Since 1988, the NBA Finals have seen only three Game 7s – 1994, when the Houston Rockets beat the New York Knicks, 2005, when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Detroit Pistons, and 2010, when the Los Angeles Lakers knocked off the Boston Celtics. Tonight, we’re treated to a fourth, as the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs finish off their compelling, if not classic, series. Game 6, a 103-100 Miami win in overtime, was clearly a classic: what more could Game 7 have in store?
As the game tips off, here are three questions worth examining, aside from the headband (yes, James will wear it to start Game 7. Will it soak his energy like a sponge? Tune in) and the Miami fans (no, we can’t guarantee they won’t leave early again, and pound the arena doors to try to get back in):
1. Will Fatigue Be A Factor? For whatever reason, the conclusion of this year’s Finals reminds me of the 2011 World Series. That year, a team from Texas — the Rangers — was one strike away from a World Series title in Game 6. Here, a team from Texas, the Spurs, could also taste the title, up five with just 28 seconds remaining in Game 6. But both teams gave it away — the Rangers to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Spurs to the Heat. Both teams played Game 6 on the road, and had to stay on the road for Game 7. And in 2011, Game 7 was predictably anticlimactic, as St. Louis, riding the momentum from its memorable comeback, won 6-2.
Different sports, I know, but just a gut feeling: Miami triumphs tonight, rather easily (gosh, I hope I’m wrong). Look out for an early indicator — which players, if any, are dragging? Is Tony Parker, too gassed to play at the end of Game 6, bringing the energy? Tim Duncan played like a man possessed in the first half of game 6, like the last thing he wanted was a Game 7: he scored 25 points in the first two quarters. But he’s also 37-years-old. Duncan scored five points in the second half, none after the third quarter. Can he possibly bring the same manic effort to the start of Game 7?
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And it’s not like the Heat looked peppy after Game 6: LeBron James, who played 50 minutes, was wiped. So examine the body language. Who has his hands on his knees at the foul line? Who isn’t jumping on their jump shots? Such signs could determine the title.
2. How Will The Spurs Guard LeBron? San Antonio spurs coach Gregg Popovich is revered, but some Game 6 decisions clearly backfired: taking Tim Duncan off the floor on defense at the end of regulation (result: two Miami offensive rebounds, two three-pointers that tied the game), not calling timeout at the end of overtime, down one with the ball (result: Manu Ginobili, who struggled all game, getting stripped as he drove for a layup).
But his defensive strategy on LeBron, for the most part, worked. Yes, James took over the fourth quarter, but he also had two turnovers in the final minute that, if the Spurs made a few more free throws and grabbed a loose ball or two down the stretch, would have cost Miami a championship. He finished with a triple double, but also shot 11-26 from the field. During the regular season, LeBron averaged 26.8 points on 57% shooting: in this series, he’s at 23.3 points per game, on 43% shooting (from three-point range, he was 41% in the regular season: agains the Spurs in the Finals, he’s at 29%).
Popovich launched a mental assault on LeBron. His guys, particularly rotund reserve Boris Diaw, played way off him, almost daring him to shoot from the outside. Sometimes, such a strategy can muck with the minds of even elite players, because it forces them to overthink: what should I do here? Why am I so open? On some possessions Thursday night, you could even sense LeBron sizing things up: dribble, dribble, dribble. Usually, it’s best to just react.
Will Popovich stick with this game-plan? If he does, will James come out aggressive, and try to establish his perimeter shooting prowess early? I’d bet yes to both of these questions. And I can’t wait to find out for sure.
3. Which Manu Will Show Up? In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, a 114-104 San Antonio win, the Spurs scored 19 more points than the Heat when Manu Ginobili — who scored 24 points and dished 10 assists — was on the floor. In Game 6, the Heat outscored the Spurs by 21 points when Ginobili was in the game (Ginobili scored 9 points, and turned the ball over 8 times). Ginobili was frighteningly bad in Game 6, as he made the fourth-grade mistake of jumping in the air with nowhere to go, and throwing soft lob passes to no one in particular. Fourth-graders could have stolen them. And his postgame comments didn’t inspire much confidence. “I have no clue how we’re going to be re-energized,” he said.
But I wouldn’t read too much into that. Ginobili has been playing on the world stage, in international competitions and the NBA, for a long time. He’s won three championship rings. Don’t dismiss him. But if he stinks early, Popovich might be wise to bench him.
So it’s all set. And I’m more excited for this Game 7 than any of the others.
CORRECTION: Story updated to include reference to 2005 NBA Finals.