Seven years ago, when the Spurs played LeBron James for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, America yawned and decided to mow the back yard. It was that much of a turn-off, a total ratings disaster, even though it put a then-three-time champ against a player who a few years earlier was the most hyped rookie since Shaq.
Oh, and the Spurs won in a sweep. America had already moved to mowing the front yard by Game 2.
Things have changed. Last season, the Spurs played the Heat, LeBron's current and more star-studded team, and America let the grass grow high. The reward was a scintillating series compared to Spurs-Cavs in 2007, punctuated in Game 6 when Ray Allen managed to Hit That Shot that everyone saw and gasped at -- except a few hundred Heat fans who left early. They might be still pounding on the doors, asking to be let back in.
But first, there are questions, and an obvious one: Can this series top last year's, and if so, how?
First, the series would need to go at least six games and most would have to be decided in the final few minutes. Duncan would need to play inspired ball, as though this could be his last appearance, not only in an NBA Finals, but period. Tony Parker's ankle can't bend sideways. The Spurs need to put on a passing clinic, as they are wont to do. LeBron must be epic; a few 40-pointers would do. Dwyane Wade must limit his post-game ice bags to two. Chris Bosh can't take a nap, and if Greg Oden makes an appearance and gets a big rebound or block in a huge moment, everyone will reach for a hankie.
Now that would be a series, no matter who wins.
Here, then, are a few more head-scratchers on the eve of the 2014 championship series, which tips off Thursday.
Can Parker's ankle hold up? No one really knows the answer except his ligaments, and they ain't commenting. Parker first injured the ankle in Game 4 of the West finals and then aggravated it in Game 6. He's had four days of rest and rehab and will start the Finals; whether he does so without a wince or a limp to the bench is another story. Parker's value to the Spurs cannot be underestimated. Sure, they eliminated OKC with Parker missing the final three quarters, but what are the odds of the Spurs surviving without him again? (Not high.) You can only roll the dice so many times with Cory Joseph, and no disrespect to that fine backup. Parker's ability to reach the rim and break down a defense is what makes him dangerous, and he can't do that on a flat tire. Gregg Popovich will monitor Parker and adjust his minutes accordingly. If Parker takes another spill, Manu Ginobili will assume most of the ball-handling chores, and speaking of which …
Was Ginobili really that bad in last year's series? For the most part, yeah. Counting the Western Conference finals against Memphis and through Game 4 of the Finals, he didn't shoot 50 percent in any game. In the first four games of the Finals, he shot 10-for-29 and always seemed to make costly turnovers. He was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 5 and breathed life, getting 24 points and 10 assists to make Popovich look like a hero (when actually, Pop was simply at wit's end). Then with 28 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 and the Spurs up four, Ginobili missed a free throw, blowing a chance to ice the game, which later allowed Allen to, well, you know. Ginobili, one of the five greatest Spurs of all time and a certain Hall of Famer someday, felt more responsible for the Spurs' lost opportunity than anyone. Still, he wasn't 100 percent healthy that series, and later that summer signed a two-year contract extension. Now, he's back, so there's that.
Wait. You mean Allen's three-pointer wasn't the biggest shot in Game 6 last year? Well, that's not what history will say. But the truth is, Allen's shot wasn't even the second-biggest shot of the fourth quarter. Had Ginobili made both free throws with 28 seconds left, Allen would've never gotten the chance. Ginobili's miss was huge. But not bigger than Kawhi Leonard's missed free throw with 19 seconds left and the Spurs up three. A four-point lead would've virtually sealed the deal. Therefore, those two missed free throws were bigger than Allen's three-pointer. No question. But history has already forgotten those shots, right?
Why is Wade all of a sudden healthier than Apple stock? Everyone who ever suffered through knee and ankle injuries would die to know. The easy answer is that, after missing roughly one-fourth of the regular season, Wade had plenty of time to heal and refresh. His knee isn't injured, it's just painful when he plays extended minutes. However, even that isn't as apparent as the last two years. Through the playoffs Wade is averaging nearly 20 points and looks springy. Did he see Kobe's doctor in Germany before the playoffs? Whatever the reason, this is great news for Miami, and for anyone who loves watching LeBron and Wade do the two-man routine on fast breaks. Wade just needs to hold up for seven more games, max, before anyone in Miami can uncross their fingers.
