Now, at last, it is next — a Sunday showdown between a Spurs squad that has won 28 of 30 at home, and a Heat team that has taken 28 of 29 overall.
If all goes as it should this spring, it shall not be last.
These teams should see each other again, in June, in the next NBA Finals.
That would be the best thing not only for basketball fans – regardless of whether they recognize it – but also for the long-term legacy of this particular Heat group. Simply, you can’t really stake a claim to this era without beating the Spurs.
If this were a movie trilogy, this would be the next logical script.
The original 2011 film featured LeBron James and the Heat fighting themselves – not to mention the revenge-minded Mavericks. The 2012 sequel focused on them beating back their little brothers, the talented upstarts from Oklahoma City, something they’ve done so regularly since to take some steam from a Finals rematch. In the third entry in this trilogy, released in June 2013, the Heat should be required to face one last stand from the proud old guard. They should need to prove, for all to acknowledge, that they can win an intellectual exercise against one of the smartest teams this sport has ever seen.
James, specifically, should get a chance to show how he’s grown, since the Spurs swept away his first Finals shot in 2007.
Naturally, the NBA and its partner networks would prefer another matchup, since the Spurs have never been seen as sexy, and these two teams admire each other too much to engage in the extracurricular activity that generates clicks. At a stage when the Heat seem at odds with everybody – notably the chatty and chippy Pacers, Bulls and Celtics – they blow only kisses toward the Alamo. Not even Gregg Popovich’s send-stars-home-on-Southwest ploy prior to the Nov. 29 meeting, an apparent statement to the NBA about scheduling, changed the Heat’s public tune about the Spurs’ professionalism; many Heat players actually found Popovich’s approach refreshing.
“We’ve always had great respect for their organization,” Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s probably the only organization other than ours in the league that has had the same leadership for 15-plus years. Ours is going on 18 years. So, they’ve done it with a first-class, professional way, they have titles to back it up.”
That stability has contributed to a rather ridiculous run of 16 seasons, coinciding with Tim Duncan’s drafting, finishing at .610 or above in every season. Duncan has four titles, yet customarily trails Kobe Bryant – who won three of his five rings as the secondary star – in rankings of the elites of this era. Ray Allen, a Duncan peer, calls the four championships “incredible” and yet Duncan somehow “underrated.”
“I don’t know,” Allen said. “But I’ll take that all day. Just being committed like that, just being consistent, you don’t need anybody talking about you, you don’t need all the flair or the glamour that comes along with winning.”
The Spurs are now winning at the highest clip (.764) during that run. For Shane Battier, who helped Memphis pull a first-round upset against San Antonio in 2011, it starts simply: “Their three best players are Hall of Famers, and coachable, and they play for a Hall of Fame coach. There’s a Spurs way and everyone falls in line. They just play great basketball.”
That alone makes them, collectively, a challenge to beat. But there would be micro tests too.
Dwyane Wade is widely deemed the second-best off-guard in this era, but Manu Ginobili — who isn’t expected to play Sunday due to a tight hamstring — has had stretches of similar brilliance. Battier characterizes Popovich as the ultimate innovator, citing the adjustment from a defensive to offensive emphasis as his roster changed; Spoelstra has just begun to get respect for his own adaptational ability, his own offense evolving to fully unleash James. Chris Bosh, growing up in Texas, always had an appreciation for the fundamentals of the “living legend” Duncan, and worked to develop similar skills.
Then there’s James, who fell short with a weak Cleveland cast in 2007. He never has anything but praise for Popovich or the Spurs’ stars, using them as a benchmark, as he did Friday when discussing the Heat’s recent patience and unselfishness. “It’s good basketball,” James said. “I love great basketball. The way that they play, as a basketball fan, how could you not like the way they play the game of basketball?”
How could you not like that Finals?