MIAMI -- Imagine Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich sitting opposite one another at the poker table. Each turns over the five cards he's been dealt. Each finds the other to be holding three of a kind.
Riley's three appear to be sensational, extroverted and mercenary.
Popovich's three appear to be bland, introverted and loyal.
The Big Threes of the Heat and Spurs are opposites in many ways, and yet it is hard to choose one over the other as the NBA Finals open here on Thursday night. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were all born outside the 50 states before being introduced to one another by Popovich, who drafted them at least a dozen years ago. Popovich won the rights to Duncan in the 1997 lottery, and -- with thanks to R.C. Buford, the Spurs' progressive GM -- he discovered Ginobili with the No. 57 pick in 1999 and Parker at No. 28 two years later.
Popovich's way could not have been more different than the plan of Riley, who saved up his money for 2010 before attracting LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami as free agents. Miami's coup was viewed as a blight on the traditional means of team-building, and yet Popovich was one of two rivals to reach out and praise Riley afterward.
"He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster -- so why wouldn't he get credit for that?" recalled Popovich before his team practiced here Wednesday. "Why wouldn't you congratulate him for that?"
Sometime in the next two or three weeks, one of them, in distress, is going to be congratulating the other for winning the championship. One style is going to have its way at the other's expense. Either Miami is going to defend its title while continuing to explore its breakthrough style of playing through the 6-foot-8 James, or the Spurs' trio are going to win their fourth championship together (which will be title No. 5 for Duncan and Popovich) by playing through the league's best point guard in 6-2 Parker.
Not that Parker is traditional, of course. When he won his first championship as a 21-year-old NBA sophomore from France in 2003, he was pioneering the new era of shoot-first point guards. "He was a scoring guard at the time," recalled Popovich, which was why he had the idea, back then, of pairing Parker in the backcourt with free agent Jason Kidd. Then a funny thing happened: Kidd didn't come to San Antonio, and Parker turned the tables. The rest of the league followed the example of leaning on point guards to be scorers, while Parker enhanced his playmaking ability.
The reason why the Spurs have a strong chance to upset Miami is because Parker has learned to balance the kaleidoscopic demands of his position. He can shoot better than ever, he can still push the tempo in transition, but he is also able to create for others without dominating the ball. Think about the problems Rajon Rondo has created with his penetration and playmaking against James' teams over the years -- then imagine Rondo with a dependable jump shot, and there you have Parker.
One quality that unites these opposing Big Threes is their hunger, and the understanding that there is only enough on the table during the Finals to feed one trio or the other. When Parker won championships in half of his first six NBA seasons, he was left with the false idea that he would never know how it felt to go without.
"When I was 21 and I won my first one, it was kind of fast, and we think it's going to happen every year," said Parker. "We think it's easy. But after a lot of years in the league, you realize it's really hard to go to the Finals. Now we take nothing for granted. We appreciate every moment."
James needs no such reminder. He went nine years before winning his first championship last season, and he endured much grief along the way. "I've lost enough," he was saying Wednesday. "I've lost two Finals, so I don't need any more fuel from losing the Finals."
The first time he lost was six years ago, when he was a 22-year-old with the Cavaliers. They were swept by the Spurs, who return to the championship series Thursday for the first time since then. "I have something in me that they took in '07," said James. "Beat us on our home floor, celebrated on our home floor. I won't forget that. You shouldn't, as a competitor. You should never forget that."
Don't make too much of that memory. More important to James than revenge is his ambition to become the greatest of all players, and in that race he isn't competing against anything but his own internal body clock. This Finals is an opportunity he can't afford to waste, not while he's 29 and at his physical peak.
Duncan, 37, is seeking a fifth championship with the understanding that it may be his last. He slimmed down and focused on restoring his sore knee this season, enabling him to make the All-NBA First Team for the first time since the Spurs' 2007 title. Apart from the recent news of his imminent divorce, there have been few complications or off-the-court interferences to distract Duncan from leading the Spurs to at least 50 wins or the equivalent (having gone 37-13 on their way to the championship in the lockout season of 1999) for a preposterous 16 straight seasons.
