Thursday, June 5, 2014

Why the Heat Will Beat the Spurs in 6 Games or Less

San Antonio has had this mental image burning in their minds for the past year, repeating on an infinite loop like an annoying GIF:

It's motivated them to get through the West and secure home court advantage for the Finals. They're relatively healthy, and couldn't have prepared themselves better. Add that to the fact that Popovich knows how to neutralize LeBron (as much as he can be neutralized) by forcing him to take jumpers and frustrating him to the point where he doesn't even try to be aggressive and drive anymore, and the fact that Kawhi Leonard (or the less-athletic Boris Diaw, who does a decent job on LeBron bothering him with his size) is freakishly athletic and has the wingspan and energy to pester LeBron continuously, and you'd think that the Spurs should be favored in this series. Miami's tendency to only play to their potential when their backs are truly against the wall and the Spurs tendency to do everything right at all times and get production from even their worst role players bode very well for the Spurs.

However, here are 6 keys (assist to my good friend +Joshua Etzion) that will put the Heat over the top:

1. Wade has been well-rested all year and is now playing incredibly efficiently and well in these Playoffs. Last year, he was so hurt that his knee was being drained before most games and he had 8 hours of therapy per day; he was so bad that he wasn't in the crunch time lineup that gave the Heat the initial 4th quarter lead in Game 6, and Spoelstra gave him Greg Oden-esque minutes (obviously, a little exaggeration here). Wade, ever the fierce competitor, went so far as to tell Spoelstra, "Don't play me." Every time he's doubted, he gets back up and plays like his dominant self. This is the narrative I see for him in the Finals:

Manu Ginobili might have a similarly good Eurostep, but he sure isn't going to be a defensive threat to Wade. The Spurs don't have anyone who Wade can't totally dominate his match-up against. A healthy Wade shifts some attention away from LeBron and stifles Pop's game plan, opening up driving lanes and corner 3s for guys like Lewis and Allen. Healthy Dwyane = 4 rings.

2. Danny Green set the Finals record for 3 point shots made. If history or statistics are any indication, this isn't going to happen again. Without him providing that 60+% 3PT shot threat, the Heat can pack the paint more on Parker and Ginobili drives and concentrate more on Duncan and Splitter when they're in. Miami should be a better 3PT shooting team than San Antonio given that they boast a roster with all-time greats from behind the arc like Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen while having Chalmers, an improved Cole, and Battier. Even Wade has been hitting threes! And, I haven't seen that happening since his "talk to the hand" days pre-Big Three era.

3. Gary Neal was spelling a tired Parker and an underperforming Ginobili for most of the series last year. When the Heat should have otherwise been punishing the Spurs bench with those guys out, Neal was shooting a ridiculous percentage from behind the arc on Danny Green-esque levels. He was nailing absurd buzzer beaters and looked like an All-Star out there.

Gary Neal couldn't replicate this performance (see, Heat sweep of Spurs a few weeks ago) if he were still around, and neither will Marco Bellinelli in his stead. 
4. Duncan and Parker were other-worldly in last year's Finals, but won't be this year. Duncan had All-Star stats after the first half in a few games and dominated his match-up with Bosh. Bosh will take that personally this year and the Heat will do a much better job neutralizing the offensive threat that Duncan poses. When LeBron is on Parker, he should obviously have the edge in that match-up. This simply won't happen again. I fully expect Duncan and Parker to be great as they always are, but the performances they had last year just won't be replicated this year. If Parker's hamstring and ankle injuries haven't been exaggerated and are still nagging him, this could slow him down. Their best player is less healthy than Dwyane Wade is. Think about that for a second and if you ever could have envisioned that happening for these Finals after all Wade has been through with his knee.

5. Bosh has a new weapon in his arsenal. A great three point shot and a penchant for hitting it in the big moments. Miami don't need to rely on Shane Battier to stretch the floor and nail 7 threes (which obviously is unlikely to happen again). Miami doesn't need to rely on a shoeless Mike Miller (now Rashard Lewis) for a magical performance. Bosh's three point shot will help draw Duncan, Splitter, and/or Diaw out of the paint and stretch the floor such that Pop's plan to pack the paint against LeBron and Wade will be severely hampered. If they keep to their plan, which they probably will (Spurs can definitely stay disciplined), Bosh will have tons of wide open three point shots available to him. And he'll hit them at a clip above 40% I would bet. Bosh is going to have a big series after a few duds last year, and he's going to remind everyone who keeps calling the Big Three just Wade and James why he took his talents to South Beach.
6. The Spurs can't just pack the paint and dare LeBron to shoot jumpers. Not only will he ready for that and Spoelstra's game-plan already incorporate ways to get him loose, but he also just won't be surprised by it or made uncomfortable like he was early on in the series last year. LeBron shot ~80% on his jab-step jumpers from near the elbow. That simply wasn't the case last year, or against the Mavs in 2011. Daring him to shoot might be the best way to try neutralize him, but it won't succeed like it has in the past. His game has evolved and every team tries to do this against him now. Granted, the Spurs are way better at executing it, but LeBron's talent will just be too much to overcome.

Last year, you saw LeBron realize that if he took off his headband and focused completely and entirely on the task at hand, he could beat any odds. I expect him to bring that confidence and effort to this series, and truly have a career defining performance in these Finals a la 2006 Dwyane Wade. Miami understands the opportunity here, and the implications that losing would have for their legacy and for the team staying together for the next few years. Don't count on them blowing any more opportunities. 

Heat in 6. LeBron with 3 rings and a winning record in the Finals. Wade with four rings. Allen with three rings. Oden with more rings than Durant. Money in the bank for everyone who bet for the Heat to win this year at +190 odds.