POSTED: Jun 1, 2014 4:29 PM ET
The health of Tony Parker will be paramount to the Spurs' hopes of dethroning the Heat in The Finals.
They have been eyeballing each other for nearly a year, stalking each other and circling the 2014 Larry O'Brien trophy like the pair of two-ton NBA all-time great titans we all know them to be.
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat, making a staggering fourth straight appearance in The Finals, and the San Antonio Spurs, who were seconds away from interrupting that second Heat title, square off again.
GameTime: Finals Preview
What better way to settle the issues that lingered from last season's seven-game epic than to line up for six or seven more clashes to decide which one of these teams and franchises gets to own this slice of history.
In terms of a four-year runs of excellence, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat are in the midst of trying to cement a championship legacy we haven't seen since the likes of Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers and Larry Bird's "Big 3" Celtics.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs are making a back-to-back trip to The Finals for the first time during their illustrious run together, trying to cap off an era of nearly two decades as the standard-bearer for consistent NBA excellence.
The stakes couldn't be higher.
The magnitude of the moment couldn't be any greater.
Inside the NBA: Finals Predictions
The stars couldn't be any brighter.
The Heat and Spurs Round II marks just the sixth championship rematch since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, and the first since the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen-led Chicago Bulls triumphed in back-to-back seasons over the Karl Malone and John Stockton-led Utah Jazz (1997 and '98). Still, the loser the first time around came back to win in four of the previous five matchups.
The Spurs were 28 seconds away from forcing the Heat into the role of the vanquished this time around. The sting of that Game 6 collapse and subsequent Game 7 defeat stung more than any painful defeat suffered during Duncan's Hall of Fame career.
Hence, his shot-call this time around.
Through the Lens: Heat Celebration
"It's unbelievable to gain that focus after that devastating loss last year," Duncan said after the Spurs finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the Western Conference finals. "But we're back, and we're excited. We have four more (games) to win, and we'll do it this time. We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
The Spurs rebounded by grinding their way to the best record in the league during the regular season, using gut-wrenching feeling from that 2013 Finals defeat as fuel for a renewed season.
"Our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I call it fortitude. I think they showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude, if I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss, especially Game 6, and not have a pity party. To come back this year, get back to the same position, that's fortitude. I'm really proud of them and even happier for them."
The rematch ... redemption ... revenge.
It's all there waiting for the Spurs, just like the Heat.
They waded through a weak Eastern Conference all season long and through the postseason. But like true champions, they got better and better each time out, regardless of the circumstance.
Through The Lens: Spurs-Thunder, Game 6
They, too, are cognizant of the history of the game and their place in it. The dreams of a three-peat, a place among the all-time elite and that spot on the NBA's Mount Rushmore (for LeBron) will all be colored by what transpires over the course of the coming days and weeks.
"The two best teams will meet," Wade said. "We're just happy and excited that we're one of the best."
There will be no shortage of subplots, no need for manufactured animosity or bush league antics from one side or the other.
This is a professional heavyweight fight that requires only the attendance of the two combatants at their healthy-as-can-be-expected-best for this time of year.
They split their two games during the regular season, with each team winning comfortably on their home floor. The Heat are a perfect 8-0 at home during this postseason. The Spurs are a spectacular 9-1 and hold the coveted home court advantage.
Something has to give now. Someone has to flinch before a champion is crowned.
A special place in NBA history awaits ...
Tony Parker Injury
1. How bad is Tony Parker's ankle injury and does that change the entire series if it's more serious than just "soreness?"
It's much more serious than anyone anticipated if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to keep Parker on the bench in the second half of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is basically a toss-up series anyway, with the slight edge going to the team with the home-court advantage. But if Parker is unavailable for any game or multiple games in this series, all bets are off. Corey Joseph better be ready.
2. Whose legacy is impacted more in this series between Tim Duncan and LeBron James?
LeBron is still trying to solidify his spot on the NBA's Mount Rushmore, so it has to be his. Timmy is already, in the eyes of most, the greatest power forward to play the game. He's got the championships, numbers and longevity to win that battle against the best of the best of any era. But a three-peat and third championship, and potential Finals MVP, cements LeBron's place among the all-time greats.
3. Does a Spurs win allow Duncan to ride off into the sunset of a brilliant career with a fifth ring and nothing else to prove?
Yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will hang up his high tops if the Spurs win. Aside from the streaks of grey in his hair and beard, Duncan doesn't appear to be slowing down in the twilight of his career. When the Spurs needed to finish off the Thunder in overtime of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, they went to Duncan on the block against Serge Ibaka, the same way they always have at crunch time over the course of his career. He's not going anywhere.
1-on-1 With Dwyane Wade
4. Can Dwyane Wade muster six or seven more superstar performances out of his body this season?
Probably not. But he doesn't need six or seven. The Heat need at least three or four, coupled with the same from LeBron, to win this series. People tend to forget this, but Wade's best ball during the Big 3 era was played during that first trip to The Finals, when they lost to Dallas. The wear and tear on his body has taken a greater toll each and every season. But the maintenance plan used to preserve his body during the regular season seems to have worked wonders. And the time off between the end of the Eastern Conference finals and the start of The Finals should prove to be critical for Wade and what should be expected from him over the course of the next few weeks.
