Posted May 06, 2013

Heat, Spurs have emerged as conference favorites, but questions remain for each

Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney, San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan posts up Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat

Tim Duncan and the Spurs have emerged as the favorites out West. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

In light of Russell Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, these NBA playoffs now seem like a collision course for the Heat — the presumed Eastern Conference champions — and the Spurs — the newfound Western Conference favorites. Both swept their first-round opponents and chart along playoff paths that should see them favored in every series before the Finals.

Miami, in particular, is as sure a pick as can be, and worthy of being penciled in for the championship round. San Antonio’s road is a bit more challenging and significantly less certain, but the Spurs stand as the best remaining team in the Western Conference field.

Yet even as favorites, the Heat and Spurs still have much left to accomplish and to prove. Their play has invoked some lingering questions about where they stand against their potential opponents and how they might perform overall.

Questions For Spurs

Does San Antonio have enough supplementary playmaking to beat elite defenses?

This Spurs team has made enough strides defensively, developed enough internally and benefited enough from Tim Duncan’s renaissance to rate as superior to the club that lost to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals last season. But the primary offensive flaw of the 2011-12 team still remains. Tony Parker and Duncan did marvelous work this season in their coordinated orchestration of one of the league’s best offenses, but the Spurs become eminently beatable if either star is overwhelmed with thoughtful, aggressive coverage. Accomplishing that isn’t as easy as it sounds; Parker and Duncan are unselfish enough to redirect the offense as needed and clever enough to evade hard traps.

Still, the blueprint for beating the Spurs begins with an attempt to unsettle those two (especially Parker), which puts more pressure on Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Parker’s ability to draw traps and double teams should help a team that moves the ball so readily, but well-prepared opponents will close out hard on the Spurs’ shooters and make them put the ball on the floor, testing Leonard’s development, Danny Green’s skill set and Ginobili’s aging game. I don’t suspect that will be much of a problem against Golden State, which looks to be out of its depth defensively in this second-round series. But the road to a title potentially would require San Antonio to beat two of the best defenses in the league consecutively, which could prove difficult considering its understandable reliance on Parker in particular.

How healthy are the Spurs?

Every player appeared to be healthy enough in the Spurs’ first-round sweep, but to be fair, even the lame might seem physically well in comparison to the debilitated Lakers. We know that Ginobili (who had a hamstring injury late in the regular season) and Parker (who dealt with an ankle injury) are in good enough health to compete at a fairly high level, but we have yet to see either really challenged. With L.A. unable to exert much pressure in either matchup, Parker jogged his way to 22.3 points and 6.5 assists per game and Ginobili made a considerable impact in 19.5 minutes a game. How Parker deals with more aggressive defenses (as mentioned above) will obviously be key from a strategic standpoint, but it should also give some indication of how easily he can access his extra gear as an off-the-dribble scorer. San Antonio will need its All-Star point guard to be able to reach the height of his offensive powers all while being targeted and tested more consistently over the next few rounds.

Ginobili’s prospects are even more uncertain, if only because a four-game sample size isn’t enough to assuage all doubt. His first-round spark was undeniable, but Ginobili’s contributions tend to get shaky when San Antonio’s offense tightens up — in part because the half-step he’s lost with age and the limitations of lingering injuries take away his ability to explode toward the basket. Manu still has the basketball savoir-faire to succeed in most situations, but that general hindrance could play a significant role the rest of the way.

Is Tiago Splitter reliable enough to earn a trip to the NBA Finals?

San Antonio’s best Duncan counterpart famously no-showed in the 2012 playoffs, and his 2013 postseason run is off to a rough start between an ankle sprain that caused him to miss Game 4 against the Lakers and underwhelming production (he’s averaging 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes in three playoff games). Splitter’s two-way contributions have played a big part in making the Spurs a more balanced team this season, but that unfortunate ankle injury and his track record of inconsistency leaves his potential performance as one of the bigger question marks facing San Antonio in these playoffs.

If all goes well, Splitter should help to shut down the Warriors’ high-powered offense with his help D, could potentially wrestle one of Memphis’ low-post threats in the conference finals and might provide essential basket protection against Miami’s penetration in the championship round. But if he’s sapped of his mobility or otherwise struggles, San Antonio could be in some immediate danger against Golden State. Splitter is that important to the performance of this Spurs team, and at the moment we have little way of knowing what he’ll be able to contribute.

