This feels like an NBA Finals two years in the making, and not only because the Thunder knocked the league off this course last season by pummeling the Spurs. The Heat are a much different team than they were in LeBron James's first season on the beach. Miami carved out a new identity, in part by applying basic San Antonio principles to its own starry personnel — careful spacing, whip-smart ball movement, smaller lineups, and buckets of 3-point shots.
The Spurs traded for Kawhi Leonard precisely so he could guard players like James and Kevin Durant, the latter of whom might well be playing today if not for Russell Westbrook's injury. They patiently integrated Tiago Splitter over three seasons so that he could form a two-man rim protection squad with Tim Duncan and make plays on offense against speedy NBA defenses. They allowed role players like Leonard and Danny Green dollops of freedom so they might be ready to do just a bit more than hit spot-up jumpers when elite defenses forced playmaking duties upon them.
And so here we are: the NBA Finals, with two great teams that have spent years building to this moment and building toward this specific potential matchup. Below are some key questions and trends to watch, with the aid of extensive film study and conversations with coaches, executives, scouts, and players around the league over the last week.1
How Will the Heat Defend Tony Parker?
This is both a "how" and a "whom" question, because the Heat will unleash James on Parker for stretches of this series. Guarding Parker is exhausting, and the Heat are justifiably worried about overextending James; chasing Jason Terry around wore him down in the 2011 Finals, and the Heat in the conference finals mostly kept James off of Paul George until they faced a must-win Game 7. James might be a more valuable defender away from the ball against a pick-and-roll team like San Antonio, since he is huge, fast, and smart — one of the rare NBA wings capable of smashing into a big man rolling in the lane and recovering out to a shooter behind the 3-point line. It is almost terrifying.
The strenuous job of guarding Parker will fall mostly to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. But containing Parker is a team effort, starting with the Heat big men who will be defending Duncan, Splitter, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner as those players set picks around the floor for the little French water bug. Miami's de facto strategy against pick-and-rolls, both up high and on the sides, is to blitz ball handlers — to have both Parker's man and the Heat defender guarding the screener rush out at Parker as a four-armed trapping menace determined to push Parker back toward midcourt and deflect any pass he might try over them.
Playing that way carries risk: Two defenders are temporarily guarding one player (Parker), meaning Miami's opponent has a four-on-three behind the play. The Heat's entire defensive strategy is a wager: "We bet we're fast, tenacious, and athletic enough to swarm your first option and recover to shut off everything else before you can exploit that four-on-three." Miami usually wins that bet. But in the Spurs, the Heat face a combination of passing, shooting, and game-planning wit they have not seen in the postseason since the 2011 Mavericks — the only team to have beaten the LeBron-era Heat in a playoff series. The Spurs, more than any team, would seem equipped to puncture Miami's amoeba defense by finding the right gaps at the right moments.
The job of inflicting those little stab wounds starts with Parker and his screening partners, and fans out from there to the other three San Antonio players. Parker has hurt Miami's trapping schemes in the past2 in two ways: by splitting traps and by dribbling away from a waiting pick instead of around it.
Both those strategies involve Parker either reading a telegraphed trap early or coaxing it out with a heady fake. Parker has fooled Cole (and many, many other poor saps) by juking toward a Spurs screener, watching Cole lunge that way, and then crossing back over and speeding unencumbered into the paint. And Parker unencumbered in the paint is death for an NBA defense, especially when the Spurs surround him with shooting.3
That's why the Heat would be wise to mix up their strategy against Parker, which they've done in the past. They'll have Chalmers or Cole sometimes go under picks and meet Parker on the other side, closing off the paint at the cost of an open midrange shot. And Miami's big men will sometimes slide side-to-side in front of Parker rather than running out at him, a strategy that minimizes the four-on-three advantage for the rest of the Spurs.4
Nobody has stopped Parker yet. He's not big enough to pass over Miami's traps, but if he can read them correctly and fast, he can slice into the paint for layups or kickout passes to open 3-point shooters. If Parker begins hurting the Heat this way, they may soften up their defense, hoping to limit San Antonio to midrange jumpers from Parker and Duncan on the pick-and-pop. That strategy isn't as appealing as it once was; Parker and Duncan have become even better midrange shooters over the last two years, in part to punish defenses for playing them this way.
The point is that this is a two-way street. Each team has an ideal "Tony Parker" pick-and-roll scenario, but neither will be able to reach that ideal consistently, and how they adapt to the ebb and flow of the series will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.
