This week: Digging into five key questions before the Heat and Spurs, tied at two games apiece, take the court for Game 5 of the Finals in San Antonio on Sunday night.
1. Who or what has been the most pleasant surprise of the series?
Ben Golliver: David Stern and Stu Jackson should fine anyone who doesn't pick Spurs guard Danny Green on this one. Green's NBA rags-to-riches story was already appealing entering the Finals, but his ability to seemingly hit every... single... shot that he's taken against the Heat has made his out-of-nowhere rise to Finals MVP candidate the irresistible feel-good story of the summer. Green is hitting an astonishing 50.5 percent of his threes in the postseason and he's shooting 19-for-28 (67.9 percent) from deep in the Finals. Those numbers are so high he could go oh-fer the rest of the series and his percentages still wouldn't have come back to Earth.
Green's reliable commitment on the defensive end has been overshadowed by his marksmanship, which is understandable, but it's worth noting that he's approached a variety of tough matchups throughout the postseason with great effort and technique. Finally, his ability to successfully navigate towards the mental middle ground between "I never thought I would be here in a million years" and "I'm not just happy to be here, we want to win a title" is just one more reason to show him some love.
Rob Mahoney: Green is the definitive pick here, but I've also been very impressed with Gary Neal's play of late. Neal isn't offering any production that could be considered out of character -- his 12-of-22 shooting from three is damn impressive, though representative of his greatest NBA appeal -- but also doing so while making good decisions across the board. Neal's shot selection can be horrendous at times, yet in this series, Neal has canned the bad attempts or at least saved them for the final, desperate moments at the end of the shot clock. He's making really smart passes that the regular-season-Neal wouldn't have made. His defense, which is regularly lacking, has been largely solid. He's hit his stride from the three-point line (54.5 percent in the Finals) after a tough shooting season (a career-low 35.5 percent), and with that shooting has helped Gregg Popovich to fill out big and small lineups alike. The Spurs have gotten all of the good from Neal with exceedingly little of the bad, which makes for a welcome surprise with a player who can so often shoot his way out of favor.
2. Who or what has been the biggest disappointment of the series?
Mahoney: Manu Ginobili is the easy call here, and I'll stick to the script. Tony Parker's hamstring strain has only heightened the importance of the Spurs' support playmakers, but in these Finals to date Ginobili has failed to produce all that much off the dribble. His shooting (34.5 percent overall, 18.8 percent from three) has been dreadful in part because he's having trouble getting anywhere off the bounce. Aside from the openings he creates by occasionally luring Heat defenders into biting on one of his pump fakes, Manu is having an incredibly hard time creating driving or passing lanes on a regular basis. As a result, he's settling more often than is usual of him or of any Spur, throwing overly ambitious passes even by his standards, and generally dragging down San Antonio's entire offense in the process. For some quantitative clarity: Per NBA Wowy, the Spurs have scored at a rate of just 92.2 points per 100 possessions in this series with Ginobil on the floor without Parker, compared to 111.0 points per 100 possessions in the Finals in general. That brutal dip has cost San Antonio dearly, and given Miami a chance to rally back on several occasions.
Golliver: The consensus among the media at the Finals is building quickly around Manu Ginobili, but I'll zag to all those who are zigging and say Tony Parker. Part of the disappointment here, obviously, has to do with Parker's strained hamstring. Any injury to a key player at this stage of the game -- in such a competitive Finals -- is a major bummer, in and of itself.
Past that, I'm not sure that we've seen Parker at the full force of his powers during this series, even in Game 1, where he hit a shot for the ages to clinch the road win. Am I being too hard on him? I don't think so -- just think back to his 37-point, 6-assist effort in the closeout win over the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals. His scoring and shooting numbers in the Finals -- 13.8 points on 43.4 percent shooting -- are well down from San Antonio's three previous series. Yes, major credit is due to Miami's defense and we must account for the impact of three straight blowouts throwing off the numbers a bit, but Parker hasn't yet hit the game-changing superhero status he flashed against both Memphis and Golden State. Here's hoping that the hamstring doesn't prevent him from getting there as the rest of the series unfolds.
