The Spurs and Heat stage the first repeat NBA Finals since 1998, starting tonight in San Antonio. The Spurs have every advantage except one. But it’s a big one.
Can the brilliance of LeBron James overcome the Spurs’ superiority elsewhere?
The Spurs have at their disposal what afflicts the Heat: interior strength. Miami is susceptible to quality big men, and Tim Duncan remains just that. Duncan averaged 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds a game in the 2013 NBA Finals, and Duncan hasn’t seemed to slow much, even at age 38. He averaged 17.8 points and 10.0 rebounds in the just-completed Western Conference Finals against the Thunder.
The Spurs also have a big wing defender in Kawhi Leonard, a player who can’t shut down LeBron James but certainly can fulfill Gregg Popovich’s mission: make LeBron work. That’s what Leonard did to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Not every team in the league has even a player that can be legitimately assigned to LeBron. The Spurs do.
Meanwhile, the Heat does NOT have the kind of player that makes the Spurs pay for using a defensively-deficient point guard. Both Tony Parker and backup Patty Mills can be consistently beaten off the dribble, as Westbrook and Reggie Jackson did repeatedly in the series and in the regular season. The Spurs’ team defense sufficiently made up for such holes, but the Thunder didn’t have enough outside shooting to make San Antonio pay. The Heat does have that outside shooting, but the Heat does not have a point guard who can undress Parker and/or Mills.
And the small lineup that Miami loves to employ isn’t as effective against San Antonio, because of the Spurs’ versatility. San Antonio can go small but also can stay big yet remain viably matched up, thanks to Boris Diaw, who can play inside and outside with some degree of effectiveness.
It’s an excellent matchup for San Antonio. Except, of course, that the Heat has LeBron, whose greatness on both ends of the court elevates Miami in virtually every element of the game. LeBron can and will guard the Spur giving the Heat the most trouble, be it Parker or Manu Ginobili or Danny Green or, I suppose, even Duncan himself.
LeBron’s offense will tax Leonard and Green and Boris Diaw and whoever else gets the awful task of having to guard him. LeBron’s defense will disrupt San Antonio’s offense. LeBron virtually willed the Heat to the title last year and could do it again.
But San Antonio is better this year, and Miami is not as good. It will take a Herculean performance from LeBron for the Heat to repeat. LeBron is capable, but let’s go with Spurs in six.