On the heels of Miami’s Game 7 triumph over the upstart Indiana Pacers, the 2013 NBA Finals opens in Miami on Thursday night with the Heat hosting the Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs. The two teams met twice during the 2012-13 regular season, with Miami winning both times, 105-100 back in late November at home and an 88-86 nail-biter in San Antonio on March 31st. Miami finished with an NBA-best 66-16 W-L mark, while the Spurs finished 58-24. This will mark the first meeting between the two in the Finals, and they have a combined six NBA Championships, with the Heat defending their 2011-12 title. The first two games will be played in Miami, with the next three held in San Antonio and, if necessary, Games Six and Seven back in Miami.
With a ten-day layoff since their Western Conference Finals sweep over Memphis, the Spurs certainly should be well-rested, which can only be a plus for the team’s three “elder statesmen,” Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Parker, in particular, had to welcome the long rest period since he’s battled nagging injuries throughout the postseason. It wasn’t apparent in his series against the Grizzlies however, as he dominated whichever unlucky Memphis defender was assigned to slow him down. The 31-year old Parker scorched the Grizzlies to the tune of 24.5 points, 9.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while connecting on a blistering 54% of his field goal attempts over the four-game series. His season-high 37 points in the deciding Game Four was a highlight-reel performance, with him routinely coming through with big plays whenever the Grizzlies appeared to be staging a comeback. 37-year old Tim Duncan has seemingly rediscovered the Fountain of Youth in the late stages of his Hall of Fame-bound 15th season as leader of the Spurs. Although nowhere near the young spring-legged colt who burst onto the scene in 1997, Duncan has brilliantly adapted his game to his limitations, all the while remaining among the most cerebral big men in the game’s history. This will be his fifth NBA Finals appearance. Despite long stretches of inconsistency, 35-year old Manu Ginobili continues to be one of the league’s more clutch performers, more than willing to take the game’s critical shot, even if he’s 0 for 10 to that point. Like Duncan and Parker, Ginobili possesses an incredibly high basketball IQ, and combines that quality with a street-fighter’s mentality to overcome most obstacles. Those three, along with rising second-year star Kahwi Leonard, three-point specialist Danny Green, and savvy role players Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and Boris Diaw, present a more than capable rotation for Miami. San Antonio’s “ace-in-the-hole” however, may be head coach Gregg Popovich, who has been here many times before and is virtually unmatched when it comes to finding the perfect “X-and-O’s” strategy to seal last-minute victories. “Pop” has the complete and unwavering trust of his team, which isn’t merely a cliche, but a vital element on championship-caliber squads.
Just when it appeared that the expected Miami “dynasty” was in danger of being derailed, the Heat righted the boat against the young Pacers and completely annihilated them in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Dwyane Wade snapped out of his postseason-long funk to lead the Heat to their third consecutive Finals appearance, while LeBron James continued his ascension to the ranks of the game’s all-time greats. James is averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the playoffs, but has also demonstrated a willingness to get “down-and-dirty” when called upon, and his defense, long overlooked due to his offensive excellence, has been a primary key to the team’s postseason success. Chris Bosh, the other member of the “Big Three,” hasn’t equalled the numbers or performance of his two colleagues, which has to be a concern for coach Eric Spoelstra. Bosh usually plays well versus Tim Duncan however, and no doubt the team hopes that remains true to form over the next week or so.
Veteran Ray Allen has come through in some tough situations over the postseason run, but the biggest surprise among the Heat’s “other” guys has to be backup PG Norris Cole, who has hit clutch baskets time and again, especially against the Pacers. Another critical component for Miami has been the play of the “Birdman,” Chris Andersen. Normally known for his annoying defensive abilities, the Birdman has compiled a sizzling .826 FG % during the playoffs, albeit primarily on put-backs and garbage baskets. His contributions versus the Spurs could be a huge factor. The Heat bench is loaded with veteran contributors, including Allen, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. The key for a championship repeat however, will probably boil down to how much help James gets from his teammates, which served as the determining factor against Indiana.
This NBA Finals should be extremely entertaining and offers an interesting contrast in style of play. The Heat much prefer to let their smothering press create easy transition points, while the Spurs are essentially a walk-it-up, half-court unit. If San Antonio can somehow manage to impose their pace on the Heat, give the edge to the Spurs. If however, Miami’s athleticism and flair puts the Spurs in “catch-up” mode, it’s questionable if Parker, Duncan et al can keep pace. Regardless, this series has the potential to be a classic, so settle in and enjoy the festivities.