The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat are really getting the hang of this whole NBA Finals thing.
With the Spurs putting the Oklahoma City Thunder away in a classic Game 6 overtime, attention now turns to who has the edge in a Finals rematch that pits two legacies against one another once again. Both sides have made strides since the last go-around, but who’s come the furthest?
Recent evidence suggests a mix of conclusions.
The Miami Heat have seemingly waltzed through the postseason, sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats, taking the Brooklyn Nets in five games and finally dispatching the Indiana Pacers in a six-game series that was never as close as it looked.
The Spurs, meanwhile, have been tested. It took them seven games to get through the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. They faced a hungry, young team in the Portland Trail Blazers during the second round. And the Thunder pushed the Spurs six games, twice blowing them out at home and nearly pulling a third win out on Saturday night.
If you measure a team’s improvement by the ease with which it conquered the first three rounds of the playoffs, Miami is the better team right now.
If you give credence to the notion that adversity inspires growth, it’s hard to deny San Antonio has come a long way.
Remember, these Spurs lost to the Thunder four times during the regular season. Were it not for Serge Ibaka missing the first two games with a calf injury, it would have been hard to describe San Antonio as a favorite in that series.
When Ibaka did return in Game 3, a whole lot of momentum came with him. But for a 28-point Game 5 win, the Spurs might not have regained that momentum. It was a series of wild swings, the kind of series that could have exposed the Spurs as something less than a championship team.
Instead, it showed the Spurs have changed.
There’s a killer instinct now.
It was missing in 2012 when the Spurs allowed the Thunder back into the series after jumping out to a 2-0 lead. OKC rattled off four straight victories and sent the Spurs home after a dominant postseason stretch. Good as those Spurs were, they played without the desperation we’re seeing now.
That killer instinct was missing in last season’s NBA Finals, too. The Spurs controlled that series, 3-2, and were in position to take Game 6 until the waning seconds famously changed all that.
It’s hard to see the Spurs getting burned again. They’ve arguably been playing the best basketball in the world for the last three years. But they haven’t gotten the results, not like Miami has.
The adversity San Antonio has faced is cumulative. It’s not just about a rough postseason this time around. It’s the combined effect of twice coming up short after making deep runs. It’s the way in which they came up short, too.
Admittedly, though, it’s hard to measure things like motivation or inspiration. When you dig deep in your gut, you get a feeling for a team’s personality. But speculation about these Spurs’ collective identity is just that—guesswork.
Albeit educated guesswork. It doesn’t take a shrink to know Tim Duncan wants this like none other. He knows his opportunities to return are limited. At 38 years old, Duncan could retire any day now. He’s on a mission this time, trying to make the most of what could be his last chance.
More than motivational factors, there are also very real lessons learned. Those lessons sink in on account of failure, and the Spurs’ failures on the biggest of stages have engendered a year-long study session. These Spurs are better at closing teams out, better at executing down the stretch. They value possessions more. They take their time. They do the little things.
They do what it takes to win. For a team that’s long been more concerned with process than results, the results suddenly have renewed importance.
But even if you don’t buy into the intangibles, there’s at least one concrete reason to believe these Spurs have taken the next step.
The Supporting Cast
The Spurs aren’t leaning quite so heavily on Tony Parker this time around, and that may be especially key early on in this series. Parker didn’t return to Saturday night’s game in the second half due to a sore ankle. If that soreness doesn’t let up in the coming days, San Antonio might get off to a slow start.
It’s the kind of factor that would have doomed last season’s Spurs.
Parker was slowed by injury against the Heat last time, and it clearly cost San Antonio during the latter half of the series. This time, though, San Antonio’s rotation is better equipped to play without Parker. It did so for 14 games during the regular season. And it did so again during the second half of Game 6 against OKC.
While Miami’s core is on its game, San Antonio’s “others” are stepping up at an unprecedented rate.
Mills has been especially crucial. His performances were uneven against the Thunder, but he made contributions even when not scoring. Despite coming up empty in Game 6 from the field, he snatched three steals that helped keep the Spurs transition game flowing.
Belinelli averaged 11.4 points this season and gives the Spurs a deadeye shooter off the bench. He’s been in and out of the rotation during the postseason, but he figures to play a bigger role against Miami given his experience playing against the Heat as a Chicago Bull.
As always, San Antonio’s second unit is led by Manu Ginobili, who’s having a resurgent season by any metric. He was a non-factor in all but two games against the Heat during the 2013 run. His postseason was uninspiring, dotted with far too many single-digit scoring efforts.
But he’s flipped the script in 2014, looking every bit the world-class sixth man he was five years ago. He may be 36 now, but he’s playing with more vigor than we’ve seen in a while, averaging 15.2 points against the Thunder and 17.7 in the first round against Dallas.
When Manu’s three-point shot is falling, San Antonio is awfully tough to stop. But the even more encouraging sign is that he’s taking the ball to the basket more deliberately than before, finishing like he did in his prime.
Among San Antonio’s supporting cast, the real X-factor may be Boris Diaw. He averaged 13.2 points against OKC and dropped 26 in the decisive Game 6.
The problem for Miami is that it can’t know where the help is going to come from. It’s someone different every night, and that’s how it’s supposed to work with a truly ensemble effort. These role players succeed because of a system that puts them in position to succeed.
They’re all doing their jobs better than they did a season ago, and that could be the difference. This series won’t be won by LeBron James or Tony Parker, nor Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade.
It will be won by the Ginobilis and Ray Allens of the series, the guys who make timely clutch shots. It will be decided by Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen, the ones who do the lion’s share of the unsung dirty work.
That’s where San Antonio’s edge has grown most.
Speaking of Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio’s 22-year-old has really emerged this season as one of the league’s very best two-way players. He will be San Antonio’s best bet to keep a hand in LeBron’s face, but he’ll also have more responsibilities on the offensive end this time around.
He took 21 shots on Saturday night, his most by far of the entire postseason.
Leonard came on big toward the end of last season’s Finals, taking on increased responsibility as Parker faded from the series. He scored a combined 41 points in Games 6 and 7 of that series, leaving San Antonio a bittersweet hint of what was just around the corner.
The swingman’s game has developed nicely over the last season, yielding more improvement than anyone in Miami can boast. Leonard’s in-between game is significantly better. He now pulls up for mid-range jumpers without giving it a second thought. He drives to the hoop regularly, even showing off a nifty floater in the lane.
A season ago, Leonard wasn’t much more than a corner-three shooter with a penchant for scrapping for offensive rebounds and other hustle points.
Now, he has an increasingly polished scoring repertoire, the kind that will actually force James to work on both ends of the floor. Having an additional offensive threat on the wing to worry about could also deter head coach Erik Spoelstra from assigning James to guard Parker.
Leonard won’t score 20 points a game in this series, but he could quietly emerge as a difference maker. Spurs fans have waited for the day when he’d become more assertive with his game, and these playoffs have been something of a coming-out party in that regard.
The Spurs offense is more multidimensional now. And Miami’s job will be more difficult than it was this time last year.