Factors that could tip NBA Finals 2013: San Antonio's size, Miami's shooting and more
What the upcoming NBA Finals lack in talk of rivalry and overblown storylines, they should more than make up for in outstanding basketball. Both Miami and San Antonio enter this stage of the postseason having overwhelmed their opponents with two-way execution, and over the next few weeks we'll have the incredible pleasure of watching both teams and coaching staffs attempt to pick one another apart.
In anticipation of that display, we've already previewed the series on the whole and broken down the series in roundtable format. But consider this a nuts-and-bolts companion, designed to highlight some of the micro-level factors that will play a part in crowning this season's NBA champion.
• Although the Spurs will hold a size advantage similar to what the Heat encountered in the Eastern Conference finals, San Antonio and Indiana's bigs function in entirely different ways. Tim Duncan is an outstanding defender both in the post and in help, so much so that one could argue he out-played Roy Hibbert on that end of the court in the regular season. But there's a stark difference between the two in the way they go about protecting the rim. Whereas Duncan tends to meet opponents slightly earlier on their drives and smother their shot attempts with length and technique, Hibbert doesn't bother stepping out so far away from the basket that he could be easily exposed, and as a result was frequently in position to step over to contest drives or simply hang around the hoop to discourage shots.
As good as Duncan is, his flat-footed defensive game just doesn't bring the same level of deterrence. He'll make life tough on Chris Bosh on his forays into the paint and will help plenty in forcing Miami's dribble penetrators away from preferred lanes and optimal angles -- perhaps to the point of neutralizing the off-the-dribble scoring of players like Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Just don't expect Duncan (or Tiago Splitter) to meet LeBron James at the apex of his shot attempts, nor make Dwyane Wade so shy around the rim. San Antonio excels in defending space, and in that regard they'll make it difficult for James, Wade and others to get precisely where they mean to go. But James and Wade are elite shot creators who play off one another brilliantly, and they have the means to challenge any defense that doesn't have a Hibbert-sized obelisk standing between them and the basket.
• Along those same lines: Splitter is no David West in terms of his ability to exploit undersized Heat defenders on post-ups and offensive rebounds. For that reason, lineups featuring either Shane Battier or Mike Miller in place of Udonis Haslem are now very much fair game, and we can rightly expect to see Erik Spoelstra employ fewer of the two-big units that accounted for a majority of Miami's lineups in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat will still have to be very aware of Splitter's work as a roll man, just as they'll need to stay trained to Matt Bonner on the perimeter and keep an eye out for the clever intermediate work of Boris Diaw. But ultimately, those are offensive elements that a smart, scrambling Miami defense can account for in coverage, whereas West and Hibbert both proved to be too physically imposing for the Heat's small-ball style.
On the basis of that titanic advantage in strength and size, West and Hibbert scored over a quarter of their combined points in their series with the Heat on second-chance opportunities. Miami runs no similar risk in these Finals, as San Antonio ranked 29th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage in the regular season. (In the playoffs, the Spurs have also grabbed the lowest percentage of their own misses among all teams that made it out of the first round.) Size matters, but only in context.
• A thing you will see in these NBA Finals: Diaw guarding James in a hilarious clash of body types. Gregg Popovich is short on options in terms of alternate James defenders when Kawhi Leonard goes to the bench, and for that reason entrusted Diaw to keep James out of the paint in one of their regular-season meetings. Danny Green will get his turn, but otherwise Diaw makes a bit more sense in covering James in comparison to the Spurs' other wing players, unfathomable as that might be.
• San Antonio does an outstanding job of cutting off its opponent's potential three-point attempts and chasing shooters inside the arc, but in their regular-season series with Miami, the Spurs allowed the Heat to shoot both more threes and convert a greater percentage (40.5 percent) than they typically allow. It need be said that those two regular-season meetings are riddled with caveats (neither featured both teams at full strength), but the mechanisms that Miami used to create many of those attempts seem fairly sustainable over the course of this series.
Some of the Heat's usual drive-and-kick routine should be made more complicated by the Spurs' consistent coverage, but there's only so much an opponent can do when Miami runs shooters opposite a hard drive from James or Wade. The two Heat stars did a fantastic job of goading the Spurs' perimeter defenders into a misstep before setting up a shooter on the move, and the coordination of that movement is just part of what makes Miami's offense tough to manage.
Miami also made a very concerted effort to push the pace off of makes and misses both, knowing full well that San Antonio isn't prone to the turnovers that typically satisfy Miami's fast-breaking appetite. Tony Parker boasts an unusual combination of hyper-aggressive driving and notably conservative passing, both of which are enabled by an offensive structure that suits his particular talents. It also helps that San Antonio's rotation is lined with fantastic passers, particularly among its bigs. The Heat knew this and thus worked quickly to create quasi-transition situations out of quick outlets on Spurs misses and hurried inbound passes off their makes. None of these situations were quite as dangerous as, say, LeBron storming toward the rim in the open court, but in many cases Miami created open looks from beyond the arc by way of attacking a San Antonio defense in flux.
• NBA fans tend to go gaga for one-on-one matchups between the best players on the court, and they will undoubtedly get their wish when Erik Spoelstra situationally slides James over to cover Parker. LeBron tends to draw the toughest defensive assignment in clutch situations regardless of the opponent's position, but in this case the precedent of binding Parker with length adds an extra appeal to the switch. Oklahoma City famously found success in covering Parker with the spindly Thabo Sefolosha a postseason ago, and James should be able to replicate some of that dynamic in short bursts.
Yet while all eyes remain fixed on Parker and James, I'll be interested to see what becomes of Leonard, who has done a terrific job in these playoffs of exploiting undersized defenders. Assuming Spoelstra assigns Wade to cover Green or Manu Ginobili when one of them is on the floor, the LeBron switch would pit either Chalmers or Cole against a long, 6-7 forward with an improving post game. Leonard didn't have much occasion to post up opponents this season, but according to Synergy Sports Technology, he converted 70.4 percent of his post-up shot attempts and returned 1.2 points per post-up play. His low usage from the block comes with good reason (Leonard doesn't have the strength or base to back down his positional equals with regularity), but those concerns don't much apply if the pipsqueaks of Miami's lineup are switched his way.