3. What’s one adjustment you expect to see in Game 5?
Golliver: I expect the Spurs to tighten up on their perimeter passing and ball-handling. The turnover issue has been a major storyline throughout the Finals, with San Antonio vacillating between extraordinary and awful when it comes to taking care of the rock. The Heat are capable of jacking up the intensity level on defense at a moment's notice, and the Spurs seemed caught off guard and/or overwhelmed at times by Miami's relentless activity in Game 4. There were plenty of issues: slow crosscourt passes, rushed entry feeds, and frantic dribbling and shaky decision-making under ball pressure, to name three. San Antonio has prided itself for years on its discipline, and I expect to see a sharper performance from the Spurs in Game 5.
Mahoney: I expect Popovich and the Spurs to specifically address the pick-and-rolls between Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that wrapped up Game 4 as a win for the Heat. By moving both the location of the screen (from the three-point line to the elbow) and Bosh's ensuing action (from popping out for a jumper to rolling toward the rim), Miami was able to generate quick, efficient offense that was difficult for San Antonio to read and counter. The Heat will undoubtedly turn to that action again to get either Wade or Bosh going, perhaps as early as the first quarter. But it should be interesting to see what the Spurs defense shows in response -- be it a minor tweak in its existing coverage, a more deliberate switch, or a greater level of help from the perimeter.
4. Has anything happened in in the first four games that has made you second-guess your series prediction?
Mahoney: A great many things. I picked the Heat to win in seven, and though the series has again swayed to make that prediction viable, the reasoning behind my pick has been challenged at every turn. Simply: I expected LeBron James to have a more obviously dominant offensive series, a possibility which the Spurs have stemmed and countered even more effectively than I would have expected. San Antonio is an elite defensive team, but the way in which they've collapsed on James without surrendering too many openings to Miami's perimeter shooters is proof alone of their exceptional execution. Kawhi Leonard deserves credit for doing nice work as the initial line of defense on James, but the crowd of help defenders looming in the background of every James drive or post-up has at times made this look like a series the Spurs are destined to win.
The up-and-down play of Bosh and Wade is, of course, directly related to James' occasional difficulties in orchestrating Miami's offense. Yet a lesser -- or even a less flexible team -- wouldn't take such consistent advantage of the Heat's shortcomings as the Spurs have in these Finals, all of which facilitates their ability to hone in on James and deny him much of what he does best.
Golliver: Absolutely. This series has taken vicious pendulum swings after virtually every game. I had Spurs in six before the series started. After Game 1, I was feeling confident. After Game 2, it seemed conceivable that Miami had turned the tables enough to win in six. After Game 3, Spurs in five seemed like a legitimate possibility. After Game 4, Heat in seven seems like the safest best.
So much of that instability can be traced back to the Heat's up-and-down effort on defense and Wade's high highs and low lows. There isn't a team in the world that can beat Miami when the Big 3 play as well as they did in Game 4 (85 combined points, 30 combined rebounds, nine combined assists, three excellent individual defensive efforts) and I honestly didn't think that they would play that well in the Finals, given Wade's health and Bosh's inconsistency in the postseason. Now that they've done it, and have two or three more chances to do it again, it's hard not to re-assess -- a full 48 minutes of two-way excellence from a trio of All-Stars will make you second-guess picking against them real quick. Even still, the Heat remain a long way from home and a repeat showing from Wade is no guarantee. In other words, I won't totally abandon my original prediction just yet.
5. Who wins Game 5?
Golliver: As noted in the question directly above this one, making a reasonably certain pick (and sticking to it) is essentially impossible in this series. That said, I'm rooting for the Finals to go a full seven games, and a Spurs win in Game 5, given the homecourt advantage setup in the 2-3-2 format, would make it more likely that the two teams keep playing until Thursday. Both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker referred to Game 5 as a must-win on Saturday and while neither has played to their full capabilities so far against the Heat, I trust that both will show up with their A games on Sunday. I'll take San Antonio in a tight one. Mahoney: I have a sneaking suspicion that Miami will win consecutive games in a series for the first time since the start of the Eastern Conference finals. That said, it seems impossible to guess as to how any particular game might actually turn out; San Antonio and Miami have played to a draw overall, and yet three of the four games thus far have been turned on massive, blowout-style runs. It seems like Game 5 should be close, but with the way this series has gone, we shouldn't be surprised if a tight first half results in a 20-point win for either team. Either way, even the runaway wins in these Finals tend to provide a wonderful basketball product, which would be best served by this series going the distance.