Miracles happened and legends were made. Big shots were hit, there was strong defense, incredible offense, and some records were broken.The game of basketball was showcased by its science, its athleticism, and then the best of both worlds. Hall of Fame careers were defined and extended.
Ray Allen hit the shot of the century. And in the end, the Miami Heat survived to win the 2013 title. By the time the dust settled, the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs had faced off in one of the greatest NBA Finals of All Time.
And now, they are set to do it all over again. One by one, 28 of the 30 NBA teams were knocked out of title contention, and the last two remaining contenders for the title are the same teams who were right here exactly 12 months ago: the Heat and the Spurs.
The 2014 NBA Finals will be a battle between a bid to repeat or a bid for redemption: Will the Heat Repeat (and thus, Three-Peat), or will the Spurs redeem themselves to win the title they believe they deserve?
The Spurs were the NBA’s best team in the regular season, winning 62 games to secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and crucially, in the finals.They were surprisingly stretched to seven games in the first round against the Mavericks, before dismantling the trail blazers in the second round, and surviving the onslaught of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and the Thunder in the Conference Finals.
Now, the Spurs are making an incredible sixth finals appearance and contending for their fifth title since 1999, led throughout by the legendary coach-player combination of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. While Duncan (a three-time Finals MVP) chases his fifth ring, Parker (2007 Finals MVP) and Ginobili will be hoping for their fourth. And a new generation of stars led by Kawhi Leonard will be hoping to start their NBA championship legacies.
But the unstoppable force of the Spurs will have to go through the immovable object of the Heat.In four years since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Heat have been to four consecutive Finals (the first time a team has done that since the mid-80s Celtics). Miami have won 14 of the 15 playoff series they have played in this period, losing only in the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks.
LeBron and co. are hoping to become the first team, not named Celtics, Lakers, or Bulls to three-peat. They are also hoping to add a fourth NBA title to the franchise in five Finals appearance, all with Wade since 2006. For a while this season, it seemed that the Heat were cruising on their laurels, finishing ‘only’ at second place in the weak Eastern Conference and not showing the same type of dominance, that saw them win 27 games in a row last season.
But all along, the regular season was only a rehearsal for the playoffs. Once the post-season began, the Heat were back to their best, defeating the Bobcats in a sweep, brushing aside the Nets in five games, and taking care of the pesky Pacers in six. With their swagger on both ends of the floor rediscovered, they look primed to defend their title.
The NBA could not have asked for more deserving franchises in recent years, to be competing for the ultimate prize in the Finals. In the last 10 years, the team to win the most playoff games of any in the NBA has been San Antonio with 92. They are trailed closely by Miami with 89. The Heat have had the NBA’s best playoff winning percentage in the same period (.654). The next best? Who else but the Spurs (.626)?
Since 2002-03, the Spurs have represented the West in the Finals more than any other team in their Conference (five). Out East, the most regular Finals representatives have been none other than the Heat (five).
The stakes for All Time greatness couldn’t be higher. Future Hall of Famers participating in this series on and off the court could include Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley, and RC Buford. And who knows, maybe Kawhi Leonard could go on to achieve greatness, as well. The series will feature four different Finals MVP winners (James, Duncan, Wade, Parker), two former MVPs (James, Duncan), and eight current or former All Stars.
Popovich and Spoelstra are two of the league’s best coaches, while Buford and Riley are among the best executives in the game, having won two of the past four Executive of the Year awards among each other. So which team will ultimately reign and lift the elusive NBA championship? With both sides so closely balanced, this isn’t an easy prediction to make.
The Spurs are deeper than they were last season. Their old-heads Duncan and Ginobili are playing at a high level again.Kawhi Leonard has improved to become a top five perimeter defender, and a rising force on the offensive end, too. Tony Parker is probably one of the two best point guards in the league right now, but the status of his ankle may be a concern.
Between Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills, they have a deep and balanced roster of players. Popovich is a mastermind who has learnt from last year’s mistakes, and now has the Spurs ready to face any time of opponent – big or small, athletic or bruising, offensive or defensive. But can they beat LeBron James? A year ago, the Spurs nearly did so, before LeBron heroically dragged his team back with epic Games 6 and 7 performances.
San Antonio will have to throw all of their tactical plans and schemes and LeBron, and like last year, it may still not be enough. Of course, James can’t do it alone, and he’ll need his compadres to step up as well. Wade, as always, is the X-Factor. He seems to be healthier and in better form than last year, and will need to be consistent every night. Bosh has struggled with consistency but is capable of big nights now and then.
Although the supporting cast of Ray Allen, Chris Anderson, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis, and Shane Battier have performed adequately in the East so far, ‘adequate’ may not be enough to get past the best from the West. We would be hard pressed to expect the same type of fireworks, and mythical moments that made last year’s Finals so special, but with the league’s two finest franchises of our time ready to lock horns again, another classic matchup could be in store for the fans.
The most endearing thing about last year’s Finals was that the series became a perfect advertisement of basketball as a beautiful game, played in a positive vein and showcasing to the world the best of both team-play and individual brilliance. Both teams have championship pedigree and experience. Both have great players. Both are expertly coached. And both will be hungry for more.
I predict that, once again, the series will go all the way to seven games. The Heat do have a superstar with the capability of LeBron, but he may not be enough. Last year, the Heat barely survived the Spurs to win the title; this year, the Spurs are slightly better and the Heat are slightly worse.
LeBron and Wade will probably get the biggest game-to-game numbers, but the collective force of the Spurs – led by Parker, Duncan, and Leonard – should lift San Antonio to triumph.
Final Prediction: Spurs win 4-3 Finals
MVP: Tony Parker