MIAMI — One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s Finals matchup is that the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have never really played each other.
Gregg Popovich sat his stars in their Nov. 29 meeting and Erik Spoelstra sat his on March 31. So there’s really no head-to-head data to look at in previewing the series.
The two teams played once last season, but both Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade missed that one. Besides, both of these teams have evolved quite a bit in the 16 months since that game.
The Heat have fully embraced their pace-and-space style, which elevated them to the No. 1 offense in the league. The Spurs, meanwhile, took a good look at their defensive numbers and figured out how to get back to being a top-three D. At the same time, the Heat regressed a few points per 100 possessions defensively and the Spurs did the same offensively.
Still, they were two of the three teams– Oklahoma City was the other — that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season. And we’ve now got a matchup of the best offensive team and the best defensive team of the playoffs.
Heat pace and efficiency
Spurs pace and efficiency
The most efficient shots on the floor are at the rim and from the corners. And a deeper look into the numbers shows that both teams are strong, both offensively and defensively, from those spots. It’s as if both coaches know what they’re doing.
Miami offense vs. San Antonio defense
The No. 1 offense in the league led the league by shooting 68.2 percent from the restricted area and led the league with 309 corner 3-pointers (3.8 per game).
LeBron James and Wade were the guys attacking the rim. The MVP led the league with 411 baskets in the restricted area, while Wade was tied for eighth with 311. And though they’ve faced two great rim protectors — Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert — in the last two rounds, they rank first and fifth in the postseason.
Shane Battier and Ray Allen were the guys shooting from the corners. Battier led the league with 88 corner threes, while Allen ranked eighth with 63. And though they’ve faced the two teams — Chicago and Indiana — who allowed the fewest corner threes in the regular season, the Heat have still hit 48 of them (3.0 per game) in the playoffs, with Allen (15), Battier (11), Norris Cole (7) and Chris Bosh (6) making up most of that total.
The Spurs ranked fourth by allowing their opponents to shoot just 57.4 percent in the restricted area in the regular season. And when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter were on the floor together, opponents shot just 50.9 percent in the restricted area (just slightly higher than the 50.8 percent that Indiana opponents shot when Hibbert and David West were on the floor). Neither Duncan nor Splitter is the individual deterrent that the 7-foot-2 Hibbert is, but they protect the rim well.
As they were in Game 7 on Monday, trips to the free throw line are also a key component to the Heat’s offense. But the Spurs ranked second in opponent free throw rate, allowing just 24 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. The Pacers liked to talk a lot about defending without fouling, but the Spurs really do it.
The numbers favor the Spurs’ defense against the Heat’s offense. But James has been on the floor for only 39 of the 4,673 minutes (0.8 percent) the Spurs have played this season. And he has the ability to make a great defense look bad.
San Antonio offense vs. Miami defense
Like the Heat (and Thunder), the Spurs shoot the ball well from everywhere. They ranked fifth in field goal percentage from the restricted area, fifth from elsewhere in the paint, second from mid-range, sixth from the corners and seventh on threes from above the break.
Though they didn’t finish at the rim as well as the Heat did, the Spurs took a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area than Miami. Splitter (274), Duncan (229) and Tony Parker (229) all ranked in the top 40 in buckets at the basket and all shot them at a percentage much higher than the league average (59.4 percent).
The Eastern Conference finals showed how important a bench can be. Over the seven games, the Pacers were a plus-46 with all of their starters on the floor, but a minus-74 whenever one or more of them rested.
The Spurs’ depth has been critical. In the playoffs, they’re just a plus-11 in 134 minutes with their starting lineup on the floor, scoring less than a point per possession.
All other San Antonio lineups are a plus-131 in 562 minutes, scoring an efficient 108 points per 100 possessions. The Spurs have been particularly lethal (115.5) in 132 minutes with Matt Bonner and Ginobili on the floor together.
Miami’s reserves have been nearly as important. Its starters are a plus-53 in 234 playoff minutes together, strong on both ends of the floor. But the Heat suffer little drop-off when they go to their bench. All other Miami lineups are a plus-100 in 538 minutes in the postseason, scoring 109 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 99.
It helps that James, averaging 41.2 minutes per game in the postseason, has been part of a lot of those bench units. And the Heat’s minutes with James on the bench in this series will be critical.
Any foul trouble could be an issue for either team as well. But it’s not like fans of either squad will need to close their eyes when they go to the bench, as Pacers fans surely did over the last month.
With the best pick-and-roll point guard in the league and plenty of perimeter shooting, the Spurs have the perfect offense to make the Heat pay for their aggressive D. And history tells us that when a great offense goes against a great defense, the great defense has the advantage more often.
Spurs in 6.