If you're looking for trends, evidence and head-to-head tendencies to help you formulate an opinion as to who will emerge victorious from the NBA Finals, good luck. You need to go back pretty far in the archives.
The Heat and Spurs haven't played each other at full strength -- Big Three vs. Big Three -- since March 2011, a 110-80 victory by Miami. They met only once during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season -- another Miami blowout that did not include Dwyane Wade or Manu Ginobili.
This season's two matchups are of no use. Back in November, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich famously sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green home from a long road trip that ended with a five-point loss in Miami. The Spurs also were without Kawhi Leonard, which is sort of important since he'll be the one guarding LeBron James when the Finals begin Thursday night at American Airlines Arena in Miami.
The Heat returned the favor in March, holding James and Wade out with injuries in a two-point victory at San Antonio -- a game in which the Spurs also didn't have Ginobili. So, in trying to figure out who has the upper hand in the Finals, I'm not looking at all at the head-to-head matchups. Tendencies and mismatches can be much better detected when looking at what each team did in the regular season against everybody else.
We have all the data and video in the world available to us, but most of it just complicates things more than they need to be. As James said after losing Game 6 to the Pacers, as well as before and after Game 7, it's only a basketball game. It's not that hard to figure out what leads to winning and losing in the playoffs.
Think about what separates two good, evenly matched teams in a given game or series: turnovers, offensive rebounding, 3-pointers and free throws. It's a slightly different spin on the "Four Factors" developed by stat guru Dean Oliver, with some subjectivity thrown in. I look for vast differences between the teams in these and related categories, digest them and go with my gut. And in this case, my gut tells me the Spurs will win this series in six games.
First, these teams are awfully close in most or all of the key categories that separate winning from losing in the playoffs, based on numbers culled from HoopData.com:
• The Heat were first in offensive efficiency (110.3) during the regular season, while the Spurs were fourth in defensive efficiency (99.2).
• They were both top five in 3-point percentage and top 10 in frequency of 3-point shots relative to total field-goal attempts.
• They're virtually even in 3-point defense, with Miami holding opponents to .350 and San Antonio coming in at .353.
• Both were in the bottom five in offensive rebounding rate, and both were in the middle of the pack in turnover frequency.
• The Spurs were second in the league in terms of keeping teams off the free-throw line, whereas the Heat were eighth in the league in getting to the line.
Even my little brain can see those are too many areas where these teams are virtually equal to expect a short series.
But there are a few differences:
• Miami was fifth in the league in forcing turnovers, while the Spurs were 13th.
• The Spurs were third in keeping teams off the offensive glass, while the Heat were 23rd.
• In a related area, the Spurs have a significant advantage in defensive rebounding -- third in the league with a defensive-rebounding rate of 74.9, compared to Miami's 73.0, which was 23rd.
Miami's ability to create turnovers and take advantage of the Spurs in transition is potentially a very large swing factor in this series. To do so, the Heat can't simply rely on their defense to force misses; they're going to have to control the defensive boards better than they have all season. Remember, it was Pat Riley himself who coined the phrase, "No rebounds, no rings."
Don't fall into the trap that the Spurs want to play at a faster pace than the Heat simply because they did so during the regular season. The Spurs want a fast pace when they have the ball (which can be achieved through sustaining their identity as a sound defensive-rebounding team) and a slow pace when Miami has the ball (which can be achieved by making shots, taking care of the ball and getting second-chance baskets).
After tinkering with his rotation and searching the entire series for the right counter to the Pacers' size in the Eastern Conference finals, Erik Spoelstra will have a similar dilemma in the Finals. The Spurs present lots of problems with two 7-footers in the starting lineup, Duncan and Tiago Splitter. San Antonio's size and rebounding at both ends of the floor have great potential to create extra possessions at the offensive end while also putting a damper on the Heat's advantage in transition.
Now this is where the subjective part comes in. As much trouble as the Heat had with Roy Hibbert in the conference finals, they figure to have more trouble with Duncan and Splitter. The havoc that was created at times by George Hill in pick-and-roll situations will now be created by Parker.
When you add the fact that Wade had, at best, two impactful games in the Pacers series and Chris Bosh (who has played well against the Spurs) had, at best, one, I start leaning in the direction of the Spurs. And if I'm right that the statistical evidence across the 82-game schedule proves that these teams are very even in key areas that affect winning in the playoffs, then you should expect this to come down to a closeout situation in Game 6 and/or Game 7 in Miami. While the young Pacers weren't ready to take that step in their playoff progression, the Spurs have long since proved that they're as ready as anyone.
Another item that isn't so much subjective as fact: In James, the Heat have the best player on the floor in this series, and picking against him since he emerged from the 2011 Finals with a humiliating loss to Dallas has proven to be less than prudent.
But it's not an exact science, even though we try to make it one with all the tools we have to analyze the game. I can't guarantee that my pick of Spurs in six will be accurate, but I'm fairly confident in my assessment that this series will be close and 100 percent sure it'll be fun.
If you really want to know, that last part is the only thing I know for sure.