NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Heat welcomes another rematch — It was going to happen one way or the other. The Miami Heat, once they survived one familiar nemesis (Indiana Pacers) in the Eastern Conference finals, were going to face a familiar Finals foe as well, either their 2012 opponents (Oklahoma City Thunder) or the other guys from 2013 (San Antonio Spurs). Turns out, it is San Antonio, the team that Miami beat in seven games last June only after surviving the sixth one (thanks, Ray Allen!). Which probably is best for intensity, TV ratings, the Spurs’ shot at retribution and even Miami’s legacy should it manage to beat the great Gregg Popovich and his mighty trinity of stars for consecutive championships. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel offered the Heat side after the Western Conference clincher:
“Wouldn’t want it any other way,” Dwyane Wade said of having another opponent bent on settling a previous score. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Neither, apparently, would the Spurs.
“We’re back here. We’re excited about it,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said after the Spurs finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder 112-107 in overtime in Saturday’s Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. “We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.
“We’re happy that it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths, still.”
Said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, “We worked eight months really hard. We had a really successful season. And all we did was to get back to this point.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Saturday night praised his team for showing the “fortitude” this season to not have a “pity party” after losing to the Heat in last season’s Finals.
“I think our guys, they actually grew in the loss last year,” he said.
The last time the Heat faced a Finals rematch, it wasn’t the desired outcome, with the Dallas Mavericks exacting revenge in the 2011 NBA Finals after falling to Wade and the Heat in the 2006 Finals.
“Hopefully, it’s not the same outcome as it was the first time around,” Wade said, with those 2011 NBA Finals remaining the only playoff series the Heat have lost since Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined together in the 2010 offseason. “It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Unlike that five-years-later Mavericks rematch, these upcoming Finals will pit opponents with largely the same rosters as last season’s Finals meeting.
“They’re going to feel more prepared for this moment,” Wade said, with the Heat playing as the road team in the best-of-seven series that opens Thursday, after holding homecourt advantage last year against the Spurs. “It’s going to have its own challenges.”
Having survived the Spurs in a compelling series last season salvaged by Ray Allen’s Game 6 3-pointer, the Heat exited AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night poised for the 12th Finals rematch since the league’s first title series in 1947. Of the 11 Finals rematches to date, there have been seven repeat winners, including, most recently, Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls over the Utah Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton in 1997 and 1998.
Wade said getting back to the championship series never gets old, no matter the road traveled, no matter the familiarity with the opposition.
“We’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in because it’s an amazing moment,” he said. “It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes.
“Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to continue to add to what we’re accomplishing.”
No. 2: And still, it’s Tim Duncan– He said, in the moments after last year’s Game 7 in Miami, that it surely would haunt him. After all, Tim Duncan was like so many others, figuring that he and his San Antonio Spurs teammates lost their last, best chance at a final championship when they walked off the court that night in south Florida. Duncan had two cracks at tying the clinching game with less than a minute left but he missed “a bunny” and the tip-in, and slapped the floor at the other end out of frustration. People even worried for a bit about the big man and how failing in that moment might linger. But NBA.com’s own Fran Blinebury says, not to worry. Duncan is headed back to The Finals refreshed and refocused, after refusing to be denied in overtime in OKC:
The Spurs did it with balance and patience and poise and trust and with a few of the usual tricks from Old Man Riverwalk, who at 38, is still pulling out those tried-and-true basic moves that keep working in every lunchtime game in every YMCA from sea-to-head-faking sea.
Duncan was 2-for-2 in the overtime with a pair of rebounds and scored the seven consecutive points that ultimately lifted the Spurs to the 112-107 victory over the Thunder and the Western Conference title.
As he’s done so often for 17 NBA seasons, Duncan was there to make the plays and do the heavy lifting at the end, which was particularly poignant in a year when the Spurs carried their burden.
“We just had a weird year,” Duncan said. “We were pressing hard early on and grinding on each other, just because of what happened last year.
“We were able to settle ourselves down. We played with a bunch of different lineups all year long. We had guys ready to play and it’s shown throughout these playoffs where guys just step up and step in and are ready.
“I’m proud of the team for just being ready, just not letting that weigh on us and using it as an excuse for anything. We’re back here now and we want to get it done this time.”
When the Thunder had used their young legs and a wave of youthful enthusiasm to win two straight games on their home court to tie the series, there was some thought that the Spurs were finally ready to pass into history.
Instead Duncan kept right on making it by hitting 14 of 27 shots, scoring 41 points and grabbing 27 rebounds in the last two games to keep the door closed on what is supposed to have been the ushering in of the Thunder Era.
“You know that he might be struggling one game or missing a few shots,” Ginobili said. “But he’s there and the opponent has got to respect him. He’s always ready with a solution down the stretch.”
As ready as he has been for nearly two decades in the league. As primed for this moment as since the last second that ticked off the clock last June in Miami.
“It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after exactly that, that devastating loss we had last year,” Duncan said. “But we’re back here and we’re excited about it and we’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.”
No. 3: Thunder needs tweaks, not overhaul – They heard the criticism all season, they noticed when it got dialed up during the playoffs and they’ll undoubtedly feel the downpour now in the wake of elimination. But the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the West finals against one of the greatest coaches in NBA history and several of its great players – arguably the top trio ever – and shouldn’t overreact to either the missed goal or the grumbles. Our man Jeff Caplan was in OKC along with Blinebury and handled the Thunder post-mortem:
When it was all over Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, headed to his sixth Finals with the ageless and still magnificent Tim Duncan (19 points — seven in OT — and 15 rebounds), hugged Durant and then Westbrook and looked each in the eye.
