The Miami Heat against the San Antonio Spurs. Our panel breaks down the NBA Finals.
1. What does Miami need to accomplish to justify the Big Three hype?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: I think it's unfair to demand a team justify the public attention it generated. If the question is, "Given who they are, how many titles should they win?" then 2.5 is a reasonable over-under. Only a few teams a decade win multiple titles, which means it's a rarified accomplishment, no matter how high the expectations.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Honestly? Unless the Heat shock the world and rebound emphatically from the pounding they took from Indy to blow San Antonio away -- which I don't see happening -- this group can't. Not even if it wins it all. This group no longer has the look of a long-term contender. I expect changes even if the Heat manage to win this series.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: I believe three consecutive Finals trips already justifies the experiment. Yes, LeBron said, "not one, not two, not three, not four" when talking championships, but folks were angry enough at the time to ignore how he was saying it tongue in cheek. Are we really going to hold the Heat expectations to some offhand pep rally quote? Seems silly when nobody else is making three consecutive Finals.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com At least three titles. The bare minimum for LeBron and the Heat to consider a season meaningful is if they reach the NBA Finals. They haven't failed to do so in their three seasons together. But it will take winning another couple of championships to meet the expectations they set in 2010.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: They certainly need to win multiple titles. I never considered the "not five, not six ..." to be any sort of guarantee or standard they had to achieve to validate themselves; it was just part of a pompous moment. This team does, though, want to prove it is one of the best ever. That's all that matters to them. They are talking dynasty, and they need titles to be one.
2. Will San Antonio's size bother Miami as much as Indiana's did?
Arnovitz: No, largely because San Antonio doesn't have the same length, even though Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan are one of the best frontcourt defensive tandems in the league. It wasn't just Roy Hibbert who bothered Miami. With the Pacers, it's the reach of every guy on the floor and how the length enables them to close out on shooters and plug passing lanes effectively. The Spurs' defensive strength is precision, not size.
Stein: It can. The bar has been set pretty high, though. Tiago Splitter will have to operate at a pretty decent level to help Tim Duncan out. We know Duncan is going to be a problem for Miami, especially with fresh legs. He has the mobility to keep up with Chris Bosh, and he'll be hard for the Heat to guard. Yet I have to admit that I thought I'd be saying all this with more certainty. The problem: Roy Hibbert played so well -- so much better offensively than he ever has -- that you can't be totally sure.
Strauss: No, because all size isn't equal. Tiago Splitter weighs less than LeBron James, and both Splitter and Duncan are shorter than Roy Hibbert. Though San Antonio grabs a lot of defensive rebounds, it snagged the fewest offensive boards of any team this season. The skill of Duncan and Splitter will bother Miami, but their success won't look like Hibbert's inexorable Shaq imitation last series.
Wallace: No. The Spurs are long with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter but not as athletic or overwhelmingly physical as David West and Roy Hibbert. San Antonio will still be a tough cover inside. But Chris Bosh's disappearing act will end when Game 1 starts.
Windhorst: No. The real issue was how Roy Hibbert was able to protect the rim. The rebounding was an ancillary problem the Heat can deal with. At times, they had no answer for what Hibbert was doing. The Spurs are good defensively, but they are not as good as the Pacers. And Duncan, with all due respect, is not the defensive force Hibbert is.
3. Should LeBron James guard Tony Parker?
Arnovitz: For short stretches. Varying the coverage is the best way to defend Parker. Sometimes that means throwing size and strength at him; other times it means quickness. The Heat will want to blitz Parker on pick-and-rolls, and they should -- but not always because Parker is unstoppable when he knows what's coming.
Stein: I wouldn't ask LeBron to do it a lot. Only situationally. The offensive load he has to carry these days is too heavy to ask him to chase around the best Tony Parker we've ever seen. Erik Spoelstra will have to be judicious.
