When Knowledge Isn't Power (2014 NBA Finals Preview)

Here it goes. When the final four teams were locked down -- when the field had been whittled to the Thunder, the Spurs, the Heat, and the Pacers -- this was the match-up that Adam Silver probably wanted. Last year's finals were one of the highest rated since Jordan, and it got better as it went along -- Game 7's Nielsen score is second only to 2010's LAL/BOS Game 7 among post-Jordan NBA games. The Thunder are a fantastic story too, and a Heat/Thunder matchup probably would've had a similarly rated performance. But the potential for a grudge match rematch between the two teams that played one of the best NBA Finals series in the history of the league is undeniably exciting, and the Heat-chasing-a-threepeat angle is historically compelling. As Chris Bosh said in practice yesterday -- "Thursday is game #8." And it's #8 of the best series we've seen in decades. What's not to like?

But it's odd. There's a lot of history between these two teams now. The Spurs and the Heat have played 10 games in the last 12 months, and they're likely about to play 6 or 7 more. Both teams are similar to what they were last year, if not exactly the same. There's a lot of data to go on, and a lot of signals to read. The Spurs have been shutting down superstar offensive players in preparation for LeBron. The Heat have been filleting decent-to-great defenses for three rounds now with their precision offense. We know quite a bit more than we usually do in the run-up to the Finals. So... we should know roughly what's going to happen, right?

In theory, yep. But very few people are entirely sure how to handicap this series.

I'm afraid I'm not one of them.

• • •

Why am I so confused? Why is it so hard to prognosticate this?

Most people are excited about this series. I am too. But there was a smaller contingent of fans on Twitter that run against the grain. Despite last year's tour-de-force in the Finals, they weren't particularly excited to see this matchup. Their general point, in a word? There's nothing NEW here. A repeat of a phenomenal Finals is still a repeat. We don't get to think about what Kevin Durant does in a Harden-free finals environment. We don't get to whet our curiosities with Chris Paul's first deep run. We don't get to vomit into trashcans at the prospect of one more round of Indiana's misery.

Instead, we have the gift of reprise. The experiential comfort of the road once-traveled. But that gift is a nice way to spin a curse -- doomed to revisit, rethink, relive. Doomed to rehash the same tired storylines, over and over again. Spurs fans have spent the last 12 months reliving Ray Allen's three. They get two weeks to relive it in real-time, sure to be referenced in every single broadcast by the ESPN on ABC crew. The rest of the NBA has spent two months hearing about how the Heat and the Spurs are the model franchises, the NBA's golden ne'er-do-wrongs. Regardless of how the Finals plays out, fans will continue to hear that for yet another year. Because they're on top, and they're the NBA's class right now. Neither team features Lance Stephenson. It's not gonna go down like that. But some can't exactly shake the feeling that it's just a little bit TOO familiar. Too comfortable. Too tired. Fun statistic: there have been 15 editions of the NBA's championship series since 1999. Every single one of them has featured Duncan, Wade, or Kobe. Not a majority. Every single one. Isn't that a little trite? 

It all leaves the NBA's scribes (and the poor hobbyists like yours truly) scrambling to find some original angle. "The Spurs will need to run the baseline second stage quasi-hammer HORNS play off a scissor screen mirrored across the court twenty times with a side of fries if they want to score off the 17th inbound of the series." ... "For the Heat to win, it is essential that Rashard Lewis makes 3 shots in the series with only two of those being dunks. He also needs to defend Boris Diaw when Diaw puts his back to the basket, but if he shuffles his feet, the shuffle must be akin to the Electric Slide or else Diaw will score off a scoop layup with an ice cream cone." ... "Neither team can win the game if they don't reach this completely arbitrary sequence of statistics I've invented solely for the purposes of this easily-forgotten preview." We scrape and we pry and we squeeze for the last drops of narrative sustenance. We seek that smart silver bullet that solves the intractable equation of sport-borne randomness.

Which is basically all a run-around to avoid the fact that, for once, more data doesn't really mean we know much more than we did entering last year's Finals. Last year, we knew very little -- the Spurs and the Heat hadn't played a fully healthy matchup since 2011, and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. Some people figured the Heat would roll San Antonio. Others expected the opposite. Instead, what we got was a series where the momentum shifted tectonically with each individual game, and a series whose result offered an elegant proof of concept to the thought that NBA history can often hinge on a single high-leverage random event. The Spurs had a 98.5% chance of winning game six with 28 seconds left in the contest. They still lost it all. Did they lose it on Mike Miller's shoeless three? Did they lose it on Battier's massive one? LeBron's life raft? Or was it all that single bounce, that one unforgettable pass to history's greatest three point shooter?

Hell if I know. But I do know one thing. Last year's Finals shook my faith in the idea that the NBA can really be predicted. I came back around, and I'm back to believing in the confidence of my predictions. But I'm also having a monstrous time trying to handicap this particular series. Because we've been here before. And the stark probabilities and vagaries of the data didn't seem to mean much then, either.

• • •

Here's what we know.

The Heat can win the title. They feature the best basketball player in the world, a right-outside-his-athletic-prime LeBron James whose dominance spreads to all facets of the court. He can kill you on the block, he can kill you from three, he can turn his team to chalk, he can kill with lockdown D. (Much like my ability to kill you with terrible rhymes. Dewey, drop the beat!) He's a Swiss Army Knife with a beretta in the hilt, a force of nature more than an individual man. He's playing at his Cleveland team-dominant best. (And he needs it, given his cast right now, but that's for later.) Dwyane Wade is healthier than he was last year, and he's been better from long range this year than he was last year. San Antonio's success against a Miami team that was markedly better than they were last year was partly a function of Wade's inability to hit long range shots when the Spurs sagged off of him. It looks unlikely that will maintain to this year, not with his health and rest looking so much better than before. Which ups their chances significantly.