James and the Heat cannot relate to such a drama-free existence. "I'm definitely glad I don't have that kind of pressure on me," said Duncan of the scrutiny that LeBron has absorbed since before he entered the NBA. "Absolutely."
The Big Threes of the Heat and Spurs are separated by age and culture. Miami's three are peaking, while San Antonio's are hanging on. But if these Finals turn out to be memorable, it will happen because the two trios have so much in common. Parker and James, the primary ball handlers, are the most important players. Wade and Ginobili have been vulnerable to injury, and their states of health will be decisive. Bosh grew up hoping to emulate Duncan, and now he must fill in the details for Miami -- boxing out, rebounding, rotating defensively in addition to scoring prolifically -- that have been responsible for Duncan's profound run of success in San Antonio.
"They are just as good as it gets from the standpoint of IQ basketball," said Wade of the Spurs. "They seem like they know where each other are without looking. They play total team basketball. And in a different style, different form, we feel we play total team basketball, and we are high IQ. So in a sense we have similarities, with a lot of differences as well. So we'll see how it collides when the series starts."
Miami has been labeled as sensational and San Antonio has been denigrated as dull. If the Spurs push this series to a seventh game, then no one will be complaining about a lack of excitement from them any longer. If they are moving the ball as the Mavericks did to beat Miami two years ago, then this matchup should bring out the best in both sides. In the end there may be little to choose between them.
An NBA advance scout looks at the NBA Finals.
"I think the Spurs are going to win in six.
"Miami will get a split at home in the first two games. They'll win one in San Antonio and then the Spurs will win Game 6 in Miami.
"The Spurs have been playing better and more consistently than the Heat. I'm sure the Heat will ramp it up like they did in Game 7 against Indiana; they'll come out like gangbusters in Game 1 and have an advantage because the Spurs have been off for so long.
"But the most important piece is going to be Tony Parker. As long as he's healthy, I give the Spurs the edge.
"He's going to be like Rajon Rondo against Miami, except that Parker is even a better scorer. He puts more pressure on them and what he does creates problems for Miami and let's everyone else on his team do what they do best. They have good shooters on the perimeter, and they have better depth coming off the bench with scorers that can match up however they want to match up, whether it's with size or by playing small.
"The Spurs have the ability to play anyway they need to play. The thing they do best is when they play big. And that's the thing Miami has the most problem with -- the rebounding.
"The Spurs' starting lineup is very good, and then they can bring Manu Ginobili or Gary Neal or Boris Diaw off the bench -- whoever they need. Their team defense is good enough that they can keep the ball out of the paint effectively.
"Kawhi Leonard is going to have a tough matchup obviously with LeBron James. But there's not a distinct height advantage to where LeBron is going to run into the post and try to post him up all the time. LeBron is still stronger than him, but Leonard can force LeBron to have to guard him also, so LeBron can't cheat and gamble off him as much as they'd like.
"Obviously if Dwyane Wade is playing at the level he played at in Game 7 against Indiana, that makes Miami better -- and that's where I'm giving them two games in the series. But I think Tim Duncan vs. Chris Bosh is a big advantage for the Big Fundamental. ... Bosh is going to have one or two games when he'll be good over the course of the six games, just like he did over the course of each series so far. But he's not a difference-maker. If they went small and the Spurs had to put Diaw in to guard Bosh in the box, he could still guard him.
"The Spurs also have DeJuan Blair off the bench. They have enough pieces there to give them the advantage. They have shooters all around, and they can bring Matt Bonner in knowing that he'll have no trouble guarding the guy he has to guard out there.
"For Miami to have a chance to win they need to have three guys that are giving them 20 points a game. They have to have Wade, LeBron and Bosh putting up points, or Wade, LeBron and Ray Allen -- no matter how it goes, there have to be three guys that go at the Spurs and put points up. Then that creates an issue for the Spurs' team defense.
