This NBA season has been full of compelling storylines.
The Indiana Pacers collapsed. Kevin Durant finally claimed his first MVP trophy. Donald Sterling opened his mouth and was then shown the door.
These storylines held our interest through the dog days of the NBA season. One year after one of the most competitive NBA Finals in recent memory, we’re back at where we started:
Miami Heat. San Antonio Spurs. The rematch.
The Spurs suffered heartbreak in 2013 but have regrouped. The team that finished with the league’s best record this season has another chance to dethrone a Heat team looking for its third straight title.
Here are five things you should be looking out for:
The Revenge Factor
Judging by the war of words this week, these teams clearly aren’t friendly.
Tim Duncan started the sniping, claiming the Spurs will “do it this time” and topple the defending champs. LeBron James countered, claiming the Spurs don’t like the Heat — whatever that means. The chatter continued when LeBron and Dwayne Wade claimed to feel “slighted” that fans and media feel the Spurs gave the title away last year.
The way the Spurs lost last year would’ve haunted most teams. Instead, the Spurs refocused. I believe it when they say they want to play this particular Heat team again. The 2014 Spurs – with a better Kawhi Leonard, a healthy Manu Ginobili, a more experienced Danny Green, a more assertive Boris Diaw, and vital additions in Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli — are better than the 2013 version.
Conversely, this Heat squad has looked worse than their previous two title teams. Wade finally looks human, Shane Battier looks brittle, Mike Miller is gone, and LeBron is being asked to do even more than usual.
The Spurs want payback. And they actually have a chance to get it.
Timmy and Pop’s Last Stand
You’ve heard this one before: this is officially Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s final swan song. We’ve been predicting for five years that the two of them have to be close to hanging it up, and yet, they’re back each season leading the Spurs deep into June.
This seems like the right time for a definitive conclusion though. Even with Popovich’s masterful management of minutes, Duncan is a not-so-spry 38 years old. For Popovich, it’s hard to imagine he can accomplish much more in his career. Plus, the long hours are really hurting his wine game.
I know it was said last year, but it’s worth saying again: this is the Spurs’ best and potentially last chance at a title.
Simply put, the Western Conference is loaded. Factoring in health, luck, and age, it’s just unrealistic to think the Spurs will have many more opportunities.
This could be the last we see of the Timmy/Pop dynasty.
Stepping up when it counts
There’s a popular axiom that former players and coaches like to preach: the Finals come down to role players.
In 2013, star-turned-role-player Ray Allen hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history. Before he saved the Heat season, it looked like the Spurs’ Danny Green had the unlikely opportunity to win an NBA Finals MVP.
Which player will become a Finals folk hero this year?
Will Rashard Lewis continue his miraculous resurgence and win a game by himself with hot three-point shooting? Will Patty Mills, who was playing on international rosters just two years ago, spark the Spurs offense when Tony Parker sits? Will Leonard make the expected leap this playoffs from really, really good player to star?
LeBron will get his. On most nights, Wade will get his too. Parker will show his normal wizardry, while Ginobili will display his typical craftiness. Duncan will be the leader we’ve come to expect from 17 seasons of brilliance.
But the guys we don’t typically talk about will be the ones who swing the series. And they’ll be the ones who have a chance to stand out.
When this Heat team was constructed, everyone expected a dynasty (they were pretty confident about it too). They’ve largely delivered on that promise — four straight NBA Finals appearances is as good as it gets. The Heat have a chance at the first three-peat since the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers.
But this should be the Heat’s most difficult test yet, and it’s fair to wonder if this is the last of the Heat teams as presently constructed that we’ll ever see. They have serious roster management to consider this summer and whether the ‘Big Three’ will resign is still up in the air.
Even if they’re all back next year, this is a vastly different team than the one we saw when they joined forces four years ago. Wade is essentially playing on a pitch count. Bosh, while extremely valuable to the Heat, never was the superstar we saw back in his Toronto Raptor days. Valuable role players like Battier and Udonis Haslem are on their last legs.
They still have LeBron. And frankly, that may be all they need. But it’s hard to see continued dominance from this particular Heat team moving forward.
The Finals…where legacies are defined
From a legacy perspective, this Finals may be the most important since the Lakers/Boston Celtics battles in the 80s. Duncan is going for his fifth title and would win it a remarkable 16 seasons apart from his first one. The Spurs have been the best franchise since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls.
LeBron is going for a three-peat. He would join current and future Hall of Famers Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bill Russell as the only greats to win at least three titles in a row. Having been to the Finals five times, and taking this particular Heat team to a third straight, it would help vault him into the Mount Rushmore of the NBA he talked about joining earlier this year to NBA TV’s Steve Smith.
What makes this storyline sweeter is that there is some history between Duncan and LeBron. They’re 1-1 against each other in the NBA Finals, with Duncan’s Spurs team beating up on a bad Cleveland Cavaliers team, led by a not-quite-ready-for-the-moment LeBron in 2007.
Regardless of who wins, one future Hall of Famer is cementing his legacy. When you’re a top-10 player of all-time – like both Duncan and LeBron are — it’s series like these that move you up or down on the list. This Finals will dictate how historians tell their stories.
What a perfect final chapter.
Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace