05 June 2013

NBA Finals Preview: Spurs in 7 or Heat in 6?

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Where's Luigi?

I'm holding a bunk ticket. Oklahoma City to win the NBA Championship.

The Miami Heat went into the 2012-13 season as the consensus favorite to repeat as NBA Champions. When the playoffs rolled around, they were still the favorite and still buzzing from a 27-game winning streak during a regular season in which they ripped off 66 wins and a mere 16 losses.

Oklahoma City caught the shit end of fate. The injury gods rolled the dice and Russell Westbrook's number got called. A Westbrook-less OKC crapped out in the second round to the upstart Grizzles. At one point, the Griz looked like the hottest team in the playoffs, but they ran out of gas and fizzled out in the Western Conference Finals. It was an uneventful series against San Antonio and the Spurs swept them in four games. The Griz put up a valiant fight in two of them -- both games in which they forced an overtime -- yet the Spurs pulled away in OT. Both times.

Although the Griz surprised a lot of folks (especially the stunned L.A. Clippers) in this year's postseason, they got a lucky draw with OKC sans Westbrook. But then the Griz ran into the Spurs, who played like a team on a mission. Even though two games went into overtime, I got the general sense that the Spurs/Griz series was more like a sparring session. The Griz went a few rounds in the gym, just to give the Spurs a sweat and one last workout before their title fight against the champion Miami Heat.

The aging Spurs got the benefit of finishing their series early and were rewarded with nine days off, while the Pacers extended their series against Miami to a full seven games.

The Miami Heat are -220 to win the championship and their opponents, the San Antonio Spurs, are +200. The Spurs are worth a (moderate) look only because the Heat played the max games in the last two series, plus everyone doesn't know the extent of injuries to D-Wade and Chris Bosh. The entire Heat squad took a pounding in the last two physically-demanding series and truly earned their ticket to the finals. Besides, Miami looked vulnerable at times against a Chicago Bulls squad that only had Joakim Noah and a bunch of scrubs. Yet despite the dinged-up roster of no names, Tom Thibodeau and his defensive-hive-minded Bulls were like Rocky Balboa in Rocky I and they forced Miami to play a full series of old-school ground-and-pound hoops. Alas, no one could stop LeBron James in Game 7 and the Heat prevailed.

The Pacers beat up on the lowly Knicks in the second round and everyone thought they'd lie down in five games against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat did not get a pushover for an opponent, especially after the emergence of Roy Hibbert and the fact that the Pacers refused to follow the script.

After two brutal back-to-back seven-game series, even the defending champions are battle weary. The Heat are still the favorites to win the NBA Finals, yet they're limping into Game 1 while the Spurs are well-rested. Miami should be able to pick up a win in the first game if the Spurs come out rusty because sometimes too much rest is a bad thing and you lose your rhythm if you've had over a week off (nine days in Spurs' case) versus a team that is used to playing every other night. Then again, I keep coming back to this fact: Miami's troops have been under siege for 14 straight games.

Choke up on the bat, Bosh!

I'm pretty sure Miami's head coach Erik Spoelstra read his fair share of Sun Tzu (if not on his own, Pat Riley gives the Art of War as a perennial Christmas gift to all Miami Heat employees), so he's aware of the perils of troop exhaustion. On the flip side, coach Gregg Popovich was an Air Force Academy grad and part of the reason the Spurs played so well the last two seasons (especially during the shortened season last year) was due to Pop's keen attention to providing his veterans rest... even if they wanted to play. Let's not forget about the incident early in the season when Pop sent his veterans back to San Antonio to patch their old bones, while he took the Spurs' B-team into Miami to play the Heat in a gym where they rarely loses. Supreme Commander David Stern was not pleased with Pop's philosophy on troop rotation, and he mercilessly fined Pop and the Spurs for not dressing his vets in a nationally televised game.

"It's not show friends, it's show business!"

Pop and Spoelstra are among the elite coaches in the NBA because of their ability to tweak lineups, exploit mismatches, and make the correct adjustments. Miami rarely loses two games in a row, especially in the playoffs because Spoelstra's game plan following a loss is so impeccable that it's almost foolproof. If the Spurs want to win the NBA title, they will have to beat Miami twice in a row at least once in this series, which seems improbable.

