Thursday, June 6, 2013

NBA Finals--Reluctant Edge To The Heat

Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs. What happens in the NBA Finals, which begin tonight in Miami? Handicapping this one means plowing through a maze of  X factors. Too many things can go either way. After weighing them all,  I pick the Heat, but with no great enthusiasm. A Spurs win wouldn't surprise me.

In gambling circles, Miami, which has home-court advantage, is a solid favorite in the series. In tonight's game, the Heat is a five-point favorite. During the season, Miami was perceived as a super team that would waltz through the playoffs. In the Finals, though, they have just a slight edge over the Spurs.

After being extended  to seven games by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Finals,, Miami looks quite mortal. A defense-oriented team with a so-so offense, Indy should have been duck soup for the Heat. But Miami's soft interior, weighed down by sub-par Chris Bosh performances, nearly spelled its doom. The Spurs, anchored by ageless Tim Duncan and speedy point-guard Tony Parker, is a tougher, better-balanced team, presenting a much more formidable challenge to Miami.

The Heat has to be worn out after that grueling Pacers series. Meanwhile, the Spurs have been relaxing for nine days since they polished off the Memphis Grizzlies. The rest should benefit banged-up Manu Ginobili and ancient center Tim Duncan. But so many times in this situation, rest equals rust. So for the Spurs, the extended vacation may not be a plus.

One way to look at the Finals is as a brains vs, brawn contest--the smarts of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich against the muscle and skills of Miami small forward LeBron James, the consensus  best player in the game. In the battle of smarts, the Heat's headman Erik Spoelstra is no match for Popovich. During a game Popovich can quickly manipulate players and set up schemes to the Spurs advantage. He's famous for exploiting a team's weaknesses and taking away their offensive strengths. But Popovich will have his hands full controlling James, who has the power and savvy to mount a team on his shoulders and rumble to victory.

How the Spurs fare will be partly a function of how well James is defended by small forward Kawhi Leonard. Though Leonard will have help, the lion's share of this critical assignment will fall on him. If he's ineffective or constantly limited by foul trouble, James will run wild.

Don't look to history for help in handicapping this series. They played each other twice this season, with the. Heat winning both times. Neither team, though, was at full strength during these games. The Spurs did face James once in the Finals, back in 2007, but that was when he was with Cleveland and his jump shot and his post game were a shadow of what they are now. The Spurs swept the Cavaliers then. Don't expect the Spurs to sweep the James team this time.

What about the benches?. The Heat can get a boost from Chris Anderson and Ray Allen, but the Spurs can bring in Ginobili, a starter-quality backup who scores well enough to change a game. Advantage, Spurs.

Who has the better defense? That's a tough call. In the Heat-Pacers series. Miami was dominated on the boards most of the time but, in that seventh game romp, ruled the offensive boards, rattled the Pacers into a flood of turnovers and cruised to victory. It was the kind of masterful defense the Heat played in 2011 and 2012. If they play that way consistently in this series, the Spurs won't have a chance.

On the other hand, look at what the Spurs did in their playoff series. They beat teams with radically different styles--the Warriors, known for their long-range bombing, and the Grizzlies, terrors of the interior. What Popovich did to the Grizzlies was particularly impressive. With double teams, he defused Memphis powerhouse Zach Randolph. Without Zach's scoring, the Grizzlies were wimps..

A major X factor in the NBA Finals is Dwyane Wade's bum knee, which limits his explosiveness and has dropped him, on the quality scale, a notch or two. You never know which Wade you're going to get. But you do know what you're going to get from the Spurs' Parker and Duncan--skilled, ferocious play.

Will high-class play by the Spurs stars be enough? Probably not. That's because LeBron will, no doubt, be in superman-mode. What happens if the Heat loses? That will mean that LeBron went to the Finals three times in a row and lost twice. That would kill him. In his head, he's measuring  himself against Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordon. In this situation, those two giants would never lose two out of three. Lebron won't let that happen either.