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NBA Finals Game 1 Pre-TipOff Thoughts: Kicking Up The Dirt

By Jeff Koch on June 5, 2014.

Yesterday’s series preview was mostly emotional, but let’s dig into some of the basketball, shall we?

Not only is this a rematch, both teams bring back essentially the same rosters and cores of last year’s series. With all apologies to all parties, I don’t think Neal, Belinelli, and Miller are going to swing this series one way or another. Which sets an odd tone for the series, because so many of the finer points seem the same, yet it feels like so much could be different. The worst thing to have (as a fan and analyst) is too much time before a series, and I think we’ve collectively talked ourselves in and out of every conceivable pick and around every conceivable topic. I’m definitely more confused now than I was on Sunday. But let’s highlight some points of interest and things to watch, particularly in the first few games to see what is new, what is old, and what is forever true:

–Parker’s health remains the biggest tipping point in the series. It’s the Spurs, so naturally we don’t know much of anything at all about his health. Personally, I think he’s pretty close to fine and will be able to compete at a high level. A ‘high level’ Parker gives the Spurs a clear advantage, especially since one of the Heat’s biggest weaknesses is speedy penetrating PGs. I don’t think the predictions without Parker are as dire as most believe, but still, we’d rather have him than not. The system is the star, but the system was built for Parker.

–The other thing that gives the Heat a lot of trouble is a big post player who can score down low. Hey, I know a guy like that in San Antonio. Duncan was an absolute monster in last year’s Finals, and it wasn’t a fluke. I expect him to have another  big series. One development from last year, though, is that Diaw is a serious threat in the post, particularly when being covered by smaller players. The Heat love playing small, but Diaw might force their hand to at least go ‘intermediate’ and not super-small. Splitter is also a better post player, but still excels more in pick and roll and clean-up duty.

–Speaking of, Splitter is another key to this series. Miami ‘small’-ed him off the court last year, relegating him to spot minutes backing up Duncan. (Even in that role, he’s a hell of a player to have as he kills it with the second unit.) With his improved defense, the Spurs need him on the court. Can his improved offense keep him on the court and prevent Miami from simply ignoring him?

–Kawhi guarding LeBron is a basketball nerd’s dream. Leonard was almost designed to guard LeBron. And he did a wonderful job last year. A lot of the Spurs’ hopes are riding on the improvement of Leonard to take yet another step. Remember, he made a huge leap in last year’s Finals, kind of leveled out during this regular season, before starting to steadily get better at the tail end of the season and the early rounds of the playoffs. Is it time for another mini-jump?

–The Heat want to play small. They are kind of a force of offensive destruction when they do. Can the Spurs match it? The Spurs spent the entire regular season prepping as many small ball permutations as they could. Diaw and Leonard really are the key, and their versatility between the 3-5 spots on the floor.

–Diaw vs. LeBron. Who doesn’t love this? More importantly, if we can find another credible defensive threat against LeBron, Kawhi would be freed up to spend some time on Wade. We saw how Paul George really took Wade out of his game in the Pacers series when switched on him. Leonard could have the same effect, if the Spurs decide to let LeBron have his and try to shut everybody else down.

–Against OKC the Spurs had success switching Green and Leonard, but I think LeBron is just a bit too big for Green. Green will be tasked with Wade, and that is a great match-up for him.

–Incredibly, the Spurs–who set a modern record for having no player average over 30mpg in the regular season–still haven’t reached full playoff minutes level. In effect, they have another ‘gear’ to get to, playing Parker, Duncan, Green, Manu, Boris, and Leonard even more minutes.

–Do the Heat have another gear? They cruised through the playoffs, barely challenged, and were up and down all season. This version of the Heat appears to be the most rickety, the most held together purely by LeBron’s talent, Spoelstra’s coaching, and legacy and knowledge. Every single role player is down from last year, and the minutes are surely piling up for LeBron, Wade, and Bosh.

–Will the Spurs be a culture shock for the Heat? Miami has been playing the most efficient offensive basketball in the playoffs, but also against the ghastly East and at a crazy slow pace. The Spurs will be a step up in class and speed, and it might genuinely take Miami some time to adjust to that. Much like against OKC, the Spurs will be looking to play fast but not quick, while the Heat thrive off of TOs, fast breaks, and live ball 50/50 situations. The Spurs need to take care of the ball and keep up the pace.

–Will Good Manu show up to avenge Bad Manu’s 2013 Finals?

–Will healthy Wade show up to pick up his team in a way that broken down Wade couldn’t in 2013? By all accounts, the only increase from last year’s Heat team is a better Wade. (We’ll count LeBron as the same.) If he can be the world’s best second banana, the Heat can probably win this series.

–Can the Spurs’ bench and role players show up consistently? The Heat bench isn’t nearly as strong as the Spurs, and San Antonio has to be able to take advantage in those few minutes when it’s mostly bench vs. bench. (Ironically, both teams like to anchor their bench units with their 2-guards, Manu and Wade. Those could be some great battles.)

–Will the coaches change their schemes, even the ones that seemed successful last year? Where will line-up roulette settle?

–Does the change back to a 2-2-1-1-1 format favor any team? If the series is pretty even, it puts a lot of pressure on the Spurs to win Game 5 and not go back to Miami with a chance for the Heat to win the series. Both teams have been utterly dominant at home over these playoffs. Who will be the first road team to upset the balance?

OK. I’ve thought way too much about this series in the last few days. (Last year, truthfully.) I think it’s about time to start playing the games. Game 1 tips off in just about 2 hours.

Go Spurs Go.

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