Dwyane Wade goes up for a layup against the San Antonio Spurs

Dwyane Wade missed the last game of the first round but declared himself healthy for the conference semis. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

Questions For Heat

How is Dwyane Wade’s health?

Wade missed Game 4 against Milwaukee with a bruised right knee, but he told reporters Monday that he will play Game 1 against Chicago. I wrote about Wade’s importance to Miami’s offense here.

Will Miami approach each series with the focus and intensity it deserves?

The Heat have become notorious for their ability to sleepwalk through regular-season games only to awaken on a whim, erasing double-digit deficits with but a few minutes of idyllic execution. It’s for that very reason that no lead against Miami ever seems safe. But that tendency to trot through first halves against inferior competition could make for a more costly postseason mistake. The Heat are the prohibitive favorites — against Chicago, against Indiana or New York and against any team that comes out of the West. But if they play like favorites, biding their time while their opponents build early leads, the Heat may soon cough up a game that could help to turn a series against them.

It’s improbable, and we can still be confident that the Heat will come on strong at the end of any game regardless of what transpires in the first 24 minutes. But Miami took its time finding a groove in its first-round matchup with Milwaukee and could see that same slow-starting tendency become a problem against increasingly dangerous opponents. When they’re locked in, the Heat can overwhelm any opponent with blistering scoring and lock down any foe with furious defensive pressure. But slightly lazier execution can start to create problems, particularly in a high-wire defensive system that requires five engaged participants at all times. One would fully expect the Heat to take on the focus necessary to dominate every series, but overconfidence could conceivably get the better of a team that has coasted through quarters all season long.

Could a stretch of cold shooting make the Heat vulnerable?

Miami is a team short on exploitable weakness, but the Heat’s perimeter shooters have been oddly off their game so far in the postseason. Ray Allen, Chris Bosh and Norris Cole converted three-pointers at a reliable clip against the Bucks, but LeBron James (27.3 percent), Mario Chalmers (25 percent), Shane Battier (22.2 percent) and Mike Miller (14.3 percent) all struggled after shooting better than 40 percent from deep in the regular season. Milwaukee — a perfectly competent defensive team — deserves credit for making some of those attempts uncomfortable, but Battier and Miller, in particular, botched their fair share of wide-open, spot-up looks.

I’d be surprised if those marks didn’t soon regress to the mean, as any shooter can fall victim to the occasional off game or two. But if those perimeter struggles continue — especially those of Battier and Chalmers — things could begin to tighten up for Miami’s drive-and-kick offense. James and Wade are given room to operate off the dribble in part because of the respect that the Heat’s shooters demand. If those threes aren’t falling consistently, teams will gradually opt to apply more pressure on the interior in the hopes that the mounting misses inspire a crisis of confidence from Miami’s perimeter marksmen. Chicago should make for an interesting first test in that regard.

Again: We have every reason to suspect that these struggles are temporary, and that Miami’s three-point shooting numbers will rebound to more acceptable levels. If that’s somehow not the case, though, the Heat could be in for a tougher-than-anticipated playoff run.

Will Miami utilize point guard-less lineups more often in this postseason?

Another turn of strategy that could prove interesting should Miami’s role players fail to produce against Chicago’s stifling defensive front. If Chalmers continues to fire blanks and Cole falls back into his typically unreliable mode, the Heat would likely be best served by going stretches in every game without a conventional point guard. Ball handling would be accounted for by James and Wade, and around them coach Erik Spoelstra would have his choice of Allen, Battier, Bosh and Udonis Haslem. Miami has experimented with such lineups over the last calendar year to mixed results, but those unconventional units remain among the most unsolvable options that the Heat have at their disposal. It’s hard enough to account for all of the threats on the floor in Miami’s impeccably spaced offense; adding in the inherent matchup advantages of slotting either Wade or James as a nominal point guard makes it even tougher.

Whether the Heat can survive the way that those lineups stretch them out defensively is another matter entirely, and a lingering question we may only see answered if Chalmers and Cole underwhelm in the series to come.

