SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
Who is the biggest X-factor in the 2014 NBA Finals?
Lee Jenkins: Tony Parker's sore left ankle. Early in last year's Finals against Miami, Parker appeared to be at full strength, and he often looked like the most dynamic player on the court. Mario Chalmers was unable to stay in front of him and the Heat had no elite rim protector to alter his many layups and teardrops. As the series wore on, his hamstring woes resurfaced, and Parker was reduced to a near afterthought in the last two games. As impressive as it was to see the Spurs outlast the Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals without Parker, they cannot win the championship that way. As Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have aged, Parker in his prime has become the Spurs centerpiece, and he is especially valuable against Miami. The Spurs need to feature him in this series, but to do that effectively, he'll have to be healthy.
Chris Ballard: Boris Diaw. It's hard to know what to make of Diaw. From one perspective, he's an overachiever. A not-so-svelte, not-so-athletic bench player who was the key to the Spurs' Game 6 win over the Thunder. Then again, you could also consider him an underachiever. Diaw has a high basketball IQ, the passing skills of a point guard, good defensive instincts and the ability to both post-up and hit threes. In an alternate reality, one where he stays in shape and plays with fire, Diaw might be an All-Star level player still putting up the occasional triple-doubles, as he did in Phoenix. If the Spurs get the motivated, confident Diaw - the one who doesn't pumpfake threes but fires immediately to provide good floor spacing, who attacks the basket on occasion, who initiates the offense - they'll have a chance to match the Heat's small-ball lineup. If Diaw is tentative, the Spurs could struggle without their big men on the floor. One good sign for San Antonio: the last time the two teams played, Diaw went for 16, 8 and 5.
Ben Golliver: Manu Ginobili. He was my selection as the X-factor for the Western Conference finals, and I see no reason to change now. Put simply, I don't think the Spurs can be beaten if Ginobili continues to perform at the level he displayed against the Thunder. Even at age 36, Ginobili found so many ways to influence games, whether it was knocking down clutch three-pointers, knifing through Oklahoma City's defense for layups, seeking opportunistic scoring opportunities in transition or simply running the show for the league's most potent bench unit. Ginobili averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from downtown against the Thunder, and the Heat will have their hands full containing him now that he's fully healthy and playing sharper ball than he did last year. Twelve months ago, there was plenty of talk about whether Ginobili should retire. These days, he's a sleeper pick for Finals MVP.
Rob Mahoney: Danny Green. Green's performance turned out to be something of a bellwether in last year's Finals, and the same could very well be true in this season's encore. To wit: Green averaged a triumphant 21 points per game on blistering percentages in San Antonio's three wins in 2013, yet was held to just 8.8 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting from the field in the Spurs' four losses. The fundamental difference was defensive attention; Miami was most effective in defending Green when locking in and denying him a high volume of three-point looks, though the full focus of Green's primary defender was tested by the whole of San Antonio's execution. The Heat will need to keep an eye on Green as he darts and reverses along the baseline this time around, all without losing their balance in repelling the Spurs' primary play actions.
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Matt Dollinger: Shane Battier. He's playing just 13.4 minutes per game this postseason, but Battier will play an important role for the Heat against the Spurs. Savvy and versatile enough to guard Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard or Tim Duncan, the 35-year-old will be thrust into a variety of roles against San Antonio, but no job may be bigger than his performance from behind the arc. With Mike Miller gone, Miami will need someone else to help space the floor in the Finals. Battier proved he's up to the challenge, hitting 9-of-12 three-pointers in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 Finals and shooting 46.7 percent from deep this postseason. Battier's contributions in this series might not be substantial, but they'll be significant.
Chris Johnson: Tony Parker. If the ankle injury that forced Parker to sit out the second half and overtime of the Spurs’ West-clinching win over Oklahoma City Saturday night lingers into the Finals, San Antonio will have a big problem on its hands. Parker’s ability to pass and score in equal measure is pivotal to everything San Antonio runs on offense. If he’s unable to go or hampered by the injury – something we saw in last year’s Finals with Parker’s hamstring – the Spurs will need to devise different ways to attack Miami’s defense. It is a testament to San Antonio’s depth that it was able to down the Thunder in OKC with Parker sitting on the bench, but that won’t work for six or seven games against Miami. The Spurs need their floor general at or close to full strength to deny the Heat a third consecutive championship.
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