A few random thoughts about what should be an awesome Finals series. The Heat and the Spurs are the two best teams in the NBA and they combined for one of the best Finals series in recent memory last season. If 2014 is anything like 2013, basketball fans should be in for a treat.
1) Small-ball: Tiago Splitter and Udonis Haslem started Game 1 and were almost out of the rotation by the middle of the series. It doesn't seem likely that either team will commit to playing two big men for very long - will they both start the series playing 4-out?
2) The Heat's killer line-up: Cole/Allen/Wade/LeBron/Bosh was the line-up that swung the ECF in Game 3. I'm not sure there's any way to stop that group - there's just too much shooting around LeBron. What will be the Spurs counter?
3) The Spurs offense: The flip-side of that is I'm not sure the Heat can stop the Spurs either. They couldn't really stop them last year and they are older, less athetic and have more weak spots in their rotation. This should be a series played well into the 100's.
4) Turnovers: This is going to be the telling stat of the series. If you give either team a chance to walk into transition 3's, they are going to blow you off the floor, which doesn't even count the damage of an empty possession where they don't get a shot at the basket.
5) Tony Parker: How will his ankle hold up? He's one of the only Spurs players who can create a good look off the dribble at the end of the clock. Just as important, if he can force the Heat to put LeBron on him and chase him on defense, that could wear LeBron over the course of series.
6) Who does LeBron guard? That's one of the hole cards in Spo's deck in every series. He'll likely start the series on Kawhi, but he can stick his best player on Parker or Ginobili at any time and take them out of the game.
7) Can Duncan punish Bosh on the block? This might the most important match-up of the series. If he can force the Heat to send a double team, put another big man on the floor or get Bosh in foul trouble, that changes the whole complexion of the series.
8) How many minutes will Duncan play? Even at 38, the drop-off between him and the other Spurs big men is dramatic. The Heat ran Splitter off the floor last year and there's no way Diaw, Aron Baynes or Matt Bonner can provide enough rim protection without Duncan.
9) Dwyane Wade: The minutes where he plays without LeBron will be huge. There isn't an obvious match-up for him on the Spurs second unit and Kawhi is the only wing with the size and athleticism to handle him on the block. Expect to see a lot of Wade posting up.
10) The no respect D: The Spurs got in LeBron and Wade's heads last year by conceding open jumpers and daring them to beat them from the perimeter. Will they be able to make those shots or can the Spurs get away with playing the percentages?
11) Ray Allen vs. Manu Ginobili: If Miami can draw even between the two Hall of Fame SG's who come off the bench, it will be a huge win for them. Ginobili, like Wade, had a very uneven Finals series last year and the Spurs will need him to make plays and take care of the ball.
12) The Spurs bench: If they can get an offensive explosion from Patty Mills, Marco Bellinelli or Boris Diaw like they got from Gary Neal last year, that would be huge. Miami doesn't have the same firepower at the end of their rotation.
13) The Miami supporting cast: Will Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier be able to hold their own on D and consistently knock down 3's? Mike Miller is gone and his absence could be felt. James Jones and Michael Beasley are two guys who may need to give them something.
If both teams are 100%, I think the Spurs are the better team and they will have home-court this season, although the return to 2-2-1-1-1 means it won't be as big a deal as when it was 2-3-2. The big question coming into the series is Parker's health, but these are two teams with a lot of older players who have played a lot of minutes over the last few seasons, so don't be surprised if someone else comes up lame.
There isn't much separation between these two teams and the smallest things - the bounce of the ball, a tweak to a hamstring, a crucial call in the final minutes - could end up swinging the series. I expect it to be 6-7 games, with the Spurs getting out to an early lead and the Heat managing to claw things back to 2-2 headed into Game 5.
Here's what would worry me, if I was a Spurs fan. As the series gets into the closing stage, Miami can play LeBron 45+ minutes in the final few games. He can D up any of 4 positions and he can dominate the game on offense. He's the best player in the world and the Spurs don't have an answer for him. Everyone talks about Game 6 last year, but LeBron had 37 and 12 in Game 7. That's an issue.
I want to pick the Spurs in this series, but I keep coming back to this - LeBron James is 29 and Tim Duncan is 38. If Duncan was in his prime, this series would be a cakewalk for San Antonio. I just wonder how much he will have in the tank by Games 6-7. I wouldn't be surprised if either team wins, but when push comes to shove, I'll stick with LeBron and say Miami in 7.