MIAMI — The Heat and the Spurs have engaged in an epic Finals battle which will crown one of them as champions by the time Thursday night is through.
In a series where neither team has been able to string together two consecutive victories, it’s even more impossible than usual to predict how one game that will decide the title will ultimately shake out. But we can look for some signs, so here, in no particular order, are seven of them to watch.
1. Aggressive LeBron: When LeBron James is bringing up the ball, and attacking the paint either on straight dribble drives or from the post, the Heat are extremely difficult to stop. The fourth quarter of Game 6, as well as stretches of Game 4 are recent reminders of just how dominant the game’s best player can be when he exerts himself.
The trouble for the Heat is, from a pure energy standpoint, he can’t do it for 48 minutes. Dwyane Wade explained as much before practicing on Wednesday.
“I mean, [LeBron] is in unbelievable shape,” Wade said. “Unbelievable. “But he can’t do it four quarters that way. That’s why he has a team. A lot of people always say, why he can’t play like that every day? It takes so much out of you, so much energy to be able to do that. If he does, then he’s not playing any defense on the other end. He’s not making incredible blocks, [grabbing] incredible rebounds. It takes a lot of energy to be able to do that every time.”
2. Dwyane Wade’s effectiveness: The lineup data in this series says that when LeBron and Wade are on the floor together, it’s not a good look for the Heat. With James and without Wade, however, it’s a completely different story. How effective Wade can be, and whether or not Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has the guts to go away from him for extended stretches if he’s not may have a lot to do with how things play out for Miami. Don’t expect Spoelstra to change too much, however, no matter Wade’s performance.
“I don’t really give a whole lot to those numbers,” Spoelstra said. “We’re going as far as they take us, along with the other guys. You can’t win this series or the last game with a statistic. You have to compete and win those battles on the court.”
3. The Heat’s “other guys”: Speaking of the others, we know Miami is going to need someone outside of the Big Three to step up and contribute. History says LeBron wins when that happens, and remember, it was Ray Allen who made the season-saving shot in Game 6. Guys like Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller will be huge to the Heat’s chances; look at last year’s Finals closeout game, where Miller was 7-of-8 from three-point distance. In a one-game-for-the-title situation, a single, unexpected, outlier performance can be the difference.
4. Health concerns, specifically with Tony Parker: We know how banged up Wade has been, and he missed the start of the second half of Game 6 because he needed to remain in the locker room getting treatment on that ailing knee. But the health of Parker might be an even bigger issue for the Spurs.
Parker was clearly struggling in Game 6 — he was 6-of-23 from the field for the game, but he did make two ridiculously huge plays with about a minute to play that had his team on the brink of the title. The Spurs can’t afford to be without Parker’s services for the majority of Game 7, especially if their role players are nonexistent.
5. A role player for the Spurs needs to materialize: Over the course of the series, we’ve seen gigantic performances from San Antonio’s system players who produced when called upon. Danny Green was in the MVP conversation at one point, after setting the record for three-pointers made in the Finals through the first five games.
The Heat shut Green down in Game 6, and Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal were similarly unable to impact the game in any meaningful way. Tim Duncan was magnificent, but was only able to dominate for a half. Just like the Heat, San Antonio will need a total team effort, or at the very least, a standout performance to help its stars secure a title.
6. The level of play: The last time we saw a Game 7 to decide the NBA title back in 2010, the Lakers and Celtics engaged in more of a wrestling match than a basketball game for the majority of the night. Both teams competed incredibly hard, and were intent on making every possession a physical battle. That made the shooting percentages plummet (the winning team shot just 32.6 percent), and aside from the insane level of competitiveness, the game was anything but aesthetically pleasing.
We’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the highest levels of play in Finals history in this series, in terms of offensive execution and defensive cohesiveness between these two teams. If Game 7 comes down to a slugfest, the Spurs would have the advantage.
7. The pressure of Game 7: The Heat won the title just last season, and the Spurs core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have won multiple championships over the years. The veteran experience should serve both teams well in a deciding game, but should there be any nervousness or tentative play, it could be a factor in one team seeing the opportunity to pounce.
But James and Duncan are both well aware of what’s at stake.
“I understand the moment for me,” James said. “I’ve been pretty relaxed, though. I’ve been pretty relaxed throughout the playoffs. I’m going to be antsy, I’m going to be excited. I’m going to have some butterflies. I’ll be nervous. Everything. That’s how I should be. The moment is going to be grand, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
“Our core of guys have been through a lot together,” Duncan said. “We have some young talent here, but they’re going to feed off of what we do. And Tony, Manu and I have been in this position before. We’re excited about the opportunity.
“We just want to see what happens and be able to leave everything out there. We feel that obviously we like our chances, and to be in this situation, a Game 7, we’re just going to leave it all out there and see what happens.”