There's nothing like a good rematch to drive the viewing public's interest in a championship series. But this isn't just a good rematch—it has all the potential to be a classic.
While the Miami Heat have waltzed through the Eastern Conference with relative ease, the San Antonio Spurs have been tested, first by the veteran Dallas Mavericks, then by the extremely talented Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals.
It's already been a postseason to remember, with perhaps one of the most competitive and exciting first rounds in league history. It's only fitting that the finale holds the potential for so much intrigue.
Led by 38-year-old Tim Duncan and All-Star point guard Tony Parker, the Spurs are hoping their team-oriented approach prevails against the best player in the world. LeBron James had something to say about that last time, scoring a combined 69 points in the decisive Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 finals.
The Spurs all but dared LeBron to beat them, giving him space on the perimeter. He responded, converting on 5-of-10 three-pointers in Game 7 and leading Miami to its second straight title.
There's a pretty good chance this series goes seven games as well. But do the Heat still have the edge a season later?
Season Series: Split, 1-1
Playoff Seeds: Heat, No. 2; Spurs, No. 1
Playoff Records: Heat, 12-3; Spurs, 12-6
NBA Finals Schedule:
- Game 1 Thursday, June 5, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Game 2 Sunday, June 8, 8 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Game 3 Tuesday, June 10, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Game 4, Thursday, June 12, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Game 5 Sunday, June 15, 8 p.m. ET (ABC)*
- Game 6 Tuesday, June 17, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)*
- Game 7 Friday, June 20, 9 p.m. ET (ABC)*
What Everybody's Talking About: Legacies
LeBron James is looking to three-peat for the first time since the Los Angeles Lakers did it in 2002. Tim Duncan wants his fifth ring. As you may have surmised, there's a lot on the line here.
Both accomplishments would immediately hoist their respective heroes into a different class of historic superstardom. James would be known for establishing an instant dynasty upon his arrival in South Beach. Duncan would remain known as one of the all-time greats, with a virtually unmatched span of longevity.
A fifth ring would also tie Duncan with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, establishing him as perhaps the most accomplished player of the post-Michael Jordan era.
There's also something to be said for how this instant rivalry will be remembered. At the moment, Ray Allen's clutch three-pointer at the end of 2013's Game 6 stands as a lasting signifier of San Antonio's epic collapse.
The Spurs have a chance to change all of that. "Revenge" is too strong a word, but it's certainly fair to say San Antonio is looking to settle a score—to go out on top as its aging core of contributors ride off into the sunset.
Some, like Phil Jackson, have suggested the Spurs aren't a true dynasty because they haven't won back-to-back titles. Even without a repeat, it would be hard to argue against the dynastic merits of a team that's been this good for this long. A fifth title would make that case even stronger.
Establishing themselves as a legitimate dynasty no doubt weighs just as heavily on the Heat.
Lest we forget, James didn't come to Miami to win just one or two championships. His ambitions were sky-high from Day 1. As they should be. A player of his caliber is capable of just about anything. With ongoing comparisons to Jordan lingering in the periphery, LeBron will always feel as though he has something to prove—whatever that "something" is exactly.
Winning a third consecutive title would certainly go a ways in proving it.
What Nobody's Talking About: Dwyane Wade's Resurgence
Who says 32 is old? Certainly not Dwyane Wade. He's perplexed by the notion that his best days are behind him, telling Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
I don't know why. I think I've been good for the game. I don't know why anybody would want to get me out of here. I don't know. I have noticed that. And they're quick to move me out of the way. But, you know, it just makes the story better. Because I won't let them move me, I won't leave. I mean, I'm only 32 years old. Like Chris (Bosh) said (to the media), it's not like I'm 40-something. So, I don't know. I guess it's just the way they want to do me.
Wade might find some solace in the fact his finals opponents have put up with a similar narrative for some time. Tim Duncan (38) and Manu Ginobili (36) have been counted out on a yearly basis, yet they have clearly kept ticking. Even Tony Parker (32) gets roped into the "old" guard from time to time.
The criticism has had some merit with Wade on account of persistent knee injuries that hampered him for the last couple of years. But there's a difference between getting hurt and being too old to play the game.
At the moment, Wade is neither.
Miami's shooting guard averaged a very efficient 19 points per game this season. He was even better against the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals, putting up 19.8 points per contest on 54.5 percent shooting. His in-between game remains steady as ever, replete with a variety of pull-up jumpers and floaters.
Is Wade as athletic as he was in 2006? Of course not. But he's adjusted his game to remain a pivotal contributor. He gives James a much-needed sidekick and allows Miami to attack the basket from a number of different angles.
If the Heat prevail in this series, Wade's continued excellence will be one of the principal reasons.
Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard
From the standpoint of star power alone, this is a lopsided matchup. We know all about LeBron and what makes him the best of the best. We know far less about San Antonio's emerging young star.
All the same, Leonard, 22, can make things interesting in this series. He's an exceptional perimeter defender on account of his length, strength and athleticism. He's also a disciplined, skilled two-way player, the kind head coach Gregg Popovich is willing to trust when it comes to guarding LeBron.
The Spurs know they won't stop James. They're merely looking to slow him down, to keep him from dominating games as a scorer and distributor, to make his life a little harder. Leonard won't be making the attempt alone, either. Guarding someone as dynamic as James is a team effort and will require contributions from Danny Green and San Antonio's interior defenders.
Leonard can also make James work a little harder on both ends of the floor. We saw glimpses of that in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 finals. Since then, Leonard has become a far more assertive scorer, often pulling up for mid-range jumpers or otherwise utilizing a much-improved in-between game.
Still, LeBron will have the final say. There's no one in this league who can stop him one-on-one. If James is on top of his game, Leonard and the Spurs will be in trouble.
Don't Forget: San Antonio's Depth
Though San Antonio's premier players still have household-name recognition, this is no longer a team that relies on its star power. It's just as likely to depend on someone such as Boris Diaw, who dropped 26 points in the Spurs' Game 6 series clincher against the Thunder.
That's a credit to a system that doesn't believe in hero ball. The heroes are unsung more often than not. The unexpected contribution off the bench is actually expected with this team.
USA Today's Adi Joseph sums this team's brilliance up well:
The Spurs have been the best team in the NBA all season. They have unprecedented depth, with no one averaging 30 minutes a game in the regular season, and they play with a natural grace through ball movement that makes them one of the most beautiful-to-watch teams in the NBA. That's a product of coach Gregg Popovich, who is the very best in the business.
It's also a product of everyone understanding their role. None of the players try to do too much, relying instead on a belief in giving up good shots in order to find great ones. That creates plenty of opportunities for some of San Antonio's lesser-known names, from Danny Green to Patty Mills.
Green was pivotal in last season's series between these two, shooting his way into the finals MVP discussion had the Spurs prevailed. San Antonio has a seemingly endless line of shooters ready to step up and enjoy their five seconds of fame.
Sometimes five seconds is all it takes.
Prediction: Spurs in Seven