By John Schmeelk
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Here are the key questions to watch as the Heat take on the Spurs in the NBA Finals:
CAN KAWHI LEONARD SLOW DOWN LEBRON JAMES?
People that really watch the NBA already have a full understanding of Kawhi Leonard’s impact, but this series could very well be the coming-out party for him with the casual basketball fan. With his 7-foot-plus wingspan and quick feet, he could provide an even greater challenge as a defender to LeBron James than Paul George. At 225 pounds, I wonder about whether he can handle James in the post and if the Spurs will have to send an extra man in those situations. Leonard has turned into an efficient offensive player as well, and a decent three-point shooter at 37 percent Other than Tony Parker, Leonard will be the most important player in this series for the Spurs.
HOW WILL TONY PARKER HANDLE THE HEAT’S PRESSURE DEFENSE?
The Heat trap the high pick-and-roll most of the time, something that worked like a charm against the Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and forced a lot of turnovers. Parker, however, is a much tougher target. He’ll split the double-team often, or the man setting the pick will slip the screen and Parker will get him the ball. The Spurs are an extremely intelligent offensive team, and the Heat will struggle against them in these situations. They also shoot far better than Indiana and have a number of effective three-point shooters. The Heat had a very mediocre 103.2 defensive rating against Indiana, a number which is better than the Pacers’ offensive rating during the season. They struggled defensively, and it will only get worse versus the Spurs. In other words, the Heat will have to score 100 points per game if they want to win this series.
WILL SOMEONE STEP UP AND HELP LEBRON JAMES?
No one doubts James’ ability, but I think he is going to need a substantial amount of help to score enough points to beat the San Antonio Spurs. Both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are going to have to average between 15 and 20 points a game if the Heat want to win this series. The Spurs are simply too good for him to do it alone. San Antonio can struggle against very athletic teams, but other than James, no one on Miami seems capable of taking advantage of that. The Heat are good in transition, but the Spurs are pretty good at protecting the ball (10th in the league with a 15.1 percent turnover percentage) and will try to keep the Heat in the half court as much as possible. The Spurs’ lineups should give Shane Battier more opportunities to be on the floor, but San Antonio likes to play big, and Battier or James is going to have to guard Tiago Splitter. He is capable enough offensively of taking advantage of those matchups.
CAN TIM DUNCAN DO IT ONE MORE TIME?
After losing some weight in the regular season, Tim Duncan had one of his best seasons in a half-decade. As good as Duncan has been offensively, averaging nearly 18 points per game and shooting higher than 50 percent, he is just as important defensively. When Duncan and Splitter are on the floor together, the Spurs have a 92.7 defensive rating, providing as impressive an interior presence as the Pacers. It will be Splitter and Duncan that will have to provide the same type of deterrent as Roy Hibbert to keep James out of the paint.
All in all, this should be a very exciting and competitive series. You have to give the head coaching edge to Gregg Popovich, which is no slight to Erik Spoelstra. Pop is just that good, and his between-quarter interviews will be worth the price of admission on their own. The 2-3-2 format works against the Spurs, since it will be very hard for them to win three straight on the road. That means they will likely have to win two games in Miami to win the series. It’s a tall order, but if any team can win a Game 7 in Miami, it’s a veteran team like the Spurs.
The Prediction: Spurs in 7
– Jason Kidd’s retirement needs to be looked at a couple of ways. The first point is that he did help the Knicks win games the first half of the season. After that, however, he was a mess and did little to help the Knicks win games. If he was on the roster next year, the Knicks would have felt pressure to play him even if he didn’t play well. In that way, his departure is a good thing. It also means, however, that the team has to re-sign Pablo Prigioni now and add another point guard so the team can use their two-point-guard lineups more often. In the big picture, the Knicks ended up squandering their mini mid-level extension from last year on a player who was only on the roster for a year. That’s a big mistake by Glen Grunwald that could hurt the team, since the mid-level is the only way that the team can help itself in free agency when it is over the cap.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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