POSTED: Jun 4, 2013 1:04 PM ET
UPDATED: Jun 4, 2013 2:54 PM ET
How Dwyane Wade (right) and Manu Ginobili fare each game may well shape the fate of The Finals.
Welcome back to the NBA Finals, fellas.
First for introductions: San Antonio Spurs, meet the Miami Heat.
It's almost as if the two coaches of these juggernaut squads had a premonition early on that this day would come and no secrets would be shared before it's time. The shenanigans started on Nov. 29 with the Spurs in Miami for a nationally televised showdown on TNT. For San Antonio, it was the last of a six-game, nine-day trek through the Eastern Conference that included a game the night before in Orlando.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the great tactician and minutes manager, decided not only to give his Big Three -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- plus starting shooting guard Danny Green the night off. So, he put them on a plane bound for San Antone where they could watch the game from the comfort of their couches.
Popovich's decision so incensed NBA commissioner David Stern that he immediately apologized to fans (and television sponsors) through a statement and promised swift and severe punishment. Stern lowered the boom, hammering the Spurs organization with a $250,000 fine.
GameTime: 2013 NBA Finals Preview
Fast forward to March 31 at San Antonio. The Heat came to town with their 27-game win streak halted two games earlier at Chicago and an insurmountable East lead. So coach Erik Spoelstra, claiming LeBron James had a hamstring strain and ankle sprains bothered Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, rolled out the B team.
For the record, the Heat won both of those infuriatingly meaningless games.
"It's crazy that it worked out this way, that we're both in The Finals," Wade said.
The good news, as this anticipated Finals matchup is set to tip off Thursday night in Miami (9 ET, ABC), is neither side has more than nagging injuries. That means the full rosters are ready to roll no matter how unfamiliar with one another they might be.
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Spurs and Heat played just once, on Jan. 17. Wade was out with a sprained ankle and the Spurs started Richard Jefferson (no longer with the team) and DeJuan Blair (logged 14 total minutes in the last two rounds). Miami won 120-98.
To add to the absurdity, in 2010-11, the first season of Miami's Big Three, the Spurs drilled the Heat in San Antonio on March 4, 125-95. Ten days later in Miami, the Spurs got squashed by the Heat, 110-80.
Does it get any stranger than that for two teams dating back three seasons?
"Not from the standpoint of us playing each other throughout the year," Wade said. "I think from the standpoint of both sides have great coaches, a great coaching staff, they're going to get their team prepared as well as they can. Obviously, San Antonio has a system. Obviously, they have certain players that are featured in that system, that have been featured a while, many years for them. That's not a surprise. But that's a hell of a team over there."
James goes back six seasons with the Spurs. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won their third title together in five seasons in 2007 by sweeping James' Cavaliers, an otherwise unheralded group James carried to the brink of a title. Memories of that squad came up as James surprisingly found himself trudging Wade and Chris Bosh through seven games against the Pacers to finally claim a third straight East crown.
Even so, there are no comparisons between that '07 Cavs team and this Heat squad looking to go back-to-back.
"I think our team is more experienced, first of all," James said. "My Cleveland team, we were very young and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team and they took advantage of everything we did. For this team, this is our third year advancing to The Finals, so we're very experienced as well. We're not young, we're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have. And I'm a much better player. I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals."
It won't take long for both teams to become familiar with the other.
1. Can the Spurs' precision ball movement outsmart the Heat's pressure defense?
When Miami bears down defensively, and we haven't seen it all that much during this postseason, there is nothing more beautiful to watch -- or more lethal for opponents. The Game 7 win against Indiana is an example. Big, athletic and explosive, the Heat create turnovers and turn them into highlight reel-type dunks better than anybody. But the Spurs are a different animal than any team Miami has faced. Intelligent, quick, accurate and poised, San Antonio whips the ball around, passes up a good shot for a better one. When Memphis took away the Spurs' vaunted 3-point shot, Tony Parker and company used backdoor cuts to win. Miami couldn't contain Dallas' passing offense in a 2011 Finals loss, and they'll be hard-pressed to slow the Spurs.
2. Do the Spurs need to get more from Manu Ginobili or do the Heat need more from Dwyane Wade?
Both stars have not had stellar postseasons. Wade has played through a sore right knee that he refuses to let on just how bad it is and is averaging just 14.1 ppg. Ginobili's shot (38.3 percent from the field), especially from beyond the arc (32.4 percent), has been off. It's silly to underestimate either on a game-to-game basis. Ginobili aids the Spurs in multiple ways, his aggressive penetrations, passing and rebounding. Plus, he's proven he's still up to the task of knocking down a game-winner. Wade was superb in Game 7 of the East finals, attacking from the start and being active on the offensive boards. The Spurs, however, seem to have the deeper team at the moment and more outlets to find scoring. The Heat's role players have struggled, placing more emphasis on Wade to aid James.
