NBA Finals Preview

Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders tweeted this out last night. It’s from the first time Lebron and Duncan met in the Finals in 2007. Lebron was just 22 when the Cavs got stomped by the Spurs.

At this point everyone knows what is at stake for the players and coaches on both sides.  If Duncan and the Spurs win it will be their 5th title since Duncan joined the team.  Five titles puts Duncan on a list of only 25 other players with five or more rings.  If you cut out the non Hall of Fame players the list shrinks to 18.  A 5th title will also move Duncan into a tie with Kobe Bryant for the player with the most rings in the post Jordan era.  For legacy purposes that 5th ring should lock up “best player of his era” for Duncan when you consider his two MVP regular season MVP awards and three Finals MVP awards.

For Lebron a win brings him halfway home to catching Jordan at age 29.  And since it doesn’t look like Lebron is going take a break and give the NHL a shot he’s got a very realistic chance of catching Jordan and being in the argument as the best player of all time.  A loss to the Spurs probably ends the Jordan Lebron debate for the time being since Lebron would be without a 3-peat.  A Heat win would also put Dwyane Wade in rare air, being one of only 37 players with at least four titles.  Maybe most importantly though a Heat win will also assure us of another moment from Chris Bosh like the one below.

After nerding out, trying to remember specifics from last year, looking at the numbers, and talking to NBA super fan Judi Dench I came to the following conclusion; I believe the Spurs win in six games, and here is why.

Miami Was A Much Better Rebounding Team In 2013

Everyone that watched the Finals last year remembers Lebron’s 3-pointer followed by Ray Allen’s 3 pointer that sent Game 6 into overtime.  Everyone also remember’s discussing Popovich’s decision to sit Duncan during the those two crucial sequences.  Both times before James and Allen hit their shots the Heat collected an offensive rebound to give the team another shot to stay alive.  Ray Allen’s incredible shot doesn’t happen if Chris Bosh isn’t down on the block fighting for the offensive rebound.  This season though Bosh and his game have floated further away from the basket.

During the regular season Bosh averaged a career low 1.2 offensive rebounds per game and a career low 6.6 rebounds per game.  In the playoffs his rebounding numbers have dipped even lower to a 5.7 per game average.  His rebounding percentage has remained the same the past two years, 12.7 in 2012/2013 and 12.8 in 2013/2014, but if the Heat are in need a basket late in a game this time around Bosh is more likely to be standing in the corner (like he was at the end of Game 5 against the Pacers this year) instead of down low fighting for a rebound in case there is a miss.  Since Bosh has drifted further away from the paint it led to Lebron leading the team in rebounds this year with a 6.9 per game average, and a 6.8 per game average in the playoffs.  The trouble for the Heat is if Lebron is initiating the offense, and possibly being expected to take the shot he can’t also be in position to fight for the rebound, unless he grows a third arm in the next 18 hours.

The lack of rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, can’t all be blamed on Bosh.  The Heat as a whole are worse rebounding team this year.  Last post season the Heat averaged 9.6 offensive boards per game.  This year that number is down to 6.1 in the post season.  The Heat have actually shot slightly better during these playoffs, which of course leads to fewer offensive rebound opportunities, but the advanced stats also point to the Heat being a less proficient rebounding team this year.

Playoffs OREB% (Rank) DREB (Rank) REB% (Rank)
2013 25.2% (7th) 71.1% (14th) 49.4% (11th)
2014 17.6% (16th) 74.7% (9th) 47.6% (13th)

The Heat’s rebounding numbers on the defensive end have actually been better these playoffs.  That might be a bit misleading though after going against Al Jefferson on one foot, a Nets team whose leading rebounder was Garnett with a 4.8 per game average in the playoffs, and the Pacers Roy Hibbert who inexplicably starting playing like his talents were stolen by the MonStars of Space Jame.  During the regular season this year the Heat ranked 29th in OREB%, 24th in DREB%, and 27th in REB%.

