In light of Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury, these NBA playoffs now seem like a collision course for the Heat -- the presumed Eastern Conference champions -- and the Spurs -- the newfound Western Conference favorites. Both swept their first-round opponents and chart along playoff paths that should see them favored in every series before the Finals.
Miami, in particular, is as sure a pick as can be, and worthy of being penciled in for the championship round. San Antonio's road is a bit more challenging and significantly less certain, but the Spurs stand as the best remaining team in the Western Conference field.
Yet even as favorites, the Heat and Spurs still have much left to accomplish and to prove. Their play has invoked some lingering questions about where they stand against their potential opponents and how they might perform overall.
Questions For Spurs
Does San Antonio have enough supplementary playmaking to beat elite defenses?
This Spurs team has made enough strides defensively, developed enough internally and benefited enough from Tim Duncan's renaissance to rate as superior to the club that lost to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals last season. But the primary offensive flaw of the 2011-12 team still remains. Tony Parker and Duncan did marvelous work this season in their coordinated orchestration of one of the league's best offenses, but the Spurs become eminently beatable if either star is overwhelmed with thoughtful, aggressive coverage. Accomplishing that isn't as easy as it sounds; Parker and Duncan are unselfish enough to redirect the offense as needed and clever enough to evade hard traps.
Still, the blueprint for beating the Spurs begins with an attempt to unsettle those two (especially Parker), which puts more pressure on Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Parker's ability to draw traps and double teams should help a team that moves the ball so readily, but well-prepared opponents will close out hard on the Spurs' shooters and make them put the ball on the floor, testing Leonard's development, Danny Green's skill set and Ginobili's aging game. I don't suspect that will be much of a problem against Golden State, which looks to be out of its depth defensively in this second-round series. But the road to a title potentially would require San Antonio to beat two of the best defenses in the league consecutively, which could prove difficult considering its understandable reliance on Parker in particular.
How healthy are the Spurs?
Every player appeared to be healthy enough in the Spurs' first-round sweep, but to be fair, even the lame might seem physically well in comparison to the debilitated Lakers. We know that Ginobili (who had a hamstring injury late in the regular season) and Parker (who dealt with an ankle injury) are in good enough health to compete at a fairly high level, but we have yet to see either really challenged. With L.A. unable to exert much pressure in either matchup, Parker jogged his way to 22.3 points and 6.5 assists per game and Ginobili made a considerable impact in 19.5 minutes a game. How Parker deals with more aggressive defenses (as mentioned above) will obviously be key from a strategic standpoint, but it should also give some indication of how easily he can access his extra gear as an off-the-dribble scorer. San Antonio will need its All-Star point guard to be able to reach the height of his offensive powers all while being targeted and tested more consistently over the next few rounds.
Ginobili's prospects are even more uncertain, if only because a four-game sample size isn't enough to assuage all doubt. His first-round spark was undeniable, but Ginobili's contributions tend to get shaky when San Antonio's offense tightens up -- in part because the half-step he's lost with age and the limitations of lingering injuries take away his ability to explode toward the basket. Manu still has the basketball savoir-faire to succeed in most situations, but that general hindrance could play a significant role the rest of the way.
Is Tiago Splitter reliable enough to earn a trip to the NBA Finals?
San Antonio's best Duncan counterpart famously no-showed in the 2012 playoffs, and his 2013 postseason run is off to a rough start between an ankle sprain that caused him to miss Game 4 against the Lakers and underwhelming production (he's averaging 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes in three playoff games). Splitter's two-way contributions have played a big part in making the Spurs a more balanced team this season, but that unfortunate ankle injury and his track record of inconsistency leaves his potential performance as one of the bigger question marks facing San Antonio in these playoffs.
If all goes well, Splitter should help to shut down the Warriors' high-powered offense with his help D, could potentially wrestle one of Memphis' low-post threats in the conference finals and might provide essential basket protection against Miami's penetration in the championship round. But if he's sapped of his mobility or otherwise struggles, San Antonio could be in some immediate danger against Golden State. Splitter is that important to the performance of this Spurs team, and at the moment we have little way of knowing what he'll be able to contribute.