3. Can Tim Duncan punish the Heat inside the way Pacers center Roy Hibbert did through the first six games?
Duncan isn't as big or as physically imposing as the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, but he's unequivocally more skilled and experienced. He'll no doubt be able to establish position in the post and on pick-and-rolls, which destroyed the Grizzlies. Foul trouble will be a big issue for Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh and Chris "Birdman" Anderson. While Duncan's sidekick, Tiago Splitter, isn't of the offensive caliber of David West, he has refined his offensive approach. The Spurs clearly saw the damage imposed by Hibbert and will look to find ways to create their own.
4. Will Chris Bosh step up?
Bosh averaged 11.0 ppg and 4.3 rpg while shooting 37.7 percent against the Pacers. That's simply not going to cut it now. He was more active on the boards in Game 7 of the East finals with eight rebounds, his most since grabbing 19 rebounds in Game 3 against Chicago in the semifinals. He's now gone four consecutive games without scoring in double figures and he's 8-for-34 from the field in those games. It's a curious downturn that could solely be credited to the Pacers' defense ... except that in the first three games of the series, Bosh averaged 16.3 ppg and was 18-for-35 from the floor.
5. Will Shane Battier re-emerge for the Heat?
The simple answer is yes. He has to. The Spurs' style should actually help Battier be more of a factor because San Antonio plays a faster pace than Indiana and spreads the floor. Battier won't be asked to defend a physical player such as David West in this series and if the Heat are operating their offense efficiently, he should become more involved and be a factor from the 3-point arc.
It all starts with Tony Parker, who is playing at an MVP level and is trying to make good on a promise to Duncan to get him another championship. Parker's penetrations are deadly and sets up the Spurs' stable of 3-point shooters. What Parker hasn't faced yet is a force quite like James on the perimeter. The Heat's defense traps quickly, excels at penetrating passing lanes and creating steals that can disrupt the Spurs' precision offense.
But if Green, Matt Bonner, Kawhi Leonard and even Boris Diaw and Gary Neal soften up the Heat defense by dropping 3-pointers, life only becomes easier for Duncan in the paint.
Miami is far less imposing when Shane Battier, Ray Allen and even Mario Chalmers struggle from 3-point range. Add a struggling Bosh, and the Heat are averaging just 89.5 ppg in their last four games and have hit 100 points just six times all postseason. Of course, Chicago and Indiana are two of the league's more rugged defenses. San Antonio is no pushover defensively and it will stick the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Kawhi Leonard on James. Indiana's Paul George played James about as well as he could, but Leonard doesn't carry George's offensive burden and will be able to focus his full attention on James.
The X-factor, then, is Wade and how often he can deliver performances more like Game 7 against Indiana. He had 21 points, his high since Game 2 against Milwaukee in the first round, and nine rebounds, his most since Game 3 against the Bucks.
With any luck every game will go down to the wire. James is well beyond his mysterious disappearing act in the 2011 Finals. His spin-drive for the game-winner in Game 1 of the East finals likely saved Miami's bacon. Wade will never shy away from the biggest shot and Allen is always a capable gunner. Speaking of saving bacon, Ginobili did just that for the Spurs with his 3-pointer in the crazy Game 1 comeback in the semifinals against Golden State. Parker, the '07 Finals MVP, and Duncan, a three-time Finals MVP, are used to pressure situations. Popovich is one of the best at designing last-possession plays and he's not afraid to send the ball to a younger player like Green for a big shot.
The "Red Rocket", Matt Bonner, is a guy the Spurs just can't get rid off. Outside the Big Three, he's the only other remaining player from the '07 title team. His role has expanded and shrunk in the years between, but he's been invaluable at times during this postseason. His defense -- on Dwight Howard in the first round and then on Zach Randolph in the West finals -- was huge. And while his minutes per game can fluctuate wildly, his 3-point shot is usually dead-on and defenses must account for him.
For the Heat, as strange as this sounds, it's Wade. When he plays like a superstar and his ailing right knee allows him to be more aggressive -- attacking the rim, getting to the free throw line and being active defensively -- the Heat are almost impossible to beat. The James/Wade duo at their best elevates the Heat to a level no other team can match. It's just a matter of reaching that level game-in and game-out, something Wade has not yet shown he can do this postseason.
This is difficult. The 2-3-2 Finals format makes it even more so because the team with home-court advantage (Miami) has a major edge for Games 6 and 7. The Heat proved that point with their Game 7 walloping of the Pacers (plus, historically speaking, home teams win Game 7 80 percent of the time). However, if the road team can steal one of the first two, then the tables are significantly turned. And that's exactly what the well-rested Spurs are going to do, setting up a Game 6 win in Miami, just like the '11 Mavericks, for San Antonio's fifth title spanning three decades. The Heat possess the best player in the game and it's terribly difficult to even process James and the Heat losing, but these Spurs have the game's best team right now and they are rolling.
Spurs in 6.