Tuesday, June 4, 2013

2013 NBA Finals preview

By Rick Morris

You didn’t think that David Stern, master of choreographed reality, was going to go out as commissioner with an Indiana-San Antonio Finals, did you?

While on the surface the no-drama, small-market Spurs surely aren’t Stern’s idea of a “chosen team” like the Heat clearly are, it’s worth noting that the Duncan-LeBron Finals rematch of ’07 is the first time two stars with a legitimate chance to be rated in the Top Ten of all time have faced off for a second time on this stage since the Magic-Bird pairings of the 1980s – surely a fitting coda to Stern’s star-obsessed tenure atop the league.  What have been the next-best repeat pairings since those mid-‘80s clashes?  The list probably consists of Kobe/Garnett (2008, 2010), Wade/Dirk (2006, 2011), Jordan/Stockton & Malone (1997-98) and Magic/Isiah (1988-89).  And Duncan-LeBron clearly marks the greatest clash of resumes since Michael-Magic in ’91 – keeping in mind that MJ hadn’t won a championship yet and that last year’s Durant-LeBron matchup will loom larger in the years to come assuming that OKC’s megastar stays healthy.

For Duncan, who is on the back nine of one of the greatest careers in league history, the chance to dispatch LeBron a second time (in what would be a relatively big upset this time, a role reversal of ’07), may well cinch his place on the all-time hierarchy over his counterpart who has shined over him in terms of media accolades, Kobe Bryant.  Think about it: Garnett was probably the best player he ever faced in the Finals and he was only 1-1 against him (and Kobe lost two Finals while Duncan would remain unblemished).  For the egomaniacal Mamba, who was chasing Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) billing not too long ago, to be decisively eclipsed as the best player of his own generation would be a bitter pill to swallow.

As such, he’d probably take the tradeoff of rooting for LeBron and taking his chances on the leader of the “Heatles” running him down for GOAT billing one day.  Fortunately for Kobe, that outcome seems fairly likely.

Going inside the numbers:

^ The two teams are astoundingly evenly matched in PPG, with Miami at 102.9 and San Antonio at 103.  Miami’s defense is a bit better, as they have allowed 95 points per game, while the Spurs clock in at 96.6.

^ Everyone and their grandmother was pointing out how Indiana was a horrible matchup for Miami in terms of pounding them inside and indeed, the Pacers were the top team in the league this year at 45.9 RPG and the Heat was dead last at 38.6.  The Spurs rate at 41.3, so they are much less able to exploit Miami’s greatest vulnerability.  Strangely, the entire difference between the Finals teams comes from defensive rebounding, as the Heat are actually slightly better on the offensive end at 8.2-8.1.

^ San Antonio’s the league leader in assists per game at 25.1, but Miami is not too far behind at 23.

^ Free-throw shooting represents the other category with some degree of difference.  The Spurs are third in the league at 79.1%, while Miami is a mediocre 75.4%.

Of those factors, it’s hard to shake the notion that rebounding matters the most.  The Pacers showed what was possible against Miami with a vastly superior interior presence, but didn’t have enough consistent big-time firepower at this stage of their evolution to put the Heat away (only 94.7 PPG in the regular season).  Indiana only had four scorers above 9.5 PPG, while the supremely-balanced Spurs have seven.  At the same time, this is the first time during the San Antonio run of Finals appearances without a megastar, as Duncan has receded to “regular star” status since 2007 and probably even slots behind Tony Parker at that level.  San Antonio would be trying to replicate what only the 1989 Pistons, 1990 Pistons and 2004 Pistons have done in the “modern history” of the league – win the championship without such a megastar.  And fittingly, Detroit learned once again just how hard that was in 2005 – when they were deposed by an in-his-prime Duncan and the Spurs.  As a lifelong Cavs fan, I don’t anticipate the outcome I want, and I certainly hope that I’m bringing the “reverse jinx,” but the signs are all pointing in one inescapable direction.  Miami in six (11-3 record through the first three rounds).

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