Who could forget the 2013 NBA Finals?
The San Antonio Spurs might like to wipe the final five quarters of the series from their memory, especially after they were just a rebound away from clinching the Larry O'Brien Trophy and adding it to the franchise's ever-growing collection. But that's about it.
Even those who still have vitriol for LeBron James coursing through their veins have to admit that it was one heck of a series, one defined by drama and standout performances.
Want to see it again?
You can look up replays and watch as Ray Allen hits his clutch three-pointer to take the Miami Heat off life support, but you also might get to witness an encore. Both teams are in great position to engage in a rematch when the 2014 Finals roll around.
San Antonio trails only the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference, and the Indiana Pacers are the lone team ahead of Miami in the weaker Eastern Conference. Despite the lack of No. 1s before their names, each team is in prime position to make yet another run through the postseason.
Miami-San Antonio is only one of many appealing Finals matchup possibilities, but the rematch aspect makes it quite the enticing one.
So, can it really happen?
Are the Heat Truly Elite?
Miami was tripped up by the Houston Rockets on the second night of a back-to-back on Tuesday, but they still had a chance to send the game to overtime as the clock counted down toward triple zeros.
"I'm extremely tired right now," LeBron told B/R's Ethan Skolnick before the contest, feeling the aftereffects of a 61-point outburst against the Charlotte Bobcats. Impressive as the MVP candidate's outing might have been, he expended an unnecessary amount of energy in the easy victory, and it cost him against Houston.
Even with the loss, the Heat boast a 43-15 record, which is nothing short of elite. They've gone 8-2 over their past 10 games, and a victory over Houston would have extended the team's winning streak to one game shy of double digits.
Remember when Miami lost three games in a row during the early portion of January? Since then, LeBron has steered the defending champions to a 16-4 record.
And scarily enough, this team should only get better.
Between Dwyane Wade playing well when he's on the court, LeBron being motivated to chase down Kevin Durant in the MVP race, the veterans coming out of slumps and the possibility of a new addition via the roster spot cleared up in the Roger Mason Jr. trade, there are quite a few signs that Miami hasn't yet peaked.
Pat Riley originally assembled the "Big Three" with the idea that when healthy, they'd be unbeatable. Well, that hasn't changed.
Basketball-Reference shows that the Heat have scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions, which is the top mark in the league. The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers are the only ones even remotely close to that type of scoring output, but they can't touch the defending champions at this stage of the season.
Erik Spoelstra's screen-heavy offense continues to be filled with ball movement that confuses and befuddles the opposition. It's allowed Miami to shoot the top effective field-goal percentage in the NBA by a large margin.
But it's not like the Heat thrive on only one end of the court.
"That's how we win games," Wade said at halftime of Miami's recent domination over the New York Knicks, via Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News. "When our defensive pressure, our rotations and everything is on point, it's an easier way to play the game for us and it obviously makes the offensive end so much more easier for us. That's Miami Heat basketball."
That hasn't been Miami Heat basketball throughout the season, though. Players have been taking it easy on the less-glamorous end of the court, and they're still posting solid numbers. Lately, that's changing.
As Lawrence wrote to describe the team atop his power rankings at the end of February, "LeBron James and the Heat, who have hit their stride at the defensive end of the court in recent games to vault past Oklahoma City and Indiana and reclaim their position as the league's No. 1 team."
Miami is barely in the top half of the defensive rating leaderboard, via Basketball-Reference, but this team still has elite upside on that end. When everyone locks down, this is a swarming, suffocating unit that refuses to allow easy buckets.
Two-way domination, experience and loads of talent makes for a nice combination.
Are the Spurs Truly Elite?
How does Gregg Popovich only have two Coach of the Year trophies to his name?
Just as always seems to be the case, the job he's done this season is fantastic. He's made Patty Mills a viable candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, turned Marco Belinelli into a capable contributor and milked as much as possible from a whole host of role players.
