I hope I'm wrong again. I hope beyond hope I'm wrong.
I don't think I've ever wanted the Spurs to win a series as much as this forthcoming series against the Heat. It would be such an amazing story of hard work, persistence, teamwork, unity and everything else sports should be about. If San Antonio wins this series, no matter what happens in future years, you could bury me the happiest sports fan on Earth.
Unfortunately, I don't see it happening. While watching the respective conference finals matchups, it was difficult not to fall in love with San Antonio's chances. But after taking a step back and analyzing everything, I truly think the Heat will win this series in five games.
1. The Spurs can't replicate the Pacers
It's true the Spurs are much better than the Pacers. It's also true that the Pacers were close to beating the Heat. Unfortunately, those two statements aren't related.
Playoff basketball is all about matchups. Indiana, even though they aren't that good, matchup very well with Miami.
First of all, Roy Hibbert is in a class of his own when it comes to protecting the basket. Advanced stats point in that direction and I wholeheartedly agree. He's tall, long, strongly built, fearless, smart and quick enough. While I'd classify Duncan as the superior all-around defender because he's better out on the court and better defending opposing post players, Hibbert is better than Duncan at defending the rim. Just as importantly, LeBron James was obviously intimidated by his presence.
Hibbert has about three inches and 50 pounds on Duncan. Add in the rest of the length and athleticism on the Pacers (as Frank Vogel said of his team: "We're f**king huge!") and they're a totally different beast than the Spurs.
Indiana also has a lot of interchangeable defenders, which further helps in terms of dealing with the Heat. The Spurs don't have that luxury.
On offense, the Pacers can hit the Heat in their two main weak spots. First, their offensive rebounding takes advantage of Miami's iffy work on the glass. Secondly, the ability to put multiple post-up threats on the court at the same time takes advantage of their lack of quality true bigman depth. The Spurs, on the other hand, don't go after offensive boards and they only have one tried and true post-up threat.
Long story short, the Pacers aren't very good but their areas of strength work very well against the Heat. Thus, the susceptibility of the Heat in the ECF was more a product of matchups than anything else.
2. The Heat's pick-and-roll defense will slow the Spurs' offense
The way Miami defends the pick-and-roll night in and night out is how the Thunder defended the pick-and-roll after the start of Game 3 in last season's WCF. They are going to blitz Tony Parker and force him to either play in a crowd or give the ball up. Most teams can't get away with this strategy but it works for the Heat (and worked for the Thunder) due to elite athleticism on the weakside when recovering to shooters.
Plus, Miami is even better at this style of defense than OKC because they do it so often. I expect them to blitz Parker relentlessly in an effort to make someone else beat them.
In the starting unit, there really isn't a pressure valve for TP. Can Danny Green or Tiago Splitter pop open and create plays after Parker gets trapped? Hopefully … but obviously far from certain.
The obvious solution for the Spurs would be to pair Parker and Ginobili as often as possible. Thus, when Parker gets trapped, he gives it to Ginobili so he can create with a 4-on-3 advantage. Again, hopefully that works, but at this stage of his career does the Argentine have the wherewithal and stamina to create consistently in a seven games series against an athletic and aggressive rotating defense?
Boris Diaw is another possible remedy … but will he be enough of a scoring threat for the Heat to respect his shot? If not, could Bonner come in and knock down the biggest shots of his life?
I just don't have confidence in any of these scenarios.
3. The Spurs will find it difficult to stay big
Having Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the court is preferred when going against this team. The Pacers were able to punish the Heat by keeping David West next to Hibbert.
But I don't think Pop is going to be able to go long stretches with that duo. On defense, Splitter would probably have to chase someone like Shane Battier or Mike Miller out on the perimeter. That'll be difficult -- but not impossible.
But the big difference between West and Splitter is on offense. West will absolutely punish smaller defenders. Battier, for example, had no chance against him. Splitter, on the other hand, really struggles to post-up smaller defenders. I don't think I have to remind Spurs fans how Derek Fisher was able to guard him in the post a year ago -- or Klay Thompson a couple weeks ago.
