The Miami Heat began the year as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. They seemed to have greatly improved themselves in free agency by signing Forward Michael Beasley and Center Greg Oden, two players who were thought to have a chance to make significant contributions off the bench. But the two averaged just 9.9 points and 3.4 rebounds in the 24.3 minutes combined to play per game. Worse than that for the team, semi-star Dwayne Wade missed 28 of the team's regular season games with injury. They were also one of the oldest team's in the league, and many people questioned whether or not they would be fresh enough to win the Eastern Conference for a third-straight year. Miami finished the season a measly 11-14, including a three-game losing streak to end the season which prevented them from getting the East's coveted #1 seed. However, they showed no signs of fatigue once the playoffs rolled around, sweeping the #7 seeded Charlotte Bobcats [who later changed their team name to the Charlotte Hornets] in 4 games, with superstar Lebron James averaging averaging 30 points per game. In the second round, it seemed they would face a formidable challenge against the Brooklyn Nets, whom they lost 4-0 to in the season series. Before the season, it was mused that the Nets could potentially upset Miami should they meet in Round Two of the playoffs. But Miami's biggest weakness is their lack of interior defense, and the Nets' best post-player, Brook Lopez, missed the series due to a broken foot. The Heat won both games by an average of 16.5 points. Traveling to Brooklyn for games 2 and 3, the Nets finally broke through and won Game 3 104-90 thanks to a team effort in which six Brooklyn players scored in double-digits. Game 4 would also be played in Brooklyn, and the Nets would have a chance to tie things up with the defending-champs. But it did not happen, as James scored a playoff-high 49 points in a 102-96 victory, which made up for the fact that the rest of the team scored just 53 points combined. The Heat managed to edge out the Nets in Game 5 96-94, despite 34 points from Brooklyn Guard Joe Johnson, to close out the series. Then, came the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were no strangers to Miami, they'd been the team that eliminated Indiana in the past two seasons. in the Conference Semifinals in 2012, and in a thrilling 7 game series in the Conference Finals in 2014. After Dwayne Wade missed so much time with health issues, and Indiana Forward Paul George blossomed into a potential MVP candidate, the Pacers felt like this was the year they would overtake the Heat. And they certainly played like it in Game 1. Six Pacers players scored in double digits, and Indiana shot 50 percent from the field en route to a 107-96 Game 1 victory. But the Heat came storming back in Game 2 behind 22 points from James and 23 points from Wade to tie the series 1-1 with an 87-83 win. As the series headed to Miami for an important Game 3, it was announced that Pacers star Paul George had suffered a concussion due to a play in which Dwayne Wade's knee hit his head. He did play in Game 3, however, he was not himself and shot just 5-of-13 from the field as the Heat won commandingly, 99-87, to take a 2-1 series lead, making Game 4 virtual must-win for Indiana. They did not answer. James and Center/Forward Chris Bosh combined for 57 points and Indiana Center Roy Hibbert, Miami's supposed "kryptonite," was held scoreless. The Pacers did manage to win Game 5, but it was too late. The Heat destroyed Indiana 117-92 in a closeout Game 6, at one point winning by as many as 40 [40!!!] points against the 56-26 Pacers. Now, they've established themselves as the best team in the East, and will look to win their third title in three years. Standing in there way…
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the best team's in the league for a long time, but they have not enjoyed the spotlight as much as the more glamorous Lakers or Celtics. They've won 4 championships under Head Coach Gregg Popovich, and now he's looking for a fifth. After a crushingly heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat in last year's NBA Finals, San Antonio kept intact the same core, a core that continues to defy what we think of aging players. Star Tim Duncan is 38, semi-star Manu Ginobli is 36, role-player Matt Bonner is 34, and star Tony Parker is young at 32. The Spurs are the first team in NBA history to claim the best regular-season record despite not playing any players more than 30 minutes per