MIAMI -- The Spurs and LeBron James last met for big stakes in 2007, and since then, both have matured: The Spurs have gotten older, LeBron has grown up.
Over the next two weeks, we'll see what the last six years meant to both of them. The Spurs are bringing back the basic nucleus of that '07 championship team, while LeBron is with a new crew. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren't the same trio who swept LeBron and the Cavaliers but they're still very functional and, some nights, lethal. LeBron has added three more MVP awards since losing those Finals, but will he need to do plenty of heavy lifting this time, like before, or will the Heat offer some help?
Whoever wins this series will gain a bit more basketball immortality. Duncan is a three-time NBA Finals MVP and owns four rings. Already considered the best power forward of his generation, Duncan could cement a status as a top-five player all-time, regardless of position. Parker won the Finals MVP in '07 and is siting on top of the NBA point guard pile right now. Ginobili, the most brittle of the three, still maintains a knack for the big play.
As for LeBron, another title will give him two in a row and would cement a 12-month stretch like we've seldom seen: Two MVPs, two titles, Olympic gold. Remember, he's still in his prime and evolving as a player. It could be argued that his best years are ahead of him. Chew on that for a minute.
That said, LeBron will need at least enough support from teammates to have a shot. Remember, he can't beat the Spurs when he's hauling everyone else. He tried that already.
"Look, we're a much better team when we have everybody clicking at the same time," he said. "You can't win with one. You can't win by yourself."
The fans are getting the matchup they wanted, a Finals that could feature as many as six future Hall of Famers, not to mention two coaches who, when all's said and done, could own quite a championship haul.
Here's how we see it:
About the Heat: Miami is in the final round for the third straight year but in some ways is more vulnerable than before. It all depends on how you size them up. On one hand, the Heat have LeBron, who can greatly influence a series because he's a force at both ends. They also have "Birdman" Andersen, a lively big man with good hands who satisfies perhaps this team's biggest weakness. But there's so much inconsistency beyond LeBron, mainly with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Miami can't expect to beat the Spurs four times if those two struggle.
Wade seems to relish when we throw dirt on him. That's the way it seemed in Game 7 against the Pacers when he looked young and refreshed, not limited by knee pain, as he was during most of the playoffs. He said to expect more of the same against the Spurs. If Miami can win two games with a subpar Wade, that's a big plus, because Wade probably has two solid games left in his body for 2013, and when he plays well, Miami is tough to beat. There wouldn't be as much pressure on Wade to produce if Bosh wasn't shaky, like he was against Indy. Does that change, now that Roy Hibbert isn't around? If Bosh remembers to take his tough-guy pills before the Finals then that could spell trouble for the Spurs, who'd have to think twice before doubling LeBron. Bosh also needs to be more active on the boards; until Game 7, Bosh averaged three rebounds in the East finals.
The help around the Big Three has been a mixed bag. Shane Battier is shooting 23 percent on three-pointers in the playoffs. Ray Allen is making less than a pair of threes per game. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are running hot and cold at point guard. Then again, when they fail to rebound or hit shots, the Heat can bail themselves out with defense, their second-biggest weapon after LeBron.
About the Spurs: They've lost only twice in the post-season, once in overtime, and notched a pair of sweeps against the Lakers and Grizzlies. Their defense in the Memphis series was exceptional, and that's a credit to coach Gregg Popovich and his ability to recognize the other team's weakness.
Tony Parker is on top of his game right now, averaging 23 points in the playoffs and constantly coming up with shots that either start a scoring run or serve as daggers. His pick and roll game with Tim Duncan and assorted other Spurs is precise and places pressure on the defense to adjust quickly.
At age 37, Duncan has recaptured the step he lost the last few years and once again is coming up big, with 23 points and nine rebounds per night and lots of leadership. The question mark is Manu Ginobili, a high-risk/reward player who can be trusted when it comes to effort, but not necessarily so much when it comes to producing. But it's a moot point when the Spurs are getting a lift from Kawhi Leonard, who's the superior all-around guard right now.
The beauty of the Spurs is how the pieces all fall together. Popovich values smart players who know their roles and conform to the team concept, and that fits the makeup of the help: Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Matt Bonner. We hesitate to throw Tiago Splitter into the mix because his basketball IQ isn't always the best, but he's a big and active center who moves well and can finish near the rim.
There aren't many coaches who truly make a difference in games, which are largely decided by players, but Pop is one of a handful that do. His in-game adjustments are usually on point and he reaches his players. Quite simply, Pop is a future Hall of Fame coach who has never lost in the NBA Finals.
About the series. The Spurs are a classic fundamental team that would look good in any era. They run the basics -- pick and roll, find the open man for the three-pointer -- and do it better than anyone else. That said, a quick, running team gives them trouble, as we saw in the Golden State series. And that happens to be Miami's specialty. When the Heat were winning 27 straight games, their fast break was nearly unstoppable, but of course Wade was fresher then. His ability to ignore pain will weigh heavily in this series, but in the end, it'll be about defense and LeBron, two foolproof ways of winning a championship.
The Pick: Heat in six.