NBA Finals Preview - Miami vs. San Antonio

( - The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat will write another chapter in the history books when they meet in the NBA Finals for the second straight year.

Starting Thursday night in San Antonio, the Spurs and Heat will give the world what it wanted - a rematch of the 2013 Finals, an epic series that went seven games and provided one of the greatest moments in league history.

Last year in Game 6, the Spurs were three clear with five seconds left and staff at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena started roping off areas in anticipation for a celebration.

Ray Allen hit a circus 3-pointer to tie it. The Heat prevailed in overtime to force a Game 7, which Miami won by seven in South Beach.

San Antonio was literally seconds away from a fifth title in franchise history, all, not so coincidentally, under the leadership of Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. The boss was extremely proud of this group.

"I think they showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude," Popovich said after clinching a berth in the Finals. "If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss, especially the Game 6, and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position. I think that's fortitude, and I'm really proud of them and even happier for them."

And the Spurs welcome the challenge of taming the Heat and exacting revenge.

"We've got four more to win, and we'll do it this time," boasted Duncan. "We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."

That sort of bravado is a little out of character for the mild-mannered Duncan, but perhaps the best illustration of how much the Game 6 loss still hurts. And, it's also a testament to the Spurs' focus.

"They don't like us, they don't. I can sense it from Timmy's comments over the last couple of days," LeBron James said after practice on Monday. "They wanted this, they wanted us and we'll be ready for the challenge.

"They wanted us, they got us."

This is the first Finals repeat since the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz both made it in 1997 and 1998. Chicago of course won both of those to complete its second three-peat.

A win in this series and the Heat would earn three consecutive titles. The Los Angeles Lakers turned the same feat in between Michael Jordan's Bulls and James' Heat, but this Miami group is the first to reach four consecutive Finals since the Boston Celtics did it from 1984-87.

"I'm in the moment, I don't really think about it," said James.

The Heat clinched their spot in the championship round first. They knocked off top-seeded Indiana in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals after sweeping Charlotte in the first round and needing five games against Brooklyn.

The Spurs moved on with a Game 6 overtime victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday night. San Antonio was pushed to a Game 7 in round one versus the Dallas Mavericks, but handled the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in round two.

The two sides split two regular-season meetings with the home team prevailing both times.

Including last year's Finals, the Spurs are 5-2 in their building against the Heat, but Miami has won four straight over San Antonio and seven of their last eight at AmericanAirlines Arena.

In looking for differences from last year's Finals to this year's, the format might be the biggest change. The NBA implemented a 2-2-1-1-1 format for this Finals as opposed to the 2-3-2 version of a year ago.

Also, Miami had homecourt advantage in 2013 and this year it belongs to San Antonio, which finished with the best record in the NBA.

Health is an issue. Spurs' All-Star point guard Tony Parker sprained his ankle against the Thunder in Game 4, but played through it until he couldn't any longer. He missed the second half of the Spurs' deciding Game 6 win. Parker is expected to play in Game 1.

Dwyane Wade of the Heat entered the postseason banged up last year, but only played 54 games this season. He sat some for rest, but did battle some lingering health issues. Wade has played in every postseason game.

"It's as good as it gets," Wade said. "We've got a tall order ahead of us, as well as they do, too. We've got two teams in the Finals, the best two teams. It's going to be a great series."


BACKCOURT: A healthy Parker is still among the game's elite. During this postseason, he's averaged 17.2 points and 4.9 assists. If the ankle is bothering him, this series could be trouble for Parker. His game is attacking the basket and if he can't cut well, Parker's effectiveness will be in jeopardy. If fine, Parker can be a difference-maker. Although his scoring was down a bit against the Heat in the 2013 Finals, Parker is the most important factor for the Spurs. Danny Green has averaged a shade under 10 ppg during the playoffs, but he's hitting 3-pointers at a 48 percent clip. He shot 55 percent from long range last year in the Finals, including seven in Game 3, a Finals record. Green owns the record for most 3-pointers made in a championship series with 27 in 2013.

Wade may have missed some time during the regular season, but he still averaged 19.0 ppg, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Those are stout numbers. During the playoffs, Wade's numbers dip, but fractionally. Most importantly, Wade has been able to handle a full load in the postseason. He's playing almost 35 minutes a game and one concern for the Heat is that Wade's defense has slipped noticeably. For all of the criticism, and all of the poor performances in last year's postseason, Wade averaged 19.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 4.0 rpg against San Antonio in the Finals. Mario Chalmers' scoring is down in the playoffs, but his defense and 3-point shooting make him an integral part of the Heat rotation. Norris Cole has become a very big part of the rotation during the playoffs, but Chalmers is steady and tested.


