Run it back.
One year after we were treated to one of the best NBA Finals ever, we’re in for a second serving.
Last spring, the NBA’s two best teams in the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs met in a best-of-seven slugfest that went down to the final moments of the seventh and final game. The Spurs had the champagne on ice near the end of Game 6, only to have Ray Allen figuratively break the yellow tape being put up around the court by hitting a heartbreaking three to force Game 7. The Heat went on to win that Game 7, but it was within the Spurs' reach down to the final moments, when they were one Tim Duncan missed bunny away from changing what is now history.
Alas, the Heat emerged victorious and Duncan and his Spurs, the most winning NBA team of the last 15 years, went home with their first NBA Finals defeat in the Gregg Popovich era. After a year of dreaming of redemption, the Spurs get their second chance and we, as NBA fans, get to reap the benefits of another series between two teams with absolutely everything to play for.
The Spurs, namely the duo of Duncan and Popovich, get a chance to bookend their magnificent decade-and-a-half with a possible fifth title 15 years after their first in 1998-99. In doing so, both Timmy and Pop would further cement their respective places in NBA history among the most winningest coaches and players, while also solidifying the Spurs as the foremost dynasty of the aughts.
The Heat, on the other hand, are looking to be the sixth team ever to pull off the elusive three-peat (or more). While Duncan and Popovich look to write their final chapter, LeBron James can further the case for his story-to-date already belonging on the shelves with the best the game has ever seen, including you-know-who (as if it doesn’t already). The King has four MVP trophies, two NBA Finals MVPs, two championship rings, and what is about to be the fifth Finals appearance of his 11-year career. That’s already spectacular, but a potential third ring and another NBA Finals MVP before turning 30? That would be even earlier than he-who-shall-not-be-named racked up those accomplishments, in case you’re wondering.
There are no shortage of reasons as to why this series will be compelling. With both teams playing championship-caliber basketball, it’s almost impossible to say who has the edge. But that can’t stop us from trying.
Here are the keys to victory for both teams, and how our algorithms figure this thing will play out.
The Keys to Redemption for the Spurs
Key Question: How healthy is Tony Parker?
Tony Parker sat out the entire second half of the sixth and final game of the Western Conference Finals with Oklahoma City after re-aggravating an ankle injury from the first round against Dallas. While Coach Pop likes to joke that he’ll be out the rest of the playoffs (a jab at the Thunder over the whole Serge Ibaka season-ending injury that lasted two games), all reports point to Parker practicing and playing in Game 1 on Thursday.
The big question is, just how healthy is he and how effective can he be? Our algorithms only spit out a 1.66% drop in the Spurs odds to win this series without Parker at all (more on that at the bottom of this article). You can chalk that up to Pop’s world-renowned system, or to the Spurs’ unmatched depth (as evidenced by their 11-3 record without Parker this season), but there’s no denying that a healthy Parker is better for the Spurs than an unhealthy one. That’s especially true when you’re facing the two-time defending world champs.
Like most comparison points for this rematch, we have to look no further than last year’s NBA Finals for evidence. In the three Spurs wins, Parker averaged 17.7 points on 56.8% shooting from the floor and 50.0% from deep, to go with 6.3 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game. In the four losses, he still managed to put up 14.3 points and 6.5 assists per game, but he shot 32.3% from the floor, 20.0% from deep, and turned the ball over 2.5 times per contest. This year, he’s leading all playoff performers with 10.8 drives per game, and is converting on 51.0% of those opportunities. An effective Tony Parker, when he’s hitting his shots and creating scoring chances for his team with his drives, is a big key to the Spurs’ title chances.
Key Stat: The Spurs bench is averaging 42.7 points per game during the playoffs, compared to 26.5 for the Heat.
Depth could prove to be a huge deciding factor in this series. The Spurs are backed up well at every position, and consistently sustain production when their stars sit. The Heat Big Three of James (38.3), Dwyane Wade (34.7), and Chris Bosh (33.6) have all averaged more minutes per game in this playoffs than anyone on the Spurs (Duncan is their minutes leader at 32.6).
This has been possible because only one player on the entire Spurs roster has a negative net rating in these playoffs (Marco Belinelli at -4.6). That means that the Spurs have scored more points per 100 possessions than they have allowed when any player not named Marco has been on the floor this postseason.
Sixth-man Manu Ginobili leads the way, but Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and recent bench addition Tiago Splitter have all been major contributors this postseason. And even relative unknowns like Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes have made their mark. No matter who starts or who the matchup dictates should finish, the Spurs have a lot of options at their disposal.
