We’ve finally made it. After all the hubbub surrounding the playoffs, the near-upsets of the first round and the predictable Conference Finals matchups, we are finally at the NBA Finals. Vince Carter sent us back a decade in his playoff performances, but he + Dirk ≠ the second round. The Wiz kids did what they could to throw the East into oblivion, but the Pacers stood up when they needed to do so. Try as he might, Kevin Durant is still second-best (in his own conference!). The San Antonio Spurs machine continues to crank out tiki-taka victories. The Miami Heat have the world’s best player and a bunch of pretty decent complements. Lo and behold, it’s a rematch of the 2013 Finals, when we saw the scariest basketball player on the planet for a brief spell.
1. How the Spurs can win the Finals, and what would happen as a result: Basically, the Spurs have to play Spurs basketball, regardless of what the Heat throw at them. The insertion of Matt Bonner as a tool to create spacing and minimize Serge Ibaka’s presence in the paint was one of the key moves in the Western Conference Finals, and it is that kind of adjustment which Gregg Popovich will have to make when taking into account Miami’s typically small lineups. Chris Bosh will be the big factor in San Antonio’s defensive schemes, as he can stretch the floor and works well defensively either in the paint himself or alongside Udonis Haslem. Tony Parker has to infiltrate the Heat defense and take advantage of mismatches, either running against a larger defender or playing off pick-and-rolls against guards. Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan; he’ll get his low-post points, mid-range jumpers and rebounds. I can’t imagine another instance of his missing a close-range hook shot, and the Heat have to consider themselves lucky for having been on the other end of that last year. Also, it is entirely uncharacteristic for Duncan to speak out so forcefully as he did after the final win against the Thunder: “We have four more [games] to win. We’ll do it this time.” When somebody as low-key yet impactful as Duncan says something like that, you can’t help but believe it to some extent. Manu Ginobili needs to be more like his 2014 Western Conference Finals self (15.2 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.7 rpg) and less like the 2013 NBA Finals version (11.6 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.1 rpg, punctuated by the outlier Game 5 in which Ginobili had 24 points on 8-14 shooting and ten assists in a 114-104 victory), after which some were saying his decline had arrived. With the exception of a five-point, eleven-minute appearance in the Game 4 loss to the Thunder, Ginobili was consistently excellent, and he will have to repeat his performance if the Spurs expect to win. Beyond Ginobili, the Spurs have one of the best secondary units in the NBA, affectionately dubbed the “Foreign Legion,” and continued productivity from Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills will further the Spurs’ cause. We should see a lot of Kawhi Leonard on LeBron defensively as well, a formula which worked for most of last year’s Finals and created one of the best reaction gifs on the Internet.
So let’s say the Spurs follow up on Duncan’s prophecy. What then? Duncan and Popovich ride off into the sunset together, simultaneously retiring and ending one of the NBA’s greatest player-coach partnerships ever, one akin to Mikan-Kundla, Russell-Auerbach and Jordan-Jackson. Ginobili might also follow suit, returning to his native Argentina or his adopted Italy for a year or two of promo ball in a top league. That would leave the reigns to Parker, Leonard and one of Popovich’s esteemed assistants, perhaps Jim Boylen or Sean Marks. Something tells me this team, led by R.C. Buford, will be able to fill in those spaces, and the Spurs will remain a threat in the West for years to come.
On the flip side, if the Spurs win (and even if not), Ray Allen retires, Rashard Lewis thinks hard about it, and LeBron opts out of his contract to become a free agent in 2014. Chris Bosh may do the same, jumping at the chance to again be the main guy or at least Second Banana to a main guy, possibly teaming with Kevin Love to pursue suitors. Dwyane Wade, Miami’s anointed one, plays out the rest of his injury-riddled career in South Beach, flopping his way into knee trauma and spending glorious twilight years looking over the ocean, surveying the kingdom that was once, for a moment, entirely his. Erik Spoelstra will chug out two more playoff appearances before inevitably missing the playoffs, getting fired and moving to Denver.
2. How the Heat can with the Finals, and what would happen as a result: Erik Spoelstra, along with many Heat fans, would like to think it is as simple as this:
In Miami’s dream world, this is all it takes. And within the frail confines of the Eastern Conference, it has seemed that way thus far. Against the Spurs, however, Miami needs to do more, and they quickly discovered that uncomfortable truth last year. With Mike Miller gone, Rashard Lewis sees a bigger role and must capitalize on it, knocking down inevitable open threes and rebounding at an efficient rate while avoiding foul trouble. Ray Allen will fill a bit of that space, and even at his advanced age of 38, he can still find gaps in defenses and exploit them for long twos and clutch threes. Udonis Haslem has to dominate some part of the paint, particularly in situations against Tiago Splitter. He’ll have a hard time backing down and out-rebounding Tim Duncan, but it’s possible. Matt Bonner may create situational matchup difficulties as well, and Haslem will have to switch with Chris Bosh when Bonner is on the floor. Bosh will be the rich man’s Bonner, spacing defenses and stretching Miami’s offensive floor. On defense, his length can eliminate low-post shot opportunities. Dwyane Wade might be the key to the series. His health is paramount, and his drives must lead to foul shots. He is one of the best in the NBA at avoiding offensive charges, but the Spurs are the perfect counteraction to that, and he has to pick his spots. Norris Cole will be helpful if he is hitting his shots, and he has to recognize the opportunities to draw his defender in and pass out of tough situations when he isn’t. Mario Chalmers finds open spaces and will hit threes, and he defers to the stars adequately and consistently enough to make him a good tool. And then, of course, there is LeBron James. His shooting has steadily improved over the last few seasons, and his clutch gene is no longer in question. He will drive when he want to, and if his jumper is on, it’s lights out in San Antonio. He is faster than bigger defenders and can physically dominate smaller, speedier players like Tony Parker. His post-ups have become more frequent this postseason as well, and he might have to rely on drawing defenses in and finding open perimeter players in tight spaces. Because he can pass as well as a point guard, this is a non-issue. LeBron dictates the way the Heat play; Miami must halt Spurs runs when he takes the bench. When the Spurs go on runs, the Heat become desperate. When the Heat become desperate, we might see the most fearsome player imaginable…
3. If we see headbandless LeBron, the Heat will win that game/series/championship/battle/war: Headbandless LeBron is the best basketball player on the planet. Headbandless LeBron is better than regular LeBron. He is Super Saiyan LeBron, capable of all things basketball. We saw it in Game 6 of the Finals last year, when LeBron unceremoniously lost his headband and then left it off in leading the Heat to a must-win Game 6 victory. Headbandless LeBron is the destroyer of worlds and an all-conquering, world-beating colossus. Why is that, you ask? We know LeBron is at least somewhat cognizant and self-conscious of his receding hairline. He works hard to prevent the public from noticing it, donning hats and thicker headbands in an effort to minimize the aesthetic prevalence of his follicle follies. When LeBron loses his headband, it means he doesn’t care about ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD besides winning basketball games. He enters a zone and leaves everything and everyone else behind, seeing only an orange sphere and a red-orange circular target. One must go in the other; there is no way out and no turning back. Headbandless LeBron has a complete disregard for human life, and all its trappings, victories and failures. If the Spurs see Headbandless LeBron at any point in the Finals, it spells sheer doom, and everyone else may as well bow down and woefully, reverently acknowledge greatness.