Why then, we have ourselves quite a match-up now, don’t we?
Technically, as the Indiana Pacers stretched them to the limit, we saw that this Heat squad isn’t exactly unstoppable. And for all their failures in the playoffs over the recent years, we witnessed that the Spurs haven’t been immovable either. But what we are about to witness is going to be one of the closest Finals matchups in recent memory, between two incredibly talented teams. They have reached here in different ways, been built like opposites, and play in a contrasting fashion, but they have been the NBA’s best teams in the post-season. Rightfully so, they will face-off in an epic Finals to adjudge, who will lay hands on the 2013 NBA trophy.
If the lead up to the playoffs was to be believed, the Heat were all but destined to be here, and favoured heavier than perhaps any team ever before to get through the hapless-looking Eastern Conference. But the journey wasn’t all that easy. After a sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks and a tough 4-1 win over the Chicago Bulls, the Heat met a team that refused to back down and swung back after taking every hit in the Pacers.
Indiana stretched Miami to seven games, proving to be worthy challengers to Heat’s Eastern Conference throne. It took several heroic performances by LeBron James to keep the Heat in the series, and in the do-or-die Game 7, the Heat finally got good production on the glass and help from Dwyane Wade as they blew out Indiana and won the Eastern Conference Championship for the third consecutive season.
The Spurs finished second in the West, but won their conference once Russell Westbrook went down injured over in Oklahoma City. They had no trouble dismantling the Los Angeles Lakers in the First Round, but faced considerable challenge from the quick, offensive Golden State Warriors before winning that series 4-2. But it was there Conference Finals sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies that had the world truly turning heads.
In a series where both teams were supposed to be evenly matched, the Spurs used their vast experience, clutch play by Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, and stayed one step ahead tactically to defeat Memphis 4-0. It took two overtime wins and some heroic performances by the Frenchman but in making it look ever so easy over the talented Grizzlies, they sent out a message to whoever they awaited in the NBA Finals.
We could write a book of short stories surrounding each and every intriguing tale that accompanies this clash of the titans. 28 teams down, two teams left. LeBron, Duncan, Parker, Wade, San Antonio, Miami – who has the most at stake here?
This is the fifth NBA Finals for the Spurs’ franchise: they have won the Finals all four times previously. What is especially unique about the Spurs is that they have done it over a 14-year stretch going back to 1999 with the same combination of coach (Gregg Popovich) and player (Tim Duncan). But the Spurs were last here six years ago. A lot has changed in the NBA since, although not so much in San Antonio. Popovich, Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili are still here. Flanked by a new set of supporting stars, this team is looking as good as they ever did.
The Spurs have been the NBA’s model franchise. They have stuck with their coach and their players, and without making any major changes, continued being efficiently great. This will be the fourth time that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are in the Finals together – and what is more impressive is that the four occasions have been stretched over 10 years! They constructed their team mostly by drafting really well. No big free agent signing, no earth-shattering trade. Just good ol’ team-building.
Out in South Beach, the Heat’s construction has come at a stark contrast. They, too, have two constants from the past 10 years: Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, two players who won the 2006 championship for them. But Miami shook the world when they added LeBron and Chris Bosh to the fore in 2010 and completely changed the fortunes of their franchise. In addition to their core, this team has been surrounded by veterans joining hands to play limited roles in search for a championship, like Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier.
The last time the Heat lost a playoff series was the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Since then, the Heat have won their next seven series, and the 2012 champions have their eyes set on making it eight to lift the 2013 title too. Miami have been 10-1 in playoff series in the ‘Big Three’ era. Having a four-time MVP kinda helps.
Whose legacy will get shaped, and how? To preview the Finals, we first look at how the legacy of each of its primary actors could be defined over the next few weeks.
If Spurs win:
It would be an incredible fifth championship for Duncan, and it will cement him as definitely the greatest player since Michael Jordan (sorry Kobe and Shaq) and in my eyes, a top five player in NBA history. Duncan’s career has been nothing short of remarkable.
Here is a player who can be the cornerstone of five championship squads in 14 years, and even though the honours of team’s “main man” have been shared with Tony Parker in recent years, he hasn’t taken a backseat in any of those Finals runs. Even this year, at 37, he was in the All NBA First Team.
It would be a fourth championship for Tony Parker, who at 31 is the present and the near-future of this team. Criminally underrated throughout his career, Parker has been one of the league’s best point guards and was the Finals MVP in 2007. Judging by his performance against Memphis and the way San Antonio’s offense has now been mapped, he could collect his second Finals MVP award if the Spurs win.
It would also be Manu Ginobili’s fourth championship. The 57th pick of the 2002 draft (yes, 57th!) has come a long way, playing as the second or third important cog in many memorable title runs. Although injuries have hampered him the last few years and he hasn’t been consistently useful in these playoffs, Ginobili’s fourth will continue to bolster his reputation as one the greatest international players in NBA history, along with Parker of course.
Let’s not forget the great Gregg Popovich, who could also win his fifth title, all with the same team, and probably go in the holy grail of NBA coaches along with Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach. Popovich’s greatest strength has been adapting his coaching style to the roster at hand and finding out the adjustment to make to defeat any rival. Finding a way to defeat Miami could be his greatest triumph.
