With the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat set to meet for their fateful rematch of last year's seven-game classic, it cannot be emphasized enough how important Game 1 of this year's duel truly is.
A year ago, Greg Popovich and the Spurs jumped out to an early lead thanks to a win on the road. This did not result in a series win, but as ESPN's Marc Stein notes, that was most certainly an anomaly:
The Game 1 winner of the NBA Finals goes on to win the series 70.1 percent of the time (47-20). Don't forget, though, that the Finals format has reverted back to 2-2-1-1-1 for the first time since 1984.
New format in hand this time around, the NBA's first Finals rematch since 1998 is sure to see the tone set by a Game 1 affair in San Antonio that will set the wheels in motion for either side. Here's a breakdown of how things will shake out.
Game 1 MVP: Dwyane Wade
One can presume that Popovich will stick Kawhi Leonard on LeBron James like glue to start the series, which means that—in theory—someone else will have to step up in order for the Heat to pull off the upset on the road.
Expect that to be Dwyane Wade.
Slapped with the "old" moniker at 32 years of age thanks to nagging injury woes, Wade is firmly under the radar going into the Finals. Well, except in the eyes of the NBA's best coach, as captured by Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:
"Dwyane is playing great," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Tuesday. "He looks a lot more spry and ready to go than he did last year in the finals."
Coming off a series against the Indiana Pacers in which he quietly hit on 54.5 percent of his shots from the field for an average of 19.8 points per game, Wade will continue his roll while the Spurs throw more resources at James.
The Deciding Factor: Locale
As crazy as it sounds, being on the road will help James and Co., even if it has not historically been beneficial to open a series away.
On the road for the first two contests of the series, the Heat are in a position to steal one from the Spurs after two full days of rest.
While an annoyance playing in a hostile environment, the locale will be a pressure-free zone for the Heat as they understand the task at hand—win at least one of the first two games before heading home for two consecutive contests.
The Heat are infamous for feeling out opponents in Game 1. Well rested and fully aware of all the tricks Popovich pulled out of his hat to overcome the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Heat are primed to steal one to begin the series this time around.
Final Prediction: Heat 98, Spurs 89
Look, the Spurs have never lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals—but something feels off this year.
The Heat have had plenty of down time after breezing through the Eastern Conference, while the Spurs battled through the West and succumbed to casualties along the way—as noted by point guard Tony Parker set to enter Game 1 hobbled.
While the Spurs tout sound depth, it is not as if the Heat lack in that area. The Heat have multiple shooters at every position, meaning guys like Rashard Lewis stretching out the court for Wade and James will cause plenty of defensive lapses as the two sides get a feel for each other.
When push comes to shove, roll with the team that is healthier, has nothing to lose and displays more scoring potential.