Can LeBron James be stopped? Will Tony Parker be at his best?
The NBA Finals 2014 are set to get underway on Thursday night, with the San Antonio Spurs looking to avenge their heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat last year.
Fanatix NBA experts Sumeet Paul and Scott Hazlewood preview the series and in this feature they take a closer look at the match-ups across the court that are likely to define who will prevail.
Point guard – Tony Parker vs Mario Chalmers
Scott Hazlewood: On paper and more than that this battle goes to the Frenchman in Parker, and that was even before his ankle injury.
Now Parker has been cleared to play in Game 1 it should see the Spurs get a leg-up on their arch-rivals in how their team’s offense is run.
It will be important to see how he fares in Game 1, as a setback could swing the course of the series not just based on skill but mentally in the minds of the Spurs.
That is not to say Mario Chalmers cannot be effective this series, and as it has always been with the Heat, it is the role players who need to step up, such as Chalmers and Norris Cole, who could provide some spark off the bench for the Heat.
Sumeet Paul: My vote goes with Parker, provided that he has recovered from his ankle injury and is able to cut and make sharp movements with and without the ball.
The Spurs point guard is one of the best in the league in his position, and the offense is at its best when it runs through him, whether that be attacking the basket and scoring or dishing out the dimes for his team-mates.
Chalmers is a rugged defender and can heat up from beyond the arc, but as mentioned above, watch out for Cole to really give the Heat energy off the bench and his battle with either Patty Mills or Cory Joseph could also be key.
Small forward – Kawhi Leonard vs LeBron James
SP: Leonard was effective against James last year, and while he will need to be at his best on the defensive end again to deny the four-time MVP the opportunity to dominate matters, he has also become more aggressive offensively and will need to give as much as he gets.
Nevertheless, given that James is on a different level to everyone else, he will still have his say and ultimately he will get the better of his rival across the series.
SH: Of course LeBron James get the tick in this head-to-head battle, it’s LeBron James.
James, much like the rest of the Heat, has been doing what he has needed to get by in the Eastern Conference playoffs, so to me I feel like he has been saving an extra gear or two of himself for whoever came out of the West be it Oklahoma City or San Antonio.
But he knows how hard Leonard will be as mentioned above. He continues to rise up the top 10 small forwards in the NBA standings, and as mentioned he will make James work harder on defence this series.
Shooting guard – Danny Green vs Dwyane Wade
SH: This shapes as a match-up that could determine the outcome of the series it is that important.
Wade’s health and that of his knees has been speculated relentlessly all season long and with good reason, because this is not the D-Wade of two seasons ago.
Be that as it may the Heat and its coaching staff and medical team have done a sensational job in resting him during the season to make sure he has enough spring in those 32-year-old legs when needed.
When Wade scores like we know he can, it is of a big help to the Heat, and when he makes more than 20, Miami normally win – just look at the series against the Pacers.
However, what is worrying for the Heat are the games where he can go missing, like 15 points on 4-12 shooting on May 26 against Indiana and just 13 points in their series clinching win.
SP: If the Spurs’ ball movement gives Green open looks and he finds his rhythm from beyond the arc, he can be the difference between the two teams and this match-up is put to bed.
If he struggles and Wade continues his current form where he is more efficient than ever, then the entire series becomes closer to call and it comes down to who wins the battle inside as well as how the other three-point shooters on show perform.
Power forward – Tim Duncan vs Rashard Lewis
SP: For so many years we’ve heard the claims that Duncan is getting old, but the 38-year-old continues to defy his age and was a consistent performer throughout the regular season and in the playoffs thus far.
While his recent comments have been taken out of context by James, the motivation and focus is still there, and even if Udonis Haslem comes in to replace Lewis who was impressive against Indiana, ‘Old Man River Walk’ will not be denied.
SH: Duncan is a medical miracle and we need to see if he doesn’t have oil instead of blood he’s that much of a machine at 38.
But forget his age it’s his other statistics we need to look at.
In his games against the Heat this season Duncan has averaged 23 points in 23 minutes at 69 per cent shooting, all of which points to the Heat’s inability to defend under the rim with a skilled post-performer like Duncan.
Haslem is the only one that can body up with Duncan down-low and at least make him work hard for his shots, or get him into foul trouble to try and limit his effectiveness on the scoreboard and in the mind’s of his teammates, because he is the heart of the Spurs team.
Center – Thiago Splitter vs Chris Bosh
SP: Splitter was benched against the Thunder due to Matt Bonner’s effectiveness against Serge Ibaka. Given Chris Bosh’s shooting from three-point range, the Brazilian could well end up staying on the sidelines given his lack of mobility, with either Bonner continuing or Boris Diaw being promoted to the starting five.
After a slow start to the post-season, Bosh has certainly stepped his game up and ultimately the Heat will need him as a third-scoring option at times.
However, I don’t think Splitter will be asked to match up against him all that much, and Diaw could well be huge in this series off the back of his influential performance in the series-clincher against OKC.
SH: As mentioned before Diaw could be the X-Factor for the Spurs this series, whether his match-up with Bosh occurs or not as he has been playing the best basketball of his 10-year career.
Coming off the bench in the series against the Thunder, Diaw scored in double figures in four of the six games, including 26 in the clinching game, with three triples, underlying how he could be seen as the leading man scoring-wise in the Spurs second unit.
While Bosh will need to tip in 10-20 points a game if the Heat are to win another title, it will be his work off the ball that will be arguably more important, using his mobility, affecting shots within the 12ft arc of the rim and working hard on the glass, because he has a role there too.
Ray Allen couldn’t have hit “that” three in game six of the finals last year if Bosh did not get the offensive board.