Michael Walton II is following the NBA throughout this playoff season.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
And so, the 2014 NBA season is set up to end just as the 2013 season did. But will it be an exact repeat? That’s the main question as we begin the NBA Finals tonight with a return match between the defending champion Miami Heat and the ever-elite San Antonio Spurs, back to a championship series for the sixth time in 15 years and for the first time in consecutive seasons.
Even though it seems meant to be that the Heat and Spurs meet again, after perhaps the most entertaining NBA playoffs in the past decade we saw these two mainstays in basketball excellence get challenged quite a bit. To get to this stage once again was not an easy task for either team.
The Spurs defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the Western Conference Finals, withstanding in that stretch a 40-point masterpiece from Russell Westbrook, the unexpected contributions of Serge Ibaka and the evolving natures of both Kevin Durant and his coach Scott Brooks.
Durant and the Thunder had confidence from sweeping the Spurs in the regular season, but the Spurs took them behind the woodshed in the first two games. The final four games saw OKC fought back only to be tossed aside on their home court in game six after Tim Duncan offered a throwback performance that further solidified his already-great playoff legacy. What was mostly alarming about the end of the WCF was that Tony Parker hardly played in the deciding game of the series and the Spurs still won. This is why that particular rivalry is no longer “on” to me — the Spurs are the model of consistency, while the Thunder seem to be a team without an identity.
Flipping over to the Eastern Conference Finals, we had more of a traditional rivalry play out between the incumbent Heat and the Indiana Pacers, a team that had been eliminated by Miami two straight years and thought that this was the year they would finally get over the hump, but they were sadly mistaken.
After a Game 1 victory in Indiana, it seemed that the home-court advantage they had worked so hard for was going to payoff….and then they were down 3-1 in the blink of an eye. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade combined for 58.8 points and 16.6 rebounds per game and the Pacers’ lack of offensive firepower left them out in the cold.
Now with the two teams with the most defined championship identities left, two teams that know each other quite well, we will be treated to an NBA Finals that should be as exquisite as these playoffs have been in general. Here are some of the key storylines that will power this series.
The True Rivalry: LeBron vs. Duncan
While people mainly see the main rivalry as Miami Heat vs. the San Antonio Spurs, I believe the true rivalry is LeBron James vs. Tim Duncan. These are the only two figures in this series fighting for their place in the upper-echelon of NBA history. James lost to Tim Duncan in the 2007 NBA Finals back when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This prompted a young LeBron to plot his next move, and for sure played a role in his eventual move to Miami. James got his revenge on Duncan in last year’s NBA Finals so now Duncan and James are tied with a 1-1 record in terms of head-to-head championship battles and this is what they call in baseball the “rubber match.”
An underrated storyline will come to a possible close with this series with Duncan not guaranteed another shot at James before his retirement.
Manu Ginobili performed horrendously in last year’s Finals. Against the Heat’s pressure defense, Ginobili folded, he averaged 11 points a game and led both teams with 22 total turnovers.
With Tony Parker being injured, the Spurs will need Ginobili’s play-making to help carry San Antonio through this challenge. In addition to his play-making they definitely need Ginobili’s outside shooting. In last year’s Finals, the Heat held Ginobili to 25% shooting from the 3-point line, hurting the Spurs offense tremendously.
There is no guarantee that Danny Green has as ridiculous a championship series as he had in 2013 (55% from 3-point) so Ginobili needs to shoot closer to the 50% 3-point percentage that he shot against the Thunder in the West Finals. Some would say he was the main reason the Heat took last year’s chip, I’m sure if he wants to be a deciding factor again it would be in a more positive fashion. Like with James and Duncan, Ginobili, someone on the short list of both greatest bench player of all-time and greatest foreign player of all-time, also can say a lot about his respective legacy with his performance in the next several games.
Popovich, the Puppet Master
The most important factor in this series will be the coaching strategy of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who’s excellent decisions usually dictate the way series play out. In the 2013 NBA Finals, Pop chose to guard LeBron James by having his players sag off him dramatically, he was forcing James to prove he could hit the mid-range jumper, by far his weakest shot. In a dramatic turn of events James responded by hitting those shots, especially when each game was on the line and the series itself in Game 7.
Since James has improved so much in that area, Popovich will definitely have a new strategy to guard him. According to NBA.com, in the playoffs James has shot at or above the league average in four of the five spots on the floor inside the three-point line (not counting those closest to the paint). So if you can’t pack the paint against James, and you can’t guard him tightly, how do you stop him?
I believe Popovich will guard him with one man, but send a double team whenever he puts the ball on the floor. An outright double team seems foolish against someone with the passing skill of James, but Popovich will make the Heat prove that they can win with someone other than him leading them in scoring.
In any NBA playoff basketball series, I always say that the team with the best player wins the series nine out of 10 times. This could very well be one of those rare occasions because the Spurs look like a team on a mission to avenge last year’s disappointment. But with all this being said, I think the Heat have the advantage once again — they know they can beat the Spurs.
The fact that San Antonio has home court advantage doesn’t sway me one way or the other because of how overrated that element of a series is. In the end, I see the Spurs forcing someone other than LeBron James to shoot and I see that man being Chris Bosh.
Often he’s made fun of for his “flamboyant” attention-bringing acts on the court, but Bosh deserves the most attention for increasing the volume of his three-point shot attempts while perfecting his role of stretching opposing defenses. Bosh will average more than the 11 points per game he had against San Antonio in the 2013 Finals, and anything Dwyane Wade contributes is icing on the cake at this point.
The one major factor that would sway my opinion is Tony Parker. We don’t know much about his health right now, as Popovich is hockey-coach like in his deflecting and crushing of injury speculation, but with Parker seemingly not at 100%, I believe that this series will play out similar to last year, with the Miami Heat winning in seven games.
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