Matchup: West's No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. East's No. 2 Miami Heat (54-28)
Season series: Split 1-1
Season efficiency rankings: San Antonio (6th offense, 4th defense); Miami (7th offense, 5th defense)
Playoff efficiency rankings: San Antonio (2nd offense, 2nd defense); Miami (1st offense, 6th defense)
Playoff road: Spurs beat Mavs 4-3, Blazers 4-1, Thunder 4-2; Heat beat Bobcats 4-0, Nets 4-1, Pacers 4-2
Judging a rivalry based on bitterness as opposed to history is an easy mistake to make, but it's a mistake all the same. Miami and San Antonio share a mutual respect and a burning, organization-wide desire to win, but that hasn't manifested in flagrant fouls, bad blood, or much in the way of trash talk.
"We're happy that it's the Heat again," Tim Duncan said, after eliminating the Thunder, adding: "We'll do it this time." Those words -- a hint at revenge for the 2013 Finals and an indirect title guarantee -- come as close to providing bulletin board material as the mild-mannered Duncan has come in as long as anyone can remember. The subsequent reply from LeBron James was, predictably, as drama-free as possible: "We want them to."
Once the Heat and Spurs become the first pair of teams to face off in back-to-back Finals since Michael Jordan's Bulls defeated the Jazz in 1997 and 1998, they'll ensure that one of the two franchises will win the title for the seventh time in 12 years. Not since the Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles in nine years during the 1980s have two franchises simultaneously presided over the league in such a dual-dynastic manner.
For the Spurs, victory would deliver the fifth title of the Tim Duncan era, marking a sweet revenge for an improbable, brutal loss in the seven-game 2013 Finals. It would mark the 38-year-old Duncan's first title since 2007, underscoring his reputation as one of the league's most durable, dominant figures one more time. A Finals victory would further validate San Antonio's model, a collective and outside-the-box approach that saw the Spurs win a league-best 62 games this season without a single player averaging 30 minutes a night. What better way to validate Gregg Popovich's Coach of the Year award and R.C. Buford's Executive of the Year award than with another ring? A Spurs title would also make Popovich just the fifth coach in NBA history to win at least five titles.
Remarkably, the Heat -- who became the first team since the 1980s Celtics to advance to the Finals in four straight years -- have just as much at stake. Miami would become only the second team to three-peat during the post-Jordan era, joining the 2000-2002 Lakers. And the 29-year-old LeBron James would officially be halfway home to matching Jordan's six career titles. What's more, James could join Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to ever win three straight Finals MVP awards. A Heat championship would also require a new self-imposed nickname for Dwyane Wade -- Goodbye "Three," Hello "Four" -- and it would move Erik Spoelstra, 43, into No. 6 for most titles won by a head coach in NBA history. And then there's Pat Riley, who would claim the ninth ring of an illustrious career that saw him seamlessly shift from player, to coach, to executive.
Father Time and free agency both loom on the periphery. Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Ray Allen are all constantly playing under "How much longer?" talk, and the Finals will officially be the last run for Shane Battier. The possibility of summer free agency awaits James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, too, even if all indications to date are that the Big 3 is likely to stick together for at least one more year.
With this series being driven by no-nonsense, established players who are adding to their legacies, rather than by up-and-coming youngsters looking to make a name for themselves, we should expect the basketball to take center stage. And great basketball it should be. For the central figures, the 2013 Finals stood as a classic that demanded a rematch, and that's exactly where these two worthy contenders find themselves 12 months later. [video:]
The Case For The Spurs
You can't blame the Spurs for feeling haunted and driven by the fact that they were a mere 5.3 seconds away from winning the 2013 title, only to watch their championship go up in smoke. San Antonio rebounded in a big way, winning more games than last season, posting a better point differential and assembling a better bench. These Spurs are the poster boys for the old "That which does not kill you makes you stronger" mantra.
"Our guys actually grew from the loss last year," coach Gregg Popovich said after closing out the Western Conference finals. "They showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude to have that tough loss and not have a pity party."
The Spurs' attack is really humming. It all starts with All-Star point guard Tony Parker, a master of the pick-and-roll and drive-and-kick games. The Spurs are loaded with shooters that can make teams pay for paying too much attention to the two-man interplay between Parker and Duncan, and Danny Green -- a 2013 Finals standout -- is shooting a whopping 48 percent on threes during the playoffs. Even more impressive, he was 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) from deep in three home games against the Thunder in the conference finals.
San Antonio's defense has been almost as systematically sound as it offense during the postseason. The Spurs have consistently made life difficult for opposing superstars without going totally out of their way to do so. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki were all held below their season averages against the Spurs, and yet San Antonio didn't need to drastically overcommit to get those results. Tiago Splitter and the emerging Kawhi Leonard have both been big drivers of that success, but it's taken a team-wide precision.
