By: Dan Grant
INT – DEEP IN THE SAME PAGE HQ, SOMEWHERE IN THE WILD JUNGLES OF MYSTERY OR AT A PICNIC TABLE IN A DOWNTOWN PARK
Grant: Hmmmm, no one’s around. Maybe if I just slip in here quietly, no one will notice.
Reynolds: Dan, what are you doing?
Grant: Ohhh, hey, maaaaaan. What am I doing? Nothing. Just, you know, hanging around. Thinking about basketball.
Reynolds: You thought you’d post your thoughts on the Finals late, didn’t you?
Grant: …the NBA Finals? Did those start? I hadn’t noticed.
Reynolds: Nice try.
Grant: Well, since we’re talking about it, I do happen to have a some thoughts…
Reynolds: Of course. Alright, get on with it.
Who is the biggest X-factor in these Finals?
In my Western Conference preview, I picked the young and hungry Memphis Grizzlies to upend the veteran Spurs, writing “Unless Gregg Popovich can pull an all-time coaching job on Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies are heading to their first NBA Finals”. Well, look what happened! The Spurs swept the Grizzlies and I’ve gotta be honest, they really handed it to them. The whole time I was watching, I was thinking ‘How are the Spurs doing this? Memphis has younger and stronger players! What in the world is happening to Zach Randolph? Why does Tayshaun Prince suddenly look 50 years old?’ Hollins seemed to be making adjustments, trying different things on offense, showing different and aggressive looks on defense and generally doing everything you want in a coach of a playoff contender. All for naught. What in the hell was going on? And then I remembered: “Oh yeah, Gregg Friggin’ Popovich coaches the other team”.
Popovich has spent his life (or at least the past 20 years) cultivating these Spurs. The team has constantly built and rebuilt itself around Tim Duncan, doing everything necessary to maximize his once-in-a-generation skill set. As Timmy D aged, the Spurs got younger and added athleticism on the perimeter. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, like Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen before them, are lock-down defenders and lights out three point shooters. They added Tiago Splitter years in advance and waited for him to season to perfection. They turned Tony Parker, formerly a speed demon with no jumpshot into an MVP candidate. They turned Manu Ginobili into a Hall of Famer. All for Duncan. But all because of Pop. His commitment to his system and the respect he commands among his players, along with his intricate and ever-developing dedication to the game of basketball is the reason he’s the best coach in the NBA and the best coach ever not named Phil Jackson.
So where does that leave us? The Heat, like the Grizzlies, are definitely the more athletic team. They’ve got the talent, like the Grizz, and a unique combination of youth and experience. That experience might be the key difference between the teams. Where the Grizzlies had a bit of playoff success last season as a team and a veteran leader in Prince, the Heat are the defending NBA champions. They’ve got cerebral locker room veterans in Shane Battier and Ray Allen. They’ve got Mike Miller, who has sneakily played very well these playoffs. They’re got the Birdman, who we’ll talk about later. And they’ve got the Big Three, including the best player alive in LeBron James. So how can the Spurs stand a chance?
Because they’ve got Pop.
What is the key matchup between these two teams?
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker are going to have a battle for the ages all over the court. But the key matchup to me is how Chris Bosh can handle Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Duncan and Splitter are going to show up. They’re going to play fundamental ball, they’re not going to turn the ball over and they’re going to attempt to abuse Bosh and the rest of the undersized Miami frontcourt on the low block, and they’ll probably succeed to an extent. That’s where Bosh comes in. He’ll have help from Udonis Haslem and Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen, but it’s going to be Bosh’s job on the offensive end, to find a way to crack the Spurs otherworldly interior defense. Bosh’s unique skill set lets him pull players towards the perimeter and Duncan, at age 37, doesn’t have the foot speed to guard him out there. Splitter is young and can provide energy, but if he goes out there, Bosh will be able to abuse him off the dribble. This might lead to Pop putting a younger and more athletic defender like Kawhi Leonard on Bosh, but then the height advantage will allow him to start doing what he does best, stroking mid-range jumpers.
On the defensive end, Bosh and the rest of Miami’s big men will need to show an interior presence that’s been sorely lacking throughout the playoffs. Duncan and Splitter just manhandled the supposed best interior tandem in the game in the Grizzlies Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Their combination of court awareness, passing and skill on the low block is going to be tough for all the Miami bigs. The Heat will need to get big, productive defensive minutes out of the Birdman and Haslem. Fouls could be an issue. There could be a Joel Anthony sighting. Things might get ugly.
Bosh doesn’t necessarily need to be lights out in the series for the Heat to win. But he needs to be an effective weapon that the Spurs have to game plan for. He wasn’t even that in this past series against Indiana. He needs to show up and earn his paper. Timmy D certainly will.
Final verdict: Who wins (and in how many games)?
Wait, what? We have to make a prediction? I thought I made it abundantly clear that this is going to be insanely close and I wanted no part in picking anyone, especially after that fiasco of a Western Conference pick. Beyond being insanely close, it’s more that we have no actual idea how this is going to play out.
Early in the season, when the Spurs were forced to play Miami at the end of a particularly tough stretch of games, Gregg Popovich sent a message to the league by benching Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, sending them on a plane back to San Antonio. This was seen as a slap in the face to the Heat fans (though it was meant to be a slap for David Stern) and the league levied the Spurs a massive fine. The Spurs wound up nearly winning that game to boot. When the Heat played the Spurs later that season—
The bottom line is we haven’t seen these teams play each other at full strength. So how do we decide? LeBron James is how we decide. LeBron is the smartest player in the game and he’s very aware of his place in history. He’s aware that unlike Jordan, he’s already lost two finals (Jordan was 6 for 6 in Finals). He’s aware that the first of those was to these same Spurs and that he got swept. While that may have been akin to Jordan somehow leading the 87 Bulls to a walloping at the hands of the Showtime Lakers, it still happened.
He’s going to want revenge and I think he’s going to get it.
Heat in 6.
Grant: So I was a bit late with it, that’s OK, right? Everybody happy?
Reynolds: Pleased as punch.
Grant: Phew, I was getting worried about the deadline tension.
Reynolds: Worry not. You’re fired.