After six days without basketball, the NBA Finals begin Wednesday with San Antonio a 6-point favorite (187 total) over New Jersey in Game 1.
The Eastern Conference hasn’t won a title since Michael Jordan’s 1998 Bulls. A team from the East without Jordan hasn’t won since the 1990 Pistons. That’s a tall order of history for the Nets, who lost in the finals last season to Los Angeles in four games. San Antonio’s front line of David Robinson and Tim Duncan are undefeated in the finals (1-0), having won in 1999 in Duncan’s second season.
The majority of the best low-post players in the NBA have wound up in the Western Conference in recent years. In addition to Duncan and Robinson the West has such talents as Rasheed Wallace, Shaq, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. With the health-problems of center Alonzo Mourning and the aging of Dikembe Motumbo the last two years, the best big men in the East now are one-dimensional Ben Wallace and young Jermaine O’Neal, both of whom will be home watching the finals on TV.
The excess of talent in the West has also been evident at the betting window. No underdog has won the finals since Jordan’s 1998 Bulls were a slight dog to Utah. The West has been a substantial series favorite since 1999 and has gone a combined 16-4 in the finals, winning every series.
For the record, the West is 10-9-1 against the spread in the finals since 1999 and the games have gone "over" the total by an 11-9 edge. This series pits two teams with strong depth and athleticism. San Antonio has the big men and strong complimentary role players while New Jersey has point guard Jason Kidd, who has had a great postseason averaging 20.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game in nearly 42 minutes of play.
During the regular season, the home team won and covered each time with both games going "under" the total. New Jersey won 91-82 at home on Nov. 13, while San Antonio won 92-78 at home on March 6. Last season, Kidd’s first in New Jersey, saw the Nets sweep both meetings. New Jersey won 92-86 at San Antonio as a +7 dog. In the last four meetings between these teams the "under" is 3-1.
Both teams come in healthy and it will be interesting to see if New Jersey’s Mutombo gets any minutes. At 7-2 and a defensive force (at least in his youth), Mutombo would seem to be the ideal player to throw at the Spurs’ two big men. That would allow Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson to focus on scoring. Mutombo has played in only four postseason games, averaging jut 1.0 points and 2.5 rebounds. Those are not exactly playoff MVP numbers.
In San Antonio’s 91-82 loss at New Jersey back in November, Mutombo had seven rebounds in 22 minutes and the Spurs shot just 37.7 percent. When Mutombo missed the game in San Antonio, the Spurs shot 45 percent in a 92-78 win. Duncan dominated with 21 points and 21 rebounds.
So is Mutombo the key to the series? No, he’s one factor to consider. Kidd is terrific at finding the open man for easy New Jersey lay-ups or uncontested outside shots, but San Antonio is sensational defensively. The Spurs crash the boards with their big men as the guards rotate and put pressure on the outside shooters. Just ask the hot-shooting Dallas Mavericks, who were held between 40 and 43 percent in six Western Conference finals games.
Another area to examine is free throw shooting. In the Nets’ win over San Antonio, Duncan was terrible from the line (5-of-10), a weakness that has cost the Spurs several playoff games already. The Spurs were fourth-worst in the NBA from the line (72.5), while the Nets ranked 15th (75.7)
The Nets might have trouble at center with the 36-year old Mutombo and 24-year old Jason Collins combining to average under seven rebounds per game in the playoffs. Duncan and Robinson have combined for 21 boards per game.
Another area to look at is home/road breakdown: The Nets were strong at home during the regular season (33-8 SU), but just 16-25 SU and 17-22-1 ATS on the road. However, the Nets are a stellar 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in the playoffs on the road, despite being an underdog six times. San Antonio is (33-8 SU and 21-19-1 ATS at home, and a solid 27-14 SU and 23-20-1 ATS on the road.
The Spurs went 3-1 SU and ATS against New Jersey and Detroit, while the Nets went 1-3 SU and ATS against Dallas and San Antonio, scoring just 78 and 79 points in two games in Texas. Captain Kidd versus The Admiral, bring it on!