15 comments
OMB
OMB

The Bulls represent the hard working men of the world?? Excuse me  - Hahahahahaha. JoeR2 you sound like you just discovered basketball last night. It seems like your form of argument is to express your opinion except the premise of facts. That alone sir, causes you to look like an ignorant NBA basketball fan, in other words, a Hater, or a Troll.

What the Miami Heat organization has build, is the blue print on what other NBA teams will begin to do with years to come. I've been a die-hard Heat fan since the Zo and Timmy era, back when the Knicks use to crush our hearts in playoffs. But now when it's our time to shine, ignorant fans like you take a stab and say 'The Heat represent the entitled brats of the world', you except us to just sit back and read. No sir, the Heat are the defending  champs of the world, leading with the MVP of year in L. James. It seems to me that you are the brat in all of this.

As for NBA playoff basketball, how about you tell ya' boy Rose to quit his little 'humbleness persona' and get back to the game he supposedly loves, instead of sitting back and counting checks. Miami will win the series in 5 - end of story.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@OMB Brats are usually the first to whine and accuse others of things by name calling - its easy to see that in this thread

pval
pval

@AaronDunckel

my thoughts exactly !!!  

@OMB 

JoeR2's point is highly debatable, but it is NOT "hating" (whatever this overused word has come to mean)  and it is NOT Trolling. 

And it is not ignorant.

the way LBJ arrived to the Heat : the bombastic statements, the arrogant swagger, clealry left a lingering feeling that this is a franchise which feels entitled to collect championship like children collects candies at Halloween.

You seem to be a fine example of this minset, in fact to proudly claim it ("now it our time to shine")

So Joe's post may be oversimplifying things a bit, but it is NOT ignorant

 On the other hand  YOUR post, OMB is pointlessly agressive, arrogant, and on the verge a being downright insulting.

It offers no reasoned argument, just bragging, along the lines of "we are the champs so shut up" = the very definition of obnoxious = TROLLING

I rest my case.


Joe R2
Joe R2

The Bulls represent the hard working men of the world.  The Heat represent the entitled brats of the world.

Rat_Piley
Rat_Piley like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Joe R2 With all the Heat accomplishments, it must REALLY SUCK to be you right now...

RobertTriplett
RobertTriplett like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Joe R2 So says the fan of a team who's star player won't even play cause he is afraid he would hurt himself more. Everyone in playoff is playing hurt, guess he is too good for that

Joe R2
Joe R2

@RobertTriplett @Joe R2 

I agree regarding Rose.  But I'm talking about the guys ON THE COURT.  Nobody on the Heat has the heart that Joakim Noah has.  They have talent, but they're a bunch of divas that cry when they get hit in the mouth.  

OMB
OMB like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Joe R2 @RobertTriplett Who cried last year when Miami won in Boston last year in game 6? Oh that's right, your Bulls couldn't even make it pass the Sixers. What a joke...As for who has more heart on the team, how about Mike Miller that nearly had a perfection type of night behind the 3 point line in game 5 of the Finals  WITH a near damn broken back.

AustinGarcia
AustinGarcia

Oh please, haters gonna hate. They were built to win championships, plural. They've all made sacrifices, atleast financially to get the ring and now they got a good chance of doing that. There isn't one bad teamate on that squad.

Joe R2
Joe R2

@AustinGarcia 

Try posting that again for the third time just in case people couldn't read it the first two times...  

Crybabies gonna cry....Bandwagoners gonna hop on and off.... Life goes on...  Heat won't have any fans in 5 years

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@Joe R2 @AustinGarcia LOL the bulls are hardworking?  Why because they're from Chicago?  ALL NBA PLAYERS, are spoiled brats relative to the common man

If you're hating on a city (Miami) for being spoiled, then you're just as moronic as thinking some players are less diva than others

Nice try, homer

AustinGarcia
AustinGarcia

Oh please, haters gonna hate. They were built to win championships, plural. They've all made sacrifices, atleast financially to get the ring and now they got a good chance of doing that. There isn't one bad teamate on that squad.

STAY AWAY
STAY AWAY

Splitter is not needed against Golden State , and will prob get a lot of rest for the match up with Memphis.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@STAY AWAY pretty bold assumption to say that Memphis will just glide past OKC... you're underrating that KD led team - he still brings plenty to the table even without Westbrook