Spurs: Kawhi Leonard — a versatile, athletic wing player who can defend, shoot and blends in seamlessly with the Spurs’ stars — displayed impressive growth during the regular season (11.9 points, 49.4 percent shooting) and has been even better in the playoffs (13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 56.5 percent shooting) while averaging 37 minutes — about six more than the regular season. He served up 17 points, 11 rebounds and two steals in his one game against the Heat, albeit without LeBron James playing that night.
Heat: James has authored a magnificent postseason, even more impressive considering he has needed to compensate for a diminished Dwyane Wade and a slumping Chris Bosh through part of this run. He leads the Heat in scoring (26.2), rebounds (7.3) and assists (6.4) while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 38.7 on threes. James embraced defending bulkier David West during fourth-quarter stretches of the Eastern finals and likely will be needed to guard one of the Spurs’ big men at times when the Heat goes small. And he also might draw the assignment on Tony Parker for short bursts.
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Spurs: Evan at 37, future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan continues to perform at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 17.8 points in the playoffs — equaling his regular-season average, though his shooting percentage has dropped from 50.2 to 46.1. His rebounding is down very slightly from the regular season (9.9 to 9.2), but that’s much higher than any Heat power rotation player. Duncan delivered 17 points and 12 rebounds in his one game against the Heat but missed a late jumper over Udonis Haslem’s outstretched arms. The Heat hopes to draw him away from the basket, but Bosh or Haslem will need to be swishing jump shots for that strategy to be fully effective.
Heat: With 8-for-9 shooting performances in Games 3 and 5, Haslem was as responsible as anybody (excluding James) for two of the Heat’s wins against Indiana. His points are up from the regular season (to 6.3) and rebounds down (3.9) while playing about six minutes more per game. Haslem has had some success defending Duncan and should draw the assignment at least part of the time. While Duncan is a more polished offensive player than Roy Hibbert, Duncan is also three inches shorter, leaving Haslem at a three-inch deficit.
Spurs: Tiago Splitter has developed into a capable starter — a pretty good passer and decent rebounder with touch around the basket, especially with his right jump hook and the mobility to chase Bosh to the perimeter. His numbers have declined from the regular season in points (10.3 to 6.8) and rebounds (6.4 to 3.7). But he’s shooting 58.2 percent in the playoffs, even better than his 56 percent in the regular season. Some of those baskets come on putbacks, so the Heat must keep him off the offensive boards — something it didn’t do effectively against Indiana’s Hibbert.
Heat: Bosh had a dreadful Eastern Conference Finals (11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds) and ended it with four consecutive games with single digit scoring. But Indiana was also the worst possible matchup for him. Defending Splitter will take less of a toll that guarding Hibbert or West, and rebounds should come easier, too. And though neither Duncan nor Parker played, Bosh was terrific in his one game against the Spurs this season, hitting the game-winning three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left and closing with 23 points and 9 rebounds.
Spurs: Parker comes off a 37-point masterpiece (15-for-21 shooting) in the close-out win against Memphis. He’s averaging 23 points in postseason, more than he did in the playoffs on the three championship teams he was a part of. His floor game has been very good (7.2 assists, 2.7 turnovers). Even with his Game 4 in the Memphis series, his shooting percentage has dipped in the postseason to 47.5, still very good but below his unworldly 52.2 percent in the regular season, which easily led NBA point guards. It’s impossible to envision the Heat stopping him, though James (in doses) and Norris Cole figure to be impediments at times. Mario Chalmers will challenge Parker defensively if he mixes in drives to the basket with his standstill threes, as he did in the Pacers series.
Heat: Chalmers and Cole haven’t always played well at the same time in postseason, but usually, at least one has given the Heat very good minutes. Cole was a major factor in the Bulls series and late in the Pacers series. Chalmers had some very good moments against Indiana. Chalmers has played the steadier floor game in postseason (56 assists, 20 turnovers) compared with Cole’s 30 and 18. Cole is shooting at a higher percentage: 53.8 to 43.1. Chalmers’ man-to-man defense has improved, but Cole’s is superior, and will be needed for stretches against Parker.
