OK, it’s time to run it back. Starting Thursday night in San Antonio, we’ll get our first NBA Finals rematch since Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat the Jazz in 1997 and ’98 to win the last of their six championships.
For the second year in a row, it’s LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat against the irrepressible and geriatric San Antonio Spurs, the team that refuses to act its age and go away.
Things were looking a tad dicey for awhile Saturday. The Spurs, playing the second half without star point guard Tony Parker, frittered away a late 10-point lead, stirring ghastly memories of a similar Game Six road collapse in last year’s Finals in Miami.
But the Spurs persevered. The old guys had a score to settle. So with ageless Tim Duncan leading the way, they beat Oklahoma City in overtime, leaving league MVP Kevin Durant a beaten and befuddled young man.
It seemed fitting that the decisive game go to overtime. There were eight OT games in the first round of the playoffs. But there hadn’t been an OT since. We were due for one of those games that take your breath away and leave you marveling at the sheer skill of the players.
Duncan, 38, carried San Antonio on his bent back in OT. With the announcers wondering if he’d be too spent for the OT, he scored seven points in a row, posting up the NBA’s top shot blocker, Serge Ibaka, time and again to outscore OKC all by himself.
Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league, had prepared his team for such a moment. “Pop” rationed minutes to save his players’ bodies and develop the league’s most versatile bench, which averaged a league-leading 45.6 points in the season and 49 in the conference final.
Parker, who went out with a sore left ankle, is the Spurs’ most important player. But no one on that team is indispensable. They went 11-3 without Parker during the regular year. They’re a great passing team, with half a dozen guys who can initiate the offense.
Manu Ginobili, who turns 37 in July, played like he was 27 in Game Six. So did 32-year-old Boris Diaw, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward with the passing and shooting skills of a point guard. Danny Green and Kawhi Lenard, the young guns, have returned to the peak level of last year’s playoffs. Lenard had four steals. The Spurs, playing their splendid help defense, had 15 steals and forced Durant into a key turnover at the end.
Now the Spurs get what they’ve been shooting for since they gagged in Game Six last June 18 – a rematch with Miami. San Antonio, which won four NBA titles in Duncan’s first nine seasons, has been in quest of a fifth ring since sweeping the Cavs (and James) in the 2007 Finals.
Miami is looking to become the first team to win three straight titles since the Lakers from 2000-02.
The Heat is the first team to reach four straight championship series since the Celtics from 1984-87.
As an unabashed Spurs fan, it’s the series I wanted, too. Duncan is my favorite player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. I want him to get one more ring before he retires. I also love the idea of LeBron James, the best player in the game, standing in his way.
I’ll get some arguments on this, but this Finals features two of the five best players in NBA history. Duncan is the best power forward ever. He’s never played on a team that didn’t win 50 games (aside from a 37-13 record in a lockout year).
James belongs on anyone’s top five at this point. There’s never been a player like him. He’s a great scorer who can defend all five positions on the floor, a huge advantage in the playoffs. He can handle the ball or take guys into the low post. The whole offense flows through him.
Like Jordan, James creates easy shots for his teammates.
Opposing defenses have to respect him when he attacks the rim. So players like Ray Allen and Shane Battier become heroes by making open threes in the clutch, same as Steve Kerr and John Paxson in Jordan’s day.
Jordan was a great perimeter defender. James can guard point guards and defend the rim. In each of the last two Eastern Conference finals games against the Pacers, he chased down point guard George Hill on a breakaway and blocked his shot from behind.
Because the Heat have their “Big Three” of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there’s a belief that LeBron has a better supporting cast than Jordan did. I disagree. I believe Jordan had better players around him, particularly the front-court defenders.
I’m not saying James is better than Jordan (and I consider Magic Johnson the best ever). But it’s certainly up for debate. The Heat are a flawed team. Bosh is a good player, but when people call him a Hall of Famer, I’m ready to kick in the TV set. If I had to choose between Bosh and Kawhi Lenard, I’d take Lenard in a second.
Miami has smart, resourceful supporting players. But the Spurs are better.
Lenard was the second-best player in the Finals last year, and he’s a year older. If Parker is healthy, the Spurs are the clear favorite. If not, they have problems. It won’t be as easy to create open shots against a tough Miami defense that has trouble with quick guards.
I like the Spurs. They have the home court this year and four days’ rest for the opener.
The format is back to 2-2-1-1-1, so the Heat won’t have the home edge if the series gets to 2-2, as the Spurs did last season. The Spurs are better overall than a year ago. The Heat, who miss Mike Miller, aren’t as strong.
Of course, it’s always dangerous to underestimate James.
He has taken his game to another level the last two or three years. It’s hard to believe he was dismissed as a playoff choker just three years ago.
Losing this series won’t necessarily diminish James as an all-time great. But winning a third straight title will add to his legacy and further build his case as a candidate for the best player of all time.
So toss up the basketball. I’m not sure I can wait three more days.