Are the Spurs' Role Players Ready for This?
This, to me, is the biggest question of the series. The Heat's blitzing will force the ball out of Parker's hands at times, and Parker will voluntarily surrender it when he senses an opportunity for someone else to do some damage. It is at that point that another San Antonio player will have to do something profitable with the ball. We know Duncan (not a role player, duh) can do it. He'll hit pick-and-pop jumpers all day, and he's become very good late in his career at loading up as if he's going to shoot, waiting for his defender to come out at him, and then driving by him for a better look near the rim. He's also shown he can get traction against both Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem in the post, and it will be a win for the Heat if those guys can control Duncan without double-team help.
The other guys are unproven, or in the process of proving themselves, and this series represents the high-stakes endgame of that process. Most of these role players wilted against the Thunder's speed and athleticism in last season's conference finals, especially when the Thunder adopted a more aggressive defensive strategy in Game 3. Will this season be different?
Here's an example of what the Spurs will be facing, and what they'll have to do, courtesy of the Miami junior varsity squad that beat San Antonio in late March:
Two Heat defenders — Bosh and Cole — have just finished trapping Parker on a Parker/Duncan pick-and-roll on the right side; Bosh is scrambling back toward the basket, and Joel Anthony, who shouldn't play a meaningful minute in this series, has abandoned his man (Diaw) to temporarily patrol Duncan in the paint. This is a four-on-three situation.
Beating this defense is really hard! Parker has gone backward, toward half court, and he can't hit Duncan rolling into the paint from there. So Diaw does something he'll probably do a lot in this series: He pops out toward the 3-point arc on the left side to make himself a release valve for Parker.
Here's what happened next: Rashard Lewis abandoned Leonard in the left corner to rush out on Diaw, who saw Lewis coming and immediately flung a pass to Leonard in that corner. Anthony, understanding that an open corner 3 is an emergency, bum-rushed Leonard as Diaw's pass flew through the air. Leonard realized he would not be able to get his shot off, but instead of panicking and just holding the ball, he waited until Anthony got close, gave him a tiny head fake, and then drove by him into the lane:
Leonard sucked the defense toward him and then kicked to Green, raising his arm along the right sideline, for an open 3-pointer. Green missed, but the process is perfect, and it involves two role players — Diaw and Leonard — making difficult plays at high speed.
San Antonio's role players are going to have to do this over and over again. It's almost exhausting just to think of the task at hand for them. Diaw, from that release valve spot, can do a bunch of stuff — pass right away à la Jason Kidd, drive to the rim after a pump fake, or even launch a 3-pointer. He'll have to do some of everything, buffet-style (sorry), in this series. Ditto for Leonard. Green will have to make a few off-the-bounce plays and cut for layups.
And then there's Splitter, perhaps the X factor of the entire series. It has taken three seasons for Duncan and Splitter to work together effectively on offense, and now Splitter will have to show off everything he's learned against this crazy defense. Splitter, perhaps the most delightfully awkward player in the league, is going to have to be a playmaker.
The Spurs love to jump-start Parker by having him run off of baseline screens and catch the ball on the move — sort of a hyper-speed pick-and-roll. Miami likes to trap those plays by having the man guarding the last screener leap out at Parker, leaving that screener open for a beat and giving Parker a chance to slip a pass there. Here's an example, with Parker having just come off a Splitter screen and caught the ball as Splitter's man, Haslem, has slid up to trap Parker:
The Heat, as you can see, have rotated early. Bosh has left Duncan in the middle of the paint to attend to Splitter, and Mike Miller has dutifully followed by leaving Green near the left corner to deal with Duncan. (The Heat's rotations, by the way, won't always be this perfect.)
Splitter has a nanosecond to make the right play in this situation: Can he catch and go to the rim? Or find Duncan for one of those gorgeous tic-tac-toe Spursian sequences of interior passing? Or, maybe most appealing of all, Splitter might be able to skip a pass all the way across the court to Green.
Hesitate for a second and the holes are gone, your possession dead. Make the wrong choice and you get a contested look instead of a great one. Splitter is a skilled passer from both elbows and the post, but he's at his best when he has time to read the defense within a set play. This will be the biggest improvisational challenge of his life.
