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Cold Comfort | San Antonio 111, Miami 87

By Jeff Koch on March 7, 2014.

I had a dream last week after the victory against Dallas that the Spurs had won the title this year, and had done so in large part because of losing last year’s Finals (don’t question dream logic, just ride with it). When I woke, for the briefest of moments, I had finally come to terms with that loss.

Beating Miami on Thursday night felt good, but not as good as those brief moments in between the dream and the reality.

Back in said reality, the Spurs lit up the Heat, leading wire-to-wire, and looking reminiscent of Games 3 and 5, when the AT&T Center was a house of horrors for this Heat team. For large stretches of the game, the Spurs had everything rolling on offense.

For pretty much the entire game, the defense was completely locked in. This is what kept the Heat at arm’s length when they made a push in the 3rd quarter (and the Spurs were, according to Pop, “playing in mud”). You can see the difference a healthy roster makes between the game in Miami a few months ago and last night’s game. In particular, Kawhi was a beast, a one-man wrecking crew on defense. When the league is flush with big and powerful 3s who are All-World talents, it’s good to have a big and powerful 3 who plays defense like a controlled demon.

(Photo credit: Edward A. Ornelas, San Antonio Express-News)

Based on what little evidence we have to work with, it appears that Kawhi is a sort of “Big Game” player. He may never average 18 and 8; but he shows up in big games, even more stoic and composed than Duncan. He is unafraid of the moment. He would probably be a disappointment on a team searching for a savior. On a team with championship aspirations, he is a vital piece.

Most of what I was focusing on during this game was how this year’s Spurs team is different than last year’s team. On the broadcast, they mentioned that Pop had said he thinks this team can be better than last year’s team. As I’ve made clear, I’m prone to agree.

Both Splitter and Diaw are playing better than they did, individually, last year. Diaw has become more aggressive offensively while maintaining his innate passing and playmaking abilities. And we all know his supernatural defensive abilities against the league’s best players that everybody likes to poke fun at but, you know, actually seem to bear out. Splitter has improved dramatically on the defensive end while still being hot and cold offensively. Still, that defensive presence helps whenever he is on the court. I particularly like having the two to serve in a situational dependent rotation. Against the Heat, it makes a lot more sense to start Diaw (which negated the Battier impact, creating a juicy match-up for San Antonio out of the gate) and bring in Splitter to anchor that second unit defense (which he did very well last night) and get to run pick and roll with Manu, Marco, and Patty (his best offensive skill). There will be times when it makes more sense to start Splitter, and Diaw will play great off the bench. It’s a nice flexibility to have.

Marco is a better fit for this team than Gary Neal. I’ve discussed this quite a bit lately. It will play out in the playoffs, too. Marco just has a wider skill set, and can be relied upon in bigger situations. There was a play in the second half when the Spurs were fast breaking, and Green dished it to Marco on the wing. The three was there, but not completely wide open (as a Heat player was closing out fast); Marco put it on the floor, drove to the basket, and made a difficult scoop lay-up…a shot Gary probably would have missed (though Gary would have taken the 3). This led to a Miami timeout, and a micro-momentum swing. Marco just fits this second unit perfectly. (He can also reliably play back-up PG in a pinch, which Gary could not, and was repeatedly forced to do.)

Patty Mills is also essentially a new player. He was on the team last year, but was a deep bench player who got no run in big games. He is now the back-up PG. He can come in and score 15 points in 15 minutes like it’s nothing. Even better, when his shot is off, he’s not the type of player that kills the team’s offensive momentum. He can reliably play 15-20 minutes a night. Which, if nothing else, gives Parker a huge rest and keeps him fresh for the close. Don’t underestimate this. Parker got injured in last year’s Finals and visibly slowed down in the final 3 games. And the Spurs were basically holding on for dear life trying to stay afloat in those minutes when he wasn’t on the court. Mills covers a lot of ills.

Danny Green isn’t better or worse than last year, but, like Kahwi, he is a big game defender. He is known throughout the league as a “D and 3″ guy, and even still, I think his defense is underrated. He might be the third best rim protector on the team. He has a bit of that Wade sneak up from behind D in his game.

Manu is the only player I’m still not sure about. He famously had a poor Finals (even a marginal increase in his play and perhaps we win). While this season has been a bit of a bounce back (particularly early when he was fully healthy), he still looks out of sorts against these Heat. I’ll always give Manu the benefit of the doubt, and he has a good 6 weeks to fine tune his body and game. If nothing, his playmaking work with the second unit is huge.

These two teams always produce entertaining basketball, even in blowouts. A rematch in the Finals would not be a shock.

A repeat might just kill me, though.

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