NBA Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami 66-16 (First seed in East)
San Antonio 58-24 (Second seed in West)

PLAYOFF RECORDS

San Antonio 12-2 (swept the Lakers 4-0, beat the Warriors 4-2, swept the Grizzlies)
Miami: 12-4 (swept Milwaukee 4-0, beat Chicago 4-1, went 7 to beat Pacers)

SEASON SERIES

This was the most meaningless 1-1 season series ever. The first game was the Thursday night national television game where Gregg Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home early (it was the second night of a road back-to-back) and got the team a $250,000 fine for embarrassing David Stern. Next time these teams met the Heat rested LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but the Heat were sensible enough to lie to the league office in advance about why they had to sit. So no fines.

KEY INJURIES

Both teams are playing through some minor injuries, but nobody is expected to miss games. Dwyane Wade will be the biggest question mark — he looked grounded through six games of the last round then suddenly reminded everyone of his old self in Game 7. So which Wade shows up this series?

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Miami: offense, 108.4 (1st in postseason); defense 97.6 (4th in postseason)
San Antonio: offense 106.5 (2nd in postseason); defense 95.4 (1st in postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Spurs ball movement vs. Heat pressure defense. If you saw Game 7 Monday night when the Heat wiped the floor with the Pacers, you see what Miami’s athleticism and pressure can do to even a good offense. Miami is big, athletic and they use that to force turnovers (which become alley-oops going the other way). But do you really think Tony Parker is going to melt from that? San Antonio’s ball movement could break the Heat’s pressure not totally unlike Dallas did to them in the finals two years ago. If Miami’s traps disrupt the Spurs ball movement Miami wins. But if the ball moves to open shooters and Danny Green or Matt Bonner are knocking down threes, advantage Spurs.

LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. No one man stops LeBron James… but one man can make his life more difficult (Paul George did a respectable job last round). . Kawhi Leonard will be the best defender LeBron will see these playoffs, and if Leonard can just make LeBron have to really work for his points, that’s a huge plus for the Spurs. The help defense behind Leonard also needs to be sharp — Tim Duncan is smart about this, but Tiago Splitter can be a step slow at times, he does that this round and he’s in a LeBron poster.

Who controls paint/can the Heat rebound? Gregg Popovich is a smart man, he was taking notes on what the Pacers did to push the Heat to a seventh game — Indiana worked the ball inside, drew fouls to get to the line and dominated the offensive glass. The Spurs don’t have the raw size of the Pacers, but Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan are both smart, aggressive and a still bigger front line that will be able to hurt the Heat inside. In the games it won the Pacers grabbed around 40 percent of their missed shots as offensive rebounds, if the Spurs can keep that number above 30 percent they will give the Heat fits this series.

OUTLOOK

This is a great matchup on paper because San Antonio should do things that really bother the Heat.

For one, they are strong inside, too. While San Antonio doesn’t have anyone the size of Roy Hibbert they do have two legitimate, physical big men in Splitter and Duncan and the Spurs will get points inside. The Spurs can play physical; they just dusted the physical Grizzlies in four games.

What is more, Tony Parker is going to be a real problem for them. Miami has struggled at times against teams with top point guards — and right now Parker is playing at an MVP-like level. He’s averaging 23 points on 47.percent shooting (37 percent from three), plus dishing out 7.2 assists per game these playoffs. If he can get past the first-line of defense and into the paint the Heat will be in trouble. If he can deal with the aggressive traps of the Heat and move the ball to open shooters (who hit their shots) the Heat could be in trouble.

For the Spurs, the question these playoff was always could they beat a very athletic team? They didn’t last year, falling to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. But this year, due to the Russell Westbrook injury, the most athletic team the Spurs faced getting to the finals was Golden State, and while they have a couple good athletes on the roster they don’t compare to the Heat that way.

How does San Antonio deal with that? Which is another way of asking, what do they do when the Heat hit that extra gear they showed in Game 7 (and a couple other times against the Pacers)?

PREDICTION

Heat in six. The Spurs have a shot in this, they have the tools to exploit the Heat’s weaknesses and we know they are not going to melt down in the moment. But in the end this is a close series where a handful of times the Heat will hit the turbo button and go play on another level that the Spurs cannot stop. That will be enough to put Miami over the top.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.