And then there were two. The NBA season has come down to this: a best of seven series between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs to determine a champion. The Five-Man Weave panel breaks down the NBA Finals matchup, looking at which players will make the difference and, of course, offering up their predictions for the series.
1. Will San Antonio's frontline bother Miami like Indiana's did?
Duane Watson: In a different way, the Spurs don't posses the size and length of George, Hibbert and West to dominate the boards, but they will still pose a problem. Duncan and Splitter will control the paint and limit second chance opportunities. Which will also present similar problems on the defensive end for the Heat, aside from the Birdman (Birdman), Miami doesn't have anyone who can block or alter shots.
Will Strickland: No, not in the same way. Splitter is no Roy Hibbert, The Great Tim Duncan, even at 37, is a problem for anyone and Spurs' backup bigs Matt Bonner and the little-used Boris Diaw are slightly more rounded than Indiana's Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi.
Mitch Ward:The frontline will be an advantage for the Spurs like it was for the Pacers but not to the same degree. Roy Hibbert was a beast in the middle and Tiago Splitter simply isn't that type of player. That said, Tim Duncan and Splitter should still control the paint and be a problem for Miami's "bigs" both offensively and defensively.
Josh Lewenberg: The easy answer; no. Indiana boasts the most physically punishing frontcourt in the NBA (maybe second most, behind Memphis). San Antonio should go small more often and while the Pacers owned the glass on both ends, the Spurs are the league's worst offensive rebounding team. The challenge for Miami will be defending the Duncan-Splitter pairing until the Spurs do go small off the bench. It's taken three years together but those two have developed a nice chemistry working out of the post. The Heat may not be able to get away with Battier or LeBron at the four for prolonged periods against that duo which means Bosh and Haslem will have to play big. It could also mean more BIRDMAN.
Meghan McPeak: Yes, but not to the same extent that Hibbert/ West did. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are a different kind of frontline. Both are very fundamental and know what they're put on the floor to do. In the sense of Hibbert/ West, they balanced each other out because the strength and power of West counteracted Hibbert's fundamental type of play. Duncan/ Splitter have their ability to be powerful, but both are post up, jump shot, rebound/put back type of players, which allows Bosh/ Haslem to stay at home more than they could against the Pacers. I think the San Antonio big men will give Miami problems, but not like Indiana's did.
2. What should the Spurs do to try and slow LeBron James?
Watson: They can't. They can try to keep the ball out of his hands and slow down his teammates. The rest of the Heat are the real problem and if Bosh and Wade are inconsistent as they were last series, it will be an easier go for the Spurs. LeBron can score 50, but his ability to pass and find his teammates, is what makes him unstoppable. If his teammates aren't finishing, there is only some much he can do. However, it doesn't take Popovich to figure that out and I am sure he will come with more stratagems than that.
Strickland: Kidnap him.
Ward: LeBron is going to get his. You simply cannot contain him at this point. For the Spurs it's going to be a matter of limiting the damage and not letting James win games by himself. Kawhi Leonard is going to have to be at his very best first denying LeBron the ball, and then making him work for everything he gets once he has it, especially on drives. And Leonard is going to beed plenty of help, so the rest of the Spurs are going to have make sure they know where Miami's shooters are at all times and make sure their help rotations and close-outs are sound and fast.
Lewenberg: Pray. It simply cannot be done. Not consistently, in a best-of-seven series anyway. The Spurs employ a more than capable wing defender by the name of Kawhi Leonard. The sophomore has only faced LeBron once but he possesses the combination of strength, quickness and awareness required to spar with the King. Like Paul George before him, Leonard should have some success to go along with his fair share of “learning experiences” but in the end it'll have to be a group effort. The “easier said than done” method applies here. Keep him out of the lane, make him a jump shooter, challenge him on defence, and pray. Good luck.
McPeak: Trying to slow LeBron James? I have a better chance at winning the lottery! Given the fact the Spurs don't have a defender like Paul George or James' clone to defend against him, the only way I see him being slowed down is with double teams. That being said the rest is left up to the rotation of the Spurs defence. Know where Allen, Miller (if he get's on the floor), Battier (if he could hit a shot), even Bosh are, and disallow Wade on a back door cut. Put a body on Chris Andersen because we all know he will do one thing, and does it well - CRASH THE BOARDS. But slowing down James is a game plan in itself, if slowing him down even possible at this point - I don't really think so.
3. What should the Heat do to try and slow Tony Parker?
Watson:They can't. Throwing LeBron at him for spells will work, but that's not a strategy that you can take advantage of for the entire game. Parker is unstoppable, scores yet still creates for his team. Miami's guards had enough trouble with Nate Robinson, they have their hands full with Parker screaming "mon dieu!"
Strickland: The Obvious: put LeBron on him when situation warrants. The not-so obvious: sit Brent Barry's ex-wife, Eva Longoria, Drake and Chris Brown next to the Spurs bench for the first two games in Miami.
