Despite their appearance in a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have looked vulnerable.
They rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs but did not look like the dominant, efficient champions of the previous two seasons.
As expected, the superstars have had superstar moments. That same group — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — also has looked out of sync.
Although rarely have all three been off on the same night, there will be little room for error against the San Antonio Spurs.
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The Spurs look hungrier, fresher and more focused.
Despite a hobbled Tony Parker at guard, the Spurs have the defensive mindset, system, depth and coaching to stop the Heat train.
Keep a close eye on Tim Duncan. He’s still got game.
Here’s a look at how the teams compare:
San Antonio Spurs
The overall health of point guard Tony Parker is crucial to the success of the Spurs. Parker didn’t play Saturday in the second half of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City because of a sprained left ankle but likely will be on the court for Thursday opener. Danny Green needs to develop some consistency. He torched the Heat for 25 3-pointers in 38 tries in the first five games of last year’s Finals but was 2 of 11 in the last two games.
Until further notice, Tim Duncan is the best power forward ever to play this game. Even at the age of 38, Duncan proved he can still hold his ground with today’s athletic big men. While playing just 29.2 minutes per game this season, Duncan averaged 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds and picked up 30 double-doubles in the 74 games he played. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard quickly has become one of the best young players in the league with his solid play at both ends of the floor.
There’s nothing athletic or even endearing about Tiago Splitter as he’s clearly the weakest link whenever he’s in the starting lineup. Yet Splitter has gotten better than he was last year, when he was basically a non-factor in the 2013 Finals. He averaged 10.7 points and 9.0 rebounds in 27.6 minutes per game in the first round against Dallas, 6.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game in the second round against Portland and 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in only 17 minutes per game in the six-game series against Oklahoma City.
The Spurs had the best bench in the NBA during the regular season and have had the best bench in the playoffs. And that bench has many interchangeable parts. Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner, Cory Joseph and Marco Belinelli could start for most teams and be meaningful contributors and have all started at some point this season. The Spurs’ bench is so powerful that it outscored OKC 51-5 in the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
Gregg Popovich has been lauded by many as the best in-game coach in the NBA. Popovich’s ability to trust his players was on full display in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals when — with his team down by seven points at the half at Oklahoma City and with an injured Parker unable to play any more — he chose to start the second half with third-string point guard Cory Joseph. Joseph held his own, and the Spurs went on to win the series.
The Spurs certainly are more motivated since they thought they had the 2013 NBA Finals against the Heat basically wrapped up. San Antonio held a 3-2 lead over Miami and led Game 6 by five points with 28 seconds left. The championship appeared such a lock that ropes were brought in to keep fans off the court. But the Spurs miraculously lost that game in overtime and then lost Game 7. However, if a Game 7 is necessary this year, it will be played in San Antonio this time.
Those who think Dwyane Wade is on the decline might want to think again. He might not be the old Flash, but Wade is coming off a season when he shot a career-best 54.5 percent from the field. However, Wade played only 54 games this year because of injuries — the fourth-lowest total of his 11-year career. Mario Chalmers is a rock-solid defender who is known for making big shots. Chalmers scored 34 points on 13-of-26 shooting in Games 6 and 7 last year against the Spurs.
There hasn’t been a player of LeBron James’ size, speed and quickness who has dominated the game the way he has. James is extraordinarily gifted and in a class by himself when it comes to the different ways he can beat his opponent. That includes posting up a foe or beating him with a 3-pointer. Rashard Lewis started the last three games of the East Finals against Indiana after not playing in the first two games. He made 9 of 16 from 3-point range in the past two contests against Indy.
Chris Bosh has been converted from power forward to center in the Heat’s small-ball lineup. The Dallas native has his challenges when facing a conventional center with exceptional talent. But he has the range to float to the 3-point line and make some key buckets while getting the opposing center away from the basket. Also, it was Bosh who grabbed the critical offensive rebound and passed it to Ray Allen for the dramatic 3-pointer that sent Game 6 of last year’s Finals into overtime.
Ray Allen is the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, and he’s still a dangerous marksman. Chris Andersen picked up nine points and 10 rebounds in 13 minutes in the closeout Game 6 win over Indiana. Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem are heady backups who are solid contributors at both ends of the floor. Shane Battier has the shooting skills and defensive tenacity to be a factor. He was 6 of 8 on 3-pointers and scored 18 points last year in Game 7 against the Spurs.
Erik Spoelstra has come a long way from the day when LeBron James accidentally bumped into him while coming off the court during a timeout and from when rumor spread that he was going to be replaced by Pat Riley. After winning back-to-back titles, Spoelstra is considered one of the game’s bright young minds. Give Spoelstra his due. It must be a great challenge trying to cater to all the talent he has at his disposal while also essentially doing what’s best for the team.
Winning championships is what the Heat live for, and it’s what they do. This team’s core has captured the past two NBA titles and is in the Finals for the fourth straight season. Thus, frazzled nerves won’t be a factor. Miami can count on the the game’s most dominant player in LeBron James and a not-too-shabby co-star in Dwyane Wade. All the battle-tested Heat consistently does is win, win, win. Overall, Miami is 14-1 in playoff series since 2011.
Dwain Price’s prediction: Spurs win series in 6