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Three match-ups to watch closely when Heat take on Spurs in NBA Finals

Jun 3, 2014, 10:07 AM EDT

Kawhi Leonard ,LeBron James Kawhi Leonard ,LeBron James

Playoffs series are all about match-ups — can you get a favorable one, exploit it and gain an edge. Can you force a player into something he doesn’t do well — drag a slow-footing big man out to defend the pick-and-roll, or post up a smaller defender and pound him with size.

The team that can win the key match-ups in a series usually wins.

Miami and San Antonio are in the NBA Finals starting Thursday night in part because they create and exploit mismatches better than most. The Spurs do it through system, the Heat because LeBron James is a walking mismatch.

Here are three match-ups to watch in these Finals.

LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. This is the one in the spotlight — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will have their moments but LeBron James doesn’t just drive the Miami bus, it is his bus. Last Finals Kawhi Leonard had success on LeBron by going under every pick, playing back and daring him to take jump shots, and that carried over to the team’s two regular season meetings — LeBron was 5-of-22 outside the restricted area in those two games. Also this regular season, Miami scored 87.9 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the court and 114.5 when he sat. In Game 7 of the Finals last season LeBron took 20-of-23 shots outside the paint — he’s going to hit some, LeBron is good like that, but he’s the best finisher at the rim in the game. Better to have him fire away from the outside if you are the Spurs. Watch where LeBron is shooting from in this series.

[MORE: Five things that are different in this rematch]

Danny Green vs. Dwyane Wade. Another matchup where the Heat had some success last season, although that speaks more to the state of Dwyane Wade’s knees at the time than some magical defensive formula. When Wade was on the court in the 2013 Finals (254 minutes) the Spurs were +10.2 per 48 minutes, when he sat the Heat were +27.4 per 48 (just 86 minutes). Dwyane Wade is moving and playing much better these playoffs, shooting 51 percent, and he is more aggressive in getting to the rim. The Spurs will try to make him a jump shooter as well, but he will put more pressure on them this year. On the other end, Danny Green has been huge for the Spurs offense with his ability to hit threes and the Spurs are +15.2 per 100 possessions when he is on the court these playoffs. Remember he hit seven three pointers in one Finals game last season, the Heat need to track him better.

Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan. Bosh will be one of the biggest keys for the Heat at both ends of the court and he is going to have to have a big Finals for the Heat to threepeat. On offense, he had two monster regular season games against San Antonio, scoring 24 in each on a combined 19-of-26 shooting. His ability to pull Duncan away from the basket defensively and defend the arc will open up driving lanes for LeBron and Wade. On the other end, the Spurs are going to make Bosh defend the pick-and-roll and he has to cut off Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s path into the paint — when those two get in the lane they can break down any defense, Bosh has to slow them at the point of attack. But he just can’t focus on them, Duncan averaged 23 points a game in the two regular season meetings this season and was knocking down midrange shots as well, plus exploiting some post up opportunities. If Duncan is abusing Bosh it will force Spoelstra to change lineups early.

  1. tigerpork - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    I think the new 2-2-1-1-1 format will favor the Spurs. Your 2014 champions of the world.

    • azarkhan - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:35 AM

      The old 2-3-2 format favored the home team, the new one does not.

      • Tess - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:04 PM

        2-2-1-1-1 has always favored the home team. Just because it’s the default doesn’t mean it doesn’t provide a significant boost to the team that home court.

    • Professor Fate - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      Stern put in the 2-3-2 format in 1985 after three consecutive Finals – and nine in a span of 10 years – had played across three time zones. Six of those nine had gone at least to Game 6, requiring additional coast-to-coast travel at a time when the teams flew commercially (http://hangtime.blogs.nba.com/2013/09/29/nba-weighs-finals-switch-to-2-2-1-1-1/).

      My impression back then was that the new format was a hindrance to the better team, but it turns out that the team with games 1, 2, 6, & 7 won 21 of 29 finals (.724). In the prior 38 finals the team with games 1, 2, 5, & 7 went 26-12 (.684).

      • papichulo55 - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:25 PM

        Goos stats. Thanks.

    • antistratfordian - Jun 3, 2014 at 5:11 PM

      The only difference is that Game 5 and 6 are swapped. Nothing changes through the first 4 games. So conventional wisdom holds true – the Spurs are going to be in the hot seat if they lose one of the first two games.

      Miami isn’t fragile at home like they were last season, where they even dropped a home game to the Bulls in the 2nd round.

  2. goldmember21 - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    Lakers in 6.

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      Knicks in 5.

      • basketballhooper1 - Jun 3, 2014 at 5:07 PM

        Sonics in 9

  3. fanofthegame79 - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    LeBron needs to keep attacking the rim. He should use his size and strength to post up Leonard as much as possible, keep sucking in the defense and allow Bosh some space to move, allow his shooters to sit on the 3-point arc, and force Wade to play like he has this post season (aggressive and attacking).

  4. aboogy123456 - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    Lebron James is either too fast or too strong for everybody in the league. This is where Kawhi Leonard comes in, he’s the only player in the league who can match both the speed and strength of Lebron. I don’t think he is skilled or creative enough offensively to consistently find other ways to score.

    • kinggw - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      Then you haven’t been watching basketball very long. No one in the league can slow down LBJ. Leonard is no different.

