"It's kinda like picking right back up where we left off," Chris Bosh said after practice on Monday. "This is Game 8."
That's right: After a regular season that saw teams from the Indiana Pacers to the Los Angeles Clippers to the Golden State Warriors thrown out as either title favorites or dark-horse contenders, and a first round that gave us five Game 7s – tying the record set during the entire 1994 postseason – we've arrived at the Finals we deserve, and maybe even need. It's Heat vs. Spurs 2.0: Revengeance.
This might be a rematch, but it's not just a rerun. For one thing, the Spurs hold the home-court advantage this time after finishing the season with the league's best record. For all of Indiana's talk of needing to secure home-court against Miami (which, ultimately, didn't matter), it's San Antonio who managed to secure it in the Finals. What's even more stunning is they did it while playing exactly zero players for more than 30 minutes a game – something that no team, much less the one with the best record in the league, has done since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
That depth speaks to one of the advantages that San Antonio hopes to leverage against Miami. Although the Spurs stumbled against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals after Serge Ibaka's miraculous return from a calf injury, they adjusted – by keeping Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan off the floor at the same time and leaning on Boris Diaw to both spread the floor and keep more players above the arc to help with transition defense – and it led to sequences the likes of which would lead to controller-shattering rage if they happened to you in NBA 2K14.
Players like Diaw, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills or any other member of a bench mob affectionately referred to as "The Foreign Legion" have been prepped for spot duty all season long: the starters with Diaw in place of Splitter notched 102 minutes in the regular season (the Spurs' starters only played 262 minutes together the entire year) and put up a net rating (the difference in points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) of 27.2, good for second in the league among lineups playing 100 minutes or more.
Without consistent contributions from their bench, the Heat have had to rely much more heavily on the Big 3's production while plugging in Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen at different times. The good news is that the Big 3 are playing both smarter and better than they did last year.
In the 2012-13 Finals, the Spurs dared LeBron James to shoot from midrange by going under screens, and it almost undid the Heat in the early games. Don't expect the same result this year: last year he shot 49.1 percent from the field in the postseason, this year he's shooting 56.2. The difference in the midrange specifically doesn't look huge (41.9 percent this year versus 37.2 last year) but that five-percent swing can still hurt an opposing team.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have also shifted their games. Never known as a knockdown 3-point shooter, Wade shot just 25 percent from the arc in the playoffs last year. But this year, he's hitting a near-revolutionary 38.9 percent of his long-range shots. For Bosh, it's a difference in emphasis. In the playoffs last season, only 15.4 percent of his field goals were 3-pointers, but so far this postseason, 34.3 percent of his tries are coming from beyond the arc. Pulling Spurs defenders away from the paint is the only way to open it up for drives by James and Wade, so this kind of shot distribution (provided they make the shots) will be essential.
To that end, Miami wants to go small as much as it can, and while San Antonio did the same with success against the rim protection of Ibaka and Oklahoma City, they'd prefer not to. As Grantland's Zach Lowe observed in his Finals preview, "The Spurs' offense, that beautiful machine, is designed to feature two bigs — two guys to man the elbows, set picks on each side of the floor, deliver handoffs, and do other big-guy stuff." Just because the Spurs are adaptable doesn't mean they don't have a way they prefer to play.
You're also likely to hear a lot of chatter about how Miami had an easier route to the Finals than San Antonio. But the Heat had to go through the regular season's 6th (Charlotte), 20th (Brooklyn) and 1st (Indiana) rated defensive teams, and managed the playoffs' best offensive rating (113.7) while doing so. The Spurs faced the regular season's 22nd (Dallas), 16th (Portland) and 5th (Oklahoma City) best defensive teams. But there's a flipside to that coin: The teams the Spurs faced ranked 3rd, 5th and 7th in offensive rating, and Pop's crew held them to 101 points per 100 possessions, well below all of their regular-season marks.
We could keep churning up the number salad all day, but in the end, all the data points to the same thing: these are the two best teams in the league, and they're both peaking. The Spurs' victory over the Thunder was a triumph of execution and tactics over talent and athleticism, while the Heat bested the Pacers by controlling a team desperate (sometimes hilariously so) to do whatever it could to beat them.
We're looking at the best player in the game operating inside the game's second-best scheme facing off against a gaggle of aging-but-guaranteed Hall of Famers in the game's best scheme. Compared to last year, the Spurs are a hair better while the Heat are maybe just a shade worse. Given that San Antonio came within 5.2 seconds of winning it all in Game 6 before coming up short in Game 7, that makes it really, really close this year.
When the first round featured all those Game 7s, we thought maybe this was on track to be one of the best postseasons ever. It hasn't quite turned out that way, with the ensuing rounds often teeter-tottering between teams. (The Spurs won their games against the Thunder by an average of 21.3 points while losing their games against them by an average of 11.) It's not out of the realm of possibility that all the apparent parity between these teams evaporates and this is over quickly. But we deserve better than that.
So here's a fever dream of how it all ends: The buzzer sounds, the confetti streams down, the crowd cheers and, in the midst of all that blaring noise, the Spurs players left on the floor walk solemnly to the bench to exchange dude-hugs with their teammates. Gregg Popovich gives terse, pointed answers to the questions offered at the year's last press conference; Tim Duncan deflects questions about retiring with his head lowered, eyes fixed on a middle distance beyond the reporters' heads. As the team scatters quietly into the night, each player headed off in his own separate direction, they know there's next season. This is how the San Antonio Spurs will celebrate their franchise's fifth NBA Championship: in the most Spurs way possible.
Prediction: Spurs in seven.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com