Is Erik Spoelstra really four wins away from going to the Hall of Fame someday? It appears so. Only Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), Pat Riley, John Kundla (5 each) and Popovich (4) have won more than two championships. Yes, it seems weird that Spoelstra would fit in that company. He has never won Coach of the Year, if that matters at all. He finished seventh in 2009, got one vote in 2010, was eighth in 2011 (first year with the Big Three), a distant second (404 to 190 votes) to George Karl in 2012 and didn't get a single vote this year when the award went to Popovich. Still, the championship numbers are the championship numbers. And he's not even done yet. As of right now, his legacy is tied to the Big Three, and nit-pickers will insist that Spoelstra is a solid defensive coach who's riding LeBron's cape. There might be some truth to that, maybe even a lot of truth. However, Spoelstra had Miami in the playoffs before LeBron arrived, so he's definitely a quality coach. Hall of Fame, though? Well, go to Springfield and find a coach who won multiple titles without at least two solid players, if not Hall of Famers. I'll wait.
Will home-court advantage mean anything to the Spurs? Remember when the Pacers made a big deal about getting best record in the East, so they'd have an edge if they met Miami in the East finals if that series went seven? Well, that didn't work out so well. But it could for the Spurs. They're 9-1 at home in the playoffs, while the Heat are 4-3 on the road. Given how this is an evenly matched series on the surface, maybe a Game 7 at home could tip the balance in San Antonio's favor. Maybe not. What's really interesting is how the Spurs didn't make it a goal to get the best record and home court. This is a team that rested Duncan regularly, lost Leonard for almost a month with an injury and didn't see a single player average 30 or more minutes a night. The Spurs were just trying to survive the 82-game minefield as best they could, not dominate it. Funny how that worked out.
What can Leonard do, if anything, to tame LeBron? What's really amazing about Leonard is how he still insists on rocking cornrows, which is so 2003. But playing tight defense never goes out of style. Leonard always draws the tough assignments -- he had Kevin Durant last round -- and he did a more than credible job on LeBron last June. Not only did Leonard keep LeBron from going ballistic, he was in LeBron's grill when the four-time MVP missed a big three-pointer late in Game 6. Unfortunately for the Spurs, the rebound went to Chris Bosh, who passed to Allen, and you know the rest. Leonard is dogged and doesn't lose confidence easily, so he'll make LeBron work, which is all you can hope to do. Besides, Leonard will have help, as the Spurs will call reinforcements whenever LeBron attacks the rim. Leonard does own one clear advantage in this matchup: LeBron can only dream of having hair long enough to twist.
Boris Diaw began his career at small forward. Why is he now at center? The lovable, chubby Frenchman has been a pleasant surprise in these playoffs and certainly shocked OKC with 26 points in the game that ended Durant's championship hopes. Diaw might be the most skilled post-player since Olajuwon, and don't laugh; that says plenty about the lack of multi-skilled big men, but also Diaw. Like most Euros, when he began playing ball, he excelled at the fundamentals first, which was understandable since he was a guard (he drew notice when he won a dunk contest as a kid; Diaw probably hasn't dunked since). He grew to a svelte 6-8 and was drafted by the Hawks in 2003 but was a noodle by comparison, who could see minutes at point guard. Get this: Diaw was listed at 215 as a rookie. When he went to Phoenix and ballooned (both as a talent and later in girth) he was still listed at 215. Now? He's 250. Listed, that is. Anyway, he remains a clever player who finds cutting teammates and can stretch a defense with his shooting range while taking bigger and clumsier centers off the dribble. In other words, he's perfect for the Spurs and potentially dangerous for Miami.
Who is Rashard Lewis and did he really make more money than LeBron one year? Lewis was a good young player in Seattle who parlayed an All-Star appearance and tremendous free-agent timing into one of the last great overspends in the NBA, getting $120 million over six years from the Magic. He was supposed to be Dwight Howard's Scottie Pippen, and initially the returns were promising. Lewis led Orlando in playoff scoring his first year and in 2009 hit a game-winner against LeBron and the Cavs in the East finals, which helped Orlando reach the NBA Finals. Then he fell off the cliff quickly and morphed into a one-dimensional three-point shooter, all while still banking those major bucks. Lewis cleared $21 million (compared to LeBron's $16 million) in 2011-12, the second year of the Big Three, when LeBron won MVP. He came cheap to Miami two years ago ($12 million pay cut) and mainly sat on the bench until three games ago, when he was placed in the starting lineup mainly to give Miami a small, floor-stretching lineup against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers. Lewis is asked only to stand in the corner and hit open threes. In his last two games he's done that nine out of 16 times. Against the Spurs, that would be a big bonus.
