A place among the greatest teams in NBA history is only four wins away for the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, but standing in the way of a “three-peat” is perhaps the team’s most difficult test of all.
The San Antonio Spurs are angry, they have played perfect basketball at times this season and, unlike last year, San Antonio has home-court advantage.
Oh, and did we mention the Spurs are angry?
Tim Duncan was despondent after the loss in Game 7 last year. He missed a layup, after all, that he thought cost the Spurs an NBA championship.
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio’s legendary coach, said he had recurring nightmares of Ray Allen’s famous 3-pointer in Game 6 long after the series was over.
The Spurs don’t think the Heat won the 2013 Finals so much as San Antonio just let it slip away.
“I think our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year,” 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 the Game 6 and not have a pity party and come back this year and get back to the same position, I think that’s fortitude.”
Fueled by a burning desire to avenge that collapse, the Spurs dispatched the league’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, and his Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, and now the stage is set for a rematch of that epic 2013 showcase that gave the sport one exciting finish after another.
“It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year,” Duncan said.
“But we’re back here. We’re excited about it. We’ve got four more to win.
“We’ll do it this time.”
It’s the first Finals rematch since the Bulls and Jazz met in 1997 and 1998, and this is the first championship series since 1984 to feature a 2-2-1-1-1 format.
For 29 years, the NBA Finals used a 2-3-2 format for its final round, but league owners voted for the change during the offseason. The reasoning: there was a widely held belief that the team with home-court advantage should host the pivotal Game 5.
The Heat lost Game 5 of 2013 Finals in San Antonio and needed back-to-back victories in Games 6 and 7 to win its second league title in a row.
Game 1 is Thursday and Game 2 is Sunday, both in San Antonio, before the series shifts to Miami for Games 3 (June 10) and 4 (June 12), both at AmericanAirlines Arena. A potential Game 5 would be played June 15 in San Antonio. Game 6 would be in Miami on June 17. San Antonio would host Game 7 on June 20.
This is the fourth consecutive trip to the Finals for the Heat, which defeated the Indiana Pacers in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics and Lakers are the only other franchises to reach four championships in a row.
“We don’t take this for granted, and hopefully our fans in Miami, our supporters don’t take this for granted neither,” Dwyane Wade said. “This is not something that happens every day. But we’ve worked as a unit. We sacrificed as individuals to be in this moment, in this position, so we understand where we’re at right now, but it’s still crazy, too.”
LeBron James, who has won the NBA Finals MVP Award two years in a row, said it’s difficult for him to fully appreciate the historical significance of the Heat’s multiyear run of greatness because he has been so focused on the current moment. Wade, on the other hand, enters his fifth Finals knowing he is standing at the threshold of sports immortality.
“I think we’ve all put ourselves in great situations, and we’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in because it’s an amazing moment,” Wade said. “It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to continue to add to what we’re accomplishing.”