The rematch is set: The Miami Heat will take on the San Antonio Spurs for the 2014 NBA title. Both teams have openly admitted that this was the matchup they wanted, and although they are very different since they met in last year’s finals, there are key components from each team’s approach that either need to be emphasized or need to be changed. Here are three examples from each team of things that need to change and three examples of things that need to stay the same.
San Antonio Spurs - Three things that need to change
The play of Manu Ginobili
Ginobili’s bad Game 6 was the low-light in one of the worst postseasons for the future Hall-of-Famer. He had as many combined turnovers and fouls (8 + 4 = 12) as points and assists (9+3 +12), not to mention a blown free throw that might have sealed the win. But what is lost is the fact that San Antonio had a 3-2 lead and a chance to win the series with one of their stars struggling during the entire postseason. His high mark for scoring average in a series was 12.7 against the Warriors, and it was the first time in a postseason he did not average at least 15 points since 2004. He set NBA finals career-lows in every offensive category since his first championship run in 2002-03 against the Nets.
Pick and roll defense with Tony Parker
A key component in any series is which sub-par defender is being exploited. The San Antonio Spurs run into a dilemma when teams try to force Tony Parker into defending. He is so vital to their offense when healthy, but smart opponents often try to force him into difficult pick and roll situations, either forcing Parker to switch or putting him in a “trail” position on defense. The adjustment coach Popovich will make if the Heat show a heavy dose of 1-3 pick-and-rolls may dictate the defensive strategy of the Spurs.
Boris Diaw needs to play
It sounds like the ultimate captain obvious point, but after such a fantastic series performance against the Thunder, it seems impossible that both Tiago Splitter (107) and Gary Neal (170) played more minutes than Diaw (94) in the 2013 NBA finals. That’s an average of barely 13 minutes per game. It’s not even the mythicized defense that Diaw played on LeBron James (something that was vastly overrated); he actually had a very productive offensive series. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from the 3-point line. It will be interesting to see if Pop will start Splitter, trust Matt Bonner with any significant minutes in this series or start Diaw right from tip-off.
Three things that need to remain the same
Tim Duncan needs to be the best two-way player for San Antonio
Tim Duncan missed a bunny in Game 7 to tie it late. Unfortunately that play has masked the great two-way series Duncan had in the finals. Danny Green’s 3-point heroics had people clamoring for him to be Finals MVP had the Spurs won, however I think it clearly should have been Duncan. Consider this; the Spurs were +29 during Duncan’s 254 minutes on the court, they were -24 in the 86 minutes he was on the bench. This was by far the biggest disparity among San Antonio rotation players during the finals.
The Spurs were the best three-point shooting team all season long, and they will need a repeat performance of their 2013 finals shooting. San Antonio made more than eight three-pointers a game and shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Danny Green and Gary Neal made nearly six three-pointers a game combined. So far this postseason, Patty Mills seems to be an upgrade over Neal, but Neal’s three-point production was a large reason why the Spurs were in position to win the series.
Kawhi Leonard’s offensive aggression
Kawhi Leonard may challenge Timmy for best two-way player, but that’s only if he continues to grow on the offensive end. He needs to make LeBron work on defense, whether it’s by running the floor, forcing him to contest jumpers or using his developing pseudo-post game where he relies on floaters and one-handed push shots (think Shawn Marion but with a bit more fluidity). Also, if the Heat chose to use James as the primary defender on Tony Parker, Leonard needs to exploit his weaker defensive match up. In Games 3-7 of last year’s finals, Leonard’s shot attempts only fell under double-digits once: he was 6-8 and scored 16 points in Game 5. A lot of attention was paid to his missed free throw in Game 6, and justifiably so. But in Games 6 and 7, he attempted 14 and 17 shots respectively, and was 54.8 percent from the field. That kind of offensive confidence was amazing to watch in a second-year player. Now in his third season, Leonard needs to have another strong offensive series.
Heat – Three things that need to change
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole need to be able to defend Tony Parker
A healthy Tony Parker consistently abused both Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole on the offensive end in last year’s finals – so much so that Chalmers was limited to minutes in the 20s for four of the seven games, and Cole played only seven minutes in Game 5 and notched consecutive DNP-CD in Games 6 and 7. Parker’s health is a question mark heading into the finals, but the Heat would be better served if LeBron can guard his position, forcing less potential mismatches on the defensive end.
Birdman needs to be a factor
This series may lend itself towards “small-ball” as it progresses, with the potential casualties being Tiago Splitter and Chris Andersen. Still, Andersen needs to provide productive minutes when on the court. He also posted consecutive DNP-CD in last year’s finals, his minutes never peaked into the 20s and his high number for rebounds was only four. As the first big man off the bench, Andersen needs to supply solid low-post defense and has a real chance to impact the game with his hustle and athleticism on the defensive and offensive boards.
Dwyane Wade’s health
This already appears to have changed. Wade looks healthy and ready to add another trophy to his mantle. His production in last year’s finals is somewhat underrated thanks to his balky knees. He scored 32, 25, 14 and 23 in Games 4-7 and shot 47.6 percent from the field for the series overall. As good as he looked against Indiana in the Conference finals this season, his scoring production in the 2013 finals is almost identical (19.6 in 2013 Finals, 19.8 in 2014 ECF). Still, the Heat were - 10.2 points per 48 minutes when Wade was on the court last year, mostly because of his inability to have a defensive impact. The Spurs effective field goal percentage when Wade was on the court was 53.2 percent, and when Wade was on the bench, it dropped to 42.3 percent.
Heat – Three things that need to stay the same
The ball movement of the Spurs will pick apart any defense, just ask the Thunder. The key to slowing down their ball movement is active hands, forcing turnovers and scoring off turnovers. This stifles quick passing and encourages more isolation offense. The Heat forced the Spurs into their postseason-worst assist/turnover ratio last season of 1.26. San Antonio and Miami are tied for second among teams that advanced past the first round in forcing turnovers with 13.7 per game. Miami will need to once again be the more aggressive team on defense.
The ability to play from behind
No team likes to concede early leads, but the ability to win despite falling behind early is an important championship quality. The Heat were down double digits in two of their four finals wins last year. In Game 4, the Spurs’ largest lead of the game was 10, and in Game 6’s epic comeback, the Heat were behind 13 in the third quarter and by as many as 10 in the final frame. There are two main reasons (besides LeBron) that contribute to the Heat’s ability to play from behind. First, coach Erik Spoelstra’s ability to keep his team poised and committed on the defensive end is underrated. Second, their ability to hit 3-pointers, specifically the number of guys that can attack you from beyond the arc, is second to none. As John Schumann of NBA.com points out, five different Heat players hit at least 11 3-pointers in last year’s finals.
LeBron is the best player in any series
Over the last 30 NBA finals, there is only a small collection of teams that won a title without having the best player in the series. Of course the topic is subjective, but the most obvious examples are the Pistons beating the Kobe & Shaq Lakers in ’04, the Celtics beating the Lakers in ’08 and Dallas beating the Heat in 2010. But back to LeBron. He knows how the Spurs will defend him; they will most likely go underneath all pick-and-rolls, daring him to take mid-range jump shots. His hot jump-shooting Game 7 secured his second title and second Finals MVP. He was 5-10 from the 3-point line and 8-17 (47%) on jump shots. In Games 1-6 he was only 31.9 percent on jump shots (23-72). If LeBron can repeat his jump-shooting in Game 7, he will be nearly impossible to defend.