Monday, June 17, 2013

Thoughts on Game 6, 2013 NBA Finals

So the 2012-13 NBA season has come to this: a Finals showdown in Miami between the Heat and perennial contenders, The San Antonio Spurs. Whoever wins will have to accomplish something out of the ordinary—at least from the past few weeks—in order to hoist the iconic Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

For the Spurs to win, I believe they will have to snap Miami’s perfect 7-0 record in the 2013 playoffs in games coming after a loss. Game 6 has to be Game 7 for the Spurs, so they have to win tomorrow night if they want to win the series; I just can’t seem them winning a Game 7 on the road (plenty of historical statistics to support that as well). And for the Miami Heat to win a second championship in a row, they will have to accomplish two unusual feats, along with one unprecedented one:

1) Win two games in a row, something they have not done in the past twelve games against the Spurs and the upstart Pacers
2) Break the Spurs respective undefeated 4-0 record in these playoffs in games after a loss, and—The Big And,
3) Become the first team to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals

Which team will break these trends to win the championship?

I’m going to go out on the proverbial limb and say the Spurs will win Game 6. It’s a gut call—more intuition than anything. The root of this prediction started for me after the Heat’s Game 5 when LeBron James said, “We’re going to see if we’re a better team than we were our first year together,” alluding to their Game 6 loss in the 2010-11 NBA Finals to the visiting Dallas Mavericks. The Dallas Mavericks, up until that Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Kidd/Jason Terry/Tyson Chandler-led team, were not exactly the team you would equate to having playoff grit—not like, say, the Gregg-Popovich-coached San Antonio Spurs of the past fifteen years. Will the Heat blow another two-game homestand at American Airlines Arena? I think “Yes” simply because—though this can hardly be quantified or measured—I just can’t help but think that the Spurs want this championship more than the Heat.

I see a lot of similarities between this Spurs team and the Mavericks that upset The Decision-built Miami Heat. That Mavs championship team was lead by a 32-year-old Nowitzki, a player slowly entering the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. His window to win a first championship was narrowing. Ditto for Jason Kidd who had reached the finals twice with those Nets team who were always overmatched by their Western Conference counterparts. But that 2011 Big D team also had Jason Terry, a dynamic shooting guard who had never whiffed championship air before joining Mark Cuban’s Mavs, and they also had Shawn Marion who had been on those great D’Antoni-coached 2004-2008 Phoenix Suns teams who were on the cusp of winning a championship. Between those four players alone, there was a grand collective desire to finally win a championship. That kind of emotion has a way of percolating through a locker room, further infecting and pushing the other players to win for their teammates as well as for themselves. (Just think of the Ravens Super Bowl run last season with Ray Lewis retiring.)

Now let’s zip back to the present series: Heat versus the Spurs. One of the predominant storylines of these finals has been Tim Duncan and Manu Ginoboli, stepping into the sunset of their careers. When the Spurs lost to the new young guns in the Western Conference last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Duncan seemed to think that was their last best chance to win it all. At 37, the greatest power forward to ever play the game is very much at the end of his career. Without a doubt, this will be his single greatest opportunity to win a final championship. You can probably say the same for the 35-year-old Ginoboli—and I think you could argue that this might also be the best championship-winning opportunity left for Tony Parker, who still has a few good years in his tank. But at thirty-one, without The Big Fundamental, without Obi-Wan Ginoboli, this might be the best chance he has left to win with the Spurs, the only NBA team he has ever played for. I think these three stellar, Hall-of-Fame-bound players know this. And their teammates know this.

Because of this, I just think the Spurs want this championship more than the Heat, which features a nucleus of players mostly retained from last year’s team. James, Wade, and Bosh—barring any trades—will have one final year left together before that team is likely blown up. Sure, they have urgency to win as well. LeBron has a legacy he’s playing for here. He does not want to be an un-Mike-like 1-3 in Finals appearances. But they should still have one crack at it next year while this is really probably fucking it for the Spurs.

Now think of the Spurs key role players: Gary Neal, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green. What do they have in common? None of them have won an NBA championship. In fact, there are only four players left from the 2006-07-championship Spurs team: Duncan, Ginoboli, Parker, and Matt Bonner (who lucked out and won on his first year with the Spurs). These players must want to win badly, too, especially Boris Diaw who I see in the Shawn Marion, 2011-Dallas-Mavs fold as that talented role player who played on some great teams that knocked on the championship door but never broke through. Diaw played 27 minutes in Game 5, the most he played since Game 1 of their series against the Warriors. Popovich essentially divvied the ineffective Tiago Splitter’s minutes between Diaw and Ginoboli in the last game, and I see no reason why he won’t try the same in Game 6 at Miami. Splitter & Duncan are no Hibbert & West hydra that can pummel the Heat’s small-ball lineups inside. (In fact, Splitter had a terrific series against the rugged Grizzlies but struggled mightily against the Warriors, who played similar small-ball lineups like the Heat in this series.) Even if he contributes less than double-digit points, I like the Spurs’ Diaw/Duncan line-up more than one with Splitter. The Spurs won’t shoot so well again in Game 6, but I can’t help but think that their offense will be more difficult to stop than one with Splitter in the middle. And remember, Diaw played on some very good Phoenix Suns teams that could almost lick the championship but never did. You know he wants this game badly, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops off and has a huge game. Ditto for Gary Neal, who is one of those wonderful undrafted players who will always play with a chip on his shoulder. Between Green, Neal, Diaw, and Leonard, I can see one, maybe two of those players having a significant impact on Game 6. And if Duncan, Ginoboli, and Parker play even a little off from their Game 5 performance, that just might be enough for them to steal a game in Miami—if they can limit their turnovers, which is a big question.

This deep into the playoffs, I think it comes down, more and more, to who wants it more. Popovich himself said it in his Game 5 postgame comments when he said, “At this point, it’s about competing. Players playing well, and people competing.” Who should know better than Popovich who has coached four championship teams and fifteen consecutive teams into the playoffs? Thus far, simply because he’s up 3-2 to Spoelstra, I think he’s winning the coaching battle. His small-ball lineup change in Game 5 might be one that the Heat—despite a second straight strong offensive performance from their Big Three (and Ray Allen)—will not be able to counter.

I see a Game 6 that will be similar to Game 1. The Spurs just have to keep it close for four quarters and I believe they will be able to outplay them in the final quarter for a fourth out of six games. But the beauty of these playoffs, as always, is the crapshoot element, so we’ll see if my gut is right.

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