Head vs Heart I: 2013 NBA Finals Preview

Posted on Wed 05 June 2013 in 2013 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

Hey, all. Aaron here. As most know, I am a San Antonio Spurs fan. Thus, I have a certain vested interest in these Finals, and a certain degree of faith in my heart that the Spurs can win it all. On the other hand, I am an NBA fan who watches untold hours of tape and tends to clinically divorce my heart from predictions, and I know how ridiculously good the Miami Heat are. I'm a statistician, after all -- Bayesian or not, I pride myself in my ability to separate my deeply-felt emotions from my handicapping and expectation-setting. Except, you know. Now. Spurs in the NBA finals? Against the dude that rocked Cleveland and infuriated an entire side of my family? Okay. Come on. There's no way I can keep that emotion out of my handicap. But I can keep it controlled. And thus, the series you see before you was born: Head vs Heart, a knock-down drag-out brawl between Aaron McGuire's better judgment and his undying faith in his favorite team. Game, set, match. Today? A Finals Preview. There will be a new head vs heart piece after every game of the NBA Finals, so those of you who just love split personality ramblings won't have to wait too long for more. Enjoy.

HEAD: Miami is going to win this series.

HEART: Starting off with the declarative prescriptions, huh? I wouldn't say that. There's no definitive statement of fact you can make about the winner of the series, and you know that. You know the Spurs have a chance. They wouldn't be here if they didn't.

HEAD: Fair. But that doesn't change the general outlook of the series -- the Heat are going to win it, and there's not a whole hell of a lot the Spurs can do to stop them. Barring a lot of luck and a few unexpected happenings, of course. The Heat are a historically great team whose choppy Eastern Conference Finals fooled many into thinking they were vulnerable. But we're often guilty in the media of overweighting our most recent evidence, whether that's "the last game" or "the last few games." And in the case of the Heat, we're letting the last few games completely outweigh what we've seen over the course of the season -- a historically elite team with a stellar supporting cast and the best player in the world.

HEART: It's not just the last few games. Come on. The Heat haven't had a particularly great postseason -- even though they dispatched Chicago in five, they submitted three positively awful efforts in the span of those five games, and they never deigned to break a sweat against the Milwaukee Bucks. They didn't look good in that first round series, even with it being a lopsided sweep. Conversely, the Spurs have had an excellent postseason -- they took care of business virtually instantaneously against a depleted Laker team and fought a phenomenal series against a phenomenal Warriors team. And then they swept a better team than Indiana. You can't just say "oh, wow, the Heat are historically elite" without acknowledging that the Spurs have played an extremely elite postseason as well. Or without acknowledging that the Spurs over the last three years have shown long, sustained flashes of being just as historically elite as this Heat team.

HEAD: I can. And I will, too.

• • •


HEAD: Alright. So we'll start with the assertion that the Heat haven't had a good postseason. Can't completely argue the point -- they haven't felt as incredibly dominant as they did during the regular season, and there's been a strange 2009 Cavaliers deja vu that's loomed over the proceedings. But I can't help but point out that they've completely obliterated the competition every time they've had a high leverage game or situation to contend with. Look at game two versus Chicago, with their backs against the wall and the possibility of going down 0-2 at home in the series. What did they do? Oh, nothing much -- just completely blow Chicago out of the water and destroy their hopes entirely.

HEART: Hey, cool! If you're going to use that awful, injured mess of a Bulls team as evidence, that means I can use San Antonio's sweep of a similarly beleaguered Lakers team to demonstrate that the Spurs can do the exact same thing if you put a horribly injured mess in front of them. Sure, they showed up in a high leverage situation. Good for them. And I'll give you this, too -- they showed up big in game three, game five, and game seven against the Pacers. I suppose we can overlook the fact that they didn't show up at all in games one, two, four, and six of that series, then, right? If you're going to pick and choose random games to selectively pick out evidence, I can do the same thing. And one could also point out that in order to get to the high leverage situations, they had to lose in the first place.

HEAD: Oh, come on. Calm your grits. My point has nothing to do with Chicago -- it has to do with Miami's postseason play. Sure, it's been lethargic and downright poor at times, but they've shown up big every single time they've had any element of danger. Or any high leverage situation. In the Finals, every moment is dangerous. Every situation is high leverage. Maybe if it was 2011 and the Heat hadn't yet collectively experienced a Finals series, I'd be more inclined to take your "every game means the same amount" pablum at face value. But I can't -- the Heat know how quickly a big-time series can turn when you drop a game you shouldn't or leave a lot on the table. And in this postseason, perhaps even more than last year, they've squelched every opponent's high leverage moment even as they take games off and show laziness in the aggregate. It may not be the greatest sign in the world, but if form holds going forward, the Heat are going to be locked in every night of the Finals. And that's big trouble for San Antonio.

