MIAMI – Dwyane Wade needed a moment to think before giving his answer.
The question was about how many NBA franchises in his lifetime had won back-to-back championships, so he tilted his eyes toward the ceiling and started running through the list in his head.
"That's a small number. It's tough," Wade said. "Obviously, it'd be the Bulls. The Lakers. The Pistons. And is it the Spurs? No, the Rockets. Wow, that's tough."
Here's what's tougher: Actually making that list.
Such is the opportunity that Wade and the Miami Heat have now, for the second time. After Wade won his first title in 2006, the Heat were swept in the first round of the following year's playoffs — when the San Antonio Spurs wound up taking over as the NBA's kings, needing the minimum four games to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and a far less experienced LeBron James in the 2007 finals.
The Spurs are back in the finals for the first time since winning that crown, and will soon get their chance to keep Wade, James and the Heat from joining the back-to-back club.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is Thursday night in Miami, and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich — who has won four titles, none of them in consecutive years — knows what the Spurs will be facing against the reigning champions.
"They are not just athletic. They are intelligent in what they do," Popovich said. "They execute on both an individual basis and a team basis. That's what makes them good."
Four more wins and the Heat would be more than good — they'd have to be considered elite.
Chicago won three straight titles twice during the Michael Jordan era, with Houston winning in the two seasons during that eight-year span where it wasn't the Bulls spraying champagne after the final game. Detroit won two straight just before Jordan's reign started, and the Los Angeles Lakers have successfully defended titles four times in the last quarter-century.
San Antonio won its four crowns in a nine-year span, but never managed to pull off two in a row — not even two finals appearances in a row, for that matter. Here's a great example of how tough it is to remain atop the NBA mountain: the Boston Celtics, with the most titles in NBA history, haven't gone back-to-back since 1968 and 1969.
"I mean, anytime you can get to the finals two years in a row is tough," said Wade, who'll be making his third straight finals appearance and fourth overall. "But to win it back to back? I remember Michael Jordan saying winning your first title is the toughest. And in some ways it's very tough to win that first one. But I personally think it's tougher to win the next one, because now you've finally gave everything to win that first one."
This postseason is certainly proving to be tougher for Wade.
A bruised right knee has dogged him now for the better part of three months. In the beginning, the official word was that the ailment was minor and the hope was that it could clear up with a bit of rest. Obviously, that's not exactly the case.
Wade is averaging only 14.1 points in the playoffs on 45 percent shooting. He's getting to the foul line, on average, 3.9 times per game in these playoffs, or less than half of what he managed in his first eight postseasons.
And his trademark explosiveness just has not been there, either.
In his first 110 playoff games, he scored more than 20 points on 87 occasions. This year, in 15 playoff games, he's topped 20 only twice — getting exactly 21 points both times, the second coming in Monday's win over Indiana in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"He just found a way to dig deep," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We all know what he's dealing with right now. He knew this was a moment that we had to have, and somehow he was able just to will that game, despite what he's going through."
Wade is refusing to keep discussing what's happening with the knee, other than revealing after Game 7 of the East finals that he's sometimes getting treatment until the wee hours of the morning to remain able to play.
"I'm going to play through pain because this is my job," Wade said. "My team depends on me. Like I said a couple of series ago, I would love to be one of the players who never has to deal with these conversations, never have to deal with these injuries. But that's not my path. I've been through so much away from the game and in the game that I'll find a way. I'll figure it out. Some way, somehow, you give me enough time, I'll figure it out."
If he does figure it out against the Spurs, a third ring — and entry into the back-to-back club — will likely be his reward.
"There will be some moments next series where I won't be looking so great," Wade said. "I'm sure there will be some great headlines out there about myself. I'll continue pushing. I'll continue to try to do what I can to help the Miami Heat win another championship."