And then there were two.
For the third straight year, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat made their way to the NBA Finals. And for the first time since 2007, it's the San Antonio Spurs representing the Western Conference in the championship round, with the same three-man core that won a title six years ago and had heard plenty of whispers since that they were too old to do it again.
The series starts Thursday night in Miami, so here's five things — a starting five, if you will — to watch:
He got his championship last season, so LeBron James will never have to hear that "Will you ever win a title?" question again. But he was swept by the Spurs when facing them in the 2007 finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, so for the league's four-time MVP, this is a chance to erase at least some of the sting from that awful memory. And because the Spurs had more than a week to get ready for the series, look for San Antonio to throw an unexpected defensive wrinkle or two at James. It won't be anything major, because the Spurs certainly aren't going to try to reinvent themselves now, but a little something to keep the Heat guessing wouldn't be a surprise whatsoever. If James gets his second ring, even more doubters will have to stop doubting. If he and the Heat fall in this series, the noise levels will ramp up, especially considering that he could choose to leave Miami in the summer of 2014.
DRIVE FOR FIVE
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and power forward Tim Duncan clearly have one of the closest coach-player bonds in the NBA. Both are well-spoken, attention-shunning, fiery-when-necessary guys who just win every single year. And history is awaiting them, since they could win their fifth championship together and would have done so in three different decades if the Spurs can knock off the Heat in this series. They are models of consistency for one of the NBA's model franchises. Consider: Starting with the 1989-90 season, the Spurs have won a staggering 67 percent of their games — two out of every three, for practically a quarter-century, easily the best clip in the league over that stretch. They've had only one losing season in those years, and that was a year where injuries kept David Robinson out of all but six games. When that miserable year ended, the Spurs drafted Duncan. The rest is history.
Everyone knows Dwyane Wade's right knee is aching, and that's not going to change in this series. And Chris Bosh has been decidedly off of late as well, though he insists he's physically fine. But the Heat were pushed to the absolute limit by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, in large part because two-thirds of their Big Three spent most of that series struggling. If they struggle again in this series, plus continue to see other players mired in slumps (Ray Allen and Shane Battier both had tough times against Indiana), the reigning champions could be in major trouble.
Mario Chalmers and Kawhi Leonard might be the biggest keys in this series for their respective clubs, and yes, you read that correctly. They'll likely draw the toughest defensive assignments on the planet when the finals begin, with Chalmers set to open against San Antonio's Tony Parker and Leonard expected to match up with Miami's LeBron James. It's not in the nature of either team to leave defenders on an island and without help, so Chalmers and Leonard obviously won't have to handle the daunting task of slowing the other team's best offensive threat on their own. But if either gets overmatched early, their club will have to make a quick adjustment, or else run the risk of letting a superstar get on a superstar roll.
Finally, the toughest job in the NBA Finals may be the one held by a former Providence guard who was one of the best players in the Big East. (Go ahead and think for a moment, because neither the Spurs nor the Heat have any players from Providence on their rosters.) We're talking, of course, about ABC/ESPN analyst Doris Burke, whose job as the series sideline reporter includes the unenviable task of conducting those in-game interviews with coaches after the end of the first and third quarters. Erik Spoelstra doesn't mind doing them, though isn't going to offer any intricate strategy. Gregg Popovich is not a fan, and recently set an NBA record by needing only one word to answer two of Burke's in-game questions, saying "turnovers" in reply to each of her queries.