Strauss: It should rarely happen. LeBron was the ideal cover on Derrick Rose in 2011 because Chicago didn't have much offense apart from D-Rose dribbling. The Spurs are different. Theirs is a collective attack, one that springs Tony Parker with multiple screens. It just seems like a waste of James' defensive talent and energy to run him through multiple picks on defense all series. He's better on isolation shooters.
Wallace: Not from the outset. Eventually, James will have a shift or two down the stretch of close games on Parker, but he might find himself defending Manu Ginobili or even Tim Duncan in doses. But Parker's perfection in pick-and-roll sets might neutralize the LeBron matchup a bit.
Windhorst: Not at the start, but he may at the finish. It won't just be about individual matchups; it will be the scheme. The Heat prefer to pressure the ball handler and trap him off screens, but Parker may be the best screen splitter in the game and is just fantastic with the dribble in the half court. The Heat have to evaluate how much they want to gamble defensively more than just who guards him.
4. Which team is nearer to the end of its era?
Arnovitz: Tough to say. Duncan's retirement will definitely signal the end of an era, but all season long he's looked as if he has two elite seasons left in him. The Big Three will be eligible for opt-outs next July. Would the departure of, say, Chris Bosh signal the end of an era even if LeBron returned? If yes, then Miami is the answer.
Stein: Depends on how you define "era." As long as Miami can hang on to LeBron, which I expect, I would have to say San Antonio is closer to the end. I guess I'm in the minority, but I don't see LeBron bolting for the Lakers or Dallas or wherever to try to form a new superteam just because the Heat are suddenly limping into the Finals. I expect LeBron to bet on Pat Riley to figure out how to reload. My argument will be obliterated if LeBron leaves in the summer of 2014, but gullible me sees him staying.
Strauss: I'll err on the side of LeBron re-signing and go with San Antonio. The caveat being that if James leaves in 2014, the Spurs' era outlasts Miami's. Chris Bosh looked horrible last series, but he should bounce back eventually. Even if Dwyane Wade crumbles over the next season, LeBron plus Bosh is enough for a Finals run over the next few seasons.
Wallace: The Spurs, simply because of the age of their Big Three. As we see time and time again, the impending demise of the Heat's Big Three is completely premature. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are in no rush to end their run together, regardless of their ability to opt out of their contracts after next season.
Windhorst: Spurs. As long as you have LeBron in his prime, no matter who else is on your team, you have time on your side.
5. Who wins the NBA Finals?
Miami in 7. I love Miami-San Antonio because these are the two most intuitive basketball teams in the league, yet they apply those intuitions so differently. Miami has the home-court advantage, which is an important edge in such a tight matchup.
Stein: I've got the Spurs in six. The long layoff is a concern, but the energy Miami had to expend just to get past Indy offsets that somewhat. San Antonio's versatility, depth, better shooting, advantage at the point and superior execution add up to a lot for the Heat to overcome. The Spurs can play big and play small ball. Can the LeBron Factor trump all that? I don't see it this time.
Strauss: I'll go Heat in 7, but not with any degree of confidence. The Spurs are a theoretical Heat-buster of a team. Miami is shaky at defending 3-pointers; San Antonio shoots 3s well. Miami likes to shoot 3s; San Antonio defends the 3. Throw in San Antonio's solid front line and quick point guard and we're looking at a lot of factors that gave Miami trouble over the years. But only one team has LeBron James, and it's the one I'm picking.
Wallace: Heat in 7, but don't hold me to it. I've been saying for six months that if the Spurs are healthy they're the one team with the perfect combination of title experience, great point guard play, effective post play, good 3-point shooting and exceptional coaching it would take to knock off the Heat.
Windhorst: Heat in 7. This is way more of a guess than usual though because these teams have played exactly one real game over the past two seasons, and even that one was an outlier because of crazy 3-point shooting. But you have LeBron at the top of his game and with full confidence and experience in these spots. It's hard to rationally pick against that.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz, Marc Stein, Michael Wallace and Brian Windhorst write for ESPN.com. Ethan Sherwood Strauss covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
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