Is Splitter going to be able to destroy Battier? I haven't seen any evidence to be confident he will. Hell, I'm not sure he could bully Miller. Splitter has a high center of gravity and has trouble when short players use strength against him. He's actually better against bigger, less mobile defenders.
So, if Splitter can't make the Heat pay for going small by scoring in the post, it's unlikely having him roam around the perimeter chasing Battier or Miller on defense is going to be worth keeping him on the court. The result, IMO, will be Pop going more to Diaw, Bonner or small ball instead of the preferred tandem of TD and Splitter.
4. The Heat have been coasting
During the regular season, the Heat were one of the best teams I've ever seen. It's not much of a stretch to say this was one of the top 10 best regular seasons ever by any team. They've been a relative disappointment in the playoffs but I think they realized what we all knew: the East was terrible and getting to the Finals was a formality from the beginning.
Sure, they needed to try a little bit to put the Pacers away but I don't think they've even taken it out of first or second gear yet. They have a ton of room to improve entering this series -- and now that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I expect them to play by far their best basketball of the postseason.
As far as Wade and Bosh are concerned, I think they realized a LeBron-led team could make it to the Finals by himself. Where they injured? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but I think their struggles were more to do with coasting. In these Finals, I expect both at or near 100%.
5. Miami has the more trustworthy shooters
This series could very well come down to which team's role players are hitting their three-pointers. And looking at the respective resumes, it's difficult to not side with the Heat. They haven't shot well in the playoffs so far -- but let's not forget how well they shot in the Finals last year.
When the lights got bright, they seemingly couldn't miss. For example, take Battier. Like this season, Battier struggled in the Eastern Conference portion of the bracket in 2012. But come the Finals, he shot 57% from deep. His has hit less than one-fourth of his threes so far in these playoffs but I wouldn't be surprised if he snaps out of that slump in the Finals.
Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller … those are some of the players you'd most want taking pressure shots.
The Spurs on paper have very good shooters but is anyone really confident in Bonner in the Finals? How about Kawhi Leonard after spending so much of his energy on D? Green doesn't exactly have a sparkling resume in this department. Ginobili has been streaky -- to put it kindly. Neal? Yeah, no.
6. The Heat have LeBron James
More often than not, the winner of a playoff series is the team with the best player. LeBron James is that man. He's not only the best basketball player in the universe, he's a top five talent ever and he's in his absolute prime. Which players in history would you rather have on your team than 2013 LeBron? Personally, my list probably begins and ends with Michael Jordan.
I don't think I need to explain how great LeBron is right now. When the best athlete in the NBA is also the best passer in the league, the best finisher and now suddenly one of the best shooters, that's a recipe for a monster. Add in his experience and his newfound maturity and it's going to take a Herculean effort to beat his team four times in a series.
Don't get me wrong, Parker is damn good. I've called him the second most dominating player in the league when he's healthy. But there's a wide gulf between first and second on that list. Current LeBron is in that class of superstar that is impossible to stop regardless of defensive gameplan. Prime Jordan, Prime Duncan and Prime Shaq are three other examples.
Parker, for as great as he has become, lacks that final trait to move him up into that rarefied air. You can slow Parker if you make that your team's No. 1 objective. You can't slow LeBron. That will, unfortunately, prove to be a gigantic difference.
Again, I pray to all that is holy and/or mighty that I'm wrong. Against the Grizzlies I proved to be dead wrong about Parker (I thought he was hurt; turned out he had the best series of his life) and Splitter (I wasn't sold with his toughness in the middle; turned out toughness wasn't an issue at all -- he was great in that regard). Hopefully I'm wrong about a couple of the above items. I would be the happiest S.O.B. on the planet if I'm wrong again.
But if the series plays out like I suspect it to, I see Heat in five. Miami wins the first two games. Spurs win Game 3 after Pop replaces Green in the starting lineup with Ginobili. Heat win Game 4 in heartbreaking fashion (for us Spurs fans) and then close out S.A. in Game 5 with their whole team hitting on all cylinders at that point.
That's my honest view. Let's hope the actual result makes me look stupid again.