The Heat and Spurs will face off for the NBA title in a Finals that features the regular-season MVP, LeBron James, a four-time champion, Tim Duncan, and several other future Hall of Famers. This is the reigning champion Heat's third straight trip to the Finals, while San Antonio is returning to the championship series for the first time in six years. What can we expect when Game 1 tips off Thursday night in Miami? Five SI.com NBA writers analyze how each team got this far and what lies ahead in the Finals.
1. What have you learned about both teams in the playoffs?
Ian Thomsen: Tony Parker is now the NBA's most important -- therefore the best -- point guard, and his Spurs have renewed their staying power around their new generation of role players. San Antonio has been healthy at the right time while Miami has not. If Dwyane Wade were at full strength, this matchup would be more reflective of the larger season when the defending champs looked stronger than ever.
Lee Jenkins: San Antonio can beat a contender that thrives inside (Memphis) or out (Golden State). But Miami, much like the Spurs, is a more dynamic opponent. The Heat's soft middle was exposed by the Pacers, but that's no reason to dismiss them in the Finals. Despite their 27-game winning streak, the Heat still tend to play down to their competition, but they rise along with the stakes. They proved it once again in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, rediscovering the smothering defense that was a trademark in 2011 and 2012.
Chris Mannix: San Antonio's defense is better than expected. The Spurs were far more efficient defensively this season (third in the NBA in points allowed per possession) than they have been in any of the last three seasons (no higher than eighth), and their defensive versatility makes them as good on the perimeter as they are on the inside. For Miami, everyone knew the Heat were soft on the inside. But Chris Bosh's struggles against Indiana cast doubt on Miami's ability to contend with the Spurs' frontcourt, which isn't as physical as that of the Pacers but is long and skilled.
Ben Golliver: The playoffs have taught us, yet again, that truly elite teams get it done with excellent efficiency on both sides of the ball. Even with so many stout defenses (Indiana, Memphis, Chicago, Miami, San Antonio) making noise in the postseason, the two teams left standing are the ones with the "O" to pair with that "D." Miami was No. 1 in offensive efficiency and No. 7 in defensive efficiency this season. San Antonio ranked No. 7 and No. 3 in those same categories. Only one other team, Oklahoma City, finished in the top seven in both categories, and the loss of Russell Westbrook in the first round changed things entirely for the Thunder offensively and defensively. The balanced dominance from the Heat and Spurs has continued in the postseason, as Miami ranks No. 1 on offense and No. 4 on defense and San Antonio ranks No. 2 and No. 1, respectively.
The lesson here is really one of validation: Miami and San Antonio have overcome some tricky matchups and caught some good luck with injured rivals, but they enter the Finals with balanced bodies of work that fully confirm their right to be here.
Rob Mahoney: In the Heat's case, we've learned that an influx of energy can cure most ills. After being dominated on the boards for most of the conference finals, Miami flipped the switch and went into glass-cleaning overdrive in the decisive Game 7. With some impressive out-of-position and gang rebounding, the Heat claimed 34.9 percent of their own misses in that game and essentially doubled up the Pacers on the offensive boards. A hyped-up Miami defense also swarmed Indiana's big men on the catch, forcing the Pacers to turn the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions after Indiana scored with relative ease throughout the series.
With the Spurs, we've learned (or really, confirmed) that they will exploit even the most minor advantages to incredible gain. Coach Gregg Popovich and his staff dissect and pore over opponents. Once a weakness is identified, the players attack it mercilessly, with a consistency of execution that few NBA teams -- if any -- can match.
2. What intrigues you the most about this Finals matchup?
Thomsen: It's a great question because there are so many answers. For me, it's whether the years of teamwork built up by the Spurs can enable them to win one last championship or whether LeBron's view of teamwork prevails to advance his goal of becoming the NBA's ultimate player. It's a contrast in styles of teamwork by teams at different stages -- the Heat are peaking and the Spurs are nearing the end.
Jenkins: These teams have been dancing around each other for a while. The Spurs posted the best record in the Western Conference the past two years, and appeared on a collision course with the Heat, but fell short both times. This season, the Spurs' stars skipped the game in Miami, and the Heat's stars did the same in San Antonio. The anticipation for this series has been brewing. Last June, Miami dispatched Oklahoma City in five, but Westbrook scored 43 in a game and 27 in two others. A probing Parker will test the Heat as Westbrook did.
Mannix: The Spurs D' vs. LeBron. The Spurs excel at taking away a team's best offensive options, and LeBron has had to assume a more significant scoring role in these playoffs. Kawhi Leonard will draw the initial assignment, but expect Popovich to keep multiple defenders in James' eyeline to force him to become a perimeter shooter. It worked in 2007, when the Spurs swept Cleveland in the Finals. If Miami doesn't get big-time performances from Wade and Bosh, it could work again.
