IT MIGHT seem counterintuitive to pick against a two-time defending champion led by the NBA's best player, but Las Vegas has installed the Spurs as favorites to halt the Heat. The reason: San Antonio was 5.3 seconds from beating Miami for the title last year, and this team is deeper and hungrier, driven by its heartbreaking Game 6 collapse. As Tim Duncan puts it, "We're happy that it's the Heat again."
With a league-best 62 wins (four more than in 2012--13) the Spurs hold home court advantage, and that's significant: They went 7--0 at the AT&T Center during May, winning every game by at least 17 points. They have the top point differential in the playoffs (8.0), even though their opponents won, on average, six more games than the Heat's. And there's no question which team is deeper. San Antonio's reserves are averaging a league-best 42.7 points in the postseason, 16.2 more than Miami's. Sixth man Manu Ginóbili is healthier and sharper than he was last year, piling up 15.2 points and 3.7 assists and hitting 50.0% of his threes during the conference finals; with the resurgence of 6'8" Boris Diaw, coach Gregg Popovich can go large or small with equal ease.
Though slightly hobbled by a sore left ankle, point guard Tony Parker still stirs the drink, pressuring interior defenders with his pick-and-roll savvy and demanding that defenses execute perfect perimeter rotations because of his drive-and-kick game. Danny Green is feasting on that ball movement, connecting on 48.1% of his attempts from downtown during the playoffs.
Defensively, the Spurs have done a masterly job of containing superstars without allowing supporting players to go off. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki all shot below their season averages against San Antonio. Limiting LeBron James is almost impossible, but Miami's Big Three will have to work harder for their points in the Finals than they have yet in the postseason.
"Our guys actually grew from the loss last year," Popovich said last Saturday. "They showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude to have that tough loss and not have a pity party." The Spurs are back, they're better, they're focused and they're rolling. No one should be surprised if they unseat the Heat.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MARKED MANU The rejuvenated Ginóbili (20) leads the highest-scoring second unit in the postseason.