The NBA Finals can end Tuesday night, and should the Spurs beat the Heat in Game 6, or in a potential Game 7 Thursday night, it would be considered a big upset. Not because San Antonio is some Cinderella story, but because the Heat is considered an historically great team.
Sixty-six wins in the regular season, along with a 27-game winning streak, will produce such laurels.
But how much of an upset would it really be? Watching these games, you realize there’s not much of a difference between these teams. The Miami-Indiana series went seven games, but watching it, you could tell the Heat was the more dominant squad. The Pacers won mostly-close games. The Heat won mostly-blowouts.
Spurs-Heat is not a series of an underdog playing above its head. Spurs-Heat is a prizefight of two teams trading haymakers.
And even closer inspection of the numbers tells us that there’s not a big difference between these teams. The Heat went 66-16 in the regular season. The Spurs went 58-24. Eight games difference. But a couple of factors to consider. First, Gregg Popovich doesn’t go all out to win every game. He rests his starters frequently, as he famously did in Miami, of all places, back on Nov. 29, drawing a fine from the NBA. Erik Spoelstra countered when the Heat went to San Antonio, doing the same yet still winning. But such shenanigans really only affect a game or two in the standings.
What really makes 66 and 58 not so far apart is the schedule. San Antonio plays in the Western Conference. Miami plays in the East. Big, big difference. So big, it’s possible that these teams had virtually the same kind of success this year. But one played a schedule like Southern Cal plays. The other played a schedule like Kansas State plays.
Let’s analyze. Every NBA team plays two games a season against each of the teams in the other conference. So that’s 30 games each. That means the Heat and the Spurs played 58 games each that were identical to the other. Two each against every other team in the league.
That leaves 24 games each that are totally different. That’s not a lot of games to make up for an eight-game difference. But in this case, it does.
The West beat the East 262-188 in interconference play this season. That’s a 74-game edge. Thirty-seven games would have had to go the other way to lift the East level with the West. That’s 21/2 games per team. The average West team is 21/2 games better than the average East team. So we can use that to compare.
The Hawks won 44 games and played Miami four times. The Mavericks won 41 and played San Antonio four times. So we can call that even.
The Wizards won 29 games and played the Heat four times. The Hornets won 27 games and played the Spurs four times. So we can call that even.
The Netropolitans and Celtics combined to win 90 games and played the Heat seven times. The Jazz and Rockets combined to win 88 games and played the Spurs seven times. So we can call that a wash.
The Bucks and Cavaliers combined to win 62 games and played the Heat eight times. The Kings and Timberwolves combined to win 59 games and played the Spurs eight times. So that’s close.
The Raptors and Pistons combined to win 63 games and played the Heat six times. The Suns and Blazers combined to win 58 games and played the Spurs six times. So that’s even.
The Bulls and Pacers combined for 94 wins and played the Heat seven times. The Lakers and Warriors combined for 92 wins and played the Spurs seven times. So that’s close.
So now we’ve accounted for basically 74 games of each team’s schedule. The remaining eight games are the difference in what the Heat played against and what the Spurs played against.
The Heat played two games against the Knickerbockers (54 wins) that the Spurs did not, and the Spurs played two games against the Grizzlies (56 wins) that the Heat did not.
The Heat played two games against the 76ers (34 wins) that the Spurs did not, and the Spurs played two games against the Clippers (56 wins) that the Heat did not. Uh-oh.
The Heat played two games against the Bobcats (21 wins) that the Spurs did not, and the Spurs played two games against the Nuggets (57 wins) that the Heat did not. Wow.
The Heat played two games against the Magic (20 wins) that the Spurs did not, and the Spurs played two games against the Thunder (60 wins) that the Heat did not. Timberrrrrrrr!
So in those eight games that basically are the biggest difference in the schedule, the Heat played teams that combined for 129 wins against an East schedule. The Spurs played teams that combined for 229 wins against a West schedule. Counting the difference in scheduling, that’s a 110-win difference.
Here’s another way to look at it. Over 74 games, the Heat and Spurs played virtually identical schedules. Then the Spurs played eight extra games against an opponent the caliber of the Nuggets or the Grizzlies. The Heat played eight extra games against an opponent the caliber of the Pistons or the Raptors.
Give the Spurs the Heat’s eight games, and their victory total goes into the low 60s. Give the Heat the Spurs’ eight games, and Miami’s victory total drops into the low 60s.
Even adjusting for schedule, Miami had a slightly better performance. But only slightly. These teams are virtually even more than just in the NBA Finals. They were virtually even in the regular season. If San Antonio wins the NBA title, it’s an upset in perception only.