game 3. Though the veteran point guard continued to play, he was never the same. Pundits regularly note his poor shooting in the missed close-out chances of Games 6 & 7, but never that it might have been caused by a bad hammy.

If Parker is healthy, San Antonio wins last year’s championship. But watch out again this year—Parker missed a big chunk of Game 6 with a bum ankle. He’s going to play, but if he can’t destroy the Heat off the dribble, he’s not the same player.

*Another veteran guard with some longstanding health concerns is Dwayne Wade, but it appears the pacing of Wade throughout the regular season is paying off big-time. D-Wade is averaging 19 ppg in the playoffs and shooting 51 percent from the floor. If Wade keeps it going while Parker is limited, a big advantage shifts Miami’s way. If nothing else, you have to expect Wade to be good for steady support of LeBron and at least one big-time game where he knocks down 25-30 points.

*The consistency of Chris Bosh is going to loom large for the Heat. He’s the only one with a real chance of defending Duncan in the low post, and even that’s being generous to Bosh. He’s been almost a non-factor at some points during these playoffs and decisive factor at others. Miami needs him active and engaged each time out.

*Most observers feel San Antonio is better than last year, and for reasons that go beyond just noting the 62 regular season wins. The biggest reason is Manu Ginobli. The veteran was a train wreck in last year’s Finals, save one big outing in Game 5. The veteran looks refreshed, he’s shooting the ball well and that’s a big reason the Spurs might still be able to win even if Parker ends up physically limited.

*I’m going to close with the man I think is the most important in this series, which means I don’t think it’s LeBron, Duncan, Wade, Parker or Bosh. I think it’s Kawhi Leonard, the third-year small forward for the Spurs. He was excellent in last year’s Finals, has played well all year and is an emerging star. Leonard gives San Antonio legs that are young and fresh. He can match up with LeBron as well as anyone—which is to say he can at least prevent King James from single-handedly winning games.

If Leonard plays well and everyone else plays more or less to form, the Spurs are going to win the championship. If he’s so-so, or if he tightens up at big moments, the Heat are going to survive.

Oddsmakers lean San Antonio’s way, slotting the Spurs as a (-125) favorite. That’s not a big number—by comparison, in the Stanley Cup Finals, the favored Los Angeles Kings are going off at (-170). But (-125) is not insignificant, and it does suggest that oddsmakers like the Spurs more than just as a natural courtesy you would give a home team in an evenly matched series. The number suggests oddsmakers believe that on a neutral floor, San Antonio is a little bit better.

I wouldn’t bet this series at all. It’s too close, and while I do lean the Spurs way, I’m not betting against the best player in basketball when he’s a slight underdog—Miami can be bet at (+105). But straight-up, all things being equal? Spurs in seven.