Ward: Putting LeBron on him for short stretches can work but that isn't a long-term solution. The Heat are likely going to have to throw a variety of double teams at Parker and be very mindful of their rotations so he can't pick them apart with his driving and dishing. Much like LeBron, Parker is going to get his in the series so for Miami it will be a matter of limiting the damage and making him work for everything.
Lewenberg: Defending Parker will be Miami's biggest challenge in the series. Hands down. It will require an “all hands on deck” approach with some trial and error. The Heat have tried to blitz Parker in the past, sending two defenders to trap him coming off the pick-and-roll, their general strategy against most primary ball handlers. This is a calculated risk against a savvy vet like Parker and could backfire as a result of San Antonio's excellent spacing and pristine ball movement. LeBron has the quickness and know-how to guard Parker on occasion but the primary responsibility lies with Mario Chalmers. Again I say, good luck.
McPeak: I would say the same thing goes for Tony Parker - double teams, try and get the ball out of his hands and make someone else run the offence. Unless the Heat put James on Parker, there really isn't a guard that can handle Parker. We may see multiple defenders on him, Cole, Chalmers, James (down the stretch), and Wade. However, the Heat will need to rotate well defensively to find the shooters for the Spurs (Ginobili, Bonner, Green), because once Parker get's in the lane, it's feeding time for his shooters, and himself. I think both Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra will look at doubling James/ Parker to force other players to make things happen.
4. Which role player will have the biggest impact on this series?
Watson: For Miami: Mike Miller has been resting all season for this moment. We saw what he did last year and got glimpses in the last series. His ability to make the big three and scrap and dig is something the Heat sorely lack. For San Antonio: Tiago Splitter is long, efficient and plays within himself. His size will bother Bosh and his discipline will bother Andersen. He's a perfect compliment and bail out for Duncan to find when double teamed.
Strickland: I could see Matt Bonner, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chris Andersen all having impact in this Finals. But how Tiago Splitter plays is key to how the Spurs deals with Miami. San Antonio going small won't be the way to beat The Heat. Improvement and team trust in Splitter matters.
Ward: Kawhi Leonard. It's going to be on him to at least bother LeBron defensively and keep him from single-handdedly winning the series. He will also be key to the Spurs offence in the series as he'll be looked to to knock down his open shots and get into the lane whenever he can. The pressure is on the second-year Spur.
Lewenberg: The two names I mentioned above, Leonard and Chalmers will be tasked with guarding – at least primarily – the two best players in this series. It's impossible to shut James and Parker down in a best-of-seven series. It's extremely difficult to slow them down for any significant length of time. Neither can be approached with a one-on-one mentality. With that said, Leonard and Chalmers will each be crucial in ensuring that the superstar they're each matched up with doesn't go superhuman and win this series single handedly.
McPeak: Heat - I'm going with Udonis Haslem, who is averaging 6 points per game in the playoffs. Coming off a rough offensive outing against the Pacers, I think he will have a great series, and play more like the Haslem we're used to seeing. Spurs - Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs has averaged 14 points and against the Heat this season he averaged 17 points. He tends to play very well in big games against the big teams, and I think this will be a series that he puts his imprint on.
5. Who will win the title?
Watson: Miami in 6. To be the champs, you have to beat the champs, and the best player in the league "has lost enough."
Strickland: Heat in 7.
Ward: Heat in 7. The Spurs have the players , the coaching and the experience to bother the Heat. They will win some games. And if Dwyane Wade's knee continues to trouble him and Chris Bosh struggles then the Spurs actually have a chance to take it. However, this series will likely be decided by the best player in the game, and at this point, it's just too hard to bet against LeBron.
Lewenberg: Heat in 7. This has all the makings of a long, hard-fought series filled with future Hall of Famers and compelling storylines. The Spurs are the underdogs and they're cool with that. They've embraced that role before. For the Heat, the biggest factor will be the health of Wade and Bosh. If they were at full capacity this series could be over in five or six games. It's hard to know what we can expect from them but we do know what to expect from LeBron. He's the best player in this series. He's the best player on the planet. Despite the other uncertainties, that's tough to bet against.
McPeak: Who will win... (cue "you can hate me now" NAS ft. Puff Daddy).. Spurs in 6. I feel like the style of play the Popovich runs is too fundamental, and the tempo they run it at is not favourable to Miami. Yes, Miami plays an uptempo run and gun style, but we've seen glimpses of the Spurs doing that in the West, so they have the ability, but not for 48 minutes. The Spurs have the pieces of the puzzle they need to win and they've shown it throughout their run to the Finals, if they can take what the Pacers did, and force everyone outside of James to beat them, they have a very good shot at winning. So yes.. Spurs in 6.
The Five-Man Weave contributors are TSN Radio 1050 Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050), Duane Watson (@sweetswatson) and Will Strickland (@WallStrizzle1) from TSN Radio 1050's 1-on-1 with Will and Duane, TSN.ca NBA Editor Mitch Ward (@jmitchw) and North Pole Hoops writer and occasional 1-on-1 guest host Meghan McPeak (@meghanmcpeak)