Why does Norris Cole think every Heat season ends at the NBA Finals? Ha! Maybe because that's all he knows. His first year in Miami, he got a ring. His second year, another ring. This is his third season, and he's been a productive point guard in these playoffs and maybe better than Mario Chalmers. His journey could've taken a wrong turn, though. He was drafted by the Bulls at No. 28, then in a series of trades, went from Chicago to Minnesota to Miami. That was the luckiest "travel call" in NBA history.
Can Danny Green pick up where he left off last year? He wasn't just hot from the three-point line; he was jalapeño and had the gall to show up Ray Allen, an all-time three-point great. Miami didn't have an answer for Green in the first five games, and that's why the Spurs were up 3-2 when the series shifted to Miami. Since then, Green has been good in spurts, but never so scorching that anyone would accuse him of being more than a role player. He misfired in those final two games (2-for-19), but in these playoffs is at 48 percent on threes. The Heat rotate very quickly on perimeter defense and surely haven't forgotten how Green burned them. He'll get extra attention if he goes off again.
If the Spurs win, will Duncan pull a David Robinson? Not many players went out in style quite like Robinson, who called it quits after the 2003 title, his second. There's some suspicion that Duncan, who doesn't discuss his future, would do the same. The small difference is that Duncan, who turns 39 next season, is better and more fluid than Robinson at this stage. Plus, he says he still enjoys the game, and Popovich goes great lengths to preserve Duncan during the season. The guess is Duncan will return for one more year and play out his contract. A divorced dad, he loves to spend time with his two young kids, who sit on the team bench with Duncan about an hour before every home game.
Does a third straight title make the Heat a legendary team? The basketball world is anxious to find a place in history for the Heat. That happens when you reach the championship round three straight years and win two. Only five teams belong to the Three-peat (copyright Pat Riley) Club: the George Mikan Lakers, the Bill Russell Celtics (who won eight straight), a pair of Michael Jordan Bulls teams and the pre-breakup Shaq and Kobe Lakers. And so it's about history, history, history. But really? Even if the Heat go three straight, are they better than some "dynasties" that won two straight? Wouldn't the Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets or Bad Boy Pistons be just as good, if not better? How about any of the "Showtime" Lakers teams and the Larry Bird Celtics? Purely from a greatness standpoint, and realizing that everything is subjective, I'm not sure the Big Three could beat any of those teams in a seven-game series. Also remember that Miami was a bit fortunate to win last year. If nothing else, the Heat would actually be going for four straight rings if LeBron hadn't shriveled in 2011 against the Mavericks. That, more than the Decision, could haunt LeBron a long time. And that would've been the bargaining chip Miami needed to be placed among the all-time great teams.
Who'd win an ownership battle between Peter Holt and Micky Arison? Wow, that game would go into triple-overtime and be decided on a half-court heave. The Spurs and Heat are regarded as the two most efficient organizations in the NBA, if not all professional sports, and they take their cues from the top. Both men were born into money. Holt is an amazing story. His grandfather built the Caterpillar machine empire, and Holt was heir to a fortune. But he was the black sheep of the family who lacked direction. He dropped out of college, served in Vietnam, battled alcoholism for two decades and was cut off from the family until he straightened up. The Spurs became the model NBA franchise under his watch, which began ticking in 1996, and Holt serves on various NBA boards because his fellow owners respect his insight and leadership. Arison's father is a shipping magnate who built Carnival Cruise Lines and bought the Heat simply as a gift to Miami (Ted Arison attended only one game in his life). Micky soon took over operations, immediately hired Pat Riley and continues to foot the tax bill in order to keep the Big Three intact. Despite their wealth and status, Holt and Arison are friendly, down-home and approachable.
Are Miami fans, long accused of being trend followers with questionable basketball IQs, some of whom famously left Game 6 last year before the thrilling ending, really that bad? Yes.
OK, Mr. Answer Man, who you got in this series? From the outset, Heat-Spurs II is tough to predict, which is good news for us, because that means we're in store for drama. The only shock would be a sweep. We can micro-analyze Miami's rotating defense and the Spurs' precision passing and X-factors and Popovich's game strategy and a bunch of other stuff, but this will be determined by how well the Spurs defend LeBron and the amount of creak in Parker's ankle. The outcome could go either way, but the pick here is Spurs in 6. It's Timmy's time.