When the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs tip off Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals, all focus will be on how last year's championship bout compares to this one.
Last season's Finals was as close as could be and easily could have gone San Antonio's way. But for a fortuitous rebound and one of the most timely three-pointers in the history of professional basketball, we could easily be seeing the Spurs try to repeat over Miami rather than the Heat's three-peat effort.
Don't make the mistake of assuming these teams return to the Finals exactly the same as they came last season, though. Fundamentally, they try to do the same things on the court with largely the same personnel, but the slight differences will loom large.
Game 1 will put the similarities and tweaks on display, giving us a clearer starting point from which to consider just how this Finals will likely unfold.
Tony Parker Won't Get Heavy Minutes
Per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Spurs expect their starting point guard to be back in the lineup for Game 1 after sitting out the second half of San Antonio's deciding victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
Parker rolled his ankle in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the soreness intensified thereafter. Given Gregg Popovich's statement on Parker's condition following Game 6, per Stein, it's no surprise he sat.
"He came to me with 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."
Cory Joseph and Patty Mills were able to man the point in Parker's absence, and Mario Chalmers doesn't pose nearly as severe a threat as Russell Westbrook did in the series prior.
San Antonio's offense loses some of its dynamism when Parker sits; Joseph and Mills are capable drivers and better three-point shooters than Parker, but they're not as scary off the bounce and are easier to bottle up without the defense abandoning potential kick-out options.
But per 82games.com, San Antonio was actually 2.6 points per 100 possessions better this season when Parker sat, in part due to the improvement of Joseph and Mills.
Pop trusts his star, but he'll have no problem sitting Parker to preserve him for later in the series.
Chris Bosh Will Give the Spurs Fits
Last spring, none of Chris Bosh's shots functioned credibly as an offensive weapon. He was hobbled, he was too tired from Miami's aggressive hedging scheme to bang bodies on the offensive end and his jumper wasn't falling.
Now he's at full strength, and while he still isn't posting up on offense, he's become automatic from midrange and has extended his shot beyond the arc.
That complicates things severely for San Antonio.
The Spurs prefer to keep Tim Duncan as close to the rim as possible, both to turn away would-be drivers and to save him from the same energy-sapping defensive play that keeps Bosh from going to the block anymore.
When Miami spreads the floor with shooters at both big positions, Duncan has no choice but to guard Bosh, and close.
That assignment wasn't the biggest deal when Bosh was clanking 15-footers, but now that he's a real threat even further from the rim, Duncan is either going to be limited defensively, exhausted or both.
Boris Diaw Will Be the X-Factor
It's classic Spurs that a guy once reduced to a walking fat joke in NBA discussions is now an essential member of a team on the verge of a championship.
Boris Diaw weighs 250 pounds, but he's nimble for his size. He has retained some mobility and agileness from lighter days with the Phoenix Suns, when he had the size, length and quickness to guard any position on the floor as needed.
For this task, his heft is actually a blessing. He can spell Kawhi Leonard defending LeBron James for short spurts and chase Bosh around the perimeter, serving as a stopgap against both of Miami's trickiest options.
On the other end, Diaw is an effective three-point shooter in his own right and can move the ball effectively, both swinging it off the catch or taking bigger defenders off the bounce to set the offense in motion.
He's a do-everything power forward and could be the linchpin of San Antonio's game. If he's hitting shots, drawing defensive attention and holding his own on defense, Miami's contortions to check Diaw will create more room for Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to operate.
Those guys are the top priorities, so Diaw will slide under the radar. Look for him to get involved in little ways and for the result to be subtle but frustrating for the Heat. Duncan will likely finish with the most appealing stat line, but Diaw will play a significant role in the Game 1 win.
Spurs 96, Heat 91
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