Key Lineup: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter
By the end of the Western Conference Finals, Tiago Splitter had fallen out of the role of starter for the Spurs in favor of Matt Bonner, but mostly lost his minutes to Boris Diaw. Diaw has a bit of a history of being a good weapon defensively against LeBron, but there’s no denying how effective the Spurs are with Splitter on the floor in general.
Of the Spurs’ most used lineups this postseason, the deadly combination of Parker, Duncan, Splitter, Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard has the best offensive rating (120.8 points per 100 possessions), defensive rating (81.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), and net rating (39.5). Against this very Heat team in last year’s NBA Finals, that same lineup with Danny Green in place of Ginobili was their most effective, with a 19.3 net rating.
The combination of Duncan and Splitter packs the paint and protects the rim exceptionally, leaving James and Wade to live and die by their jump shots. With Kawhi’s elite perimeter defense (particularly on 'Bron) and the drive-happy Parker running the offense, this lineup is deadly on both ends. Finally, whichever of Ginobili and Green is hottest at the time provides the extra spark to light the Spurs’ fire.
Key X-Factor: Danny Green
Green was that famous Ray Allen three-pointer away from potentially winning an NBA Finals MVP trophy last year for his prolific shooting. He set the record for the most three-pointers ever hit by a single player in a seven-game series (27), and set the mark for the second-best percentage (55.1%). He hit 25 of his 38 attempts (65.7%) from long range over the first five games as the Spurs took a 3-2 lead in the series, but then dropped off to only hit 2 of 11 (18.2%) over the final two losses.
So far in this postseason, Green is up to his old tricks. He’s shooting 48.1% from deep over the first three rounds, and has a ridiculous effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 63.4%. For context, that’s a 7.2% jump from his regular season mark of 56.2%. Furthermore, he has an on-court net rating of 15.2 these playoffs, the best mark of any player averaging at least 20 minutes per contest, per NBA.com.
I discussed a few weeks ago how Green was becoming his generation’s "Big Shot" Robert Horry, and the Spurs will be looking for him to do just that in these NBA Finals. Horry’s sharpshooting was a big factor in the last two titles for the Spurs and Green’s could be a big factor in them getting this one.
The Keys to a Heat Three-Peat
Key Question: Who is this year’s Mike Miller?
Remember how Danny Green had the second-best three-point shooting percentage ever for a player in a seven-game series? Yeah, well, number one was Mike Miller from that same matchup (61.1%). He only took 22 shots in the series, but 18 of them were three-pointers, and he connected on 11 of them, resulting in an effective field goal percentage of 84.1% (!) for the series.
Even more interesting? In his 152 minutes of floor time, the Heat had a net rating of 17.3. When he was off the floor, they were at -10.8. It’s no secret that the Spurs pack the paint to keep LeBron and Wade out, but having a deadeye shooter for them to kick to in the corner has negated that strategy in the past.
In 2012, it was Shane Battier who got hot and helped the Big Three over the hump. In 2013, it was a combination of Mike Miller and Battier getting hot and bringing it home. With Miller gone and Battier averaging a playoff career low 14.1 minutes per game (with three DNPs on his game log this postseason to boot), who is going to step up and catch the ball when the star options of LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Allen are covered or cold?
Norris Cole has shot 42.4% from deep this postseason (up from a 34.5% regular season mark), and seems like he could start being that option. Rashard Lewis has been effective in spurts, as has James Jones. There might not be any one answer to this question, but there was definitely a player outside the Big Three who was huge in the two previous titles and it’ll be interesting to see if it takes that to win again this time around.
Key Stat: The Miami Heat have a net rating of 62.0 and an effective field goal percentage of 74.1% in clutch time this postseason.
Despite what you may have heard, LeBron James is one of the most clutch performers the league has to offer. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s got other notably clutch performers Bosh and Allen playing at his side in crunch time, either.
This postseason, LeBron and Wade are a combined 10 of 15 from the field and 3 of 6 from deep in the final five minutes of close games. The 62.0 net rating and 74.1% effective field goal percentage by the Heat in the clutch both set the pace among playoff teams and outdo the 23.5 and 46.9% by the Spurs. Those numbers, of course, are nothing to balk at, but the Heat have been practically unstoppable when the game’s been on the line. Seriously, they've outscored opponents by a rate of 62 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of close games this postseason (5-point differential or less). 62!