As for the team-centric thoughts, those are also simple. The Heat had an impressively easy road to the Finals, and they're as well-rested as they can possibly be. Their offense has blitzed through a decent Charlotte defense in Round #1 and a best-in-class Pacers defense in the conference finals. They know full well they can win in San Antonio, and the only reason the Spurs won a single game in Miami last year was a miracle-beyond-miracle shot by Tony Parker. Their bench is concerning, but it's hardly the end of the world -- Miami's starters can go longer than San Antonio's, and it looks likely they will. Even if their defense hasn't been great, it hasn't really needed to be. Their defense can kick it up to another level of swarming, blitzing brilliance. They'll have a shot to close it out in 6 games at home, something the Spurs didn't have last year. Cut no corners -- the Heat are an incredible team. They can do this.

Of course, the Spurs can win the title too. Even with Tony Parker's status questionable, it's worth reminding that Tony Parker was balky last year and -- by the end of the series -- essentially playing on one leg. He shot 26% on shots outside the paint in last year's Finals (... which includes the Game #1 prayer!), even though the Heat would occasionally sag off him to cover San Antonio's three point shooters. Parker's a much better shooter than he played like last year, and that gave Miami's defense a shot in the arm it needed to reach another level. As long as Parker can suit up, the Spurs should be roughly as good as last year. Kawhi Leonard's defense took a small step forward this year, and he took a decent stride in the right direction on offense. Tim Duncan looks exactly the same as last year (if not a tiny bit better, in a few important ways), and Manu Ginobili's renaissance is similar to Wade's on Miami's side -- Ginobili simply looks like he can hit shots this year he couldn't have possibly sniffed last year. He's worlds healthier, and the team as a whole looks spry and ready-to-play (with Parker's exception). It's a marked change from the usual injury-peppered Spurs team you see entering a series.

As for the broader context, the Spurs have much to like. The Spurs have run roughshod over an incredible gauntlet of Western teams. They're prepared for a dogfight, and they've brought the big guns. The Heat are worse in just about every statistical metric, and the Spurs have improved. They've tinkered with last year's formula and made a version ever-so-slightly superior, with better defense and better offense than they had last year and a team that's rolling to an incredible extent. Last year's Heat won 27 straight games and finished 7 games ahead of San Antonio -- this year's Spurs won 19 straight, finishing 8 games ahead of Miami. The script is sufficiently flipped. San Antonio has home court this time. Even though Miami has the best player in the series, an argument can be made that the Spurs have yet to face a team without one or two players better than all their guys in this year's playoffs. Dirk, Aldridge, Durant, Westbrook. It didn't matter, because the Spurs had an entire lineup of guys that were better than each of those teams' full lineups. And Kawhi Leonard's defense bridged the rest of that gap. If a team could possibly be ready to face LeBron James, it's the Spurs -- they have Kawhi, Boris, and the playbook to match him. The Spurs are hungry. They're determined to wash away last year's bad memories. Like the Heat, they can do this.

• • •

So, those are our potentialities. Summarized and hardly exhaustive, but potentialities all the same. I don't know which circumstances will rise above the others. I don't know which intangibles will prove decisive. Nobody does, and that make prognostication difficult. And potentially embarrassing. In 2013, you could boil the entire series down -- somewhat hilariously -- to the fact that Popovich defends late game threes with Diaw instead of Duncan. Usually, that's an impressively minor fact of life about Pop's coaching. The 2013 Finals hinged on an incredibly minor artifact of an all-time coach's playbook. A tiny speck of X's and O's minutiae doomed to eternal irrelevance were it not for that one pesky possession. Will this Finals be the same? I wonder. I can't stop wondering.

Will Miami's habit of forcing aggressive double teams lead to a wealth of open San Antonio shots in the cacophony of the AT&T center, unfairly dooming their aggressive traps to the dustbin of history? Will Kawhi's hawking of passing lanes lead to constant foul trouble against a tandem as good at contact-drawing as LeBron and Wade, unfairly dooming Kawhi's 2014 defensive season to a punchline in a single few-game sample? Will Marco Bellinelli's astonishingly terrible pick up lines throw LeBron off his game, fairly leading to a heel turn for Marco as Subway's new sponsor? Will James Jones break out his Darth Vader voice in crunch time, scaring the ball away from the basket on a clutch Manu Ginobili three, revealing himself to be a robot voiced by James Earl Jones?

I could see the Spurs win it quickly. They're statistically better to a vast extent, and they match up well with Miami. I could see the Heat win it quickly, overwhelming San Antonio with their well-rested length and a heaping helping of LeBron's magic. It could be exactly like last year -- a momentum-shifting war of attrition between two amazing teams. It could be quick, it could be long. It could hinge on a single play, it could be a lopsided sweep that reveals last season's classic as a quirky aberration. I see a vast expanse of possibility stretched out before us. We know more than usual, but the knowledge comes from a base so muddled and random and uncertain that it makes us even more cautious than we would be without it.

But I must pick something, so I'll pick with the heart.

Spurs in seven. Game eight is Thursday.

• • •

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