Golliver: A second straight title for James and the Heat would mark the first time any franchise other than the Lakers has repeated in the post-Michael Jordan era and, should that happen, you can bet that "three-peat" will be on the tips of the nation's tongue while the confetti is still in the air. Jordan's Bulls (twice) and the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers are the only teams to three-peat since the Celtics of the 1960s. Sure, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but the pursuit of that rare history is on the table here. Four more wins, and James will be setting his sights on something that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas and many other Hall of Famers never managed.
On the flip side, a defeat here for James, at the height of his powers and during the best season of his career, would make for the third Finals loss of his career, more than Jordan and Bryant combined. That number wouldn't come up in a billion "Greatest Of All Time" debates over the next 50 years? And what would be next for Miami if it goes 1-for-3 in the Big Three era? How and where would the Heat sacrifice to get James some help for next season? What would the implications be on future free-agency decisions?
Mahoney: The interplay between the Heat's defensive pressure and the Spurs' ball movement. Miami will look to blitz Parker in defending the pick-and-roll, and whichever team better executes in those situations may well win the series. If the Spurs can quickly re-route their offense through Manu Ginobili or Duncan and find an open shot, they put themselves at a significant advantage and negate the Heat's primary means for creating turnovers. But if the Heat can cut off swing passes and scramble back into place after forcing Parker to give up the ball, they'll help contain one of the most dangerous scorers in basketball while keeping San Antonio's supplementary scorers in check. Both teams will have to make frequent, instant judgment calls throughout the series, and whichever one handles them more deftly will likely be the NBA champion.
3. True or false: The Spurs have the superior Big Three entering the Finals.
Thomsen: True -- because they're healthy. Wade is limited while Ginobili is at full strength, but their health could improve or deteriorate over the course of the series. Earlier this season the advantage would have gone to Miami -- and it still could, because Ginobili has been vulnerable and Duncan is 37. So far in the playoffs, however, the Spurs have received more game-winning contributions from their trio than the Heat have received from theirs.
Jenkins: False. Even with Wade's bad knee and Bosh's disappearance against Indiana, James remains one of the three, and he alone tips the scales. Besides, Wade did re-emerge in Game 7 of the conference finals, and Bosh at least hit the glass. The Spurs' three have obviously been more balanced and consistent through these playoffs. But the Heat could put Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers with James and they'd still have a premier trio.
Mannix: False. Duncan is playing well and Parker is playing out of his mind. But Ginobili is averaging his fewest postseason points since his rookie season. For all the problems Wade and Bosh are having, from a pure talent perspective they are superior, and perhaps Wade's strong Game 7 performance -- where his balky knee didn't appear to trouble him as much -- is a precursor of things to come. Throw in James, still the most unstoppable player on the planet, and Miami's trio has the edge.
Golliver: False. Even if we agree that Parker has been the NBA's third-best player during the postseason, rank Duncan among the NBA's top two or three centers this season, subtract major points for Wade's knee injury and admit that Bosh was ineffective for long stretches against the Pacers, there's still that little matter of James being head and shoulders above everyone else in the world. To wit: James has posted a win shares figure (3.9) in the playoffs nearly matching that of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili combined (4.7). Those numbers fall right in line with his production from the regular season: James' 19.3 win shares nearly matched that of the Spurs' Big Three (22.1).
This comparison just really isn't that close. Considering that Ginobili's postseason numbers (11.5 points, 38.3 percent shooting) are the worst since his rookie year, you could even make a case that James plus any two Heat rotation players -- say, Chris Andersen and Chalmers -- would be preferable to San Antonio's Big Three. Of course, that mental exercise should say everything about James in 2013 and nothing demeaning in the slightest about the Spurs' stars.
Mahoney: False. Wade and Bosh have fallen on tough times, but they are still productive and valuable players under most normal contexts -- to say nothing of James' dominion over the entire game. Because of that, the Spurs not only lack in the top-end talent to match James but also come up a little short in comparisons between third wheels. Ginobili is terrific in his own right, but he is confined to a smaller role than Bosh because of limited minutes, he is a lesser defender and he can be a bit too wild with his shot selection and passing at times. If I were a coach, I would happily settle for either threesome. But if forced to choose, I'm still taking Miami's top three.
4. Which role player will have the biggest impact?
Thomsen: It's ridiculous to refer to the greatest sharpshooter in history as a role player, but that's why Ray Allen will be so important in this Finals. Never mind his negligible impact for much of the previous round against Indiana; he is bound to win at least one game for Miami with a run of pivotal threes. He needs to -- and will -- provide Miami with an answer to Ginobili's big three-pointers.
