Last year the build-up for The Finals was about Dwyane Wade’s knee. This time around Tony Parker’s ankle is receiving the attention. Parker missed the second half of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, but plans to play in Game 1 against the Heat. He sprained his ankle in the first round of the playoffs, and then reinjured it in Game 4 against the Thunder. That doesn’t bode well for the Spurs, but if any team can compensate, then it’s San Antonio. Still, the Heat get the edge here with Wade a world away from the injured player who soldiered through the 2013 Finals. Wade’s so-called “maintenance program” during the regular season worked wonders. With pain-free knees, Wade averaged 19.8 points per game against the Pacers in the most recent Eastern Conference finals while shooting 54 percent from the field. In the 2013 conference finals, Wade averaged 15.4 points per game and shot a meager 43.6 percent from the field. Limiting Spurs shooting guard Danny Green will be a focus for the Heat. Green set a record for three-pointers in an NBA Finals with 27 in 2013 despite being limited to just two in the final two games of the series. Green is in top form again. He shot 54 percent from three-point range in the Western Conference finals. Against the Pacers, the Heat was outscored by 18 points with Mario Chalmers in the game. The Heat’s starting point guard is averaging 7.1 points per game in the playoffs. EDGE: HEAT
Perhaps the biggest question of the series: How will LeBron James respond and adjust to the Spurs’ defense. Coach Gregg Popovich dared James to beat the Spurs with his mid-range jumper in the 2013 NBA Finals. James hesitated at first, but then he accepted the challenge and torched San Antonio in Game 7. Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is a year older and maturing into one on of the best defenders in the league. He could give James some problems, but the Heat gets the edge at forward, obviously, because they feature the world’s best player. James had something of a crisis of confidence at the beginning of the 2013 Finals when the Spurs defense gave him open shots. It was a sign of disrespect, and something the Spurs had done to James in the 2007 NBA Finals. James’ Cleveland Cavaliers lost in four games to the Spurs in the 2007 Finals and James shot 35 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range. The Spurs’ defensive adjustment on James to begin the series evoked those memories, and James began the Finals shooting under his averages: 38.8 percent from the field and 3 of 13 from three-point range through the first three games. James shot 57.1 percent on shots between 12 and 21 feet from the basket in the final four games of the series while also attacking the basket with a new found aggression (21 of 35 for 60 percent). From three-point range, James shot 42.9 percent from three-point range. If James finds the right balance in these Finals, that most likely will mean another championship for the Heat. Rashard Lewis will mostly likely start at power forward after his presence on the court helped turn the Eastern Conference finals. It’s unclear how the Spurs will match up with Lewis. Tiago Splitter is an option, but Splitter’s effectiveness and minutes dropped off significantly last year when the Heat went small with Mike Miller. Matt Bonner started the final two games of the Western Conference finals for the Spurs and could be in the starting lineup to begin the Finals. EDGE: HEAT
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For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll call Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan the centers of this series. With that match-up set, even though the two players could end up avoiding each other defensively in the series, the Spurs get the edge here. Bosh and his three-point shooting could be the Heat’s X-factor in this series (as it certainly was in the Eastern Conference finals), but Duncan is the established Hall of Famer bent on revenge. He averaged a double-double in the Western Conference finals (17.8 points and 10 rebounds) while only playing 30 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Bosh struggled to find his form at the beginning of the conference finals, but when he did the Heat made quick work of the Pacers. Bosh averaged 23 points in Games 4, 5 and 6. He was 10 of 14 from the field, and 7 of 7 in the restricted area, for 25 points in Game 6. EDGE: SPURS
It’s still somewhat baffling how badly the Spurs dominated the Thunder in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals without Tony Parker. Eight players scored in the period for the Spurs. The Spurs will supplement their aging core with several capable players off the bench in the Finals, including Boris Diaw who closed out the Western Conference finals for the Spurs, and Marco Belinelli, a three-point specialist. Manu Ginobili is the Spurs long-time offensive catalyst off the bench. Those three players give the Spurs the edge off the bench, but San Antonio can actually go deeper than that. The loss of Mike Miller could finally come back to haunt the Heat here. Miller started in the Finals and his presence forced the Spurs to adjust its lineup. With no Miller, the Heat will be banking on Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Shane Battier to create offense from the perimeter. Allen, the hero of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, is a key for the Heat. He has to hit his shots. EDGE: SPURS
The least influential of the categories, but always worth a good debate. Gregg Popovich gets the edge based on experience and somehow getting Boris Diaw and Patty Mills play like All-Stars. Erik Spoelstra has managed his team masterfully this season. For proof, just look to how healthy Dwyane Wade will enter these Finals based on last season. If Wade and Norris Cole turn out to be the differences in this series, we take it all back. EDGE: SPURS
The Spurs have home-court advantage, and that could end up being the difference in the series if it goes the full seven games. Of course, the best player on the planet playing at the top of his game is a pretty good equalizer. If James plays up to his potential both offensively and defensively, the Heat will be difficult to defeat. The revenge factor is a legitimate thing. The Spurs are angry and that could carry them through the first two games of the series. For the Heat to win the series, it will likely need to steal a game early in San Antonio. EDGE: SPURS
PREDICTION: Spurs in 7