The problem in San Antonio has been the pesky little injury imp, an evil entity who has seemed to affect just about everyone on the roster. In fact, the Spurs have already used 24 different starting lineups, and we're only 60 games into the season.
Tony Parker has missed time. Tim Duncan has missed time. So too have Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and just about everyone else on the roster.
At one point, it seemed like San Antonio was completely out of wing players.
Tim Duncan on #Spurs losing Kawhi Leonard tonight to a broken finger: "We are dropping like flies right now." Splitter/ D. Green also out.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) January 23, 2014
Flies might even drop at a slower rate than the Spurs did at the midway point of the 2013-14 campaign. But did it matter?
Not with Pop on the sideline.
Even though makeshift rosters and rapid player development have been the primary themes of the season, the Spurs are still sitting pretty with a 44-16 record, one that leaves them trailing only OKC in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
However, the news gets even better when we turn to Basketball-Reference's treasure troves of team data.
San Antonio has an offensive rating of 109.6 and a defensive rating of 103.0, which leaves the team at No. 7 and No. 5 in the respective categories. Here's the complete list of teams that rank in the top seven on both ends of the court:
- San Antonio Spurs (No. 7 ORtg, No. 5 DRtg)
- Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6 ORtg, No. 4 DRtg)
Even with all the injury woes, the Spurs have remained one of the premier teams in the Association. Simple Rating System, which takes into account margin of victory and strength of schedule, has San Antonio trailing only the Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers across the league.
So, what happens when everyone is healthy?
The depth and situational experience gained throughout the season will only play in San Antonio's favor when the marquee players are all good to go during the postseason.
"It feels great to have everybody back," Parker recently told SpursNation.com's Dan McCarney after helping beat the Dallas Mavericks. "Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy and try to make a run at it. Everybody recharged their batteries. Everybody should be fresh. Every year I like our chances so as long as we stay healthy and play our best basketball when the playoffs come. That’s the main thing."
With that, it's time for the same bit of advice that seems to apply during every season of the Popovich era—don't sleep on the Spurs.
Who are the Biggest Challengers?
Both teams are elite, but it's not like either one can enjoy a cakewalk through the postseason until they reach the rematch. The Spurs can't proceed past even one team while in a somnambulant state, and the Heat will actually have to exert effort to advance further than just two rounds.
In the East, much has been made of the seemingly inevitable conference finals matchup between the Heat and Indiana Pacers. They've split the regular-season series so far, though there are two games remaining, and all bets are off in the playoffs.
The No. 1 seed in the East is viewed as a monumental prize, as the series is expected to come down to the wire, lending a serious advantage to whoever gets to enjoy home-court advantage during Game 7.
Thus far, the Pacers has been the better team, though they seem to be slipping in recent weeks. A 7-3 record over the past 10 games doesn't do justice to the struggles this team has endured and overcome.
Yet while they slip, others rise.
Even though the East has been seen as a two-horse race for most of the season, the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are both proving they can't be overlooked come playoff time. The Bulls in particular have been red-hot over the last month, and a suffocating defense makes them a serious threat to the supremacy of either elite squad.
Is either team in the same class as Indiana or Miami? Not yet, but they aren't too far off at this point.
The picture is a little murkier in the NBA's tougher conference.
While San Antonio could easily rise up to No. 1 by the time every team has played 82 games, it could also slink back to No. 5 in the standings. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers are all within striking distance, after all.
And even then, the Spurs aren't safe.
Will the rematch become a reality?
Would anyone bet against the Golden State Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies pulling off a first-round upset? The Phoenix Suns can throw a scare into the elite teams as well thanks to their speedy play, especially if Eric Bledsoe beats his recovery timetable and surprises everyone with a return to action.
Simply put, it's too early to claim that Miami and San Antonio are headed for a Finals rematch. The former's path to the last round of the postseason is easier than the latter's, but both are fraught with peril.
There remains a solid possibility that we're in for an encore performance when only two squads are left competing for the championship, seeing as both the Heat and Spurs are truly elite teams. But at this point, it's only that—a possibility.