The San Antonio Spurs are growing old gracefully. Dismissed as ancient after being easily manhandled by Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals a year ago, they swept the Memphis Grizzlies this time around. Now, with a best-of-seven appointment with the reigning champion Miami Heat in the NBA Finals beginning tonight, San Antonio has more cynics to slay. The Spurs are playing in their first NBA championship since 2007 against a team that put together the most dominant regular season since the 72-win Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.
“It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve been to this point,” said ageless Spurs center Tim Duncan. “We’ve been on the verge of getting here. We still feel we’re in contention but we can’t get over that hump. To get over that hump and get back into the Finals is just an amazing feeling, honestly. Nothing’s promised. Teams continue to change, teams continue to get better every year and we seem to make minimal changes and we continue to play and compete at a high level.”
Many figure the Heat will be crowned once again, but Miami isn’t taking the Spurs for granted.
“Obviously San Antonio has a system,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “Obviously they have certain players that’s featured in the system, that have been featured awhile, many years for them. That’s not a surprise. But that’s a hell of a team over there. We’re going to have to make adjustments every game, throughout the series. We’re going to see something different that we ain’t seen.”
Miami barely advanced by pulling out a grueling seven-game series over the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. But the Heat’s experience in tight situations gave them the chance to get out of the series with hopes of repeating.
“This is our third year advancing to the Finals,” Miami’s LeBron James said. “So we’re very experienced as well. We’re not young, we’re not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have.”
The Spurs understand as well. As Duncan and Manu Ginobili move closer to AARP eligibility, the window for more chances on the big stage is closing.
“It’s really hard to go to the Finals, to win a championship, and for me personally, I was 21 when I won my first one, and you think it’s easy and you’re going to go back every year,” Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. “In 2007, we won our third one in five years, and you think it’s going to keep coming, and I’m 25, and six years goes by, and every year it gets tougher and tougher.”
Parker, the 2007 Finals MVP, will try to lead the way. He was a legitimate MVP candidate until an injury forced him to miss 16 games. And he has picked up his level of play in the postseason. Parker may have to up the stakes even more. With James playing with more of an eye for scoring, the Heat have a distinct advantage on the wing and in the middle, where Chris Bosh will be matched up with Tiago Splitter.
The Heat’s Mario Chalmers hasn’t faced a point guard in the playoffs the caliber of Parker, who is aggressive in attacking the rim. Parker will try to get the Spurs off and running early and try to maintain the pace to avoid the Heat’s suffocating half-court defense.
“If we go all the way it’ll definitely be my favorite because it gets harder and harder,” Parker said.
Here’s a closer look at the matchups by position:
Tony Parker vs. Mario Chalmers: If the playoffs have proved anything it’s that Parker is the league’s premier point guard. His penetration and shooting are unstoppable – he’s increased his scoring average in the postseason by 3.3 points. He controls every aspect of the offense and is a matchup nightmare for the Heat. Chalmers’ play has been solid – he rarely commits turnovers – and he played well in Games Six and Seven against the Pacers. Edge: Parker.
Danny Green vs. Dwyane Wade: A sore knee has limited Wade’s effectiveness for the entire postseason. His explosiveness is nonexistent and he’s not getting to the rim, but he was able to reach down in Game Seven against Indiana to produce 21 points and nine boards. Green is a designated three-point shooter – he shot 47 percent in the Western Conference finals – and an occasional rebounder and defender. Edge: Wade.
Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James: With Wade hurting and Bosh ineffective, James has elevated his game by taking on more of the scoring load, much like he did during his days in Cleveland. The four-time MVP is playing the best basketball of his career. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about Leonard, who has increased his numbers across the board in the playoffs. He’s becoming one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, but he’s going to have his hands full with the King. Edge: James.
Tim Duncan vs. Udonis Haslem: While the offense flows through Parker, Duncan, who turned 37 last month, remains the Spurs’ first option come crunch time. Haslem will have his moments – he missed two shots in 18 attempts in Games Three and Five against Indiana – but his primary role is to defend and rebound. Edge: Duncan.
Tiago Splitter vs. Chris Bosh: The Spurs don’t run plays for Splitter and he’ll mainly be standing around the rim but he isn’t much of a rebounder. Still, he shot 68 percent from the field and will cause Bosh problems defensively. Speaking of Bosh, is he still on the Heat roster? He hasn’t scored in double figures since Game Three against Indiana. Edge: Bosh.
Miami’s Ray Allen blows hot and cold and he was mainly chilly in the Eastern finals. In some ways, Norris Cole is a better answer at point guard than Chalmers, while Chris “Birdman” Andersen brings energy off the glass. Shane Battier can still defend, but his jump shot is gone. As for the Spurs, age has caught up with the 35-year-old Ginobili, who shot just 40.7 percent in the series against Memphis. Perhaps the long layoff will rejuvenate the one-time pick-and-roll virtuoso. People forget that 240-pound Boris Diaw was once a point guard and remains a good passer from the high post. The Spurs need Gary Neal and Matt Bonner to drain a few more jumpers. Edge: Spurs.
Gregg Popovich vs. Erik Spoelstra: Spoelstra is in the Finals for the third consecutive season and seeks back-to-back championships. Popovich shoots for his fifth championship and his first since beating James and the Cavs in 2007. Pop could join Phil Jackson as the only coaches to win titles in three different decades. Edge: Popovich.
This will be a wildly competitive series. The growth of Leonard, Green and Splitter has helped reestablish the Spurs’ defensive identity, and the Heat have trouble keeping up with devastatingly quick guards like Parker. James is carrying the Heat, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, and Wade’s tenuous health tilts the series in San Antonio’s favor. Spurs in six.