What would a potential Finals matchup between the teams with the two best records in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, look like? What would be the strategy of the coaches? How would the individual defensive assignments work out?
No one knows.
In a league that thrives on rivalry development with regular-season meetings leading to a crescendo in the postseason, the Heat and Spurs might as well play on different continents. Because of scheduling quirks and Gregg Popovich’s expensive decision on player rest earlier this season, the Spurs and Heat have only staged one legitimate game in the past 25 months.
All of which makes Sunday’s Heat visit to the Spurs all the more interesting. There’s an absence of data and an absence of feel between these two teams that could play for the title in June. Not to mention there’s the race for the No. 1 overall seed. The Heat come in with a two-game lead in the loss column, and a victory would clinch the tiebreaker.
If not for a meaningless preseason game that LeBron James didn’t even play in last October, the Heat might not know that Manu Ginobili is still in the league. Ginobili hasn’t played a regular-season game against the Heat since March 4, 2011, and he’s dealing with a hamstring injury that will likely keep him out Sunday.
The past two games the teams played in which they put out their real lineups have been lopsided blowouts because of unusual hot shooting. The Heat won the only meeting in a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season when they set several records in shooting 68 percent in the second half. The Spurs won the Heat’s last visit to San Antonio more than two years ago by 30 points when Miami was totally flat playing on the second night of a back-to-back that saw San Antonio take a 24-point lead … in the first quarter.
In December, Popovich famously sent Ginobili, Duncan, Tony Parker and Danny Green home on a commercial flight instead of playing them in the fourth game in five nights in a nationally-televised game in their only visit to Miami. Leonard and Stephen Jackson were injured at the time as well and did not play.
The Spurs' backups made it an interesting game with a gutty performance -- commissioner David Stern was not impressed and fined the Spurs $250,000 for Popovich's decision -- and the Heat barely pulled out a five-point win. But that game was as worthless as the preseason game when he comes to judging the two teams’ relative strength against each other.
Schematically, the Spurs have the ingredients and the system to give the Heat plenty of problems. Parker’s quickness is an antidote to the Heat’s pressure defense, as is the Spurs’ longstanding offensive style of moving the ball around the perimeter to set up 3-point shooters. The Spurs also have the ability to go small because of versatile big man Boris Diaw and Leonard’s ability to guard so many different players.
San Antonio has also perfected a defensive trick that would be very useful against the Heat: avoiding fouls. The Spurs have given up the third fewest free throws in the league this season. The Heat are in the top 10 in free throws taken and fouls drawn.
In theory, and that’s about all we have, the Spurs also have strong wing defenders in Leonard and Jackson, who at least give them a chance at making James and Wade earn their points.
Of course, the Heat own advantages over every opponent. Their athleticism and speed in transition would be a big issue for the Spurs, especially over a long series. Even with Duncan and Parker having terrific seasons, there is some doubt that San Antonio can overcome the troubles the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young legs gave them in the playoffs last season. The Spurs are 2-1 against the Thunder this season with one more game coming in Oklahoma City.
The Spurs’ defensive style of protecting the middle -- very successful over the past decade -- is the sort of system the Heat have been constructed to defeat. Miami’s 3-point shooters are a tough cover for any team, and the Spurs would be no different. And wouldn’t it be interesting to see James possibly defending Parker in the stretch run or even Duncan -- both are possible -- and give the Heat a lot of matchup flexibility?
The hope is some of those situations unfold in a real sample on Sunday. The game has real stakes and could, at last, give a real look at how these two juggernauts compare.
Then again, nothing with the Spurs and Heat has gone according to plan for awhile.