game. That's a main reason why this team continues to contend every year, Popovich doesn't overwork his guys, and often lets them skip the second game of back-to-back games, citing an "injury" that is not really there. It also helps when you have one of the best bench-units in the league. Forwards Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, and Center Matt Bonner all average over 40 percent shooting from three-point range. Guards Patty Mills and Manu Ginobli average a combined 22.5 points per game to lead the backcourt off the bench. The Spurs have a large collection of players that can go out and give you 30 minutes of good basketball, and overall the San Antonio is an incredibly efficient team, with five players shooting over 50 percent from the field. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder are a much younger team than the Spurs, a 19-game winning streak towards the end of the season helped them earn the #1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. In the first round of the playoffs, it seemed the Spurs would easily be able to beat the washed-up Dallas Mavericks, who had the #8 seed and a 49-33 record. After narrowly defeating Dallas 90-85 in Game 1 with 27 points and 7 rebounds being provided by Tim "The Big Fundamental" Duncan, San Antonio dropped the next game to the Mavericks 113-92, despite the 27 points poured in by Manu Ginobli. Heading to Dallas for Game 3, the Spurs narrowly lost a heartbreaker, 109-108. The sky was supposedly falling in San Antonio, but then the Spurs came back and just barely beat Dallas, 93-89. They won Game 5 109-103, before losing 113-111 Game 6. That set up a crucial deciding Game 7. But it was not as close as some thought it might be, San Antonio led 35-23 at the end of the 1st quarter, and 68-46 at halftime. They handily defeated the #5 seeded Portland Trailblazers in 5 games in the Conference Semifinals. They beat the rival Thunder in Games 1 and 2 of the Conference Finals by an average of 26 points, then traveled to Oklahoma City and lost Games 3 and 4 by an average of 11 points. They closed out OKC easily though winning Games 6 and 7 by an average of 16.5 points to seal their ticket to a second-straight Finals and a rematch with the Miami Heat.
The Heat have an above-average backcourt led by Mario Chalmers and Dwayne Wade. However, Wade missed 28 games with a knee injury, and Chalmers has taken a step back from last year. Meanwhile, Tony Parker and Danny Green of the Spurs have been playing just as good if not better than last year. It will be an interesting matchup here, and it will be necessary for Chalmers to cancel out Green, who can get hot from three-point range at any time. Wade versus Parker will also be interesting. Parker is instrumental in orchestrating San Antonio's offense, while Wade is a dominant off-the-ball scorer. If they cancel each other out, the advantage will most definitely go to the Heat, since Parker is San Antonio's leading scorer. But it probably won't be enough. Wade, Lebron James, and Chris Bosh are the three most consistent scorers on this Heat team, and no one else can consistently put up big numbers. If San Antonio took away one of the Heat's top scorers, at the expense of giving backup Point Guard Patty Mills more points, they would happily do that.
This is also an interesting matchup. The Heat have arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA with Lebron James, Udonis Haslem/Shane Battier/Rashard Lewis, and Chris Bosh. The Spurs, too, have a great frontcourt trio of Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Tiago Splitter. Leonard is an excellent defender, and was recently named to the All-NBA First Defensive Team. He could potentially disrupt Lebron James' offensive game, as he did inconsistently give James headaches in last year's Finals. This year, the 22-year old is a year older and a year better. In order for the Heat to win this series, James will have to average at least 30 points per game, with more than one 40-point explosion. And on the other side, the Heat have no answer for Tim Duncan, the greatest Power Forward in NBA history. Though Lebron James' mystique gives the Heat the slight edge in this category, it should be very close.
The Spurs have one of the best bench-units in the NBA, with Guards Patty Mills, Manu Ginobli, and Cory Joseph, Forwards Marco Belinelli, Aron Bynes, and Boris Diaw, and Centers Tiago Splitter, Jeff Ayres, and Matt Bonner. The Heat also have a deep bench, but as I elaborated on earlier, San Antonio has the best bench in the league.