With these two teams being so evenly matched, this series could very well come down to who performs better in crunch time. For now, that edge seems to favor the Heat.
Key Lineup: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh
There have been three different starting lineups for the Heat this postseason, featuring three different starting power forwards to go with James, Wade, Bosh, and Mario Chalmers. Udonis Haslem has started six of the games (and got a DNP in three others) and his version of the lineup has had a net rating of -35.4 in 75 minutes of action. Not great.
Shane Battier, just like Haslem, has drawn six starts and three DNPs, and his version of the lineup has posted a net rating of -1.3 in 83 minutes. Better, of course, but still not ideal as a first line for a championship contender that has gone 12-3 so far this postseason.
For the last three starts, the Heat have dusted off Rashard Lewis, and now Coach Erik Spoelstra has found a lineup that is cooking. That iteration has a net rating of 31.3 in 59 minutes of floor time, as a result of an offensive rating of 117.3 and a defensive rating of 86.0 (both the tops of all three lineups). In terms of raw plus-minus, the Lewis lineup has been a +34, compared to -49 for the Haslem version and +1 for the Battier version.
Despite having two DNPs to his name as well this postseason, Lewis has responded well to his new role. He scored zero points in his first start, but was a +21 in raw plus-minus. Over the next two starts, he averaged 15.5 points per game, shot 52.4% from the field, and hit 9 of 16 attempts from long range.
Spoelstra could very well switch it up again this round, perhaps even opting for Chris “Birdman” Andersen (net rating of 26.8) if he gets healthy. Either way, Lewis leads the Heat with a 30.5 net rating during these playoffs, he spreads the floor more than Haslem (dragging one of the San Antonio bigs out of the paint), and the Heat have simply been better with him than Battier. The way Spo opts to use his power forward position could be a game changer in this series.
Key X-Factor: Mario Chalmers
Although Norris Cole was outplaying Chalmers early on in the Eastern Conference Finals, ‘Rio held down the starting point guard position. He got the lion’s share of the point guard minutes over the series’ final two contests, and will likely be a major factor in this NBA Finals rematch with the Spurs.
In last year’s NBA Finals, Chalmers averaged 10.6 points and hit 40.6% from long range (including 10 of 16 from the corners). But what made him most valuable was his defense on Tony Parker. According to SportVU’s player tracking data, in the two tilts between these two teams in the regular season, Chalmers was Parker’s primary defender. In that matchup, Chalmers held Parker to 9.2 drives per 36 minutes (down from 12.5), and helped lower his mark of 0.62 points per drive to 0.44.
In last year’s NBA Finals, Chalmers’ on-court defensive rating of 97.6 was second on the Heat only to Birdman (96.9), and was far from the team-worst 116.6 mark that Miami had when he was off the floor. Considering the fact that Parker is the driving force in the Spurs’ potent offense, the Heat will need to fire up Super Mario to be successful in this series and to fluster the less-than-100% Parker.
Here we are. Two powerhouse teams with large legacies to protect and add to face off for the second straight year on the NBA’s biggest stage. The Miami Heat have had the best offensive rating this postseason at 113.7, while the Spurs are second at 111.2. The best net rating belongs to San Antonio at 10.1 (due to their second-best defensive rating of 101.0), while the Heat are second at 8.3 (because of a higher 105.3 defensive rating). The Heat have paced all playoff teams with an effective field goal percentage of 56.1% and a true shooting percentage (weighted two, threes, and free throws) of 60.2%. Second place in those categories? The Spurs in both at 53.2% and 57.0% respectively.
Both sides have a fantastic coach (Pop, Spo), an all-time great (Duncan, James), a Hall-of-Fame sidekick (Parker, Wade), a powerful third banana (Ginobili, Bosh), a reason we should probably be saying Big Four (Leonard, Allen) and a full cast of interesting characters and x-factors (basically everyone else). Wade's season-long maintenance program seems to have paid off, and Pop spent a whole season masterfully managing the minutes of his aging vets for this very moment. Now, apart from a slight hiccup with Parker's ankle, we have both teams at full strength, ready to go.
By just about any account, these are the two best teams in the league, and they've both got the accolades to prove it. This thing could truly go either way, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone shocked by the results. We can safely say it’ll be a battle, but there are a myriad of factors that will eventually determine the victor. Either way, it’s en vogue to pick a side and, since I’m at a loss, I’ll leave it to our computers to make the call.
Our algorithms pick: Spurs to win at 57.63%
Odds-on scenario: Spurs win in 7 at 18.91%
Sure, let’s go with that.