Questions For Heat
How is Dwyane Wade's health?
Wade missed Game 4 against Milwaukee with a bruised right knee, but he told reporters Monday that he will play Game 1 against Chicago. I wrote about Wade's importance to Miami's offense here.
Will Miami approach each series with the focus and intensity it deserves?
The Heat have become notorious for their ability to sleepwalk through regular-season games only to awaken on a whim, erasing double-digit deficits with but a few minutes of idyllic execution. It's for that very reason that no lead against Miami ever seems safe. But that tendency to trot through first halves against inferior competition could make for a more costly postseason mistake. The Heat are the prohibitive favorites -- against Chicago, against Indiana or New York and against any team that comes out of the West. But if they play like favorites, biding their time while their opponents build early leads, the Heat may soon cough up a game that could help to turn a series against them.
It's improbable, and we can still be confident that the Heat will come on strong at the end of any game regardless of what transpires in the first 24 minutes. But Miami took its time finding a groove in its first-round matchup with Milwaukee and could see that same slow-starting tendency become a problem against increasingly dangerous opponents. When they're locked in, the Heat can overwhelm any opponent with blistering scoring and lock down any foe with furious defensive pressure. But slightly lazier execution can start to create problems, particularly in a high-wire defensive system that requires five engaged participants at all times. One would fully expect the Heat to take on the focus necessary to dominate every series, but overconfidence could conceivably get the better of a team that has coasted through quarters all season long.
Could a stretch of cold shooting make the Heat vulnerable?
Miami is a team short on exploitable weakness, but the Heat's perimeter shooters have been oddly off their game so far in the postseason. Ray Allen, Chris Bosh and Norris Cole converted three-pointers at a reliable clip against the Bucks, but LeBron James (27.3 percent), Mario Chalmers (25 percent), Shane Battier (22.2 percent) and Mike Miller (14.3 percent) all struggled after shooting better than 40 percent from deep in the regular season. Milwaukee -- a perfectly competent defensive team -- deserves credit for making some of those attempts uncomfortable, but Battier and Miller, in particular, botched their fair share of wide-open, spot-up looks.
I'd be surprised if those marks didn't soon regress to the mean, as any shooter can fall victim to the occasional off game or two. But if those perimeter struggles continue -- especially those of Battier and Chalmers -- things could begin to tighten up for Miami's drive-and-kick offense. James and Wade are given room to operate off the dribble in part because of the respect that the Heat's shooters demand. If those threes aren't falling consistently, teams will gradually opt to apply more pressure on the interior in the hopes that the mounting misses inspire a crisis of confidence from Miami's perimeter marksmen. Chicago should make for an interesting first test in that regard.
Again: We have every reason to suspect that these struggles are temporary, and that Miami's three-point shooting numbers will rebound to more acceptable levels. If that's somehow not the case, though, the Heat could be in for a tougher-than-anticipated playoff run.
Will Miami utilize point guard-less lineups more often in this postseason?
Another turn of strategy that could prove interesting should Miami's role players fail to produce against Chicago's stifling defensive front. If Chalmers continues to fire blanks and Cole falls back into his typically unreliable mode, the Heat would likely be best served by going stretches in every game without a conventional point guard. Ball handling would be accounted for by James and Wade, and around them coach Erik Spoelstra would have his choice of Allen, Battier, Bosh and Udonis Haslem. Miami has experimented with such lineups over the last calendar year to mixed results, but those unconventional units remain among the most unsolvable options that the Heat have at their disposal. It's hard enough to account for all of the threats on the floor in Miami's impeccably spaced offense; adding in the inherent matchup advantages of slotting either Wade or James as a nominal point guard makes it even tougher. Whether the Heat can survive the way that those lineups stretch them out defensively is another matter entirely, and a lingering question we may only see answered if Chalmers and Cole underwhelm in the series to come.