Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The NBA Finals Pick: Head Over Heart

More Dry Ice Smoke Please
San Antonio at MIAMI

The case for San Antonio: Unlike Indiana, they have more than two bigs that can play, and teams with bigs can give Miami fits. Coach Gregg Popovich is the best in the business, and maybe a full game better than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra over a seven game series. The team has unspeakable amounts of playoff experience, and does not generally beat themselves. The Spurs aren't prone to the big turnover moments that Miami uses to destroy their opponents. In Tony Parker, they have the first truly great point guard that the Heat will face in this playoff run. The wings can defend at the arc, and they don't panic in the face of a run. The home-court advantage is strong, and they might be the best road team in the playoffs; there is nothing that the Miami crowd can throw at them that they didn't respond to in Oakland and Memphis in the last two rounds. There's an urgency here that Miami might not be able to match, given that this really should be the last time around for some of these guys; winning and going out on top really could happen. Whereas for Miami, it's just Chance #3 in the last three years, which means that they are coming up on nearly 300 games of being the Targeted Heat in 36 months.

The case against San Antonio:
They will have almost legendary amounts of rust in Game One, which does not speak well to their chances at an early steal in the series. While the schedule is good for their elderly big three, it's not as good for their superior bench. Manu Ginobili has been secretly bad for much of these playoffs, and could be absolutely torched in this series, especially if Dwyane Wade can play like the guy who showed up in Game Seven. Like the rest of the NBA, they don't have a guy that can stop LeBron James, if James is bringing the wood. If you can keep Parker out of the lane, they can stagnate in the half court, and they have a harder time than you think in closing out games, mostly because Ginobili is no longer the assassin that he once was. There's a very real chance that the tempo that they like to play at will be better for Miami than it is for San Antonio. And if Kawhi Leonard's back problems resurface, or Danny Green can't make open looks, they won't have the young athletic legs necessary to stay with the Heat.

The case for Miami: Will feel like they just get out of jail when they look up and don't see the Pacers. Are young enough so that the three day layoff won't be a problem against the Spurs' 10 days of rest; in all likelihood, taking less time off will actually help them. Shane Battier has a role to play in this series, unlike the last one. Chris Bosh matches up a lot better with Tim Duncan than he does against Roy Hibbert. Mike Miller's last two games, and Ray Allen's Game 7, looked scary useful for the Heat; if either (or both) show up in this series, they can go on big time runs.  Unlike Memphis, they have multiple mid and long range options. Unlike Golden State, they can ratchet up the defense. They were a dominant team in the regular season, which is why they have home court advantage now. They have home court.

The case against Miami: Joyless for much of this playoff run when Chris Anderson is not on the floor, and Anderson is going to struggle with the Spurs' craftiness. Prone to not paying the price, especially on the boards, and early in games and series. Do not get the calls that they used to, mostly because the refs have more or less turned a deaf ear to Wade, and James' flopping is also costing him credibility on contact. Defensive intensity can waver, mostly because several players (Allen, Miller) can't stay in front of their man defensively any more. James is prone to go to Hero Mode, and while he does that better than anyone else on the planet, it's still a losing strategy in the long run. Can fall in love with the three, and are a lot easier to defend in the half court than they should be when that is the case. More than a few knuckleheads (Mario Chalmers, Anderson, Wade, others) on the roster are prone to technicals, flagrants and flops. There's a reason why they are hated, and it's not just that people still feel bad for Cleveland. (Not so much Toronto.)

The pick: Two weeks ago, I thought this was going to be a squash for the Heat. Either Memphis was going to face them and wilt in the spotlight like most first time contenders, or San Antonio was going to be a wrecked shell of themselves after a physical war. Miami was going to have issues with the Pacers, but not to the point of extreme confidence issues or dissension, and by the end of their series, they would be all hale and hearty and ready to give us what we normally get in the Finals -- a series that looks like it will be competitive, but actually won't be.

Instead, the Spurs just took the Grizzlies out without much trouble at all, really, and the Pacers showed the world how to make the Heat look humble. So the question is how much the Conference Finals should change your call of who should win now...

And for me, the answer is not enough.

The Miami team that ended the Pacers in Game Seven is the best in the world, and the best in the NBA for many years. What they lack in big man rebounding strength they make up for in plus rebounding all over the board. What they don't have in a classic post presence, they make up for with drive and kick to the league's best collection of spot up shooters (that isn't the Warriors). What they don't have in a classic shot blocker doesn't really matter, because those blocks don't translate into fast break points as well as the steals and turnovers that they get instead. And they may be the best team the NBA has ever seen in transition, if only because they do it in an era where everyone's athletic. (Unlike, say, the Showtime Magic Lakers, or the Russell to Cousy Celtics.)

The Spurs are going to be a worthy opponent. They will come back from runs that make lesser teams quake, and they have some real matchup wins in this series. They will have games where they make the Heat look disinterested and divided, and may even get the chance to close it out at home. I bet against Popovich at my peril, and if I'm wrong in this pick, I'm going to be absolutely thrilled, because the Spurs are a true team and franchise, rather than a managed takeover. Duncan going out with a ring would be a story for the ages, and cement his legacy as not just the best power forward of all time, but one of the very best big men to ever play the game.

But if both of these teams play at their best, the Heat win. In seven.

Here's hoping for a great Finals, and a worthy end to one of the best NBA playoff years ever.

Year to date: 11-3

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