FRONTCOURT: Duncan has turned back the clock. During the regular season, Duncan averaged 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. His rebounding and blocks are down a tad in the playoffs, but he carried the Spurs on his back in overtime in the clinching win against the Thunder. Duncan was sensational in the Finals last year. The Heat don't have any answer for him on the interior, even at 38 years of age. Kawhi Leonard emerged in last year's Finals. He averaged a double-double of 14.6 ppg and 11.1 rpg. Leonard will be tasked with covering James, but Leonard's numbers against the Heat are very good. He's been very good this postseason as well, while logging heavy minutes. The fifth starter for the Spurs is up in the air to some degree. Tiago Splitter started most of the regular season and all but two games so far this postseason. He was taken out of the starting five in last year's Finals. Matt Bonner started in his place against OKC in an effort to spread the floor against Serge Ibaka. Splitter remains the safe choice, although Miami has no low-post presence, so it could be Bonner, or Manu Ginobili, or, knowing Popovich, anyone in silver, black and white.

James is the greatest player on the planet. He finished second in the MVP balloting and has been just as good in the postseason, averaging 27.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.0 apg and 1.8 spg. He's an elite defender, making the All-Defensive second team. The man covering him, Leonard, did as well, so that matchup should be the highlight of the series. Chris Bosh has turned into a glorified jump-shooter, but he's been pretty effective, shooting 41 percent from long range in the postseason. Bosh may have to do the heavy lifting in terms of covering Duncan. Remember, Bosh was dreadful last year in the playoffs and averaged under 12 ppg in the 2013 Finals. The Heat have also tinkered with starting lineups throughout the season and this postseason. Rashard Lewis has been the starter the last three games against the Pacers and his 3-point shooting made a difference. It could be Shane Battier, who was huge in Game 7 against the Spurs 12 months ago, or Udonis Haslem if San Antonio starts Splitter.


BENCH: The Spurs' bench led the NBA in scoring during the regular season and the unit's production was very strong against Dallas, Portland and Oklahoma City. Ginobili is scoring 14.3 ppg and will try to atone for last year's shaky Finals. Boris Diaw has scored in double figures during this run to the championship. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli will contribute and whichever player - Bonner or Splitter - doesn't start, should see significant minutes.

The Heat bench was 21st in scoring, led by Allen. His numbers have gone up through Miami's march to a title. Allen is a future Hall of Famer and will continue to see plenty of fourth-quarter action. Cole has been a big-time performer for the Heat so far. He's a good defender and dependable 3-point shooter. A healthy Chris Andersen, who battled a thigh injury versus Indiana, is an impact guy on the interior. Battier and Haslem are grizzled, weathered veterans. How much they play might depend on what the Spurs do.


COACHING: Popovich has four rings and knows what exactly to do to get his team motivated. For him to compliment his team's focus in returning to the Finals was pretty remarkable. His decision to insert Bonner for Splitter against the Thunder paid off. Bonner didn't light the world on fire, but he took Ibaka away from the basket. Pop will maximize the Spurs' chances.

Erik Spoelstra has two titles and has a lot of similarities to Popovich. He sat regulars like Andersen and Battier during the postseason a year ago and has done the same this time around. Spoelstra's plans for Wade this season have worked brilliantly and his use of Bosh as a jump-shooter has also paid dividends.


PREDICTION: Parker's health is the key to this series. If he's able to play like the All-Star he is, the world is in store for another terrific Finals between the best teams of this generation.

If Parker is full speed, San Antonio's offense is a thing of beauty. They move the ball better than anyone and almost always get high-percentage looks at the basket. With no shot-blocking, or really defensive presence inside for the Heat, the Spurs can exploit that advantage. Without Ibaka, the Spurs scored 66 and 54 points in the paint versus the Thunder.

If Parker is hobbled, all bets are off.

It's very hard to think of James losing a Finals in his prime, especially considering how well Wade is playing. James carried the Heat single-handedly at times last postseason and he's gotten much more from his supporting cast in his pursuit of a third straight title.

How badly does San Antonio want to atone for last year's collapse? There have been some wild rumors spreading that Duncan would consider retirement with a Finals win. No matter, the Spurs won't continue to defy age forever. How many more bites at the apple will they get?

How badly does Miami want to join the rarified air of three-peaters? Legacy is not on the Heat's agenda currently, but it's had to appear in their collective minds at some point.

The series is incredibly close, but San Antonio struggled with Oklahoma City's athleticism at times.