Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Six-Year Itch for LeBron and Duncan (NBA Finals Preview)

To understand my thoughts on the 2013 NBA Finals, I have to go back to 2007. An NBA Finals I can't remember much of besides Tony Parker carving up the Cleveland Cavaliers and hugging Eva Longoria to celebrate afterwards.

I do remember one thing vividly. That video above of Tim Duncan being congratulated by a young LeBron James and Duncan telling the then 22-year-old James the NBA would be his one day. James was disappointed from carrying the Cavs to the NBA Finals but soon we'd all see him make Duncan a prophet.

6 years later, Duncan and LeBron meet again at the mountaintop. Both still All-NBA First Teamers. Both older, wiser and better. LeBron has a better team than he did in 2007. Duncan has a better version of Parker than he did in 2007 along with a strong supporting cast.

To be great, you have to go through greatness. For the Miami Heat to finish off one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, they have to go through one of the pillars of greatness over the last decade. A San Antonio Spurs team that has methodically eliminated their Western Conference playoff foes with precision and balance.

Here's my key things to watch.

Which Hobbled Star Shows Up?: Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili haven't resembled much of themselves this postseason. Both are injured (Wade's knees, Manu's hamstring) and reduced to cameo KO's. Still lethal but not as feared as they would be.

Whoever can shake off the pain and make a greater impact could swing this series. They'll be matched up against each other so it could either be a matchup of once great stars or both shaking off Father Time's pull to school the other.

Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan/Tiago Splitter: I still can't get over how soft Bosh played in the EC Finals. I watched him closely in Game 7 shy away from the paint to score as Roy Hibbert clearly got in his head. So naturally I wondered what he'd do against two equally tough low post threats.

Well as my good NBA head @KJ_NBA reminded me last night, Bosh has averaged 28 points in his last three games against Duncan. He hit the game-winning 3 to beat the Spurs on Easter. Can he do that against a Duncan that looks rejuvenated this postseason and has embarrassed Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph?

Kawhi Leonard factor: The pride of Compton/Riverside has grown up this postseason. I've gushed over him enough and he's perhaps the best role player in this series. A reliable shooter, a terror on defense and a hard worker that will give you every minute on the court.

What will he do against LeBron James? James already stared down one rising SoCal product in Paul George. Leonard may not be the scorer George is but as a defender with long arms and a furious motor, he could make a great attempt to be what Bruce Bowen was to the 2007 LeBron.

Tony Parker Getting Buckets: Parker was the guy who killed the Cavaliers in 2007. He killed the Grizzlies in Game 4 with a virtuoso performance. He's the one match-up that could exploit Miami's tough defense and with Mario Chalmers/Norris Cole guarding him, that's almost like daring him to try.

Parker's reminded folks why he shouldn't be left out of the NBA's best lead guard conversation and as he goes, the Spurs will go. That's why I think this series could swing either way and even if LeBron guards him at times, Parker won't be as easy to shut down as Derrick Rose was in 2011.

Ray Allen and the Disappearing Jumper: Allen's shooting was quiet in the Eastern Conference Finals until Game 7. He only had double figures twice and against the Spurs, he has to find his stroke because while the Spurs may not dare him to shoot, they'll test him often.

In the 2010 Finals, we remember Ray Allen hitting eight threes in Game 2 against the Lakers. You may not remember that he only hit four more threes in the next five games. If he can find his jumper, it could be a boost for the Heat but I don't think they can rely on Ray to do anymore but be a John Paxson/Steve Kerr and even that might be asking much.

This series is hard to judge. Miami barely beat the Spurs minus Duncan/Parker/Ginobili/Danny Green. Yet they also barely beat a full-strength team in San Antonio minus LeBron and Wade. Styles make fights but the predictable flashy vs. boring narrative underscores how similar both teams are in their execution.

For me, I'm picking the Heat in 6. Ironically, the number of years since LeBron was told the NBA would be his. It won't be easy and the Spurs will fight tooth and nail. Yet the Heat will return the favor Duncan, Parker and Co. paid LeBron that night in June. It's only fitting.

Somehow every match-up, every big factor goes back to No. 6. The Finals won't live or die with LeBron James yet I think he knows what's at stake and what's before him. Tim Duncan also knows this may be his last and best chance to taste the crown again. Those two hungry souls and their teams will cross paths Thursday and I can't wait to see it.

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