MIAMI -- Five things to watch for in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, as the San Antonio Spurs try to clinch their fifth title and end the Miami Heat's reign on Tuesday night:
How the Heat start
Even at home, Miami has started games in slow motion during these playoffs. Combined score of first quarters in Miami so far in the postseason: Heat 249, Opponents 247. That's stunning for a team with as much talent as Miami, and probably won't fly for the Heat in a win-or-else Game 6 against the Spurs. Look for the Heat to come out with a sense of urgency from the very beginning of Game 6, as they try to establish a tone for the night, which would presumably keep the Spurs from finding their own rhythm. And then, sustaining whatever early push comes will be key. Two years ago, in the game where Dallas won the title in Miami, it was the Mavericks who fell behind 20-11 early then scored 29 of the game's next 37 points on their way to a victory.
Who both teams start
The Heat went small in Game 4, inserting Mike Miller into their starting lineup, and got a big win. The Spurs predictably countered in Game 5, inserting Manu Ginobili, and got a big win. So what changes in Game 6? Well, on the Spurs' front, probably very little. It would be a surprise if San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich takes Ginobili out of the starting five now. That is unless Heat coach Erik Spoelstra goes the other way and returns Udonis Haslem to the opening rotation. Odds are Miller stays in Miami's opening five, though the Heat coaching staff will probably have itchy trigger fingers in Game 6. If some lineup isn't working, changes will come, quickly. After all, the stakes couldn't be higher, so there's no time for guys to really play their way through trouble.
Will Miami guard Green?
This is, without question, the biggest flaw of the Miami Heat defense. Players tend to look clueless at times when it comes to guarding the 3-pointer. And Danny Green has become the most feared sharpshooter in the series. He's already set a Finals record with 25 3-pointers, many of them of the wide-open variety as a Heat player is one or two steps too slow to get in position to contest his shot. Green simply has to be the top defensive priority for Miami in Game 6, even though that sounds less than intelligent considering the firepower possessed by San Antonio stars like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. A couple of 3-pointers by Green, especially early, will both empower the Spurs and deflate the Heat. And when there's precious little margin for error, the Heat can't afford too many missteps now.
Lebron, Game 6 mode
Remember "The Look" game in Boston last year? Get ready for something similar. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season, LeBron James scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, as the Heat found a way to beat the Celtics. James has made no secret in this series that he wants to take on the majority of the responsibility for how the Heat fare in these finals, which makes sense. It's a team game, but without question, James is the galvanizing personality in the game right now. If Miami wins, he won. If Miami loses, he lost. Fair or unfair, that's the reality for a four-time MVP of the league. It would be surprising if James didn't reach into his bag of big-game tricks and come up with something.
Imagine the catbird-seat view for the San Antonio Spurs right now. Two chances to win one game, on a court where they've already won in this series, and with a fifth NBA title as the reward. The Spurs won't feel any pressure on Tuesday; it all will be on Miami. Teams tend to play loose and free when they can relax, and that's sort of how the Spurs play anyway. The Spurs will come out and try to manufacture some early baskets, try to keep the Miami crowd as quiet as possible, keep enormous pressure on the Heat and hope the reigning champions eventually crack. It certainly isn't a plan that they're incapable of executing. And even though NBA games are marathons, as the saying goes, "everybody makes a run," look for the Spurs to try and force the issue early on to make what's sure to be a pressure-cooker night for Miami even more unbearable.
So who wins?
Miami gets Game 6. And then Thursday is absolutely anyone's guess. This series was destined to go seven.