Some of the best things in life come in threes: Star Wars movies, meals, outs in baseball, and many other things. After all, Schoolhouse Rock said it best, “Three is a magic number.” Most video games give you three lives to start out with, too.
Why am I three-obsessed today? Well, maybe it has something to do with the NBA Finals, where both teams come in sporting their own “Big Three” of star players. For the San Antonio Spurs, it’s wizened veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. For the Miami Heat, it’s the much-ballyhooed LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. Miami has seemed invincible at times, not the least of which was during their 27-game winning streak earlier in the year.
While both teams have won titles, the Spurs come in having won four during Duncan’s tenure with the team, to Miami’s one. While this team is quite different from the one that won the title in ’99, it still fits in nicely with the Spurs’ winning tradition. Known for its stifling defense for much of recent history, San Antonio actually ranked third in the NBA in scoring this season, ahead of Miami at seventh (!) Miami has the upper hand in defense, ranking second with 87.6 points allowed per game, but San Antonio isn’t far behind at 91.5 and fourth. So the statistics suggest this is going to be an intense series. Let’s break the teams down position by position and see who has the upper hand.
Point Guard: Tony Parker vs. Mario Chalmers
No real question as to who has the edge here. I’m not knocking Chalmers, who is an excellent player, but Parker is what makes the Spurs offense go. He is excellent at slashing to the hoop and creating his own shot, and is a good facilitator when he needs to be. Chalmers went from being a star at Kansas to a supporting player in Miami, and does a good job with the offense. But he’s nowhere near the all-world talent that Parker is. Edge: Spurs
Shooting Guard: Danny Green/Manu Ginobili vs. Dwayne Wade
Manu Ginobili probably should be considered the Spurs’ shooting guard, but he’s used to coming off the bench, and is most effective in that role. Green plays well enough to hold down the job while he’s not around. Green has bounced around the league for years, getting cut twice before finally finding a home with the Spurs. Green has averaged a workmanlike 9.6 points per game in the playoffs to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists, which supports Ginobili’s superior 11.5/4.5/5.4 nicely. Wade has struggled mightily for most of the playoffs, but came alive in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, netting 21 points and 9 boards while playing much better on the defensive end. If Wade keeps this going, the Heat have a definite edge here, but for now, I’m going with consistency. Edge: Spurs, unless Wade plays to his potential
Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James
Another no-brainer. Leonard has pitched in very well and has overachieved as a rookie, but Bron Bron is the hands-down best player in the world. There was a cool feature in last week’s Sports Illustrated about how amazingly versatile James is. He has the size and skills to play any position on the floor, something even Michael Jordan couldn’t claim in his prime. Calling him a small forward is merely a label of convenience. He can slash to the basket (witness his game-winning layup against the Pacers in Game 1), play stifling defense, and he’s even becoming a better spot-up shooter, especially from the corner. Edge: Heat
Power Forward: Tim Duncan vs. Udonis Haslem
Dammit, with all these big threes I was expecting some clash-of-titans-esque matchups here. But this one’s also pretty easy to decide, too. Tim Duncan may have lost a step with age, but he’s still a prolific player on both ends of the court. He hasn’t averaged 20 points a game in any regular season since 2006-07, but is still a good rebounder (9.9 per game this season), and clogs up the lane (2.7 blocks per game). Duncan, like many players in this series, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, something that cannot be said of Haslam. Don’t sleep on him, though; along with Wade, he is the last remaining member of the Heat’s 2006 championship team, so he has the experience to hurt you if you let him. Edge: Spurs
Center: Tiago Splitter vs. Chris Bosh
Now that Splitter has finally cracked the league, he has been a stable presence at center for the Spurs. Bosh is not your prototypical center in terms of defensive prowess, but he can still score and rebound very well. His scoring has dipped in the playoffs some, but he should easily be better than Splitter. Like Wade, Bosh is one of those players that needs to get his points in order for the Heat to win easily. Edge: Heat
While it still sickens this Celtics fan to see Ray Allen in a Heat uniform, he is part of a versatile and productive bench. Allen and Mike Miller are great long distance shooters that can space the floor for the Heat. Miller has shot only .278 from distance in the playoffs after shooting over .400 in the regular season, so his impact could be limited. Allen has averaged around .350 in both the season and the playoffs. Shane Battier is one of the hardest-working players in basketball, doing many valuable things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. And Chris “Birdman” Andersen is a force on defense, as demonstrated by this epic block of a Tyler Hansbrough shot in the Eastern Finals. The Spurs’ bench has less star power, and has been pretty quiet in the playoffs aside from Matt Bonner, who has provided several highlight-reel plays. Boris Diaw has also done well splitting center duties with Splitter. Edge: Heat
Coaching: Gregg Popovich vs. Erik Spoelstra
Both coaches have outstanding records. Spoelstra has been the coach throughout the Big Three’s tenure in Miami, and has managed the egos of his players well. While it may seem easy to coach a team loaded with stars, it can be dangerous to team chemistry (just ask Mike D’Antoni and the Lakers). Popovich has a much longer record of success, having guided the Spurs to wins in nearly 70% of their games since taking over in 1996. He has done so relatively quietly too, with his teams not having the media clout that other teams have over his tenure (Bulls, Lakers, and now the Heat). He is a master strategist, and convinces every player to buy into his system that has produced four championships. Edge: Spurs
Prediction: The Spurs, as noted before, have been consistently excellent for years, and have won every Finals they have appeared in. The Heat’s aura of invincibility was undermined by the Pacers for the second straight conference finals. After struggling in the clutch early on in his career, LeBron James has been the best player on his team in crunch time the last two seasons. I think the big x-factor is Dwayne Wade. If he gets close to 20 points every game, the Heat will win. If the Spurs can neutralize the Heat’s star players aside from James, they will win the series in a similar fashion to the way they beat James in the 2007 Finals when he was a Cleveland Cavalier. As far as which I think will happen, I’m picking the Heat in seven games, but it could just as easily go the other way.