SAN ANTONIO – With all the yammering about shared respect and mutual dynasties heading into these 2014 Finals, you might expect to find the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, some night this week, strolling hand in hand along the Riverwalk on a moonlit night.
Veteran Miami forward Udonis Haslem made it clear Wednesday, that ain’t happening.
“Just because this series may not be as physical as the Indiana series or may not be as physical as a [past] Chicago series,” Haslem said, “does not mean we like these guys any more.”
An absence of like might not be the same thing as an active dislike, but it’s a reasonable starting point for a potentially long, best-of-seven series that might lend itself to emotions and subplots in ways the 2013 Finals did not. It would take some doing – the Spurs don’t typically seek out headlines, the Heat see no one on San Antonio’s roster who can play the Lance Stephenson knucklehead/pest role.
But if the series is low in vitriol, it still will be high in competition, both sides’ dials cranked hard to the right to take rather than give.
“Sometimes the game is played a little different between the lines,” Haslem said. “Sometimes it’s more physical. Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower. Doesn’t change the mindset. We’re in the Finals. We can’t afford to be trying to make new friends right now.”
Again, not making friends isn’t quite the same as butting heads with rivals. Miami has been targeted for four years now, with East opponents such as Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn eager to topple them and, presumably, everything they stand for. Over time, fueled by hard knocks, strains of resentment and disdain began to show.
Not so with the Spurs, who happen to be catching the Heat in their more-established, less-shortcutting third and fourth postseasons.
“I don’t think it’s animosity,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “Indiana wants what we have – and you could tell, there was animosity on their part. We didn’t give much credence to that, and it wasn’t reciprocal. The Spurs are different. They’ve had serial success over a decade and a half. They want what’s out there and we want what’s out there. It’s not so much they want what we have or we want what they have.”
Last year’s Finals wasn’t exactly gentlemanly, but it didn’t deteriorate into barroom tactics. The Spurs set a Finals record for fewest fouls committed in a seven-game series (118). Correspondingly, the Heat shot the fewest free throws in a seven-game series of any Finals team in history (118). Read that again: LeBron James‘ team shot the fewest free throws in a seven-game series of any Finals team ever .
(The records for the most fouls and free throws? In the 1957 Finals, Boston fouled St. Louis players 221 times, resulting in 341 free throws. Scintillating to watch, no doubt.)
So this one will have to muddle through without bad blood, personal histories or old scores to settle (besides the outcome). Two teams, both driven and fiercely competitive, went at it for seven rounds last June and didn’t even merit a technical foul for defensive-three seconds after Game 4.
“I think that’s why this series was so great last year: It was about basketball,” Battier said. “It wasn’t about talk. it wasn’t about controversy. It was an awesomely officiated series last year – there were no refereeing controversies. There were no technical fouls, no flagrant fouls. It was about basketball.
“How novel for the NBA Finals to be about basketball. I expect the same sort of respect, and it being about the game, as it should be.”