The Spurs can win the title without Miami losing two in a row, but they must win Game 1, then they zig-zag the rest of the series before stealing game 7 in Miami.

That perfect scenario is... Spurs. Miami. Spurs. Miami. Spurs. Miami. Spurs.

Although, Pop would love to see this miraculous outcome... Spurs. Miami. Spurs. Spurs. Spurs.

In reality, we'll probably see Miami in 6 or... Miami. Spurs. Miami. Spurs. Miami. Miami.

Duncan! Get me two. Two meatball sandwiches.

One of my favorite sportswriters covering the NBA is Zach Lowe (from Grantland) and if Zach thinks Miami will win in six, then it's hard to argue against him. Zach is not quite the Nate Silver of the NBA beat writers, but he's someone who understand match-ups as well as, if not better than professional gamblers. Check out Zach's NBA Final Preview in which he wonders if either team can win by playing Small Ball. I guess in the end it comes down to Miami's ability to stop a deep-penetrating Tony Parker and if Kawhi Leonard can step up and guard Lebron James. Leonard doesn't have to shut down LBJ completely (which is impossible), but anything Leonard can do to disrupt LBJ's rhythm on offense will be an added bonus. Using a line about Michael Jordan from the old late night versions of Sportscenter in the 90s, "You can't stop LBJ, you can only hope to contain him."

This year's match up was what many pundits thought we would see last June. Alas, in 2012 OKC emerged as the new kids on the block and picked off the Spurs. This season, we thought we'd see a rematch of last year's final -- OKC/Miami -- but we got last year's expected match-up between Miami and San Antonio.

A few weeks before the season began, I thought the Lakers would knock off the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs and square off against OKC in the Western Conference Finals. NBA suits and TV execs had a huge stiffy thinking about the battle of Big 3s.... Kobe/Howard/Nash vs. Durant/Westbrook/Harden. Then Harden got traded to Houston, then Nash went down with an injury and then the Lakers' head coach got the bad end of a Kobe Death Stare and he was fired a couple of weeks into the season and replaced by Mike D'Antoni. Howard was still sluggish post-back surgery and the Lakers played like bush leaguers for most of the season and were damn lucky to sneak into the postseason through the backdoor. Anyway, the Lakers blew chunks this season, which is why OKC and San Antonio easily finished 1-2 atop of the Western Conference.

If Westbrook doesn't blow out his knee, then I'm writing about the repeat of last year's final between OKC and Miami and I'm giddy as a kid on Christmas morning clutching my OKC Championship ticket. But injuries are dream killers. That's the uncertainty of professional sports. Every team is just one injury away from flushing their championship dreams down the toilet.

I only like the Spurs for potential value because on paper Miami should win in six, just as Zach Lowe predicted. The consensus is Miami -220 and San Antonio +200. I did not bet this series, but I kind of wish I jumped on the Spurs when they were +225 at some shops on Monday night.

Last evening, the best prices on the Spurs could be found at Euro books. The Spurs were +200 on Paddy Power and you could find +204 via Betfair (which has since fallen to +194). On some of the "square" offshore books, the Spurs were only +175 (Sportsbook.com) and +185 (Bovada)

If you want to bet the favorite and back the Miami Heat, then Billy Hill has Miami -225, while Paddy Power had listed Miami at -240 last night, but it's dropped to -220 on the day of the game. The best price for the Heat is at Sportsbook for -205, while Bovada listed them at -210.

At press time (according to PreGame's Sportsbook Spy), most of the public money is on the Spurs -5 in Game 1. The line opened at -6 and dropped to -5.5 for the last day or so before it moved toward -5. Who knows where the wise guys end up because word on the street is split. A couple syndicates gobbled up Spurs +6 when the lines were released.

And who the hell knows which team Floyd Mayweather likes in the NBA Finals. Last I heard, he degen'd it up with serious action on Division III women's softball.

Pauly is the author of Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker.

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