HEART: Alright, I think I get you. Not a bad point. By that same token, though, this year's Spurs team has been totally obliterating the few high-leverage moments they've been faced with. Last year's Spurs did a similar thing to the 2011 Heat -- they dropped a winnable series that could've given them their first even-year finals in franchise history. The Thunder were great, but the Spurs COULD'VE won that series if they'd made fewer idiotic mistakes and focused more on executing their broader gameplan. This year, they haven't let any team get into the same sort of advantage that the Thunder had -- they stepped on the Grizzlies' throats in overtime, ripped control of the Golden State series out of Curry's hands as soon as they got to the Bay Area, and annihilated the Lakers as surgically and quickly as they could. If last year's Spurs team was locked in and crisp, they probably make the Finals. And then this is a Finals rematch. These are two ridiculously good teams with a decent amount of continuity from last year. Both have been shockingly good at high leverage situations in the postseason. I don't see how that's a huge advantage in Miami's favor without ignoring San Antonio's quality there as well.

• • •


HEART: Okay, this one's easy. The Spurs are the better defense.

HEAD: Nah. Heat.

HEART: What? How can you possibly say that?

HEAD: Leverage, talent, and two-year results. The Spurs had a reasonably excellent defense this year, on the edge of second in the league for most of the year. But they fell apart near the end of the season and fell to a deep third in the rankings. The Heat's defensive ability wasn't quite as evident this year, as they ranked out as ninth overall. But they retain virtually every piece from last year's defense, a defense that was rated fourth overall with a bullet. And it was a defense that -- you must remember -- shut down one of the best offensive runs of any team in league history from last year's Thunder. They've uncorked it a few times this postseason, and it's always been there for them to use. A tool in their toolbox, if you will. It's a defense that shuts down San Antonio's best play, too! The Heat have the best pick-and-roll defense in the league. It may not be the "better" defense in a vacuum, but last year's results would stand to reason that it's a bit better than they showed this year. And the fact that they match up perfectly against San Antonio's pet play would stand to reason that it'll be even better than it has been otherwise, which I think puts it over the top against a shakier-than-you-think Spurs defense.

HEART: Alright, look. Earlier I pointed out that they were similar units -- that's true, but they weren't equivalent! Last year's Heat isn't this year's Heat, and last year's Spurs aren't this year's Spurs. This year's Miami rotation is a far more offensive-minded unit -- Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen have made sure of that, bringing their late-career nonchalance on the defensive end and torpedoing their team schemes when they're on the court. As for the other side, the Spurs have enjoyed large defensive leaps from their younger players and throwback defensive seasons from their old dogs. Popovich has put together a brilliant scheme that grinds the life out of their opponents. These Spurs make a living grinding away at your bones. They were the third best team in overall defensive rating in the league for a reason, and that was despite playing a more offensive-minded spate of teams than the Miami Heat. Also: do you REALLY think the Spurs are just a pick and roll team? Miami is great at defending San Antonio's best play? Sweet. Good thing Gregg Popovich coaches the team, because the Spurs don't just do one thing well. They do a lot of things well, and the gradation between San Antonio's best play and San Antonio's worst play is hardly vast.

HEAD: Sure. But I think the fact that Miami's defense is specifically tuned to San Antonio's favorite action will have a larger impact than you think. And I can't get over the fact that San Antonio's defense looked so astonishingly worse in 2012 when confronted with an athletic team. The Heat are hyper-athletic. If their "weak" 2012 defense turned into a bloodbath when confronted with their first marginally athletic team, what's to say their "strong" 2013 defense won't turn weak when faced against a team like Miami? I think Miami has the defensive advantage, even if the statistics would seem to say otherwise.

• • •


HEAD: Foul trouble. It killed Indiana and it could ruin the Spurs as well -- San Antonio's depth has been overrated for years now, and this team exemplifies that. After their big four (Duncan, Parker, Splitter, Leonard) the Spurs have a lot of glorified roleplayers that function in very specific situations and skills. That's significantly easier to guard, and the more minutes their big players lose out to the roleplayers, the more Miami's defensive advantage is going to come into play and limit the roleplayers. Manu has fallen off, as has Diaw. If the Spurs can't play their big four 36-40 minutes a night apiece, I don't see how their offense retains enough unpredictability to put points on the board when Miami goes on their runs of stinginess.

HEART: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh performing like they did against the Pacers. Credit to Indiana -- their defensive gameplan was ridiculous, and their ability to keep Bosh and Wade tamped down did a lot to keep Miami at bay. That said? The Spurs have the personnel to throw a similarly strong defensive effort at Wade and Bosh -- as a defender, Danny Green's skillset was positively made to guard a player like Wade. Wade needs to step it up if he intends to redeem his as-of-late tepid postseason play. And Bosh should by all accounts kick San Antonio's butt on offense -- he'll stretch Duncan and Splitter to their limits and get Diaw off of LeBron at various points of the game. He needs to drain the open midrange jumpers he's going to get. Because if he doesn't, the Spurs are in a pretty great position -- LeBron can score 30 points a game, but if Bosh and Wade are combining for 15-20, the Heat are going to have a lot of trouble getting anything going offensively. And that would not bode well for them.

• • •

My predictions? Head says Heat in six. Heart says Spurs in six. On the other hand, nerves say "STOP CARING ABOUT BASKETBALL, THIS IS SO STRESSFUL, AAAAAAA." So there's that. Later today or tomorrow we'll have two or three more posts in our preview salvo; one will be a two-person "roundtable" between Dewey and myself, one will be an outline of the most intriguing matchups (and my projection of their efficacy), and one -- if we can put it together -- will be a weird freeform piece. ... Not that this split personality piece wasn't weird. It was pretty weird. Anyway. See you later, folks.