(1) Miami Heat vs. (2) San Antonio Spurs
After all the turmoil of injuries to stars and surprising runs from the Bulls, Warriors, and Pacers, to an extent, it all comes down to the previous champions, with the best record, versus the team with the third best record, and a few titles under their belt. Miami's offense is awe-inspiring at its best, while the Spurs are a deep, balanced team with multiple threats and superb passing at nearly every position. Both teams also play defense well and will make few mistakes. Ignore the uproar about "Stern's team" or any irregularities -- these are two elite teams with hall of fame players going head to head in the finals. Enjoy the great basketball.
What other factors are we ignoring? When judging team strength, you typically use the entire regular season. However, this is unwise in cases where the team made changes during the season. The most notable example is the Detroit Pistons after the Rasheed Wallace trade -- they improved in defensive rating by roughly 8 points and their point differential basically tripled (3.9 to 12.2.) The Heat also took off after a team change, signing Chris Anderson to shore up the frontcourt, although a major reason why they won 27 games in a row was how deadly they were in crunch time. However, before Chris Anderson the Heat were +5.3 in adjusted point differential, and +8.6 in the regular season after his signing. If you include the playoffs, this increases to 9.1. (Spurs are at 6.7) It's hard to differentiate what caused what because with Birdman in the regular season their defense became elite (around 102.6 efficiency), but in the playoffs it's their offense leading the way, although that's partly because I'm calculating an adjusted efficiency and the Heat are scoring well against elite defenses. But seeing Anderson as the catalyst misses the larger issue -- when Wade is healthy, the Heat are a historically strong team. Hence, his awful play versus Indiana can't be ignored, as well as his sudden reemergence in game seven.
Here's the basic reason to be afraid as a Miami Heat fan: the Spurs' defense isn't too far from Indiana's in overall strength, and they have a similar strategy of limiting three-pointers and conceding midrange jumpers. But they are a vastly superior offense with multiple deadly three-point threats, a sophisticated pass-heavy system, and a devastating pick and roll game with Tony Parker. But I don't think it's a simple one-to-one translation here -- Miami ran into difficulties because their weakness, defensive rebounding, played into Indiana's strength, and they had problems defending two strong, huge frontcourt players. David West in particular was problematic because it was a kink in the well-oiled machine: the Heat relied on a supercharged offense propelled by Batter as a strength 4, but Batter can't guard West while West is competent enough on the perimeter to "hide" on a non-scorer like Battier. Versus Diaw or Bonner, this is not an issue, and while Tiago Splitter will cause some problems he's not the same scorer as David West.
Going into the numbers further, the Pacers after Hibbert's wrist injury were a roughly 5 SRS team, while a matchup advantage because of their frontcourt may add another +1, roughly. This means the Heat currently are playing at a +6 SRS level (the sort of team that wins between 56 and 58 games.) The Spurs were slightly better, and with Miami's homecourt advantage this would mean the series is basically even, assuming Wade and Bosh don't improve.
But all the focus on how the Heat are doing is unfair to the Spurs. We've heard enough of Miami at this point, thanks for the streak and all the fanfare of the Heat-bandwagon. Tim Duncan played at defensive player of the year level, knowing exactly when to contest a shot inside, rarely leaving his feet even when blocking shots, and Kawhi Leonard gives them a capable big wing defender. In the modern NBA, defense is about more than having superior athletes or tall players; it's all about the schemes. The Spurs have rededicated themselves to this end and can control even great teams. Last season, they fell to the Thunder partly because they couldn't match with their athleticism, but with Wade's health in question and extended minutes for Ray Allen/Battier/Mike Miller's back this may not be a huge issue. Regardless, it's a team that can send out four elite shooters at once, two seven-footers in a frontcourt, deadly perimeter scoring from Parker and Ginobili, great playmaking from Duncan to Diaw, and one of the best coaches ever. This should not be an easy series.
Again, this all comes down to the health of Wade and Bosh. And Wade's injury is the nagging, painful type he can mostly manage. His great game 7 was probably more of an indicated he gut through pain when needed, rather than him being healed. In predicting a series with unknowns, it's best to split the difference.
Prediction: Heat in six.
What to watch for:
-Wade's health will decide the series. If he's healthy, it's Miami -- no contest. If he's completely unhealthy and never has a good game, the Heat could be crushed.
-Likewise, Bosh is playing on a bad ankle, and the Heat need his midrange jumpers and other contributions.
-Duncan had a season at an age that's nearly unprecedented. It's basically Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who have similar seasons. Winning a title now, which doesn't seem implausible with this matchup, would historically astounding: Duncan would have five titles, and he was arguably the best player on each team, and his career would be bookended by some amazing playoff runs.
-One important variable some may overlook: Wade is a great finals player. In 2011 versus Dallas, he put up better numbers than Nowitzki, and of course he has 2006 (even without the refs, he was great.)
-Boris Diaw is quietly one of the oddest players in NBA history. He was drafted as a small forward, found no success on a bad team, went to the seven seconds or less Suns and replaced an explosive Amare Stoudemire, found success as a center, became one of the greatest passing frontcourt players all-time, got traded to the Bobcats, lost his spot in the rotation of arguably the worst team ever, got traded to the Spurs, and helped lead them to the best record in the league. Now he's in the finals and will probably defend LeBron James a few possessions each game -- and he'll do it well.
-The Heat are overly-aggressive on defense guarding the ball, and have a tendency of giving up too many corner three's or other weakside shots. The Spurs are a fantastic passing team and one of the best at shooting from long-range. Keep track of this.
-LeBron needs consecutive titles for people who heavily value titles in all-time player rankings, while Duncan with another title would give him a longevity argument few have. With Wade getting worse and Duncan's age, their opportunities are dwindling in their current environments. This is an important title.