Six years ago, the Spurs sent a 22-year-old LeBron James and his Cavaliers packing in a four-game Finals sweep. On Monday, the 2013 MVP secured his shot at a rematch, albeit with a new team, and he likes the Heat's chances.
"I think our team is more experienced, first of all," James said, contrasting the 2013 Heat to the 2007 Cavaliers during a news conference after Miami defeated Indiana 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday. "My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did."
The Cavaliers' loss to the Spurs in 2007 marked the only Finals appearance of James' seven seasons in Cleveland. His supporting cast that season included Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson. The Spurs were led by their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and had the likes of Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Fabricio Oberto and Robert Horry on their title-winning roster. The 2013 Heat roster includes two other All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and is loaded with veterans such as Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers.
"For this team, this is our third year advancing to the Finals," James said. "So we're very experienced as well. We're not young, we're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have."
James finished with a game-high 32 points (on 8-for-17 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists on Monday to send the Heat to their third straight Finals and the fourth of his career. Miami will play host to San Antonio in Game 1 on Thursday.
"He's going to be there," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James' big night in the series-deciding game. "It's humorous looking back on it that that was once questioned. He was there in moments, big moments, Game 7s before he even got here. That's who he is. The bright lights, we have a lot of guys that emerge from those bright lights more, rather than shrink from them. That's something you can't teach. ... Three years in a row, it is not easy. We don't take this for granted, having this opportunity. It took a Game 7 to get it done, to go to this next round. But ultimately that will be his big legacy."
In 2007, James averaged 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, six assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 47.6 percent from the field, but had yet to win an MVP award or receive an All-NBA or All-Defensive first-team selection. Compare that to his numbers at age 28 this season: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals and a career-best 56.5 shooting. He enters the 2013 Finals with four MVP awards, six straight All-NBA first-team selections and five straight All-Defensive first-team selections.
"I'm a much better player [now]," James said. "I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the 2007 Finals."
In the 2007 playoffs, James averaged 25.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and eight assists, but the Spurs held him to 22 points, seven rebounds, 6.8 assists and 35.6 percent shooting in the Finals. He is averaging 26.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists and shooting 51.4 percent in the 2013 playoffs. James now stands four wins away from a title that once seemed almost like a formality when the Heat ran off 27 consecutive regular-season wins.
"I'm not going to take this win for granted," James said after finally putting away the Pacers in an intense, emotionally charged series that saw both teams win a road game. "I'm definitely going to savor this win tonight. This league is so hard to win in. It's so hard to advance, that you can't take these moments for granted."
Spoelstra also said he would need some time to process Monday's series-clinching victory.
"When you're in such a competitive series like this, you are so fully immersed, that it's such a beautiful place to be, a Game 7," he said. "Because literally the staff, the players, you're not thinking about anything else. And it's one of those few times in competitive team sports you're not thinking about tomorrow, you're not thinking about the previous games, you're not thinking about what possibly may happen, you're not thinking about the reward. All you're thinking about is the desperation of that moment."
The Heat won't have more than one night to savor their conference championship, not with the short turnaround in advance of the Finals and not with the Spurs having enjoyed nine full days of rest and preparation time after sweeping the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals.
"Deciding what we do as a team tomorrow, I'll start to get back into the books," James said. "Get back into the film on a team that's very good, very disciplined, well coached. They've got a bunch of Hall of Famers. So I look forward to the challenge, but I'm not quite there yet mentally, because I'm not going to take it for granted what we were able to accomplish tonight."
Miami swept San Antonio in their regular-season series. But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich famously rested his key players during the first game, incurring a massive fine, and Spoelstra rested James and Wade in the second game. San Antonio breezed through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record, posting an eye-popping plus-10.1 point differential.
"That's a hell of a [Spurs] team over there," Wade said after scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds in Game 7 against the Pacers. "We're going to have to make adjustments every game, throughout the series. We're going to see something different that we ain't seen. That's in every series, you have to make adjustments. So it was a little while that we wasn't playing, where we played each other in this year, and it's crazy that it worked out this way that we are both in the Finals."
A Miami triumph in the Finals would deliver Wade his third title and James his second. The Heat would also become the first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2009 and 2010 and the first franchise besides the Lakers to win back-to-back titles during the post-Michael Jordan era. "This is what it's all about," James said. "I dreamed about opportunities like this as a kid to have a Game 7, no matter at home or on the road. And that game allows you to advance to the Finals. I have had multiple dreams about it. To see a dream become a reality, I'm just very blessed. Our team is blessed. And we're just happy that we are able to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals."