It took all of six hours Sunday night to reaffirm a sentiment that spent the last six months germinating: Anything less than a rematch of the 2012 Finals between the Heat and Thunder will be a disappointment. It won't be a disaster if one -- or even both -- of the league's top-two teams stumbles on the way to the sequel, but it will be a letdown.
Heat-Thunder II is the rare scenario in which virtually all angles of analysis lead to the same conclusion. Want to see the best players? LeBron James and Kevin Durant are No. 1 and No. 2 again this season. Want to see the best teams? The Heat had the league's best regular-season record and the Thunder finished second, while Oklahoma City posted the best margin of victory and Miami ranked second. Love offense? Miami was first, Oklahoma City second. Love defense? Both teams finished in the top seven.
Are you an athleticism junkie? See: James, Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, to name just six. Prefer outrageous? It doesn't get crazier than Chris "The Birdman" Andersen. All about workmanlike play? Enjoy a little Nick Collison. Do you like old people, or at least like it when old people are around to make you feel younger? Boom: Juwan Howard and Derek Fisher. Need a touch of potential upside? Scope out Reggie Jackson, who just turned 23.
Rematches bring an added measure of drama, if only because they boil down the "It's harder to stay on top than get on top" cliche to its purest form. Is it really possible to imagine two human beings working harder to unseat James and company than Durant and Westbrook? Not at all.
There's the history factor to consider, too. Rematches just haven't happened very often recently. Not since Michael Jordan's Bulls defeated the Jazz in 1997 (Flu Game) and 1998 (Bryon Russell Game) have the same two teams faced each other in consecutive Finals. You have to go back to the Lakers' series against the Pistons (1988 and 1989) and the Celtics (1984 and 1985) to find additional examples. The point is, we're overdue for the added intensity that comes with a second chance.
So what if Heat/Thunder doesn't materialize? Here are four workable alternatives for the 2013 Finals.
Heat-Clippers is the only matchup that could really rival Heat/Thunder from a pure entertainment value standpoint. The bevy of talent is obvious, but the predominant storyline would be whether Chris Paul, regarded as one of the league's best players for years, could capture his first title and elevate his all-time status a few notches. CP3 will soon turn 28 and he has just two career playoff-series victories, although the Clippers have jumped to a 2-0 series lead over the Grizzlies this year. A Finals appearance, even if ended abruptly by James' Heat (Miami and the Clippers split the season series 1-1), would bolster Paul's reputation that much more.
Subplots would include: Eric Bledsoe, meet the world; L.A.'s depth against the Big Three approach; transition pandemonium any time there's a turnover; Ryan Hollins and "Birdman" being in the same place at the same time, virtually guaranteeing some sort of altercation; and DeAndre Jordan potentially taking over Nick Anderson's spot as the most famous free-throw misser in NBA history. There's a lot to like here.
The Heat's 27-game winning streak and absolutely dominant play during the second half of the regular season makes it difficult to conceive of a Finals without them. But if there's one Eastern Conference team that can unseat the Heat without damaging the television ratings beyond repair, it's the Knicks, who have star power, a potent offense and personality to spare.
What Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith lack in overall ability, compared to James and Wade, they make up for in sheer unpredictability and complete self-confidence. One or both could go off for 40 points or more in a Finals game and it wouldn't be the least bit surprising. Importantly, it's going to take an offense that can score in volume, and from a variety of sources, to keep up with the Heat and the Thunder in the playoffs. New York happens to boast Anthony, the league's leading scorer, and the No. 3 offense, making it the ideal candidate. The Thunder and Knicks split the season series and New York's 125-120 road win in early April was one of the most entertaining games of the season.
Mandatory disclaimer: If both the Heat and the Thunder can't advance to the Finals, the loud whining about the resulting matchups could very well drown out whoever's left standing. Personally, Nuggets/Knicks would represent the tastiest fare, with the 2011 blockbuster trade that sent Anthony from Denver to New York hanging over the entire affair. Even though the Nuggets don't exactly skimp on the salaries, this would wind up being framed as a "star-driven vs. star-less, mega-market vs. smallish market" face-off that would stir up plenty of feelings.
Basketball-wise, we'd get to see two excellent offenses with two clearly contrasting styles: the lightning Nuggets looking to run, pound the paint and avoid jumpers at all costs against the more deliberate Knicks, who turn to Anthony and a host of quality shooters to keep pace. Neither team will blow your socks off defensively, but both are respectable enough to make it tough for their opponents.
One little postscript: For those who are sick of all the knee injuries that have plagued the NBA this season, a Denver/N.Y. final would be a nice reward for two teams that were without key players (Danilo Gallinari, Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert) because of knee injuries this season.
A second postscript: If the Warriors plan to score 131 points every night, as they did in a Game 2 win in Denver, please forget that you read the last three paragraphs and replace Denver with Golden State in this hypothetical. An all small-ball, bombs-away Finals with Anthony on one side and Stephen Curry on the other would be incredibly watchable. Who could forget Curry's 54 points in Madison Square Garden in February?
If you've made it this far into a hypothetical rundown of matchups that can't take place for nearly two months, you're the type of basketball enthusiast who won't vomit at the idea of the "boring" Spurs versus the "ugly" Pacers for all the marbles. This would be the ultimate "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" Finals: You either get why Tony Parker is special, why it's damn near impossible that Tim Duncan can still play at the level that he does, why Indiana's overall effort level on defense is so remarkable and why David West is one of the game's best unsung players, or you don't. For the Pacers, a Finals victory would catapult Paul George into "household-name" territory and justify their 2012 trade of the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard for George Hill, a move that could very well wind up haunting them over the next five to 10 years. For the Spurs, a Finals victory would make Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich that much more immortal. More important, it would make Tracy McGrady, heretofore a postseason loser of losers, an NBA champion.