    • calkinsrob - Jun 3, 2014 at 4:07 PM

      Jimmy butler is also a guy who can do the most on defense against lebron. but lets be honest no one on this planet can contain him very well, it takes great team defense to slow down lebron.

  5. wordyduke - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    In individual games, the winner of these matchups is likely to be whoever can sucker his defender into foul trouble.

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:48 PM

      Pacers were real suckers.

      • bball242322 - Jun 5, 2014 at 12:12 PM

        You’re a real sucker jimmeejohnson

  6. prareedoggin - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    As a team without homecourt i believe the 2-3-2 format is more beneficial. Split the first two and take homecourt, then have 3 at home

  7. golfrangeman - Jun 3, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    @ professor fate looks like the format doesn’t make much difference 68% to 72%. I never liked the 232 because the away team has to clinch on the road unless they win in 4 or 5 (which doesn’t happen to often) and the home team can be down in the series without losing at home. That just doesn’t seem right either.

  8. limonadamas - Jun 3, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    As much as it pains me to say, the Heat are going to win. If Parker were healthy, the odds would probably swing the other direction, but the Spurs don’t have anyone to break down the defense off the dribble consistently without Tony. Plus, Bosh will wreak havoc on Duncan by drawing him out to the 3-point line. The Heat are healthy this year and the Spurs are not. Simple as that.

    • aboogy123456 - Jun 3, 2014 at 4:11 PM

      I think the spurs are in a better position to handle a Parker injury this year than last year. Their depth is much better with Mills, Bellinelli, Joseph all playing well. Also, Ginobili was pretty bad in last year’s finals, and he has looked much better in this year’s playoffs. Also it goes both ways with Bosh. If the heat go small and play bosh at center, the spurs will play Diaw, who will dominate whoever is guarding him in the post. Rather than dominate the post with Duncan as well, they can put in splitter who has great foot speed and can play Bosh out on the three. Great series if you love X’s and O’s

      • limonadamas - Jun 4, 2014 at 2:59 PM

        Perhaps… I agree that Ginobili looks better than last year. But Wade does too. That evens out, in my mind. I don’t think Diaw can dominate Bosh in the post. It also throws the team off its rhythm when they try to do things that are out of their comfort level. Bosh had a great Game 6 against OKC, but a lot of his post buckets were against Derek Fisher. They’re not going to put Chalmers on Diaw.

        I completely agree that this series has a lot of interesting X/O’s though. Hopefully SAS can pull it off. =)

    • savvybynature - Jun 4, 2014 at 12:38 AM

      I agree that Parker’s health will be key, but I doubt Bosh shooting 3s will swing the series. It’s possible, but he isn’t an elite 3-point shooter, just an adequate one.

      • limonadamas - Jun 4, 2014 at 3:03 PM

        We’ll see. I just read an article by Kirk Goldsberry about Bosh’s shooting splits. He’s definitely become a regular three-point threat this year, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. This wasn’t the case last year. If he pulls Duncan or Splitter to the 3 point line, the defense will be off-kilter. I don’t think Duncan’s post game is good enough anymore to make up for it on the other end.

        This Heat team runs very differently from last year’s, even though the players are the same. It’ll be fun to see what happens either way. Rooting for a great series!

  9. antistratfordian - Jun 3, 2014 at 5:22 PM

    The Spurs are going to have their hands full with LeBron because he’s shooting 82% inside the restricted area in the postseason. He is just so much better down there, and he’s much better at getting down there.

    But how ridiculous is 82%? Last season LeBron shot 69% from the same area. Tim Duncan is shooting 69% from that distance right now. Blake Griffin shot 69% from that distance in the playoffs this year. Shaquille O’Neal’s high from 0-3 feet during his Lakers championship run was 76%.

    He’s also shooting a career high in the playoffs from 3-10 feet. 56%. And he’s also up 4 percentage points from 10-16 feet.

    Good luck, SAS! You’re going to need it.

    • bball242322 - Jun 5, 2014 at 12:14 PM

      God you’re obsession with Lebron is so tiring. U comment about licking Lebron’s nuts every single article that comes out. We get it, Lebron is the best all-around player in the league, doesn’t mean he has the better team

      • antistratfordian - Jun 6, 2014 at 4:42 AM

        Grow up.

  10. newyorkball82 - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:07 PM

    Does everybody really think that the spurs don’t have a way of stopping Lebron or slowing him down? They don’t need to hold him to 0 points, they only need to make it harder for him to score, that’s all. That means the whole spurs team will be involved, not just Leonard. The 2-2-1-1-1 format can be thrown out the window as a factor in this series, imo. This is going to be a game by game challenge for each team, whether at home or not. Even for the almighty heat.

  11. bknowledge - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:07 PM

    Trying to imagine how I’d guard Miami if I were the Spurs…
    Some kind of flexible zone…
    Better to have Diaw guard Wade/lay way off him and let him shoot the 3 (Wade shot 28% from the 3 this year)
    and
    Have Green guard Bosh…I’m not sure Bosh can get by Green off the dribble…if they post Bosh the Spurs could send double teams…

  12. pistolpete0903 - Jun 4, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    Some mention on the bench strength? As good as Lebron is playing, he won’t be able to play 40+ minutes at a high level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pop throwing different defenders at James in one game (Diaw, Leonard, maybe the undersized Green as well).
    Should be like a well played out chess match for the first few games.

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