Jenkins: He's not really a role player anymore, but Leonard should become a household name in the next two weeks. Since the Spurs acquired Leonard in a draft-night trade two years ago, they have steadily ingratiated him into their core, and now they will likely depend on him to guard James. The Spurs probably won't isolate Leonard on James the way the Pacers did with Paul George, but his defense will be crucial and so will his three-point shooting.
Mannix: Tiago Splitter, who will likely draw the assignment of defending Bosh and will have to use his length to contest James' shots at the rim. Three years ago, Splitter was regarded as the best center playing in Europe. He had size and skill and looked like a can't-miss prospect. The 28-year-old has finally started to play up to that potential and it will be up to him -- like it was David Robinson, Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic before him -- to do the dirty work on the inside and keep Duncan fresh in the fourth quarter
Golliver: Sometimes, the answer that jumps right out at you (flapping its tattooed arms and making "Caw! Caw!" noises) turns out to be the right one. "Birdman" Andersen is in the midst of an insanely productive postseason for Miami. His eye-popping 82.6 (!!!!) percent shooting is only one-third of the equation, as he's also rebounding (9.5 boards per 36 minutes) and blocking shots (2.9 per 36 minutes) at team-high rates. Yes, there were times when he got taken to the woodshed by Pacers center Roy Hibbert, but Andersen consistently did his job in Miami's "bend but don't break" approach to interior defense that managed to stand up throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Of course, Andersen's impact can always cut both ways: There's very little margin for error in this matchup, and any flagrants, technicals and/or suspensions, like the one he earned in Game 6 against the Pacers, would prove disastrous.
Mahoney: I'll cheat a bit and choose the Heat's three-headed, spot-shooting monster of Allen, Shane Battier and Mike Miller. All three serve functionally similar roles within Miami's offense, and in this series I expect them to play a significant role in terms of points scored and opportunities created. Only five teams allowed fewer three-point attempts than San Antonio during the regular season, but Miami is always capable of unsettling those perimeter defenders and creating open looks for its top three-point threats.
5. What will be the deciding factor in the series?
Thomsen: Health. The Spurs are here because Ginobili has been able to perform at the right time. Few would be giving them a chance to win the Finals if Wade were at full strength. This season, more than any other in memory, has been defined by the health of the league's best players, and that trend figures to continue over the next fortnight. In the end, I'm guessing Wade will give Miami just enough to prevail.
Jenkins: When James was in Cleveland, and faced San Antonio in the 2007 Finals, the Cavaliers' starting lineup included Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. During the East finals, the Heat looked like a juggernaut in Games 3 and 7, just like James' Cavs did in Games 4 and 6 against the Pistons in '07. James does not require much help, but he needs either Wade or Bosh to find a measure of consistency, and one of the Heat's sharpshooters to successfully space the floor.
Mannix: The play of Wade, who simply has to have a strong series. San Antonio won't be intimidated by the moment (like Oklahoma City was last year) and won't be sloppy with the ball (as Indiana was last series). Wade will need to be the legitimate No. 2 option he was last postseason. He has to be aggressive, get to the free-throw line and make perimeter shots. At its best, Miami is the better team. But its ability to achieve that potential will depend on what Wade can give them.
Golliver: San Antonio's ability to find the right mix between defending the paint/rim area and the three-point line. Popovich has long excelled at encouraging opponents to try to beat his Spurs with inefficient offense. Recent examples: Harrison Barnes in the post, Jerryd Bayless from anywhere. Thanks to James' scoring and playmaking abilities and the presence of a bunch of shooters -- despite relatively quiet postseason performances from Miller, Battier and Allen -- Miami just doesn't have all that many inefficient options. When Wade is exercising good shot selection and Bosh is hitting his mid-range jumpers, the Heat can go whole games without inefficient scoring options.
That said, Indiana provided the blueprint for (occasionally) slowing down the Miami attack: occupy the paint by keeping a secondary defender ready at all times while also contesting the Heat's three-point shooters through sheer willpower and dedication. Duncan and Splitter clearly aren't paint monsters in the Hibbert mold, but they succeeded in shutting down a potent Grizzlies interior duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph with lots of help from swarming perimeter defenders, who weren't kept honest by the likes of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince. Miami's shooters and ball movement make wholesale collapsing against James a tenuous strategy. If San Antonio can find a way to survive that pick-your-poison reality on defense, Parker's consistent brilliance on offense and the Spurs' own efficient attack will ensure that the upset is there for the taking.
Mahoney: LeBron James. I wish it were more complex than that, but James' sweeping ability to change the course of any play on either end of the court looms over the series. Adjustments and matchup manipulation will help dictate the victors on individual possessions, but that can't soon replace the value of Miami having such an intelligent, adaptable player at the center of everything.