This is the series everyone who didn’t have a rooting interest make it deep into the playoffs and isn’t a Lakers fan wanted. There are a ton of relevant plotlines:
Who will start Game 1?
How often will each coach juggle their rotation?
Will Tony Parker be healthy enough to make a difference?
What will Dwyane Wade offer now that he’s healthy?
Are we going to see an all-time LeBron James performance?
Can Tim Duncan win one more ring, and if he does will he ride off into the sunset with Pop in tow?
Let’s tackle the rotations first. Game 1 will serve as an early indicator for how much Pop and Spoelstra are considering the past in their playing time decisions, and we’ll have a good idea of that as soon as the lineups are announced. For both, the big question is what to do at the power forward spot. The Heat and Spurs each benched the lesser of their big men in the conference finals to create or respond to matchup problems.
Rashard Lewis got the start for Miami over Udonis Haslem at the end of the Indiana series and helped push them into the Finals with some strong shooting performances. His athleticism is all but gone, and David West tormented him a few times on the block, but for the most part Lewis was able to hold his own defensively against the Pacer bigs while providing valuable floor spacing offensively. That bit of extra space is a dangerous thing to hand James and Wade if you’re the opposing defense.
Haslem started for most of the year, and lineups featuring Bosh and Chris Andersen have been very effective. Either Haslem or Andersen would be a more conservative choice for Spoelstra, but both have their flaws. Instead Spo is likely to ride the newfound Lewis starting lineup until he gets some evidence that it won’t work. When San Antonio is playing small to match that will force Lewis out onto the perimeter defensively, where he doesn’t have the quickness to keep up anymore. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the starting lineup for the Heat shift as the series wears on and the Spurs figure out how to take advantage of his presence.
San Antonio has the same decision to make – do they value the stability and defense of the Tiago Splitter/Duncan pairing, or is the floor spacing a stretchier 4 provides too important? Last year Splitter was almost completely marginalized against Miami, and he is again likely to turn into a backup to Duncan rather than a sidekick. It would be surprising to see him start in Game 1, and his minutes will be severely reduced either way. That leaves Pop with a few options.
He started the little-used Matt Bonner at the end of the Oklahoma City series to get some extra spacing, but it was Boris Diaw who ended up seeing the bulk of the playing time. That worked wonderfully for the Spurs, especially in Game 6. Diaw also showed the ability to hang with LeBron for stretches last year, which is going to be crucial if the Heat insert Ray Allen for one of their bigs and play ultra-small. My guess is that Diaw gets the call to start the series and San Antonio adjusts from there.
For years the Spurs have kept an ace up their sleeve for when a series got particularly dicey – start Manu Ginobili. That once meant replacing whoever the starting shooting guard was with the talented lefty, but incumbent Danny Green is too important due to his shooting and defense to be removed. Instead Ginobili could take over for whichever big starts to begin the series. This would push Kawhi Leonard and Green down into the two forward spots, but they could still defend James and Wade, respectively. Ginobili could probably handle defensive duty on Lewis, and though Allen is a nuisance to chase, he could spend time on him as well. There are no perfect options against this Heat offense when they play small. That could be said for both teams, and we may well be in for a treat as the matchups could easily turn this into a small-ball extravaganza.
All of the rotational tactics may obscure the real deciding factors in this series – the stars. It may seem strange to say, but at this point these teams will be ready for the tactical adjustments, reaching something like equilibrium. None of the top 5 players on the floor (in no particular order – Duncan, Parker, James, Wade, and Bosh) will be shut down by the opposing defense, and no one is going to get to feast on a truly terrible matchup for very long. So a lot will come down to how well the main guys can perform.
Parker in particular is a question mark after struggling through ankle issues and ultimately sitting out the 2nd half of the clincher in the Western Conference Finals. More than anyone on the floor for the Spurs he is critical to making the initial moves in the offense to get everything moving. His ability to get past the first level of defense opens up lanes that can be exploited by the quick passing San Antonio is known for. He’ll start Game 1, and if he is his usual self the Spurs will be the favorite; with a limited Parker on the floor Miami likely has the edge. Pop has better options behind Parker on the bench than he did last season thanks to the growth of Patty Mills, but Parker is clearly the better option.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wade has been playing very well and enjoying relatively good health during the Heat playoff run. This is a notable contrast to last season, when his knee limited his effectiveness in some games. Likewise, Ginobili is much healthier for this series than he was the last go round.
James is always capable of putting up huge numbers, and the Spurs will employ some of the usual methods to slow him down. In 2007 that meant bracketing him with Bruce Bowen and Duncan; now it means leaving him midrange jumpers and hoping they don’t fall. LeBron has subtly shifted his game away from the hyper-athletic style he employed a few years ago, and now relies much more on skill than power and speed, but he is still as deadly as ever.
That leaves the matchup between Duncan and Bosh. Bosh will attempt to lift Duncan out of the post to allow lanes for James and Wade to drive, and Duncan will be pressed to both cover Bosh and protect the rim. Bosh’s proficiency from the perimeter could warrant some weird cross-matching or other strategies, but more likely Duncan will stay close enough to him to contest shots without getting too far out of the paint. It’s the other end of the floor that offers the more interesting dynamic.
San Antonio likes to post up Duncan on whoever the Heat throw out, and last year 2007 Timmy stepped out of Pop’s DeLorean to post monster numbers in Games 6 and 7, ultimately in losing efforts. The post ups are effective, but they definitely can’t be the whole offense. Duncan noticeably wore down in the 2nd half of Game 6 after carrying the team early (I’ll let you make your own jokes about him fading from the picture). He may have enough in the tank to put together a few more big games, but the days of dumping it inside to him every possession are gone. Miami will likely take its lumps in the post if it means less of the side to side movement San Antonio is so good at.
Finally, here are a couple of interesting tactical odds and ends:
This pick and roll Indiana ran in the conference finals started simply enough for the Miami defense:
George Hill has already tried to make his drive, but is bottled up by the Heat’s aggressive trap. He manages to pass the ball back to screener David West, then this happens:
Chalmers and Lewis both turn to deal with West, and in a flash Hill is streaking uncontested toward the rim and receiving a quick return pass from West. The Pacers didn’t make the Heat pay for these moments of over-aggression often, but you can bet the Spurs will.
In the same game against the Pacers I noticed that the Heat like to have their point guards (or any ball handlers really, but this mostly applies to Chalmers and Norris Cole) wrap under the basket and out the other side on baseline drives. This is Chalmers just as he gets under the basket and ready to push out the opposite side:
Miami uses this to flip the floor, with the ballhandler usually looking to pass out to shooters or cutters. This kind of action forces the defense into binds if the pass finds its target because the bigs around the basket are suddenly facing the wrong direction, and if they do get back there is usually a guard still lurking underneath the basket or running out to start some other action. Steve Nash mastered this years ago, and Spoelstra has applied it across his offense.
If the adjustments and performances of this year’s finals live up last year’s we’re all in for some of the best and most exciting basketball ever played. The added bonus of familiarity between these two squads will only heighten the intensity. Who knows what could happen over the course of seven games, but Parker’s ankle holds the key. With him healthy and with homecourt advantage, San Antonio could win their 5th title. Without a strong performance from him, the Heat are favorites for a three-peat.