For the second straight year, the same two teams will match up in the NBA Finals, as both Miami and San Antonio finished off their respective conference-finals opponents in six games. The Spurs and Heat are so evenly matched that it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to predict a winner.
After losing in devastating fashion in 2013, the Spurs have redeemed themselves by again advancing to the postseason’s final stage. With their remarkable regular-season winning streak, Tim Duncan still playing at a high level at his age and the general sentiment that San Antonio’s legacy during the careers of both the future Hall of Famer and head coach Gregg Popovich should be capped by a title makes for a compelling story line. But so does the opportunity for the Heat, making a fourth consecutive Finals appearance, to three-peat, with the individual brilliance of LeBron James continuing to burnish his credentials as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Miami’s athleticism, versatility and defense, while maybe not up to standards of previous seasons, has steadily improved throughout the playoffs, with various role players and secondary stars alike supporting James along the way. San Antonio, as always, excels due to its combination of precise ball movement, perimeter shooting, Duncan in the low post, the continued emergence of small forward Kawhi Leonard and the playmaking of All-Star point guard Tony Parker.
Parker, the Spurs’ best virtuoso talent, suffered an ankle injury that forced him to sit out the second half and overtime of Saturday night’s thrilling Game 6 win—making the feat even more remarkable—but according to reports, is expected to suit up in Thursday’s Game 1 of the Finals. If he’s limited at all, as was the case last year, it could be the difference in the series.
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The teams the finalists vanquished, Oklahoma City and Indiana, face significant questions heading into the offseason. While it was no shame to fall to the clear-cut best teams in the NBA, both the Pacers and Thunder are at relative crossroads.
It’s a bit more pronounced for the Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the East after stating so adamantly that they wanted home-court advantage against the Heat, following their Game 7 conference-finals loss in Miami a year ago. Indiana’s collapse in the second half of the regular season and playoff struggles against an underwhelming Atlanta team and playoff novices in Washington—not to mention various on and off-court drama, ranging from Roy Hibbert’s inconsistency and Lance Stephenson’s attempts to antagonize James, to midseason trades and rumors surrounding burgeoning superstar Paul George and other members of the team—have led to speculation that the tumultuous campaign will lead to personnel changes, though it’s already been reported that head coach Frank Vogel’s job is safe, despite all of the infighting and apparent lack of chemistry.
Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent and polarizing figure, but as much as he’s being presented as a scapegoat, the shooting guard’s passionate play, versatility and overall talent level could result in him staying in Indiana, under the watchful eye of Pacers president Larry Bird, and for a hefty sum, even if it’s a short-term deal for the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles. But the Pacers clearly have to upgrade their bench, add some speed to the roster, upgrade from George Hill at the starting point guard position and at least consider moving Hibbert, though his contract will make that difficult.
Oklahoma City could be in a similar spot of having to make changes, as it’s become painfully obvious that the All-Star duo of point guard Russell Westbrook and league MVP Kevin Durant, as talented as they are, aren’t enough to get the Thunder to the promised land. For all of the widespread criticism of Westbrook’s game, he performed in the playoffs, and Durant is the best scorer in basketball. But while observers point to the tandem’s occasional lack of cohesiveness, until they have a more representative supporting cast it’s difficult to fault their combined efforts.
Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s top shot-blocking threats, has improved as a scorer, young sixth man Reggie Jackson is a dynamic up-and-coming player and bruising rookie center Steven Adams could be a long-term answer in the middle, but it simply appears that Oklahoma City doesn’t have enough depth, especially when it comes to a wider variety of offensive threats, to achieve its ultimate goal. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has come under fire and while he probably doesn’t get enough credit for the development of the team’s core, helping shape the locker-room culture and giving his players freedom of the court, his in-game strategy and adjustments too often looked to be a step behind, and it’s possible that the team could be in need of a different leadership voice.
At the end of an eventful NBA season, the fact that the two teams in the Finals last year are back has to be disappointing for the Pacers, Thunder and other perceived title contenders entering the campaign, such as the Clippers and Bulls, regardless of the circumstances they faced. Although it can’t reasonably be argued that either the Spurs or Heat made major improvements—Marco Belinelli relocating from Chicago to San Antonio was the lone offseason acquisition of any significance between the two teams—the gap between the elite and the rest of the pack didn’t close.
But back to the Finals: San Antonio in seven games is the prediction here, if one has to be made, though with a caveat for Parker’s health. James, as great as he is, just has too much to do for the Heat to be successful and the Spurs’ team-oriented style is clicking at too high of a level, but with a pair of clubs that could be one day regarded as some of the most special groups of this era, perhaps it’s best to just sit back and watch should be a classic series.