Two of the NBA's most successful franchises, not just during this regular season, but over the past 15 years, will square off in the NBA Finals, starting Thursday night.
The Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, who also double as the defending NBA champion, will have home-court advantage over the Western Conference winners, the San Antonio Spurs.
The Heat finished with the NBA's best regular-season mark, a staggering 66-16, which featured a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in the history of the league.
The Spurs had the third-best record in the NBA at 58-24. If not for a Tony Parker ankle injury late in the season, San Antonio might have well earned the next-best record behind the Heat.
But one season hardly makes for a successful franchise. The measure of greatness in professional basketball can be counted by the number of Larry O'Brien Trophies in team headquarters.
Since 1997, the Spurs have the best postseason winning percentage in the league. The Heat are third.
The Heat won last season's title and lost in the Finals the previous year. The Spurs have four championships since 1999, with the last coming in 2007. That year, San Antonio knocked off a young Cleveland Cavaliers team led by LeBron James.
Fast-forward to June of 2013 and James is already staking claim to the title of one of the best players in NBA history. He's won four MVPs, including the last two, and is a much more-seasoned force.
"My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did," James said after the Heat's Game 7 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Monday's Eastern Conference Finals. "I think for this team, this is our third year advancing to The Finals. So we're very experienced as well. We're not young, we're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have.
"And I'm a much better player. I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals."
James had to be that much better a player to get by the Pacers. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other members of Miami's Big Three, which is slowly becoming the Big One, had dreadful series against Indiana. Wade came alive in Game 7 with 21 points, but he's battling a balky knee.
The Spurs have been sitting home since a week ago Monday. They swept the Memphis Grizzlies in four games in the Western Conference Finals. The rest is a good thing for an older Spurs squad, led by their own Big Three.
Tim Duncan, a three-time Finals MVP, enjoyed a career Renaissance this season. After shedding 25 pounds in the offseason, Duncan averaged 17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 2.7 bpg. He returned to the All-NBA First Team for the first time since the 2006-07 season and was Second-Team All-Defensive.
Parker emerged as an MVP candidate until an ankle injury sidelined him during the second half. And Manu Ginobili, while struggling with his shot during the postseason, is still a huge piece.
When it comes to sizing up Big Threes, San Antonio's is historic. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have combined for 98 playoff victories. That total is second all-time to the Los Angeles Lakers' trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Michael Cooper.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have played 150 playoff games together. That is 72 more than the next highest trio of active players - Boston's Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. (Wade, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers are third with 69.)
And while James at times took games over, he'll need Wade, Bosh and everyone in a Heat uniform to play at a high level.
"Obviously we're a much better team when we have everyone clicking at the same time. That's obvious," James said after the Game 7 win. "And we've had more games where everyone was clicking than not so. It just happened that this series guys were just not in the rhythm, not feeling like themselves."
These teams are both so strong and sadly, the head-to-head regular-season matchups offer little insight.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who can join Pat Riley and John Kundla in third place in NBA titles as a coach, famously sent Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green home the day of the first regular-season matchup in Miami. The NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 for the action, but the Heat barely squeaked out the victory
In the second regular-season meeting, this time in Alamo City, the Heat clinched the best record in the league and sat James and Wade. Miami still prevailed.
"They're still the defending champs. They're still the best in the regular season," Duncan said.
And the respect goes both ways.
"They've got a bunch of Hall-of-Famers, so I look forward to the challenge," James said.
BACKCOURT: Wade was bad in the Indiana series. He averaged 15.4 ppg during the Eastern Conference Finals and his knee is nowhere in the vicinity of healthy. But, with everything at stake, Wade had 21 points in Game 7.
"I just came out in the game with a different mindset just to be aggressive," Wade said on Monday. "Obviously watching the film yesterday, talking to Coach yesterday about putting me in different situations, I felt more comfortable and confident into the game plan."
Mario Chalmers averaged 11.2 ppg against the Pacers and at times, was brilliant. He had 20 points in a Game 4 loss.