Spurs: Danny Green has evolved into a capable starter, allowing Manu Ginobili to continue to come off the bench. He’s averaging 9.6 points and shot 43.1 percent on threes in postseason (28 for 65) after shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc during the season. He can rebound (4.1 playoff average) and has quickness defensively (1.2 steals average), but he must make shots to justify staying on the floor for long stretches.
Heat: We can all accept that Wade — weakened by his right knee troubles — will not be the vintage version. But to win this series, he must be at least somewhat more than the player who averaged 14.1 points and shot 44.7 in postseason and failed to reach 20 points in 12 games in a row before Monday. His explosiveness comes only in short bursts now and his midrange game has been spotty, but his Game 7 effort against Indiana (21 points, nine rebounds) raises hopes that Wade can offer more than his previous string of pedestrian performances. And while Ginobili creates challenges with driving ability, defending Green — mostly a three-point shooter — shouldn’t be too taxing.
Spurs: A pretty deep group, led by Ginobili, who has not had an exceptional postseason by his standards (11.5 points, 38.3 percent shooting, 2.4 turnovers, 5.4 assists) but is the best bench player the Heat will face this postseason. Ginobili will be eager to rebound from one of his worst playoff games ever (six turnovers, 1-for-6 shooting in the close-out win against Memphis). Boris Diaw, 6-8, isn’t a big rebounder (2.5), but has the athleticism and versatility to effectively chase Bosh to the perimeter. Matt Bonner remains one of the NBA’s best-shooting big men and is 14 for 28 on threes this postseason. Backup guards Cory Joseph (3.4 points, 46.8 percent shooting in postseason) and Gary Neal (5.5 points) are serviceable, but Neal has struggled with his shot this postseason (just 9 for 36 on threes).
Heat: Chris Andersen has been the Heat’s most consistent bench contributor, making 38 of 46 shots and averaging 4.1 rebounds. But his individual defense was shaky against Hibbert, and he could be vulnerable in stretches against Duncan. Ray Allen’s Game 7 (3 for 5 on threes) suggests he might have snapped out of his shooting slump. Cole should get significant minutes, largely because of his defense on Parker. The unresolved issue is whether Erik Spoelstra returns to Shane Battier, who was benched in Game 7 and is shooting 15 for 66 in postseason, or stays with Mike Miller for a third game in a row.
Spurs: No active NBA coach has a résumé comparable to Gregg Popovich, with his four championships in four appearances and 68.1 regular-season winning percentage. He knows how to push and prod his team, but also when to pull back, and he commands as much or more respect from players as any coach in the league. His lineup decisions have paid dividends this season, including starting Splitter ahead of DuJuan Blair (who has played sparingly in postseason) and using Green as a starter, allowing Ginobili to come off the bench. The Spurs excel at player development, and Popovich is a big reason.
Heat: Erik Spoelstra made sensible moves in Game 7 of the Pacers series, opting for frequent double-teams in the post and off pick-and-rolls. “His even-keeled demeanor and humility helps him get the most of his best players,” ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy said. “Erik is still in the phase where he gets blame for their losses [rather] than credit for their wins, but he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.” (And, as Van Gundy said, Popovich is headed there, too.)
Spurs: The Spurs come in rested – and perhaps a bit rusty – and unlike the Heat, haven’t had to deal with extreme adversity in these playoffs, having never trailed in a series this spring. This is a confident, savvy battle-tested group that commits fewer turnovers than the Pacers (17th in the league, to Indiana 26th) and possesses the outside shooters to make the Heat pay if Miami doubles Duncan or traps Parker. Consider the Spurs were second in field goal percentage (behind only the Heat) --- while Indiana was 26th -- and ranked fourth in scoring (the Pacers were 23rd). Parker poses problems unlike any guard the Heat has faced this postseason. And Duncan has never lost in any of his four Finals appearances.
Heat: What Monday proved, yet again, is the Heat --- since the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas - can summon every last ounce of energy and intensity and maniacal defensive zeal when faced with an elimination game. The Heat hasn’t lost consecutive games since Jan. 8 and 10, and the rebounding issue should be less problematic against the Spurs. Indiana was the league’s best rebounding team in the regular season; the Spurs were 21st. Wade’s Game 7 against Indiana offered encouragement that even if he’s not himself, he won’t necessarily be a shell of himself in this series.
PREDICTION: Heat in 7