Perhaps the biggest edge for San Antonio is its home-court advantage. The Spurs posted a perfect 7-0 month of May at home, and they won every single game by at least 17 points. Many of those games were over by halftime, and all were decided by early in the fourth quarter at the latest. Before things tightened up late in the 2013 Finals, both sides scored blowout victories. We shouldn't be surprised if that happens again in this series, particularly at the AT&T Center.
The Case For The Heat
The weak Eastern Conference was a subject of ridicule throughout the 2013-14 season, and Miami perfectly handled its position without any bonafide competition. Although the Heat won 12 fewer games than last year and didn't come close to repeating their historic 27-game winning streak, they were able to stockpile rest for Dwyane Wade and generally bide their time until the playoffs.
That approach has paid dividends: Miami breezed through the East with a 12-3 record, and they are a perfect 8-0 at the American Airlines Arena this postseason. It's difficult to know what to make of those results, as the Bobcats and Nets wouldn't have been playoff teams in the West, but there has been no questioning the Heat's response to any bit of postseason adversity. After dropping one game to the Nets, the Heat bounced back by taking Game 4 on the road and then closed the door with a big defensive stand in Game 5. After a surprising Game 1 loss to the Pacers, the Heat replied by stealing Game 2 on the road, a win that effectively crushed Indiana's spirit. When the Pacers scored a last-second Game 5 victory, the Heat coolly replied by dismantling the Pacers by 25 points to end their season.
In that sense, Miami sure looks like a juggernaut eager for a true test. Not only did the Heat play some of their top ball after losses, though, they saved their best for last within games, too. During the postseason, Miami has posted a league-best +9.4 net rating during the second half, a figure powered by an excellent 119.9 offensive rating. With James ready to make the right play -- for himself and others -- the Heat are a fearsome group when push comes to shove. The same goes for crunch time: Miami is shooting a league-best 59.3 percent in the clutch (the final five minutes of a game, within five-point scoring margin) during this postseason.
An especially encouraging sign for the Heat has been the play of Wade, who is averaging 18.7 points and shooting 51.9 percent in the playoffs, both way up from last year. The horror stories of knee-draining needles and off-day workouts are, for the time being, a thing of the past. The same goes for the ugliest of his off nights, as Wade has scored in double figures in all 15 of Miami's playoff games.
As has been the case since 2010, the Heat will go as far as James is able to carry them. The 29-year-old James saw his numbers dip ever so slightly this season, but he's been a menace in the basket area throughout the postseason, and he has the advantage of having seen San Antonio's full bag of defensive tricks last season. Although Miami's lack of competition has dampened the excitement around their run just a bit, James nevertheless boasts the top Player Efficiency Rating of any player in the postseason, and he's shooting a career playoff-high 56.2 percent from the field. Even a defender as skilled and intelligent as Leonard will have his hands full.
A final ray of hope for the Heat concerns the uncertain status of Tony Parker, who was unable to play during the second half of San Antonio's closeout win over the Trail Blazers with a hamstring injury and, more immediately, sat out the second half of Game 6 against Oklahoma City with a sprained ankle. Stealing one of the first two games on the road will be crucial to Miami's success in the series: if Parker is limited in Games 1 and/or 2, that could open up the door for the Heat.
Manu Ginobili. The biggest difference -- and cause for optimism -- this year has been the improved play of Ginobili, who was the clear X-factor against Oklahoma City. The Spurs' Sixth Man averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists and hit 50 percent of his threes during the conference finals, but his value extends well beyond his own numbers. He is the engine behind San Antonio's premier second unit, an international and versatile group that can go big or small and loves to keep the pressure on. San Antonio's statistical advantage when it comes to depth is almost shocking: the Spurs reserves are scoring a league-best 43 points per game in the playoffs, compared to 27 per game by the Heat's bench. That 16-point difference is a wide gap that puts extra pressure on Miami's Big 3 to produce efficiently on offense.
Even at age 36, Ginobili has found so many different ways to influence games during the playoffs, whether it was knocking down clutch three-pointers, knifing through the paint for layups, or seeking opportunistic scoring opportunities in transition. The Heat will have their hands full containing him now. Last year, there was plenty of talk about whether Ginobili call it a career. These days, he's a sleeper pick for Finals MVP.
Spurs in 6. It's hard to shake the overriding sensation that the Spurs are meaningfully better this season than last while the Heat have taken a half-step backwards. Given how even the two teams were in 2013, and the fact that San Antonio has home-court this time around, the oddsmakers are correct in tabbing the Spurs as a slight favorite.
The Spurs' depth gives them a greater margin for error, and their chemistry on both ends right now is second-to-none. Importantly, San Antonio has been playing against high level competition for the last few weeks, while Miami will likely face an adjustment period after playing a depressed Eastern Conference and an offensively-deficient Indiana team. Look for the Spurs to exact revenge for last season, thereby setting up the possibility for Part III of the trilogy in 2015.
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