West No. 1 San Antonio vs. East No. 2 Miami
Why the Spurs will win in seven: Fans will get a much-anticipated rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game series, the first time the same teams have met in consecutive NBA Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls met Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz in 1997 and ’98. The Spurs were less than 10 seconds from hoisting the championship trophy last year until Ray Allen’s desperation three-pointer in Game 6 shifted history in the Heat’s favor.
Though Tony Parker’s ankle remains a question, the Spurs’ depth makes them a dangerous unit, allowing them to play small ball, go big with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter inside or stretch the floor with Matt Bonner as they did in beating Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. But knocking out four-time MVP LeBron James and the Heat won’t be easy: Miami has has won 11 straight playoff series since losing to Dallas in six games in the 2011 NBA Finals, the team’s only postseason series defeat since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces. San Antonio will have to be prepared to go the distance to be the first team in 25 years to win a Finals rematch after losing the previous season. This time around, though, San Antonio holds the home-court advantage in the 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format.
Difference maker: Manu Ginobili, Spurs. San Antonio’s sixth man has often given the Spurs a decided advantage in the playoffs but he was abysmal for most of last year’s NBA Finals, averaging just 11.6 points, shooting 25 percent from three-point territory and committing a career-high eight turnovers in the critical Game 6 loss. With Parker’s lingering ankle injury, Ginobili’s knack for drawing in the defense with dribble penetration and his ability to knock down open perimeter shots become even more critical. What’s more, Wade appears to be in prime form for the Heat after resting his knee for portions of the regular season. That means Ginobili must also produce on defense.
Key matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James. It’s safe to say that there’s no stopping James. His blend of power, speed and athleticism are why the Heat have made it to the NBA Finals in each of his four years with the team. That said, the 22-year-old Leonard, who was named to the NBA all-defensive second team after averaging a career-high 6.2 rebounds and 1.73 steals, stands the best chance of slowing down James. While LeBron’s jumper has improved, the key for Leonard is keeping James out of the paint and making him settle for perimeter shots, which also inhibits the four-time MVP’s ability to crash the boards.