Splitter is also comfortable setting sideline screens for Parker and then slipping open toward the paint as his man lingers near the Spurs point guard. Here he is about to catch a pocket pass from Parker out of this action:
Splitter will do this a lot in the Finals, and if he can catch cleanly and turn to face the basket, you can see all the options he might have as a passer.5
As great as Parker is, it will take a collective effort for San Antonio to win.
How Healthy Are Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?
This is a question so fundamental it looms over everything. Miami is not Miami, on either end, if these guys can't attack the basket on offense, fly from outside-to-inside-to-outside on defense (Wade), and protect the rim (Bosh). Wade will have to defend Manu Ginobili in stretches, though James will get a slice of that assignment, and a healthy Wade should be able to work Ginobili and Green in the post. He'll also have to find smart cuts to the rim when the Spurs load up on LeBron, and when Wade gets his chance to shine in pick-and-rolls, he'll need some explosion to get to the rack against a San Antonio defense that will go under picks and try to turn him into a (bad) jump-shooter.
Watching clips of Bosh against the Spurs is almost jarring after watching him shoot 16 3-pointers in seven games against Indiana and fail to crack double figures in the last four. Bosh will get decent midrange looks in this series as a floor-stretcher, but in the past, he's been vicious attacking Duncan off the dribble, posting up Bonner, and going at Splitter all over the place. The Heat have actually called post-ups for him against San Antonio, and they've used other sets designed to get him moving into a dribble-drive. They tried to force this stuff down Bosh's throat in Game 7 against Indy, but he mostly missed near the basket. Can he finish against Duncan and Splitter better than he did against Roy Hibbert?
Bosh's deadly midrange shot provides the spacing that makes Miami's offense go, but the Heat are at their best when he sprinkles in some other Bosh-y things. San Antonio's defense does well limiting teams to midrange 2s, and if the Spurs nearly vaporize the Miller–Ray Allen–Shane Battier trio, as Indiana did, the Heat will have to play heavy minutes without much 3-point shooting. In that case, they'll need some rim attacks from both sub-LeBron stars.
Big or Small?
Small lineups with Battier at power forward have formed the core of Miami's identity since last season's conference finals. Battier's willingness to bang with Carlos Boozer/David West types spares LeBron that job and allows Miami to put killer shooting all over the floor.6
Indiana smushed those lineups under the feet of West and Hibbert, leaving Miami two choices: play two big men or slot Battier's minutes to Miller or Allen, a solution that allows them to remain small but also forces James to guard a big man.
Neither is an ideal solution long-term, even though Haslem magically discovered his midrange shot and Chris Andersen has been going Birdman on everyone for months. Miami's offense sings with an extra dose of shooting on the floor, but they'd prefer to inject that dosage without forcing LeBron to bang on the block for seven games.
The Pacers are gone; what happens now? Splitter is key again here. He has a tricky back-to-the-basket game, and though it's light on above-the-rim devastation, he'll lay a shoulder into a dude's chest if that gets him a step closer to the rim. Splitter's only a so-so offensive rebounder, and the Spurs have long punted offensive rebounding in order to get back on defense. If the Heat are confident Battier can handle Splitter — and I suspect they are — we'll likely see Battier reenter the rotation after working as LeBron's towel boy7 in Game 7 against the Pacers. Battier might also find the extra split second he needs to load up his 3-point shots, since the Spurs are not quite as long and speedy at the guard/wing positions as the Pacers.
Miller's earned another look with his recent shooting spree and general friskiness on defense,8 especially if Erik Spoelstra sees the finish line is close enough to grant LeBron more time guarding a big man. At the very least, the Heat should be ultra-comfortable going small whenever either Bonner or Diaw replaces one of the Duncan/Splitter combo.
The Spurs are versatile enough to respond in a variety of ways to whatever Miami does, and part of Gregg Popovich's job here is to find the right mix of responses. They can just stay big for 48 minutes; Splitter, Bonner, and Diaw should be fine hiding out on the least-threatening Miami perimeter player, just as West and Tyler Hansbrough did. They can also downsize and use Leonard as a small-ball power forward, and since the Heat typically offer two safe hiding places (their point guards and the Allen/Miller/Battier shooting spot), the Spurs can go small with both Parker and Gary Neal on the floor if they'd like — something that was trickier against Golden State in the second round. But such lineups have spent minimal time together; the promising Parker-Green-Ginobili-Leonard-Duncan group, for instance, is minus-33 over a paltry 75 minutes combined in the regular season and playoffs, per NBA.com.
