Thursday, June 5, 2014

The (Probably Way Too Long) 2014 NBA Finals Preview

We're back. I'm not sure we ever left.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

12 months and 100+ games later, we're right back to where we started - Miami and San Antonio for all the marbles.

There are two prevailing opinions about a Finals rematch. Some people think "wait, I don't want to watch these two teams play each other again - last year's series was so amazing, there's no possible way to top that. Let's get some new blood in here." Others think "Last year's series was amazing, but it was so incredibly close that I'm still not even sure the better team won. I need seven more games of that to make sure."

Personally, I'm more in the second group. Yes, I realize that there's probably not much chance that this series can top last year's seven-game instant classic. But even after watching all seven games twice last June (once live, once again the next morning) and then a third time over the last week, I'm STILL not sure which team was better.

For the most part, this year's series is going to be a carbon-copy of last year's series, with a few small changes. Last year's series was as close as a series can be, with Miami barely prevailing. This year, San Antonio has upgraded Gary Neal and Cory Joseph to Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills (although Neal was huge in the Finals last year - he was 14-for-30 from three, with many of them coming in huge moments). Miami has lost Mike Miller and replaced his minutes with Rashard Lewis (but I'm not sure if you can call that a downgrade with Lewis making nine of his last 16 attempts from three, and Miami being +58 in his last 100 minutes on the floor). Manu Ginobili is playing well, but so is Dwyane Wade. There are a few subtle changes, but they wash each other out. The only truly relevant points are home-court advantage shifting to San Antonio (more on that later), and Tony Parker's semi-questionable ankle.

Part of me thinks that with last year's series being so impossibly close, and not much changing since then, to pick Miami again. But let's dive into some more detail.

When Miami Has The Ball:

Where Miami Has The Upper Hand:

Miami has been ludicrously good on offense this postseason. According to Basketball-Reference, they have an offensive rating of 115.9 over their last 15 games, which would be the highest mark in league history if they were to sustain that over a full season. And they've done it against the regular season's sixth-ranked defense (Charlotte) and first-ranked defense (Indiana). Their eFG% is a staggering .561 (another mark that would set a league record over a full season). All of their shooters seemed to have found their stroke at the same time, perhaps most importantly, Lewis and Wade. If non-shooters turn into shooters for Miami, San Antonio's shell defense (Whenever the ball was inside the three-point arc, or on every pick-and-roll, all five Spurs would be positioned with one foot in the paint) becomes a lot easier to exploit. San Antonio did an amazing job of keeping LeBron and the rest of Miami off the foul line last year, but the Heat can circumvent that by simply raining threes.

Dwyane Wade had a rather hellish postseason last year. For the first 18 games of the postseason, Wade averaged just 14 points per game, shot just 44 percent from the floor, and attempted just 3.7 free throws per game. And he wasn't making up for it on defense, either. He was inexcusably bad in transition defense and generally lazy defending spot-up shooters. He didn't wake up until the last four games of the Finals (three Miami wins among them), averaging a 24/6/5 on 49.4 percent shooting from the floor. His postseason so far much more closely resembles his run at the end of the Finals - averaging a 19/4/4, an effective field goal percentage of .535, and, for the most part, engaged defense. Perhaps most promising is that Wade is six for his last 11 from beyond the three-point line - if defenders have to stick even one step closer to Wade when he spots up in the corner, his baseline cuts to the rim from the weakside become even more deadly.

By the end of the series last year, Miami had started to figure out how to attack San Antonio, particularly when LeBron got a high screen early in the shot clock. I'd expect to see some type of action where LeBron catches the ball at the elbow and then runs a snug pick-and-roll with Bosh, or if Miami is going to stick with a heavy dose of high screen-rolls, to have a greater ratio of those screens come from guards (Allen, especially if Tony Parker ends up guarding him for extended stretches). San Antonio's emphasis was on keeping as much size as possible in front of LeBron at all times - when Danny Green was guarding him, LeBron would just bully his way to the basket or post him up. Against Kawhi Leonard and even Boris Diaw, he had a much more difficult time. If Miami uses smaller players (Allen, Chalmers, Cole, even Wade) as a screener, they get a shooter (or in Wade's case, another attacker) moving in space, or they get a smaller player switched onto LeBron.

