Now that the Heat have finally finished off the Pacers, the Finals are set: Spurs at Heat. Let’s do a little recapping and make the pick for who will take home the title.The Heat finished the season 66-16 with a point differential of 7.9. While they didn’t start too hot, dropping games to the Knicks, Grizzlies, and Clippers in their first 10 (and two of those by 18 and 20), they finished hot with their 27 game win streak and another 8 game streak at the end of the season.
They swept the Milwaukee Bucks, which wasn’t too surprising, and took five games to eliminate the Bulls. The only surprising part of that series was that the game they lost was the first one, and how feisty the Bulls were in general.
And just now, of course, the Heat took 7 games to beat the Pacers. While the series was close, the Heat seemed able to ‘turn it on’ when they wanted to. There were three reasonably close games and the Heat went 1-2 in those, with the one win coming in overtime of game 1. Every other game was decided by at least 11 points and the Heat were 3-1 in those games. So essentially, the Heat either won big or lost close. While you don’t want to go to a game 7 if you can help it, that general pattern is a sign of a good team: point differential is key, and although the outcomes were odd, the Heat outscored the Pacers pretty handily overall. This was clear in games 3 and 7 when the Heat just outclassed the Pacers.
Coming from the West we have the San Antonio Spurs. They were 58-24 with a point differential of 6.4. It’s arguable that this is more impressive than the Heat’s record given the difficulty of the West, but if SRS is any indication the Heat still had the better season.
The Spurs started off by sweeping the Lakers. This was marred somewhat by Kobe’s injury right at the end of the season and more injuries during the series, but I don’t see a plausible argument that the Lakers were a real threat to the Spurs. The closest game was still a double-digit victory.
The Spurs had their scare in the second round when they took six games to eliminate the Warriors. Two of those games went to overtime and the teams split them; in the other games the Warriors won once by 9 and the Spurs won three times by an average of over 13. So again, the Spurs tended to win handily even though they dropped a couple of games.
Finally, the Spurs swept the Grizzlies, although two of those games also went to overtime. The Spurs probably shouldn’t have been playing Memphis anyway, but did thanks to Russell Westbrook’s injury. Had Westbrook stayed healthy and the Thunder beat the Grizzlies, there’s a decent chance the Spurs wouldn’t be here. Obviously you can’t blame the Spurs for who they got to play, and they took care of things when they were there. But their road could have been harder.
Finally, we can take a look at how things went when these two played in the regular season. The Heat won the first game by 5 when the Spurs infamously sat four of their starters when they have six games in nine nights (ending with four in five). That looked bad, with the Heat struggling to beat the Spurs’ second string at home, but they turned it around by beating the Spurs in their house without LeBron, Wade, or Chalmers (although Ginonili also missed the game). It might be fair to say that essentially these teams are even if you take their stars away.
Of course, everyone should be fairly healthy when things start up on Thursday. The Spurs have been resting for a while now and while Wade has looked washed up, he played great in game 7 and will have a couple days to do whatever he has to do to get ready. And if that last sentence in the previous paragraph is accurate, you have to give the advantage to the Heat overall. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili are great, but LeBron and Wade are something else, and also probably enable Bosh and the rest of the Heat to play better than they do without them.
In the end, all the model cares about is the Heat having home court and a 1.5 point differential advantage. That translates to a 69% chance of victory for the Heat with the Spurs probably taking two games. This would make two titles in three chances for the LeBron-era Heat.