“We know we played one hell of a team, and we take great satisfaction in that because they are so special,” Popovich said. “They’ll certainly be back doing great things without any doubt.”
The alternative story line will be floated, that the window is closing on this core. Durant has two more seasons on his contract, and he could singlehandedly sink the franchise if he decides to uproot. But, just as he stated that “the grass is not always greener on the side” during his impassioned MVP speech, Durant answered questions with pride for his team and optimism toward the future.
He sat at the podium, not speaking in the mumbled tones as he had at times during this roller-coaster postseason, but rather expressing praise for his team’s spirit to the end, and admiration for his partner’s fight through multiple knee surgeries that sidelined him for nearly half the season.
“I’m not so sure I would have stayed positive through two knee surgeries and playing so well and then having to sit out for two months and coming back, and minutes restrictions,” Durant said of Westbrook. “But he stayed positive and level-headed and came out and had a great postseason for us.”
Arguably the best on the team, including Durant. What should come out of this latest setback is that this athletic, young core of Durant, 25, Westbrook, 25, and the iron-willed Serge Ibaka, 24, needs more help. What appeared to be a deep club as the season wore on, was stripped to its nuts and bolts by the Spurs.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who will undoubtedly take on grief for this ending, and some will speculate about his job security, despite Westbrook’s knee surgeries, Ibaka missing the first two games of the series and Reggie Jackson playing on a tender right ankle the final three games, lost faith in starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha and all reserves not named Derek Fisher.
That group will have to be better next season in a West that shows no signs of letting up. Shooters off the bench will be mandatory to unearth for Sam Presti, who will have limited funds to add quality help, but does have assets in young players and draft picks that could be used in a trade. Owner Clay Bennett, who somberly shuffled through the concourse afterward, is staunch about remaining a non-luxury-tax payer, a stance that will have to be closely evaluated with a team this close to ultimate glory.
“Without a doubt we’ve grown, from top to bottom, everybody,” Durant said. “Around here, our goal is to win the big thing and go out on top. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen for us this year, but we still improved. Just grateful to play with such great teammates in such a great building and for a great city like this. We’ve all got to keep our heads up and keep improving.”
No. 4: Lots of Love in Beantown –Apparently, all it takes to enflame the NBA rumor mill, and artificially excited an entire market’s fan base, is a leisurely weekend visit. Boston is a city that banks on hundreds of thousands of leisurely weekend visits by folks from all around the country, but when the tourist is Kevin Love – in the month of his rumor relocation from the Minnesota Timberwolves – the sojourn gets chronicled as if its Apple or Google execs looking for the perfect site to build a new headquarters. The Celtics and their fans were dreaming in overdrive, according to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe:
While the Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves have not engaged in any serious trade talks regarding three-time All-Star forward Kevin Love, that hasn’t stopped Love from using this weekend to visit Boston.
Love was seen in Boston Friday hanging out at bars near TD Garden and took a picture with the owner of “The Greatest Bar,” and he also was seen fraternizing with Patriots players. On Saturday, Love walked the streets of the city and took a picture with a thrilled Harvard graduate. A smiling Love was sporting a Team USA Olympic sweater and was holding a beverage cup.
When approached by the Globe at a local hotel, Love said: “I’m sorry man, I can’t do nothing [in terms of talking], I can’t.”
Why was Love here? A report from Dirty Water News suggested Love said he was here to “check out the city and see what it’s like.” That will do little to quell rampant speculation that Love was here to get a feel for an unfamiliar city that could potentially be his next basketball home.
Love is expected to opt out of the final year of his current contract — a four-year, $60.8 million extension signed in January 2012 — which would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Wolves risk losing him without compensation if they don’t move him this offseason (or before February’s trade deadline).
Enter Boston with its war chest of assets. The Celtics have a rare mix of available draft picks (as many as 10 first-rounders over the next five drafts), cheap young talent (recent top picks Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger headline that list), and an ability to offer salary cap relief (Keith Bogans’ nonguaranteed $5.3 million salary next season). The Celtics might not be able to offer the most glitzy package (Cleveland wins that battle if it dangles this year’s No. 1 pick after vaulting in the lottery), but Boston certainly has the goods to make a play for any big-ticket player that becomes available.
Of course, this is the same route that Boston took to land their last Big Ticket, and that worked out pretty well. As part of the team’s last rebuild, Boston bundled two first-round draft picks, young talent (Al Jefferson), cap relief (Theo Ratliff’s expiring contract) and filler, then shipped it to Minnesota for another Kevin, who helped deliver Banner 17 during his first season in green.
The idea that Boston could pry another franchise resurrector from a Wolves team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 years seemed almost preposterous. There’s no way history could repeat itself, right?
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Cleveland Cavaliers might not offer point guard Kyrie Irving a maximum contract extension on July 1. That’s called the start of negotiations that don’t face a deadline until Oct. 31. … For those who love drama, you can stop on this one: Indiana coach Frank Vogel won’t be going anywhere but back to work. … The Utah Jazz liked what they heard from Chicago Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin enough to have him go through a second interview for their head coaching vacancy. … No Kardashian in tow, Lamar Odom begins a challenging comeback with the Knicks and old friend Phil Jackson. … Let Derek Fisher catch his breath, will ya, before rushing him onto that coaching carousel! … One multi-billionaire heartily endorses another multi-billionaire, despite some past differences. … A top priority for the new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks needs to be making their players, not themselves, the rock stars of that blue-collar brew town. … Thirty-five years ago tonight, Seattle was the center of the NBA universe.