This has a chance to be a fantastic follow-up to last year's tight seven-game series, a two-team reunion well worth the 12-month wait. A must see-quel.
Spurs-Heat, again? Yes, more please, says people who appreciate good basketball and plenty of drama and suspense.
Sure, sometimes expectations aren't met, and anticipation goes unfulfilled, and hype balloons are met by an unfortunate stickpin, and oh, Tony Parker's ankle might not heal fully, leaving a great sense of deflation. These NBA Finals could dissolve into a flat and uninspiring series that doesn't capture anyone's imagination or attention. Or, given the many unique circumstances involved, it could duplicate the 2013 Finals that went the limit, which seems more likely.
So many issues, so many questions:
Can the Heat's Big Three make it three straight championships and join immortal teams of the past in that regard?
Can Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich actually win another championship 15 years since getting their first together as player and coach?
Will Dwyane Wade, suddenly the picture of perfect health and stealth, continue to buzz around the floor and attack the rim without a limp or wince?
Will Parker's ankle, the one that's bugged him for weeks now and benched him in the clinching win against OKC, hold up or give out?
Who among the supporting cast of the Heat, if anyone, will pull a Mike Miller or Shane Battier and give a surprising lift in the moment of truth?
Can Manu Ginobili, who endured a nightmare series last summer and somehow refused any urge to curl up into a ball, make amends and once again cause problems for the defense?
Can Ray Allen hit another one of those historic three-pointers if put in a similar situation?
Will the Spurs rotate quicker and reach Allen, should he get that chance?
Will LeBron James, if he loses, take a long and hard look at his future in Miami and raise the possibility of leaving?
Will Duncan, whether he wins or loses, decide to call it quits, and if so, will Popovich walk into that sunset with him?
Normally stoic and low-key, Duncan has already issued, for him, a strong and rare public declaration: "We'll do it this time" and that "we're happy it's the Heat." Match that with the noticeable lack of celebration in Miami when the Heat erased the Pacers, which means the business-like Heat feel they haven't done anything yet. They realize history is four wins away and that LeBron didn't join Wade and Chris Bosh just to win conference titles.
At least we know the Finals, at least from the outset, aren't build on a fluke of a foundation. The two best teams are here, which tends to happen in the NBA, and for the most part they are intact. Plenty of fingers will be crossed, though, that the Spurs and Heat make it through without a major injury that ruins everything. Remember, this entire NBA season is one of the worst in recent memory because of injuries to key players, and those injuries deprived teams and fans. That's why Parker and his ankle can't be dismissed so easily. If he doesn't play, or is severely limited, that'll make a significant impact, no matter how well the Spurs tend to perform like a true and balanced team. He's that important.
Remember the 1989 Finals? The Lakers and Pistons were all set for a showdown until Byron Scott was injured before tipoff of Game 1 and Magic Johnson pulled up lame right after tipoff of Game 2. Everyone felt sucker punched, except for the Pistons, who happily accepted their gift-wrapped championship in a clean 4-0 sweep. Are we headed down that path because of Parker?
Applaud the Spurs for this much, though: After coming less than 10 seconds from winning their fifth title last June, they lifted their bodies and egos off the floor, embarked on a summer of soul searching, went to work in training camp and survived a kamikaze conference to make a return trip. They endured somewhat reasonable doubts about their ability to bounce back, about their age and whether they could withstand the challenges from hungry contenders mainly in OKC and Los Angeles. The Clippers, for instance, went and hired Doc Rivers specifically to even the coaching scales with Popovich. Kevin Durant went on an MVP tear and Russell Westbrook recovered not once, but twice from surgery to replace the Spurs as the dominant team in the West.
The Spurs overcame all of that. All of those mental and physical tests and the threats to their decades of excellence, a testament to their maturity and discipline. And they lived, making cockroaches jealous.
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss we had last year," Duncan said, and no doubt, lesser and more fragile teams would've packed it in. "But we're back here. We're excited about it."
Seriously: They won 62 games, in the West no less, without a single player averaging 30 minutes a night. They have six or seven different players who are willing to take the last shot. Their ball movement is unmatched, along with their unselfishness. Boris Diaw led the Spurs in scoring in the biggest game of the year, when they won in OKC. It's typical Spurs, in other words, just a bit more surprising if only because they're older.
Popovich steered them perfectly, resting his older players, breathing life and confidence into his role players, all without sacrificing the opportunity to get the best record in the NBA and therefore home court advantage in the Finals. All season long, and into the playoffs, you had Diaw and Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills believing they were just as important as Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
Given that, and the potential of retirement for Duncan, and that they lost in heartbreaking fashion last year, the Spurs if nothing else will be sentimental favorites in a basketball world that gives much respect.
By comparison, the Heat's road to the Finals was paved with gumdrops. Such is the good fortune of playing in the East and getting the inexperienced Bobcats, overrated Nets and swan-diving Pacers in the playoffs. In a perfect and healthy NBA world, the Heat would've had to deal with Derrick Rose and the Bulls along the way, but the Heat were thrilled to take advantage of a golden situation. Can't fault them for that.
It's fair to wonder if, by virtue of doing cartwheels along the playoff road, whether they've been tested. Playing against inferior teams can mask a few flaws, especially when you have the best player on the planet. LeBron covers up lots of weaknesses because he assumes so many roles and does all of them well. Plus, he's durable, always ready to answer the bell and play 40-plus minutes if necessary, especially this time of year.
When LeBron, Wade and Bosh are playing at a high level in the same game, not only is Miami tough to beat, but the Heat don't need to lean on much from the supporting help. But can they do that for at least four games against the Spurs? And if not, who steps forward?
The logical suspects are Allen, of course, and Mario Chalmers, to a degree. The question is whether Battier or Norris Cole or even Rashard Lewis, back from the dead during the Indiana series, can give a quality 10-15 minutes.
Interestingly, Spurs-Heat last summer offered lots of surprises from unexpected places. Kawhi Leonard defended LeBron about as well as possible, and he'll draw the assignment again. Diaw, crafty in the post, gave the Heat fits at times. Danny Green set an NBA record for three-pointers in the Finals and after five games was the front-runner for series MVP. Speaking of three-pointers, Battier couldn't miss in the decisive Game 7, and that swung the championship in Miami's favor.
Ultimately, the big names will decide their own fates, one way or another. For LeBron, a third straight title would keep him on a path to all-time greatness. Another title for Wade would give him one more than LeBron. What about Pat Riley, who'd have a ring collection to rival Phil Jackson's, as a player and coach and executive? Here in his twilight, Duncan can laugh at the so-called age barrier and become the most decorated big man since Bill Russell. And Popovich can build a strong case for being on the coaching Mount Rushmore, if he isn't already there.
These star players and coaches, all with multiple titles, will surely be determined as though they haven't won any.
That's why Spurs-Heat, the Remix or Redux or Redundant, has a chance to put a pretty face on a year that hasn't been satisfying since they last met.
"The two best teams will meet," said Wade, and maybe they'll prove it.