The Emergence Of Tiago Splitter

Last year Splitter was a part of the Spurs’ rotation, and he was exceptional on the defensive end in the regular season earning a 96.1 DefRtg, which ranked first among Spurs regulars.  This season was much of the same and Splitter again ranked as the best Spurs defender with a 94.5 DefRtg.  Where Splitter’s game has improved, during the playoffs, is on the offensive end and crashing the boards (I know again with the rebounds).  Last year in the playoffs Splitter didn’t have where he collected more than 6 rebounds or and only had three games where he scored more than 10 points.  So far this year in the playoffs Splitter has had 9 games of at least 8 rebounds despite playing roughly the same number of minutes as last year.  In the first round of the playoffs against Dallas Splitter had three double-doubles against the Mavericks with games of 14 pts &13 reb, 17 pts & 12 reb, and 10 pts & 12 reb.  Splitter was much less effective against the Thunder and Blazers, but those two teams also ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in opponent FG% in the restricted area during the regular season.  The Heat’s defensive presence in the paint shades closer to the Mavericks than it does to the Thunder or Blazers.  Unfortunately for the Heat Anderson, Bosh, and Haslem are not the same caliber of defender as Ibaka or Robin Lopez.  The Spurs aren’t really the type of team that is going continually pound the ball down low, but we may see more of that this time around since the Heat look more susceptible to giving up points around the rim.  The Spurs don’t have an Ibaka type to contend with, which may lead to more of Duncan and Splitter on the floor together as was the norm during the regular season.

Wear And Tear

This is the fourth trip in a row to the Finals for the Heat.  Even if they don’t beat the Spurs, making four title appearances in a row is impressive.  Unfortunately with all the success comes more damage to the body.  Since joining the Heat Lebron has played in 376 regular season games, and once the ball is tipped tonight he’ll be playing in his 83 playoff game as a member of the Heat.  That’s five seasons crammed into four years.  Even with the lockout shortened season that is still a lot of basketball.  The pounding Lebron has taken may not have an effect on him.  He isn’t human after all.  At the same time the Heat did do a better job managing Wade’s minutes this year and he has been significantly better this year than last year in the playoffs.

2013 35.5 6.5 14.3 0.457 6.5 14.1 46.0% 0 0.2 25.0% 2.7 3.6 75.0% 4.6 4.8 1.7 1 2.6 2 15.9
2014 34.7 7.4 14.3 0.519 6.9 13.1 53.1% 0.5 1.2 38.9% 3.4 4.3 79.7% 3.9 4.3 1.5 0.3 2.4 2.7 18.7

Now that I think about it, this probably won’t have a huge effect on the Heat.  They need four more wins this year to win another title.  As beaten up as they all are I’m sure they can get up for a max seven more games.

Final Thought

When the Finals ended last season I think every fan could have watched the Spurs and Heat battle it out for another seven games.  It’s great theater to watch the the best team take on the best player.  In reality though the Heat are also a really good team.  They can whip the ball around as well till someone has an open shot.

After the Finals ended we watched another off-season that saw major dollars shelled out to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and Al Jefferson.  We saw the Warriors make a trade to land Andre Iguodala and the Nets bring in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.  We watched another 82 game season that led to discussions about whether or not the Pacers had enough to beat the Heat and if Durant could finally get over the hump title hump.  We saw the Knicks fall down an endless elevator shaft, giving us moments like this one from Andrea Bargnani.  We witnessed the Blazers return to relevance culminating in a memorable shot from Damian Lillard.  There was the very forgettable Slam Dunk Contest, Glen Davis’ Godzilla moment, and Kevin Durant’s incredibly authentic MVP acceptance speech.  And now after an excellent playoffs (that were condensed thank god) here we are again watching the Heat and Spurs battle it out for NBA supremacy.

While thinking about how funny it is that despite so many players changing teams, dollars being spent, and words being said and written that nothing has really changed in the NBA I was reminded of one of the better West Wing episodes called “Midterms.”  Upon hearing that the House of Representatives stayed exactly the same Josh says to some of the other White House staff members, “After four months and 400 million dollars everything stayed the same?  Tell me democracy doesn’t have a sense of humor.”  I have no idea if the NBA gods have a sense of humor, but they certainly have good taste.

Enjoy the Finals!


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