Miami's success offensively in this series will largely come down to their jump shooting. San Antonio invited plenty of long two point shots for LeBron, Wade, and Bosh last year, regardless of how well LeBron and Bosh normally shoot from those areas. At times, Miami's offense can get bogged down in looking for the best shot, instead of just taking the first good shot that presents itself. This happened time and again last year. It is in Miami's interest to slow the pace, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't make quick decisions.

Where San Antonio Has The Upper Hand:

San Antonio has a halfway decent blueprint for how to defend Miami. All things considered, they did a really good job of building a wall around the paint and preventing LeBron from getting the easy baskets that are normally his bread-and-butter. After posting a foul rate of .395 during the regular season, and .488 in the first three rounds of the playoffs, San Antonio held him to a miniscule foul rate of .126 during the first four games of the Finals last year (admittedly, he did rebound to .408 over the last three games). If you keep LeBron out of the paint, a lot of what Miami wants to do offensively becomes exponentially harder.

San Antonio's defense has been on point for pretty much the entire postseason. They harassed Dallas and the Mavs under-performed offensively. Portland found no rhythm offensively at all in their series, and Oklahoma City's predictable offense was swallowed up at times in the Western Finals. Miami's offense is far from predictable, but San Antonio's defensive performance in the postseason (Defensive Rating of 104.4 - would have ranked 7th in the league during the regular season, coming against the regular season's 2nd-, 3rd-, and 7th-ranked offenses) is arguably just as impressive as Miami's out-of-this world offense.

When San Antonio Has The Ball

Where San Antonio Has The Upper Hand

San Antonio just spent six games against a team with that features frenetic rotations and absurd athleticism. They learned that they simply can't play Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan together. They learned a similar lesson in the Finals last year. Splitter's minutes in the Finals last year went 25, 23, 24, 14, 10, 8, 4. I'd expect his playing time in this series to be closer to the end of that line than the beginning of it.

Last year, Miami beat San Antonio with their small lineups. Not only because the increased shooting made them harder to defend, but because their increased footspeed crowded San Antonio's offensive spacing. They didn't care about Tiago Splitter posting up Shane Battier or Mike Miller. Even a little bit. So when Splitter couldn't dominate on the block (not that he ever would, really) and couldn't space the floor, San Antonio's sudden lack of spacing submarined their offensive attack. This year, I'd imagine they toss out a smaller, or at least shooting-friendly lineup from the get-go. Manu Ginobili started the last four games of last year's Finals, Matt Bonner started Game 5 and Game 6 against Oklahoma City this year. If either of them start Game 1 (or a dark horse candidate, maybe Belinelli), San Antonio will have the spacing they need.

Tim Duncan had a few throwback games in last year's Finals, and had a throwback game in Game 6 against Oklahoma City. With five minutes to close out Oklahoma City's season, the Spurs went to Tim Duncan on the block over and over again and Duncan old-man-game'd Serge Ibaka to death. The Spurs certainly feel like Duncan has an advantage on the block against Chris Bosh. Bosh is probably the most underrated defensive player in the league - he might be the best in the league at attacking high pick-and-rolls and still having the footspeed to recover into the paint, and he's an underrated rim protector against driving perimeter players, but the one aspect of his defense that is underwhelming is in the post. If Miami is forced to insert Udonis Haslem, it creates nightmare spacing issues for their offense. That would be a big win for San Antonio.