Parker was his consistently great self in the regular season, but his scoring is up almost 3.0 ppg during the postseason. He's at 23.0 ppg throughout the playoffs and will be a nightmare for Chalmers. Danny Green's scoring is down 1.0 ppg from the regular season, but he's still shooting 43 percent from the 3-point line.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
FRONTCOURT: James won his fourth MVP in five years. He's clearly the best player in the world, even though his numbers are down across the board from the regular season to the playoffs. However, James has also played shut-down defense and has done enough to carry his team at times. Udonis Haslem looked great for two games in the Eastern Conference Finals and will probably be charged with defending Duncan. Bosh hasn't scored in double figures since Game 3 against Indiana. He had a very difficult time matching up physically with both Roy Hibbert and David West. Things don't get easier against San Antonio where he'll either have to defend Duncan or Tiago Splitter, who is much bigger and stronger. Bosh is a jump-shooter anymore.
Duncan is maybe the best power forward of all time. There's not much more to say about him. Splitter battled an ankle injury and wasn't really relied on to do much in the postseason, but he performed admirably against the Grizzlies' awesome big man combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Spurs held Randolph to 11.0 ppg and Gasol to 14.2 and they both averaged around 17 ppg during the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard has blossomed in the playoffs. His scoring is up a full point, he's pulled down two more rebounds, shot eight percent higher from the floor and five percent better from beyond the arc. Plus, Leonard's a great defender and will be responsible for James.
EDGE: MIAMI (barely)
BENCH: Ray Allen is posting 10.0 ppg through the playoffs for the Heat. Norris Cole has improved his game and Chris "Birdman" Andersen has played a huge role in the Heat's success. Shane Battier has fallen out of the rotation due to poor shooting.
Ginobili is still a great playmaker, shooting woes notwithstanding. He's scoring 11.5 ppg in the playoffs and that's shooting 38 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair and Cory Joseph all contribute significantly. The Spurs bench has outscored the Heat bench by almost 5.0 ppg during the postseason.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
COACHING: Erik Spoelstra is underrated in a lot of respects, sort of the same way Phil Jackson was. People think it's easy to coach greatness. It's not. Spoelstra squeezed enough out of Wade and Bosh to advance to the Finals. He took the bold, but necessary step of sitting Battier in Game 7. He's seasoned and very good.
He's not Popovich. He's got four rings and is third all-time in playoff wins and first among active coaches. Pop has won more playoff games with one team than anyone in NBA history. He's a genius and has had over a week to prepare.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
PREDICTION: This series is so hard to forecast based on one factor - what do the Heat get from Wade and Bosh. If those two All-Stars play the way they did during the regular season, the Heat will be just fine. If not, the Spurs could get that fifth title.
There are certainly other factors, such as rest and rust. The Spurs have been done since Memorial Day. Rest is a great thing for a veteran, banged-up squad, but it will be impossible for the Spurs to come out completely ready to go.
"They're going to be more in a rhythm than us, but hopefully we'll be rusty in the first quarter, first half," said Parker. "Hopefully, we'll be better in the second half."
The Pacers gave the Heat all they could handle and the Spurs are like the Pacers in some ways. Duncan and Parker are both huge, but not nearly as physical as Hibbert and West. The Spurs shoot the long ball much better than Indiana and the point-guard play will drastically improve with Parker on the floor.
James is just playing at an astronomical level. He carried the Heat for a good portion of the Eastern Conference Finals. Can he do it again, if needed? For portions, yes, he can and the Heat will be fine. For seven games, against the Spurs, no way for it to work.
This whole series, again, comes down to Wade and Bosh. Wade showed his toughness with the 21-point performance in Game 7. Bosh, not so much. Once again, Bosh will have to defend a quality big man in the post. Sure, he'll draw Duncan or Splitter out of the paint, but this could be another series where the Heat get slaughtered on the boards.
Remember this, in the Finals, the first two games will be in Miami, followed by three straight in San Antonio. That shift is large. If San Antonio can get one of the first two, which they can, they get three straight at home, where they're brilliant. So is Miami.
This series is so even. No one can predict what Wade and Bosh will do. History is our only barometer.
PREDICTION: SAN ANTONIO in 6.