It would be a first championship for youngsters like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom have become starters for the team. And how about Tracy McGrady, the onetime megastar whose injuries turned him into a journeyman and finally a high-paid road show in China? McGrady had never played in the Second Round through his long career despite his talents. He has only played a few minutes in the entire playoffs for the Spurs, but has piggybacked his way to the NBA Finals for the first time ever. This is perhaps not how he dreamt of winning his first championship, but anything is better than nothing at all.
If Heat win:
It would be LeBron James’ second ring, and second in consecutive years. And it would be LeBron’s retribution for the embarrassing Finals sweep that the Spurs dished him when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. LeBron was young then and his team weaker.
Now, he’s in a prime of his career, having won four of the last five MVP awards and standing alone as the best player in the world. LeBron’s individual accolades already make him into a top-12 player in history; another ring would boost his resume into the top 10 and bring him closer to achieving his incredible potential.
If would be Dwyane Wade’s third ring. Wade has taken a vastly unique route to NBA superstardom. He won his first championship back in 2006 after taking over the Heat from under Shaq’s wings to be the Finals MVP. The team’s fortunes dipped over the next few years, but once LeBron joined him, Wade’s brilliance begun to be seen back in the most important games at the end of the season again. He played second-fiddle to LeBron in last year’s championship run, but hasn’t quite reached superstar status so far in this year’s playoffs. He’ll need a better performance in the Finals to get his hands around the NBA trophy a third time.
Chris Bosh would get his second championship too. The Big Three have been to the Finals all three years since their union. Bosh has accepted his role as the team’s third wheel, and has been rewarded with multiple championship opportunities.
Ray Allen would get his second ring as well, after getting with the Boston Celtics back in 2008. The sharp-shooter left the Celtics after an amazing five year run with one mission: to win another championship. His legacy is already that of perhaps the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Another ring will make us call him a ‘multiple champion’ as well.
Let’s not forget Udonis Haslem, the no-nonsense hard-working big man who has been with the Heat all 10 years of his career and could cap off his incredible service to the franchise with a third championship.
Most of Miami’s championship supporting cast returns from last year and could all be one ring richer, including Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony. A surprising new addition this season has been The Birdman, Chris Anderson, and he will make one of the most, um, colourful, NBA champions since Dennis Rodman.
With all those intriguing legacies in mind, we are back here at the start. An unstoppable force. An immovable object.
And I predict that they will battle it out for as long as they possibly can. Seven full games; maybe a couple of overtimes too.
What is interesting about this Heat and Spurs matchup is that we don’t have any real regular season barometers to compare it with. The two teams did play each other twice this year, but Popovich sat Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Green in the first game and Eric Spoelstra sat LeBron and Wade in the second. Teams play differently in the playoffs anyways, but these two teams will feel like they are facing each other for the first time ever in games that truly matter.
LeBron has faced them before. The Spurs shut down a 22-year-old LeBron in his first trip to the Finals back in 2007, which was also coincidently the Spurs’ last trip there. Since then, LeBron has become MVP four times, been to the Finals twice, and been a champion. The Spurs have spent the previous five years coming up short in the playoffs despite great regular season performances. And in 2013, they are face to face yet again.
The Spurs are well-rested, enjoying 10 days off after sweeping Memphis while Miami battled Indiana. Unlike other teams who could gather rust in this time, the Spurs would’ve used the rest to reenergize their old legs and plot their tactics in great detail on how to stop their opponent. They would’ve planned how to come out and steal a home game. They would’ve planned how to find points against Miami’s defense when their shots aren’t falling and how to tighten up their own defense against James and Wade when they desperately need a stop.
This is a team that knows how to close games and has the experience to react to almost any type of opponent. In Duncan and Tiago Splitter, they have the size to give Miami trouble. In Parker, they have a complete point guard who will run off screens using his incredible speed, who will finish around the rim or help move the ball expertly to always find the open man.
The Heat don’t want the rest, because it takes away their edge and momentum. For them, entering the Finals back at home after just blowing out the Pacers so dominantly is exactly the scenario they would be hoping for. Miami can switch their defence to completely shut down their opponents, but they will have to turn on that switch more consistently against the offensively efficient Spurs. On the 27-game winning streak, Miami looked unbeatable. That aura has escaped them since, especially after the stumbles against Indiana, but this is still the most talented team in the NBA featuring the NBA’s most talented player. When they get on their role, they become impossible to stop. LeBron will dominate every game, but if Wade and Bosh get into the act as well, and when the threes start falling from Allen, Chalmers, Cole, Battier and Miller, they could make even the strongest challenger look pedestrian.
And when the dust settles after seven close battles, the team with the edge will be the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs’ can hold an advantage on the glass against the Heat, and unlike the Pacers, won’t turn the ball over as often. They will make the right plays at the right time. Although they don’t have the same level of individual defenders to contain Miami’s Big Three, their offense is far more fluid than anything Miami has faced in the post-season too. It will be the fifth championship for this storied franchise. Duncan will play a major role in manning the middle, and Parker will dominate from the point.
Final Prediction: Spurs win 4-3
Finals MVP: Tony Parker
At least half of you are going to disagree. Go ahead and make your own predictions here and let’s prepare for a memorable series ahead!