San Antonio is the best passing team in the league. They make teams pay for being too aggressive with their rotations. Miami likes to blitz high pick-and-rolls, inviting a 4-on-3 behind the play, because they know they're fast enough to rotate back. Against most teams, they're right. Against the Spurs, a quick tick-tack-toe passing sequence can lead to an open corner three on the weakside. San Antonio lives on those plays, and they made Miami pay with them last year, in large part thanks to Danny Green. San Antonio would run a pick-and-roll, and Green would spot up in the weakside corner. As the play developed (with the ball-handler dribbling over a screen towards the middle of the floor), Green would skip along the baseline, behind the back-line help defender whose attention would be occupied by the pick-and-roll, and would end up in the opposite corner. The Spurs would then just wait for Miami to invite the 4-on-3, then quickly reverse the ball back to Green, who all of a sudden would be standing in the corner with no Miami defender within three zip codes. Grantland's Zach Lowe broke the action down beautifully at the start of the season. It's one of the primary reasons Green set an NBA Finals record for three-pointers made.

Another way that San Antonio attacked those 4-on-3's was by just giving the ball to Kawhi Leonard and letting him attack the basket. They did the same thing against Oklahoma City in the last round. Leonard was mildly effective doing it against Miami last year, and this year he's better, more confident, and healthier. If he has a lane to the basket, good money says he's either going to score, get fouled, or come damn close. Either way, San Antonio's eyes will go wide when Miami gets extra aggressive with their traps. The ball moves faster than players do.

Where Miami Has The Upper Hand:

The ball moves faster than players do.... usually.

Miami, when they're at their defensive peak, is the fastest defensive team I've ever seen. They'll trap, the offense will think they have an open look waiting for them, but Miami recovers so quickly that you wonder if they have six players on the court. If you want a bare-bones #HotSportsTake prediction for this series, it's this: If Miami can rotate fast enough to close of San Antonio's open looks in the corner, they'll win the series. If they can't, San Antonio will win.

Birdman Anderson fell out of the rotation in Games 4 and 5 last year after Mike Miller was inserted into the starting lineup. But by Games 6 and 7, he had usurped Udonis Haslem and gave Miami some good minutes (+15 in 32 minutes between the two games). Anderson is far superior to Haslem at hedging and traping high up on the floor. If Anderson can adequately defend Duncan, that's a coup for Miami.

Miami's Pet Lineup:


How do you defend that? The Chalmers spot can be in flux - they might go with Cole if they want to harass Tony Parker, they might go with Shane Battier if they want size on the wing (assuming LeBron has taken over guarding Parker or Ginobili), but the key spots are Wade-Allen-LeBron-Bosh. They can create so much space that Wade's inconsistent shooting doesn't really matter. He can linger along the baseline where a big would traditionally stand and attack with cuts off the ball.

The key here is Allen. Teams will generally need to put their two best perimeter defenders on Wade and LeBron, so if they're playing two bigs, one of them will be forced to guard Allen. Indiana stuck David West on him and they paid for it. Bigs just aren't used to closing to the three-point line, especially in transition, and Allen can unleash a barrage of threes to put a game out of reach. With the San Antonio lineup I'm about to mention, they'll be forced into some hard decisions.

San Antonio's Pet Lineup:


Leonard will guard LeBron. Duncan will guard Bosh. Parker will guard Chalmers (or Cole). Diaw is the question mark. Do they stick him on Allen, and potentially open up Pandora's Box the way Indiana did? Or would they stick him on Wade, have him sit 10 feet off him, and dare him to shoot 18-foot jumpers? My guess would be the latter.

Diaw is also the X-Factor on offense. If Miami uses the lineup above, Ray Allen will actually have to guard someone. He doesn't have the size to guard Leonard, and guarding off-the-dribble players like Parker or Ginobili will be an adventure, to say the least. Will Miami be okay with putting him on Diaw and living with the results if Diaw posts up? Would they swarm and double Diaw, knowing that his pristine passing could pick them apart? This is one element that I really have no good guess on, so it will be important to see what happens when the teams go to these lineups.


