Can Manu Ginobili finally break through against the Heat defense? (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
We're just days away from the 2014 NBA Finals, and within it the elaborate, multifaceted matchup of stars and strategies that will decide the NBA title. Here are 10 subplots to watch for in what's sure to be a fascinating series between the Spurs and Heat:
1. Manu Ginobili goes back into the fire
Over the past year, Ginobili's playmaking wizardry has fizzled against Miami. He was a complete non-factor in the Spurs' two regular-season games against the Heat -- one a decisive win and the other a double-digit loss. He teetered into self-destruction during last year's Finals (the Spurs were outscored by 10.1 points per 100 possessions with Manu on the court) by throwing away passes and leaning into difficult shots. The daring that makes Manu so potent and unpredictable can at times trigger his undoing, and it would seem that the targeted pressure of the Heat defense is particularly effective in goading Ginobili to that end.
The playoffs, though, offer a rare opportunity for carefully formulated adjustment. Ginobili, single-minded competitor that he is, has surely stewed over the changes he could have made in last year's Finals. San Antonio's coaching staff has relived its heartbreaking losses as well to diagnose what went wrong and where the team can do better. Perhaps some countermeasure can be devised between the two parties, lest San Antonio's offense snag on Miami's traps for its lack of dependable ball handlers.
2. Fast, slow and everything in between
Despite their fast-breaking reputation, the Heat stand as the absolute slowest among this year's playoff teams and ranked a dawdling 27th in pace during the regular season. The Spurs, on the other hand, have played a much brisker style through both the regular season and the playoffs. Maintaining that pace helps San Antonio to work over even the most formidable defenses, but can that style be exercised in moderation as to curtail Miami's corresponding exploitation of tempo?
3. Spurs' daring defense
In last year's Finals, the Spurs created helpful defensive leverage by deserting Dwyane Wade on the perimeter and daring LeBron James to win games with his jump shot. Might Gregg Popovich again have his team do the same? If nothing else those choices in coverage provide a helpful mechanism for packing the paint when San Antonio's lineups run a bit smaller -- a likely development given the trends both in this year's Western Conference finals and in the championship series last year. Wade, in particular, is an interesting case; now that the Heat's secondary star is freely taking (and unexpectedly making) open three-pointers, I'm curious to see how the Spurs gauge his threat level and to what extent Wade will fire away.
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4. Miami's wacky wing rotation
Although Erik Spoelstra has been able to contort his lineups to ride the contributions of situationally effective players thus far, it would not be shocking to see the Heat's adaptive luck finally run out in these Finals. In a way, the Eastern Conference champions are a skeleton crew surrounded by question marks; beyond the core stars and a few reliable contributors, the Heat will need to mine some steady value from the likes of Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, James Jones and/or Michael Beasley. The danger therein is part of the reason why San Antonio is favored to win this series.
In the case that none of those wings can be counted on to knock down shots or play respectable defense, Spoelstra could be forced to trot out lineups that are either smaller (and more vulnerable on defense) or larger (and clunkier on offense) than is optimal. James, Wade and Chris Bosh are good enough to carry Miami through stretches in either alignment, though limiting the length and frequency of those occasions will be vital.
5. Tiago Splitter, earning his keep
The most memorable moment of Splitter's last Finals appearance came in this cameo, which shall forever live in infamy:
If only his misery in that Finals series were contained to that clip. More broadly, Splitter's helplessness on offense and short presence on the glass (he averaged just 4.7 boards per 36 minutes) posed consistent problems for the Spurs. By Game 5 Splitter had been removed from the starting lineup and in those three final games he played a grand total of just 22 minutes. San Antonio could hardly afford to keep him on the floor.
In falling into a Finals rematch, though, Splitter will have the rare opportunity to claim his sweet, sweet revenge. He is clearly a more useful and flexible offensive player than he was a year ago, and Splitter's ability to deny driving lanes and contest shots around the rim could prove invaluable in slowing down the Heat. To even have the right to showcase his defensive value, however, Splitter must first prove that he can stay on the floor without damaging San Antonio's flow and spacing.
Miami and San Antonio have both been ridiculously good so far in the 2014 playoffs. (Frederic J Brown/Getty Images)
6. The tension of mutual overperformance
To this point in the postseason, the Heat have managed to vault over three effective defenses while scoring at a ridiculously efficient rate (even relative to their league-leading standard), while the Spurs trumped the Western Conference field by holding opponents well below their respective scoring averages. When these two magnificently effective outfits collide, what gives?
7. Miami's defense at the point of attack
In the effort to limit San Antonio's fluid, propulsive offense, there is no single defensive responsibility more important than staying in front of Tony Parker. A variety of defenders will draw that assignment over the course of this series, though James may be the most interesting candidate on the board. LeBron did an outstanding job of controlling Parker with his length in critical stretches of last year's Finals. In the time since, though, James has had occasional difficulties in locking down opposing stars. Perhaps his size advantage (and Parker's ankle injury) will help James reestablish himself as a go-to on-ball defender. If not, Miami could find itself reliant on Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers -- who, in fairness, are quality defenders in their own right -- to handle one of the craftiest point guards in the game.
8. San Antonio's transition philosophy
The Spurs have generally foregone competing on the offensive glass for the sake of setting their transition defense, but the Heat are shaky enough in their rebounding to entice a philosophical shift. Last time around, Popovich selectively unleashed Kawhi Leonard (and in some cases, Tim Duncan) to pursue loose balls while the rest of the team retreated. It was that freedom that allowed Leonard alone to grab 10 percent of his team's missed shots when on the floor -- a much-needed mechanism for manufacturing additional scoring chances. Whether Leonard is afforded the same opportunity could come down to San Antonio's particular defensive matchups, though this kind of maneuver allows the Spurs to create a slight advantage by breaking away from a guiding defensive principle.
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9. Creative entry passing
Bosh's primary means of post defense in the matchup against Tim Duncan is the front -- a denial tactic intended to take away the easy pass into the post, resulting in either a tougher lob over the top or a rolling drain on the shot clock. That may work to a point, though San Antonio has the personnel and play style to open up more creative passing angles to establish Duncan. Whether they can access those angles consistently against a scrambling Heat defense is another matter entirely, and a potentially critical point of half-court conflict. Bear in mind that Duncan was the Spurs' high scorer (at 18.9 points per game) last these teams met. If Miami can somehow neutralize -- or even sufficiently complicate -- his ability to operate from the block, the Heat could swing ahead in this series.
10. Boris Diaw vs. LeBron James
This funhouse mirror matchup might be the most entertaining duel in the league. It's not quite tenable on an every-play basis from the Spurs' perspective, but periodically San Antonio will trot out the athletically outmatched Diaw to cover the best basketball player in the world. His success rate thus far has defied explanation, as Diaw manages to scoot laterally to wall off James' drives and bump him out of optimal post position with relative consistency. The next episode should be just as ridiculous and engaging as those prior.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
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