Dwyane Wade's play will determine how the Miami Heat fare in the NBA Finals.
It's a matchup that feels years in the making, ever since the Spurs harpooned LeBron James during this first NBA Finals appearance as a fresh-faced lad in Cleveland. Now, he's armed with a premium supporting cast—or so we thought.
After a grueling seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers, Miami can no longer be considered an unstoppable juggernaut whose transcendence into the upper echelon of NBA dynasties is a mere formality.
This will be a series. A good one.
Other than Gregg Popovich eviscerating sideline reporters with the unfortunate assignment of interviewing him in between quarters, what should fans watch for in the series' opening bout?
Here are some key factors that will sway the outcome on Thursday night and perhaps the entire series.
Will the Spurs Play Some Small Ball?
Miami is probably breathing a sigh of relief now that it has finally escaped the wrath of Roy Hibbert and David West down low. Too bad San Antonio has re-embraced its roots of playing big this year.
The Spurs' most used and most effective unit employed Tim Duncan at power forward, with Tiago Splitter manning the middle. In recent years, San Antonio has upped the pace of its offense, but the team's defense has also excelled this year, ranking third with 101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Frank Vogel stayed true to his club and exploited Indiana's size advantage, but will Popovich change it up to match the Heat's quickness?
Unlike Indiana, San Antonio can run with Miami and match the Heat point for point. And although Splitter has emerged as a viable component of the Spurs' roster, he's still not quite Hibbert.
Popovich also trusts his bench more than Vogel, which means there will be plenty of minutes without Duncan. Without a true reserve center (Boris Diaw is their big man on the bench), he could test out some smaller lineups.
Always one to adapt, the studious Popovich was surely taking notes as Miami stymied Indiana's post game in Game 7. Now that the Heat have found success in pressuring big men, will Popovich use some misdirection?
Which Dwyane Wade Shows Up?
Not that some help from the ancillary pieces wouldn't go a long way, but Miami goes as Dwyane Wade goes. The 31-year-old was not himself against Indiana, scoring 15.4 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting. In the team's wins, however, Wade played much closer to his true form.
With the exception of Miami's Game 5 victory fueled by ferocious defense that limited Indiana to just 70 points, Wade made a pivotal difference during the wins. He posted 19, 18 and 21 points in the other three games.
Game 7 showed what a different animal Miami is with a flourishing Wade. When he attacks, James can facilitate and pick his spots rather than reluctantly accepting the Superman role. When both of those superstars unrelentingly charge down the paint, Ray Allen and the rest of Miami's shooters can camp out for a buffet of open three-pointers.
How much do Wade's shaky knees have left? If he can turn it on and score 22.6 points per game, akin to last year's finals, the Heat are virtually unstoppable.
Can Miami Contain Tony Parker?
With all due respect to former Spur George Hill, Indiana's lack of a truly dynamic point guard was one bright spot to what was otherwise a matchup nightmare.
Duncan does not always get his fair share of recognition, but at least we constantly talk about how little respect he garners from casual fans. Tony Parker, on the other hand, continues to fly under the radar as one of the NBA's top floor generals.
In perhaps his best season, Parker scored 20.3 points per game on 52.2 percent shooting, dishing out 7.6 assists per contest. Can Miami stop the crafty point guard from wreaking havoc on its defense?
Parker has sliced up the opposition on screens, most recently embarrassing the Memphis Grizzlies with a 37-point outing to secure the sweep.
If Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole can't stay in front of Parker, this could be a long series for Miami.