The Spurs will go small. The key is how long they do it, how the lineups function, and whether the Spurs might even do so opportunistically, against Miami lineups featuring two big men. This'll be fun to watch.
Who Guards LeBron? And How?
Have fun, Kawhi. Leonard has played exactly one career game against LeBron, so we've no clue whether he's up for this. He has the tools, and he showed in that one game — in January of last season — that he can battle LeBron in the post and force him into some tricky shots. Green may also get a few chances since Leonard has to rest sometime, and the Spurs — absent a Tracy McGrady resurrection — have no true backup small forward.9
Leonard should be able to handle James without dramatic help, though the Spurs will send some swiping arms toward the post and occasionally overload the strong side against LeBron isolations:
But this is more about team versus team than Leonard versus LeBron. Simple high pick-and-rolls with James won't be good enough against the Spurs, just as they weren't against Indiana, even if Bosh can get all the pick-and-pop midrangers he likes. The Spurs on those plays will drop their big men back toward the paint, hoping to corral James before he gets to the basket:
LeBron has the tools to foil that strategy and get Duncan in foul trouble if he treats Duncan like Ian Mahinmi instead of Hibbert — that is, if he attacks the rim like a madman instead of worrying about getting his shot rejected. Duncan is a great defender and Splitter a good one, but they're not as big as Hibbert, and even Duncan doesn't protect the rim as well.10 LeBron should be in attack mode from the jump.
And the Heat can stymie that defense by rediscovering all the passing and cutting and misdirection and 3-point shooting that made their offense whir all season — a return to form that will be much easier if the Heat get back to small ball. They'll use some of the same sideline pick-and-rolls that hurt Indiana, and they can make Parker work by having Chalmers and Cole set picks for LeBron. Using LeBron as a screener is always a good idea, and in past meetings against the Spurs they have used the LeBron/Wade pick-and-roll — remember that? — to get some juicy switches.
Pace, Pace, Pace: Who Wins in Transition?
This is the one thing that jumps out from the head-to-head games between these teams: San Antonio is determined to find easy points in transition, and Parker especially has carte blanche to run his one-man fast break right at backpedaling defenders. Miami, for all its gifts, can get sloppy in transition defense. Wade is a chronic whiner, and that bad habit has rubbed off on LeBron. Chalmers will admire his shot now and then. You can get leak-outs against the Heat, and the Spurs will hunt for them. Green and Leonard know to sprint to the wings, and Ginobili is always looking to ease into a trailing 3-pointer.
The Spurs also love to run little stagger screens in transition for Ginobili, where two big men screen for him at once and then cut in different directions. "Those plays can be very tough to guard when one of the big men can pop out for 3-pointers," Bonner told me in Memphis last week.
Can the Heat Snuff Out Manu?
San Antonio's mad genius can catch a defense off-guard if he knows what's coming. He'll throw passes no one else tries, and he'll throw the standard ones a beat earlier or later than everyone else does. He's a savant, and the Spurs are a different team when he gets rolling.
Late-career Manu struggles to score consistently against top defenses, but he's shown this season, and especially in the playoffs, that he can still make an impact as a passer. If the Heat let Ginobili breathe up high on pick-and-rolls, he'll find ways to use Miami's aggression against them — including on this specific pass he's about to throw to George Hill (from an old Miami-Spurs game) in the corner:
Like any smart pick-and-roll ball handler, Ginobili knows that standard pick-and-roll defense these days calls for the man guarding the shooter in the weakside corner (Hill in this photo) to crash into the lane and bump the big guy rolling to the hoop. Ginobili is also better than just about everyone at passing to that open shooter very early in the play, so that the defender's momentum is still going toward the middle while the pass is in the air. Ginobili will have a harder time making this pass if the Heat either amp up their aggression on the trap, forcing him backward and putting arms in the passing lane, or abandon the trap and have their big men stay close to the screen-setter.
Regardless: Letting Ginobili pick them apart is the worst choice.
If we knew Wade and Bosh were at even 85 percent health, and that they'd stay there over the full series, this would be a confident call for Miami. The Spurs are fantastic, but the Heat have shown before that they can ramp up their athletic and coordinated fury to a level with which even the most polished teams cannot contend. They also have the world's greatest player. The Wade and Bosh we saw in Game 7 against Indiana would probably be enough.
But we don't know their health status, and we can't know it. Still, Miami has LeBron, home-court advantage, and a style of play that will challenge, and maybe even unnerve, San Antonio's secondary players. Heat in 6.