Here's what happened since the Spurs and Heat met roughly a year ago in the NBA Finals:
Twenty coaching jobs opened, representing two-thirds of the entire league, including two times in Cleveland. Four teams either changed ownership hands or are in the process of changing hands. David Stern left, Adam Silver arrived. Derrick Rose came and went. The Pacers soared, then collapsed. The Raptors collapsed, then soared. Donald Sterling detonated.
Here's what didn't happen: Miami and San Antonio getting tripped and falling short of the conference final.
They haven't gone full circle yet, but the Heat and Spurs are in position to boomerang to the NBA championship round, having avoided all the traps and poisons over the last 13 months to reach the Final Four. They're a study in stability, rare in the NBA these days, with no major changes to their core rotation or in the front office or in philosophy. Of course, that happens when you win. You keep bringing the same-old, same-old, the formula that works, the kind that others want to copy. The Spurs and Heat have won five of the last nine NBA titles. There's no reason to panic and blow up the blueprint.
The Spurs are in the conference finals for the ninth time since 1999 (most in the league over that span) and still winning with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and (they hope) Tony Parker. The Heat have reached the East finals for the fourth straight year here in the final guaranteed season with the Big Three. This could be a farewell tour, depending on what happens in free agency in July. Would anyone be floored if these teams are still standing in two weeks, when the NBA Finals begin? Of course not. And if so, do the Spurs have a way to defend Ray Allen if he gets a desperate pass from Chris Bosh and steps back for a three-pointer with seconds left in an elimination game while trailing by three?
Or could that happen all over again?
The road back to late May has been drama-free, slump-free and for the most part, injury-free. Not only have the Spurs and Heat been good, they've been fortunate and also smart enough to preserve their best players during the six-month minefield hike. Tim Duncan looks frisky as ever at age 38. Parker was terrifically stable during the season and into the playoffs, although he's dealt with a tight hamstring that kept him from finishing the last three quarters of the series-clinching win over Portland. Dwyane Wade missed one-fourth of the season mainly for fear he could break apart, and while he hasn't missed a playoff game, fingers are crossed all over Miami right now. LeBron James? Workhorse. Bulletproof. Still.
The been-there, done-that Spurs and Heat own these advantages over the remaining playoff field. They've won championships, are bringing six and maybe seven future Hall of Famers combined and simply know what to do and when to do it. That's why they lost only once in the semifinals.
"We're a team that has played together for a while," said Wade. "We know where each individual is going to be on the court, and that helps so much."
The Spurs are making half of their shots in the post-season by giving a lesson in ball movement and cutting and finding the open man. Their defense eventually figured a way to hose down Dallas and keep LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard from going nuts in the second round, which ended in five games. LeBron is LeBron, averaging just over 30 points and went for 49 against the Nets. Miami is still searching for consistent scoring outside of him, and the Let LeBron Save Us mentality is a bit too thick. Yet defense is bailing out the Heat in the playoffs.
"We feel good about where we are," said Duncan, "but obviously, we're not finished yet."
While the Spurs and Heat remained relatively the same, everyone else tried to beef up and prepare for them last offseason. The Rockets reeled in Dwight Howard. The Clippers hired Doc Rivers and signed J.J. Redick. The Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, ghosts from LeBron's past. The Pacers reached for Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner at midseason. Not many of those decisions worked against the Heat and Spurs. Actually, most backfired.
The league hasn't had a repeat NBA Finals since the Bulls and Jazz in 1998, and for understandable reasons. Teams got old, or dealt with setbacks, or simply ran out of championship gas. It's only a mild surprise the Spurs and Heat are on pace to repeat their matchup only because, at various stages this season, they weren't the best teams record-wise in their conference.
The Pacers were 33-7 at midseason and in control of the East, especially with Wade taking games off. Also, Miami was perhaps fortunate that Rose's return from knee surgery lasted about two weeks, which weakened the Bulls. In the West, the Spurs had a losing record against the Rockets and Clippers and struggled all season against title contenders. They weren't the trendy pick, only the safe one, until they distanced themselves from the pack in March and April and claimed home-court advantage.
Strangely enough, Popovich managed to win 62 games, tops in the league, while resting Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili. Nobody on the Spurs averaged 30 or more minutes a game. It was a skillful way of keeping his important players fresh while developing the bench without suffering in the standings. Even now, you wonder how Pop pulled that off. Not only did it protect the bodies of the team's core players, it inflated the confidence of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. It allowed Pop to give those players important experience in tight games and remove any fear of them taking the big shot. It made the Spurs a balanced, well-rounded machine with options, the kind that win championships.
"We have a very solid team, a very deep bench," said Boris Diaw, one of a handful whose careers are being reinvented in San Antonio.
Miami had only a few hiccups this season, mainly the fears (unfounded, so far) over Wade's health and the search for a dependable bench player after losing Mike Miller and relegating Shane Battier to third string. It helps when LeBron delivers an MVP-quality season and the Erik Spoelstra-inspired defense stays tight. It also helps when the Eastern Conference, as a whole, was softer than a grandmother's hug. The expected stiff challenges from the Knicks, Nets and Bulls never came, and therefore Miami was able to fatten up on the lambs (Philly, Bucks, Pistons, etc.) while putting pressure on the Pacers.
"This is the reason why we came together four years ago," said LeBron, "to put ourselves in position to compete for a championship, and we're one step closer. We never shortcut the process."
The only red flag with Miami is the heavy dependence on LeBron, especially offensively. He averages almost as many points as Wade and Chris Bosh combined in the playoffs. At some point, those two must share the load, although it's possible that Wade is picking his spots for now, given that Miami wasn't tested against the Bobcats and was only mildly annoyed by the Nets.
Right now, the availability of Parker concerns the Spurs more than the Thunder or Clippers. Parker has dealt with the hamstring all season without much of an issue, until Wednesday when he didn't return to the floor against the Blazers.
"Luckily we have a couple of days," said Duncan. "It worries us, obviously, but he's been going hard. He's had a great series so far and it kind of caught up with him. We pulled the plug on him before he hurt himself. He started to feel weird and they did the right thing. Hopefully that helps. Hopefully there's nothing there."
We won't know for another two weeks if Miami can lend LeBron a hand, or if the Spurs can manage to stay young enough to last another seven-game series. However: So far, so good, so same-old, same-old for the last two teams standing last season.