SAN ANTONIO — Is it possible that we’re still hours from the opening tip for Game 1 of The NBA Finals and these two teams are already tired of each other?
LeBron James and the Heat say they sense some dislike from their opponents. Tim Duncan and the Spurs, who see perhaps a bit of entitlement from the Heat, simply dislike any memory of last June when they all but gift-wrapped a championship to the Heat by falling apart in the last 28.2 seconds of Game 6.
Oh well, it should be a beauty.
Game 1 tips off Thursday night at 9 ET on ABC.
Let’s face it. Thunder and Pacers fans aside, this is really the showdown everybody has wanted to see for the past 12 months: Round 2. It’s the NBA’s Model Franchise from San Antonio against the Runway Model Franchise from South Beach.
It’s the Heat trying to become just the fourth franchise in league history to achieve a “three-peat” against the Spurs trying to win their fifth championship. This is the first Finals rematch since Michael Jordan’s Bulls took down the Jazz of John Stockton and Karl Malone in 1997 and ’98. The Heat are the first team to advance to four straight Finals since Larry Bird‘s Celtics (1984-87).
For so many familiar names of the past decade or more, this is all about legacies.
The 38-year-old Tim Duncan is seeking his fifth NBA title, which would cement his position as one of the best big men in the history of the game and would help erase the sting of last year’s seven-game loss to Miami, the only time he’s ever lost in The Finals. For Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, it would be a fourth championship and permanently stamp them as the most successful international players ever. Gregg Popovich could become only the fifth coach in league history to win a fifth championship.
For the Heat, the “three-peat” would, of course, rank them among only six teams in NBA history to accomplish the feat. The fourth overall title for Miami would jump them into the elite group with Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs as the only NBA franchises with four championships. A 29-year-old LeBron James would be halfway to Jordan with his third ring, Dwyane Wade would rank among the elite with four titles and Erik Spoelstra could jump into sixth place all-time for titles won by a coach. And don’t forget Pat Riley. As a player, coach and now team president, championship No. 9 would be a step closer to the bejeweled Phil Jackson (11 coach, 2 player) and Bill Russell (11 player).
With all of the focus upon the Big Three on each side, it would be easy to overlook Spurs shooting guard Danny Green. Easy, but foolish. Remember, last year Green shot 27-for-49 (55.1 percent) from behind the 3-point line and might have been named MVP of The Finals if the Spurs had held on.
Keep an eye on Parker’s sore left ankle. If it can’t hold up, the Spurs could be in trouble.
Never mind that Ray Allen will turn 39 years old in July. He hasn’t lost anything off one of the prettiest jumpers to ever grace an NBA court. Nobody knows that better than the Spurs after that Game 6 dagger from the right corner snatched the Larry O’Brien Trophy right out of their hands.
Xs and Os
There’s no rest for Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. He goes from Dirk Nowitzki to LaMarcus Aldridge to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now he’ll once again be matched up on LeBron and tasked with trying to keep the best player in the game out of the paint, where he can do the most damage.
The Spurs would like the Heat to feed on a steady diet of 3-pointers, but that could become a problem if Chris Bosh keeps slinging them in from behind the arc.
Miami’s defensive weakness is in the middle and the Spurs could go to work there with Boris Diaw‘s interior passing and his ability to step outside and hit the jumper.
It’s strength on strength with the Heat’s gambling, aggressive defense wanting to jump into the passing lanes to create turnovers and transition buckets against the crisp passing game of the Spurs.
It won’t be the opening matchup, but if Parker gets rolling and the Heat need a stopper, Spoelstra will make the switch to LeBron to put on the clamps, just as he did a year ago.
The Heat as a group have been hot and cold, intense and disinterested at times through the playoffs. But Wade, who missed 28 games due to injury this season, has been a spark in their offense, averaging 18.7 points, 4.3 assists and shooting a career-best 51.9 percent in the playoffs.
Diaw went to work and was quite effective in the Western Conference finals against the Thunder. It’s been said in some corners that he’s playing as well as any time in his career. His confidence is surging.
Whatever happened to …
“Birdman” Chris Andersen struggled with injuries in the Eastern Conference finals. He got a pair of DNPs and played just 12 1/2 minutes in the Game 6 clincher against the Pacers.
Tiago Splitter‘s time went steadily down a year ago in The Finals as Popovich went with a small lineup. His minutes also shrunk drastically this year against OKC. He could be the odd man out again.
The Spurs have waited a full year to get redemption and need to make a statement at home in Game 1.