5. In a Finals filled with future Hall of Famers, who has the most to prove based on how they performed in Heat-Spurs I?
Manu Ginobili was brutal at times during the 2013 Finals, teetering on the wrong side of reckless and costing the Spurs at a time when they needed their Big 3 to play at an elite level. He's been on his own mission of redemption since then, and while he struggled at times during the conference semifinals, he's been locked in since the start of the conference finals. It goes without saying that the Spurs need him to play well if they want to win this series, but if Parker's injury issues become a more significant concern, Manu's presence as a playmaker/scorer becomes even more important to the cause.
There's a lot more balance in the Spurs' scoring and shot distribution than there is in their time of possession. The ball is mostly in Tony Parker's hands and the offense is mostly initiated by a pick-and-roll, either at the top of the key or, more often, on the side of the floor. From there, it's going to find the open man, and that process can be downright pretty. With the Heat sending two defenders to the ball on pick-and-rolls, pin-downs and post-ups, the weak-side shooting of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Marco Belinelli could determine the series.
Leonard has seen a bigger role offensively this season and his one-on-one skills are better than they were a year ago. But the San Antonio offense is sharpest when Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw's collective passing skills are on the floor ... as long as Ginobili isn't careless with the ball. He had 12 turnovers in Games 6 and 7 last year, more than he had through the first five games (10).
Chris Bosh is the key to the Miami defense. It will be his job to contain Parker on those pick-and-rolls, and also defend Tim Duncan in the post. The Heat's defensive scheme requires consistent energy and effort (they use the term "flying around" to describe themselves at their best), but that hasn't always been there this season or in these playoffs. After an awful Game 1 in the conference finals, their defense got better as the series went on. But defending the Spurs is a much tougher challenge than defending the Pacers.
The Miami offense just got done tearing through the league's No. 1 defense. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attacking and often five guys on the floor who can shoot, Roy Hibbert's rim protection was neutralized and the Indiana defense was mostly helpless. In the playoffs, the Heat offense has improved each quarter, scoring a ridiculous 121 points per 100 possessions in the fourth, when they typically go small, with a point guard, Ray Allen, Wade, James and Bosh on the floor.
Defending the Heat starts with good offense. Taking care of the ball, maintaining floor balance and getting good shots will limit Miami's transition opportunities. That is priority No. 1. It's not just about slowing down James, but also avoiding unfavorable cross-matches and open 3-point shooters.
In the regular season, the No. 4-ranked San Antonio defense was at its best with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the floor together. The Miami matchup will likely force Popovich to keep them separate, with Splitter backing up Duncan and Matt Bonner or Diaw starting at power forward to defend Rashard Lewis on the perimeter. Splitter played less than 23 minutes over the final three games of last year's Finals, with both teams playing small (Ginobili and Mike Miller starting).
Leonard will have the assignment of defending James, but the entire Spurs defense will be focused on him. Leonard will go under screens and sag off James on the perimeter, trying to entice him to shoot jumpers, a scheme that worked (until Game 7 last year). Wade will get the same treatment, because priority No. 2 in defending the Heat is keeping those two out of the paint. If they're not able to get there with penetration, expect to see them often in the post, where the Spurs won't necessarily send a double-team.
Parker's usage rate increases in the clutch, but Ginobili will share ball-handling duties and, as usual, the shot will go to the open man. On last-minute possessions, Popovich will often draw up a play that includes some misdirection and a screen or two to free up a shooter. In the regular season, the Spurs had the No. 1 offense in the clutch (last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less), when they shot 46.6 percent from 3-point range, more than seven percent better than any other team (Philadelphia ranked second at 39.2 percent) and 14 percent better than the league average (32.1 percent).
James will have the ball for the Heat, and he'll be surrounded by shooters. He's more than willing to pass after drawing a second defender, but against the Spurs' sagging scheme, he becomes a shooter more often than usual. In last year's Finals, James took 13 of Miami's 26 shots in clutch time, compared to 12 of 46 in the first three rounds of last season's playoffs. Ten of those 13 Finals shots came from outside the paint.
With Ginobili, the difference between brilliant playmaking and carelessness can be a fine line. And against the Heat's defense (and potential for instant conversion on the other end of the floor), it becomes even more critical for his passes to hit their mark. As we saw in last year's Finals, Green's shooting can turn the San Antonio offense from pretty to potent. This year, the Spurs are 25-1 (5-0 in the playoffs) when Green hits three or more 3-pointers.
Norris Cole has the potential to make an impact on both ends of the floor. When he's in control, he has the quickness to attack close-outs, get into the paint, and get to the basket or at least get the defense scrambling. In the last two postseasons, he has shot 31-for-65 (48 percent) from 3-point range, compared to 35 percent in the regular season. Defensively, he's the Heat's best on-ball defender and will be asked to put pressure on Parker (and maybe Ginobili), to keep the Spurs from getting into their offense too early or too easily. If Cole is playing well, he'll take fourth-quarter minutes from Mario Chalmers.
Spurs in 7. They'll be singing redemption's song on the River Walk after denying the Heat's three-peat bid in a second straight epic 7-game series.
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