Home-Court Advantage:

The old home-court advantage model was a huge leg up for the home team that went beyond "we have four home games to your three." The other team's three home games came consecutively, and it's near-impossible to win three straight games against the same opponent. In the 29 years of the 2-3-2 format, just three teams swept all three home games: The 2004 Pistons, the 2006 Heat, and the 2012 Heat (in fact, there were just as many teams that swept all three on the road: The 1990 Pistons, 1991 Bulls, and 2001 Lakers).

Now the format is back to the normal 2-2-1-1-1, and nobody has to win three games in a row to hold home-court advantage. This arguably gives a slight advantage to the team without home-court (in this case, Miami). Last year's series was decided by razor-thin margins. I don't particularly think home-court played a major factor, as both teams won on their opponents home floor, but this is worth noting. The advantage the Spurs might have gotten by gaining home court might be negated (compared to last year) by the change in format.


Want another bare-bones #HotSportsTake?

If Tony Parker's ankle is 100 percent healthy, San Antonio is a slight favorite. If Tony Parker's ankle is anything less than 85 percent healthy, San Antonio is a heavy underdog.

Here's what we know: Parker's injury was serious enough to hold him out of the entire second half and overtime of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals (a rather important game). He's had about four and a half days since to recover. Given the history of the Spurs' medical staff, he should be good to go in Game 1. He has two days off between Game 1 and Game 2, but then three games in five nights. The real question isn't whether or not he'll be ready to play Thursday, it's how well his ankle holds up over the course of the series. If it's a long series like it was last year (and it probably will be), Games 6 and 7 might be on a bad wheel. And given how close those games were last year with a healthy Parker, and hobbled one would almost certainly be the difference between winning and losing. A bet on San Antonio is a bet on Parker's ankle.

The Pick:

I really see this series unfolding basically the same as it did last year. It's going to start close, have a few ugly games in the middle (thanks to simple adjustments leading to wide gaps in performance - that's how close these two teams are), and then close again at the end. That doesn't mean I think Miami is going to win. Last year's series came down to three ridiculous plays with the slimmest of margins: Miami's two threes at the end of Game 6 (Bill Simmons wrote about them Wednesday) - the first careening of pretty much every player on the floor before it found it's way back to LeBron again to cut the lead to two, then after a missed free throw, the offensive rebound-shovel to Allen who was furiously backpedaling-body correction-splash to tie it. The third was Tim Duncan's bunny at the end of Game 7 that would have tied the game - it bounced off the back rim and out, but half an inch lower it deflects down, through the net, instead of out and into the hands of Bosh.

If either of those first two balls bounce San Antonio's way, they win the title. If the third bounces their way, they have a 50/50 shot of winning Game 7 in overtime.

To try to predict a series THAT close is an exercise in stupidity. Being right or wrong is just a matter of luck, the same way that might be the only difference between winning and losing. If there are people out there who think one of these teams clearly has a substantial leg up on the other one, they can argue why they think that and make a pick with confidence. I can't do that.

Miami won the series last year, but it was San Antonio that outscored them by five points over those seven games. Which of those is more indicative of this year's series? Miami hasn't lost in the playoffs since they realized they should be playing small. But it was San Antonio who gave them the best run for their money (and again, lost by a margin almost too small to see).

Everything needs to be viewed through the realm of probability. If we assume that last year's teams were EXACTLY even (and, to be honest, I think it's more unreasonable to *not* assume that), everything that's happened, from roster changes, to this year's regular season performance, to this year's postseason performance, moves the needle a little bit one way or the other. The only problem is, everything that moves the needle one way is met in the opposite direction by an offsetting variable.

The only thing that seems to not have something pushing back against it is Parker's injury. If he's healthy, it's a toss-up. If he's not, Miami has the advantage. I have inklings of doubt about the status of his ankle. That's really it. But if I'm being forced to make a pick, that's the variable that's going to swing my opinion to 50.1 percent likelihood. So that's my pick.

Heat in 7.

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