Just like last year, the 2014 NBA Finals will feature as much star power as ever before.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh bring the Miami Heat back to the league's biggest stage for the fourth consecutive season, and the Big Three might only now be playing their best as a unit. In prior postseasons, Wade and Bosh have been spotty late while James has hit another level, but this year all three are effective at the same time.
The San Antonio Spurs are back to challenge Miami for the second year in a row; it's the first time in Spurs history they have appeared in back-to-back Finals. If that seems crazy, it's because Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been powering San Antonio's selfless, efficient, beautiful system for so long that their greatness seems routine.
So how will the best players swing this dramatic matchup? Let's start with the guy who made the biggest play of the 2013 series.
Even as he easily fades into a tertiary role, don't discount Bosh's value: very few guys his size can match his agility or his shooting.
He grabbed one of the most significant rebounds in NBA history just by being fast enough to remain on the floor—despite his height—in a three-or-die situation. Duncan was on the bench, allowing Bosh to snag the board, hit Ray Allen in the corner and save Miami's entire season.
Bosh will keep hounding the Spurs with his effort plays, be they hedging hard on pick-and-rolls, playing weak-side defense down low or running San Antonio bigs out to the arc offensively to make them defend his jumper.
Last season, that shot wasn't even consistently falling; none of Bosh's were. Now, he's automatic from 18 feet, and he has become an effective weapon from behind the three-point line as well. Unless a Boris Diaw can consistently get a hand in his face, Bosh is going to make San Antonio's life hell with his long-range shooting.
But if Bosh finds himself bodying up Duncan on the block, the Heat forward will wind up just as miserable as usual.
That's because Tim Duncan never ever declines. His post-up game is as effective as ever, a no-frills combination of strength, smarts and feints that allows Duncan to power through a wiry defender like Bosh and beat him any number of ways.
On the other end, Duncan is also still as good at defending the interior as ever. Gregg Popovich will insist on Duncan remaining as close to the rim as possible while other San Antonio bigs do whatever chasing is necessary. With Duncan down there, James' and Wade's forays into the lane will be that much more treacherous.
As always, Duncan is an emotionless matchup nightmare for Miami. That is, he appears emotionless. The only thing scarier for the Heat than the Duncan we all know is Duncan when he gets angry.
Tim Duncan isn't satisfied yet: "We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 1, 2014
In his 17th season, this is uncharted territory. Consistently dominant Timmy could go for 20 and 10 on any night, especially against a smallish team like Miami. Vengeful Timmy could have a historic performance in him.
Something even stranger than Chris Bosh making threes has started happening: Dwyane Wade is making threes, at least a handful of them.
Dwyane Wade's 6 3-pointers are his most in a series since the 2011 NBA Finals (7).— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 31, 2014
Prior to the postseason, Wade shot 9-of-32 from beyond the arc. That makes sense, as Wade is a career 28.9 percent three-point shooter. Then came the Indiana Pacers series, as Wade went 6-of-13 in the conference finals.
Obviously there's an enormous small-sample-size disclaimer here, but the eye test indicates that the aging, oft-hurting shooting guard is feeling friskier of late.
Not only is he displaying shooting range heretofore unseen in his NBA career, but he has six 20-point games already this postseason; last year, including the Finals, he only had five. His jumper is falling, he's scoring off the bounce and he's as dangerous as he has been in years.
San Antonio's not going to overcommit to his newfound three-pointer, but it won't give Wade easy looks anywhere, either. Wade's a true weapon to watch in this series, and he'll keep his scoring up.
Whether San Antonio's offense can match Miami's comes down to the status of Parker's left ankle.
According to an Associated Press report (h/t ESPN.com) the point guard's status is undecided heading into Game 1 of the Finals. Parker sat the second half of San Antonio's clinching Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder due to soreness.
"He came to me about eight minutes on the clock (before the second half) and said he couldn't go," Popovich said. "He couldn't cut. He was limping on it. He couldn't cut sideways or forward really."
Popovich said he thought playing Parker in the second half would have hurt the team in the long term.
"I didn't want him to be a hero because he was 50 percent or less, we thought," Popovich said. "That's probably bad for the team if you think about it. It was a tough decision to try to figure out whether to play him, and if you lose the game and it affects him for Monday night, then you're going to feel like you made an unwise choice."
The cutting comment is the most significant here, and will weigh most heavily on how effective Parker is in the series ahead.
As the engine that runs the Spurs offense, Parker's game relies on near-constant motion. Rather than survey and look for holes in the defense, Parker scouts on the go, weaving around defenders in search of space near the rim or a pass to someone else.
And in a pinch, he's capable of true greatness when forced to find space with limited options.
Patty Mills and Cory Joseph have both upped their play this season, but San Antonio cannot rely on them extensively. Parker doesn't have to be at his best, but he needs to be himself, scoring reliably and taking defenders off the bounce, for the Spurs to win.
In short, LeBron will do what LeBron does. Even though he didn't win the MVP this season, he went out and averaged 27.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game again. Those are unbelievable numbers, but it's run-of-the-mill stuff for him at this point.
Against the Spurs, anticipating anything greater than that production level would be foolish. The question then becomes, how much can San Antonio contain him?
Next to Paul George, Kawhi Leonard is built as well for the job as anyone in the world, but Erik Spoelstra could scheme things so Pop either has to switch Leonard off James or contort San Antonio's rotation to make the man matchup work.
San Antonio almost never goes small, even against spacier offensive teams like Miami. Similarly, Miami hates going super small, with Bosh and James as the only frontcourt players on the floor, preferring to protect those guys from punishing bouts with bigger opponents.
But this is the time to take punishment, and if Miami goes that small, San Antonio has to do one of two things: Either slot Leonard at power forward and lose the physical edge, or have Diaw guard LeBron while Duncan chases Bosh, maintaining the size advantage but leaving the interior prone to drives.
Regardless how well his teammates perform, we all know LeBron is going to carry the Heat. What's actually worth predicting is how Miami will use him as the most imposing chess piece on the board. Spoelstra likely wouldn't opt for the super-small look for anything more than small doses, but he will very likely try it; the opportunity is too tantalizing.
James is maybe the only player there is who could force the clockwork Spurs system to bend to its opposition. Just that possibility alone makes this matchup appointment viewing.