The San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat are the two best teams in the league and have been all year long. It was almost a foregone conclusion during the season that these NBA Finals, which kick off tonight at 9, would be a rematch of last year's epic, seven-game masterpiece, and the first Finals rematch since the Michael Jordan Bulls topped the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998.
The Spurs will be looking for revenge after a devastating loss last year that robbed them of their fifth title in five tries during the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era, while the Heat, who are the first team to reach the Finals four straight years since the Celtics did it from 1984-1987, have a chance to earn the first three-peat since the Phil Jackson, Shaq, and Kobe Lakers of 2000-2002.
The principle characters in this one are all familiar. Each team has its own Big 3, both featuring one of the greatest players of all time (Tim Duncan and LeBron James), as well as two capable, experienced stars (for the Spurs, Tony Parker and the ageless Manu Ginobili; for the Heat, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh). Both teams have one of the top coaches in the league with the Spurs' Popovich and the Heat's Erik Spoelstra probably 1-2 on that list. Both teams deserve to be here, made it their season-long goal to get to this point, and then went out and accomplished it.
This go-around looks like its shaping up to be slightly different than last year. The Spurs feel the same if not a little better and more well-rested, while the Heat may have taken a half-step backward from their excellence in 2013. That's not to say that this won't be a great, competitive, exciting series. It just feels like the Spurs are going to take it.
Naturally, there are a few keys to these Finals in addition to the most obvious ones. So let's take a look. Warning, Celtics Fans: Ray Allen and what was probably the greatest shot in NBA history will be discussed, albeit briefly. Avert your eyes if you must.
1. The Other Guys - Obviously, each team's Big 3 and how it performs will go a long way toward deciding a champion. But both the Spurs and the Heat will need plenty from everyone else if they want to win. For San Antonio, it's all about Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter. Green was tremendous last year, averaging 14 points per game and hitting a whopping 55 percent from deep while sharing defensive duties on both LeBron and Wade. Splitter could offer a huge advantage in the paint for San Antonio seeing as how he's arguably the best center on either team and is quite capable of counteracting the best Miami has to offer at that spot, Chris Andersen, on both ends. And Leonard has become a real star, a versatile, crazy athletic two-way player who can score from anywhere, create his own shot, rebound, distribute, and, perhaps most importantly, bug LeBron. He played last year's series on two bad knees and still managed to average a double-double while also posting his team's best defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) and second best true shooting percentage and defensive rebounding percentage. If Leonard isn't a member of the Spurs' Big 3, we may want to consider adding him and referring to the Spurs as having a Big 4 or at least a Big 3.5.
The Heat have Allen of course (ANOTHER WARNING HERE CELTS FANS!!!), and if it weren't for Ray still being an assassin, the Spurs would be the defending champs right now. Ray can't guard anyone anymore but you still have to know where he is at all times because, as has been the case for his entire career, he will vaporize you from long range on any given night. No one knows this better than the Spurs. Absolutely no one.
The ghost of Rashard Lewis made an appearance in Miami's Eastern Conference Finals win over Indiana and if he can keep appearing, it will help mitigate the loss of Mike Miller, who had some big moments in each of the Heat's last two title runs. After that, Miami must get something in the paint from Andersen and Udonis Haslem, as Bosh has become almost entirely a perimeter player/jump shooter. Overall, the Spurs are deeper than the Heat and their other guys are better and more reliable. But if LeBron does his thing and Wade continues to look as fresh and play as well as he has through the Heat's first three series wins, it may not matter.
2. The Psychological Factor - It's tough to imagine any other team but the Spurs recovering from the crushing disappointment of losing Game 6 and then the series last year only to bounce back to be the league's best team. San Antonio stared down the all-encompassing pain and awfulness that stems not only from losing but from totally blowing it. But instead of taking a step back or stewing, they just got on with it and actually got better. Sure, they're still a bit wounded from last year. How could they not be? They were seven seconds from a fifth NBA championship. They should have won but they didn't. And then they came back to win 62 games and make a return trip to the Finals. It remains to be seen how damaged the Spurs still really are. We won't truly know until after this series. But they sure have done everything possible to make it appear they've put last year behind them.
And then there's the Heat. Leading up to this series, they've surprisingly been trying to play headgames with the Spurs through the media. LeBron in particular has been rather mouthy, which is borderline shocking when you consider that he's the last basketball player on earth who needs to manufacture phony motivation. Not only is he the best player in the world, he's a two-time defending champ playing at the peak of his powers and could well be good enough on his own to stave off a complete team as good as San Antonio. Yet here here he is, claiming that he feels slighted to hear anyone say that luck played a role in the Heat winning last year or taking issue with the words of Duncan, who is arguably the plainest, most non-controversial superstar in any sport, calling them a sign of disrespect. It all feels really forced and may in fact be a tacit admission on his part that the Spurs are just better than they were last year, while the Heat are decidedly not as good. The Heat swatted away the embarrassingly immature Pacers and their shenanigans like flies during the Eastern Conference Finals. To see their leader then turn around and try to drum up straw man arguments to motivate himself and his two-time defending champion team in the Finals feels off, to say the least. And that's why the edge here goes to the Spurs.
3. Tony Parker - Parker is the most important player in this series. Not the best - that's LeBron. Maybe not even the best on his own team - that's still Duncan. But he's still THE X-factor because if he's healthy enough to be on the court for his usual minutes and play his usual game, he represents the biggest advantage either team has at any position. If he's not, the Spurs might be in some trouble.
Parker sat out the second half of the Spurs series clinching Game 6 win over Oklahoma City and while the Spurs barely missed him with Patty Mills and Cory Joseph running the point, they can't count on that against Miami. The veteran Frenchman is only the Spurs' leading scorer, assist man, and three-point shooter during these playoffs and while the Spurs are good enough and certainly well-coached enough to survive his absence for a half against a team like the Thunder, which was essentially playing a man down in that particular game anyway (remember Derek Fisher trying to guard Duncan and Boris Diaw in the post?), it won't work for stretches that long against a championship team like the Heat.
Additionally, Parker's advantage over Miami's point guard duo of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole goes right down the drain should he miss any significant time. Chalmers and Cole can be nice players but Parker destroys both of them. Should he be operating at full strength, Spoelstra may have to get a little creative on defense matchup-wise and given some of the difficulty Miami has had on that end both in the playoffs and the regular season, you can bet he'd rather not have to worry about it any more than he surely already does. Ginobili can handle the point too if needs be, as he did so brilliantly in that Game 6 second half against OKC. But again, that would lessen some of the advantages the Spurs can enjoy while simultaneously giving the Heat more room to breathe.
Parker, who also had to manage an injury in last year's Finals, has expressed some concern about his durability. The Spurs, despite their claims otherwise, should be concerned too. If Parker plays like Parker, the Spurs win. If he doesn't, or is forced to sit for any prolonged stretches, this series instantly becomes more of a crapshoot.
Regardless of Parker's status, who is trying to get into whose head, or what the weather will be in South Beach next week (hint: likely really hot and oppressively humid), this series stands to be another great one. So without further ado: Spurs in 7.