"There are going to be times where Miami might be tempted to put LeBron on Tony Parker ... but Parker is similar to Rondo in that Parker's quickness is at another level.
"Even if Wade was healthy, I'd be picking the Spurs. I've been really impressed by the Spurs' play throughout the year, and especially over the last 20 games. Norris Cole is going to be an important guy for the Heat, because he's quick enough to be able to play with Tony Parker. But Tony is smart enough that he can take advantage of him, too.
"The key for the Spurs is that Tony had enough time to rest before the Finals. But if he's banged up and his calf starts hurting him, that's when the Heat will have a chance to win it. If Parker stays healthy then I think the Spurs will be fine. I'm thinking Parker will be MVP of the Finals -- which he must be, in order for his team to win it.
"I don't think the Spurs are going to worry about the Birdman -- I don't think Chris Andersen is going to be a difference-maker either in this series.
I do think Tim Duncan is going to play like Tim Duncan. As long as that happens and Leonard keeps doing what he's been doing in the playoffs, then I think the Spurs will be fine.
"Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich each do a great job. But the Heat are easier to defend; as long as you get back and stop transition, they're a fairly simple team to defend. The Spurs share the ball so well. They'll move the ball and put a lot of pressure on Miami. The Pacers and the Bulls actually weren't hard matchups because offensively they didn't do much to move the ball from one side to the other, which meant Miami was able to load up on one side and gamble. But that won't work against the Spurs -- if you cheat too much, they'll make you pay with the way they pass the ball.
"That's why you're going to see LeBron going back to his Cleveland days as a scorer. The way the Spurs play team defense is similar to Indiana. He's going to come out all upset from getting swept by the Spurs when he was with Cleveland in '07, and you'll hear about that for three or four days. He's going to play great, there's no doubt about it. It's what three of the other four guys (Cole, Bosh, Wade and Allen) do that matters. Those guys are going to have to be consistently productive."
This is in honor of Ray Allen (37 years old), Tim Duncan (37) and Manu Ginobili (35) as each tries to win another championship at the end of his career. The players on this team are big-timers who played important roles on a championship team when they were 35 or older. Candidates date back to the most famous "old" team of all, the Celtics who won their 11th championship around Bill Russell (35) in 1969.
C -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lakers (1988): Forty-one when he won the last of his six titles; four came when he was 35 or older.
PF -- Dennis Rodman, Bulls (1998): Won three championships with Bulls when he was 35 and older.
SF -- John Havlicek, Celtics (1976): Thirty-six when he helped lead Boston to the last of his eight championships.
SG -- Michael Jordan, Bulls (1998): Thirty-five when he made his final shot as a Bull to finish off the Jazz.
PG -- Jason Kidd, Mavs (2011): Averaged 35.4 minutes and 7.3 assists in playoffs at age 38.
C -- Bill Russell, Celtics (1969): Thirty-five when he beat Chamberlain's Lakers in L.A. to keep the balloons in the rafters.
C -- Wilt Chamberlain, Lakers (1972): Thirty-five when he won his second and final title -- the first for Lakers in L.A.
C -- David Robinson, Spurs (2003): Retired at 37 after winning his second title alongside 27-year-old Duncan
PF -- Alonzo Mourning, Heat (2006): Shifted to power forward at 36 when he played alongside Shaquille O'Neal
PF -- Robert Horry, Spurs (2007): Thirty-six-year-old clutch shooter who blocked five shots in Game 2 of the Finals.
PF -- Paul Silas, Sonics (1979): The former Celtics was 35 when he won his third title.
SG -- Sam Jones, Celtics (1969): Thirty-five when he won Game 4 with a jump shot off the "picket fence" on way to his 10th and final title
PG -- Gary Payton, Heat (2006): Won his only championship at 37.