2014 NBA Finals
Rematches can be a good thing for sports, especially in championships – and most especially for the team that lost the first time around.
And that is what we have when the 2014 NBA Finals tip off tonight (9 p.m. Eastern, ABC).
The subplots are many and most of them center around the Miami Heat and specifically LeBron James’ quest to three-peat. If he doesn’t pull it off, if the San Antonio Spurs somehow find a way to win four games and knock the King off his throne, James’ legacy and outlook suddenly shift.
Think about it. As good as LeBron is – and he may be playing on a level as lofty as anyone in the history of the game right now – he would fall to 2-3 in NBA Finals and offseason speculation would include discussions about him picking up and leaving town.
If the Heat win and James merely plays respectably well, the conversation goes right back to dynasties and his place among all-time greats.
That’s what the spotlight of a championship does for you.
But what I find intriguing about this series is the other side of that coin, that we can assume James will be all-worldly and yet the Spurs simply may be better.
Just about anyone would have to concede that San Antonio is deeper, has the best coach in the business right now in Gregg Popovich and has a Big Three of its own that is ticketed for the Hall of Fame.
Yes, LeBron is going for ring No. 3 but Tim Duncan is seeking his fifth – and this may be the best team he’s ever played on in his 17 years in San Antonio.
Plus, unlike LeBron, Duncan doesn’t have to take over every time matters become somewhat dire. The three-time NBA Finals MVP is still a prime option and gives Miami problems inside, but point guard Tony Parker is perhaps an even more unstoppable force once he gets going.
And, of course, there is wing Manu Ginobili and a slew of role players that also make the Spurs incredibly hard to guard – Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, the list goes on and on.
The Heat, though, are the two-time champs and certainly have proven players at winning time. Spectacular guard Dwyane Wade appears to be healthy again and Chris Bosh, always a factor in a long series, is still a headache with his length, left hand, and ability to go off from deep at any moment.
But here’s why the Spurs are the pick here: Go back a year. That’s when the Spurs, picked by no one to win it all, went back to Miami with a 3-2 series lead and had Game 6 basically in their pocket. They were a defensive rebound away from winning the championship four games to two, leaving no doubt as to who was more deserving.
That’s when a lot of crazy stuff happened, like a loose ball that led to a Ray Allen three from the corner and an overtime fraught with bad breaks for the Spurs.
San Antonio can be hard to read during the regular season. Popovich is known to bag certain games to rest his aging team and the motivation seems to come and go.
That was not the case this season. The Spurs, with the heartbreak of last summer the driving force, were on a mission all season and still are. They posted 62 regular-season wins, tops in the NBA, and no have the homecourt advantage in a revenge series.
San Antonio is the only team that has shown it can shoot as impressively in the playoffs as the Heat, and it did so against the likes of Dallas, Portland and Oklahoma City while Miami was toying around with Charlotte (perhaps the worst team ever to make the NBA postseason), Brooklyn and an obviously fractured Indiana squad.
The discrepancy between the two conferences is as steep as ever. Miami didn’t have anyone to actually fear in the Eastern Conference while San Antonio faced a minefield in the Western Conference.
The two teams each easily won at home in the regular-season meetings, but San Antonio made a statement with a 111-87 beating of the Heat on March 6. James played that game with a mask to protest his broken nose and discarded it minutes into the game. It didn’t help.
In fact, Leonard showed he could slow down James by holding him to a 6-for-18 shooting night. Also, Duncan still is effective against the two-time defending champs. The 14-time All-Star averaged 21.4 points per game in the regular season, including 23.0 vs. the Heat.
Miami has bench players who are capable of taking pressure off of James. Allen is one of the most dangerous outside shooters the game has ever known. Udonis Haslem has been to a few rodeos. Chris Andersen can be bothersome on the offensive boards. Norris Cole isn’t afraid of the high stakes.
But the reality is that group hasn’t been producing on a consistent level, especially when comparing it to the Spurs’ bench. Shane Battier will chase Ginobili around but won’t do much else and can’t guard Duncan or Parker.
Starting point guard Mario Chalmers has come to the fore recently, and that’s a good sign since he’ll be matched with Parker, who is nursing a sore ankle. Bosh will have a couple big games. Rashard Lewis is now a factor, making Miami even more capable on the arc.
This will be a terrific series and Miami will win some games. But I don’t see a happy ending in South Beach this time. Miami will stray from Diaw and Green, and that should be problematic. Parker is a horror show off the pick-and-roll.
Popovich usually pulls the right strings and may feel like he let his team down in last year’s Finals. The chip is still right there where it’s been all year.
I’ve got to go with Timmy and Co. on this one.
Prediction: Spurs in 7