The presence of Memphis, San Antonio and Indiana — three mid-market (at best) teams without a ton of over-arcing basketball history — as three of the conference finalists in this year’s postseason meant that we probably weren’t going to get a historically sexy matchup in this year’s NBA Finals. Still, of the potential Finals ABC execs were looking at, you’d have to think that Spurs-Heat was easily their first choice. It’s the pairing with the most combined stars, the most combined championships, and as far as I can tell, the most combined story lines. It’s not Lakers-Celtics or even Thunder-Heat, but given that it could’ve been a totally sexless Grizzlies-Pacers matchup (uhh, Mike Conley went to high school in Indiana? Both cities have a racing park? A fist fight might break out?), it’ll do.
So yeah, those story lines. Let’s review for Game 1 tomorrow.
1. Those classic regular-season no-show games.
Spurs-Heat Pt. 1 was already one of the most memorable games of the season before it even tipped off, with Gregg Popovich electrifying the hoops world with his controversial announced decision to not only rest four of his best players for the Spurs’ nationally televised game against the Heat in Miami (at the end of a long San Antonio road trip), but to send them home in advance of the rest of the team. Of course, the Spurs made things doubly interesting by actually making a game out of it, leading in the fourth quarter and being in it down to the final Gary Neal-suffocated minute. Then, the Heat returned fire in March by resting their own starters in San Antonio, though they left Chris Bosh in the lineup, who ended up having an awesome game and hit a last-minute three-pointer to win the game and shock the Spurs.
Aside from demonstrating to us how no two teams in the league are schemier — in either the sinister plotting sense or in the Xs and Os sense — than these two teams, the impact of these two regular season showdowns on the Finals are mostly two-fold:
1. We still have absolutely no idea what it looks like when these two teams play each other at full-strength, and, moreover, neither do any of the teams’ respective coaches and scouts.
2. We are going to have to endure a whole lot of “Pop resting starters” jokes on Twitter for four to seven games. Likely with diminishing returns.
2. LeBron James’ shot at vengeance against the Spurs.
The Heat have never played the Spurs in the playoffs, but of course, LeBron has. Before his ultimate anointment, King James and his Cavaliers got blitzed in four games by the Spurs in ’07, one of the least-exciting and least-watched Finals in NBA history. LeBron’s already gotten his vengeance against a number of the teams who have stood in his way over the years, namely the Pistons and the Celtics, but the Spurs — still the only (and very possibly the last) team to ever sweep LeBron in the playoffs — are no doubt still on his To Do list. “This is gonna be your league in a little while,” Tim Duncan memorably told LeBron after the ’07 crushing. “But I appreciate you giving us this year.”
Does six years count as a little while? Is LeBron still in a giving mood? Also worth noting: Timmy and the Spurs have never lost in the Finals, going 4-0 in their quartet of visits. Despite having won far more recently, LeBron is still just 1-2 for his career in the NBA’s boss stage. But in the immediate future, I don’t think it’s LeBron that Tim is really competing against for rings, if anyone…
3. Shaq vs. Duncan.
This doesn’t exactly leap off the page as far as rivalries for this series are concerned, considering that only one of them is actually an active player, but Shaq-Duncan is a real thing (at least from a historical perspective) that will definitely be mentioned throughout the series, probably by Shaq himself on NBA TV at some point. Actual quote from O’Neal from his days with the Celtics, talking about competing with Kobe for rings after the latter made some boasts after winning his fifth: “I don’t compete with little guards … Now if Tim Duncan said it, I’d be pissed. He’s the only guy I’m competing with. If Tim Duncan gets five rings, then that gives some writer the chance to say ‘Duncan is the best,’ and I can’t have that.”
Well, Duncan might be getting that chance this year, and only the Heat — who Shaq still carries a strong association with after helping win the franchise their first title in ’06, though as with all his former teams, he’s burned some bridges there — stand in their way. If the Spurs do win, and especially if they win because of their obvious size and rebounding advantage down low, I would strongly consider taking odds on Shaq attempting to squeeze into his old No. 32 jersey and offering Pat Riley his services for next season. You wouldn’t be totally shocked to see it happen, would you?
4. The Old Villains vs. The New.
It’s a little weird to think of the Spurs as the underdog in this series, since for so many years, they were basically the Evil Empire of the league, the NBA’s answer to the New England Patriots. They claimed four titles in nine years with cold, brutal efficiency, they beat up Steve Nash and the Rebel Alliance Suns a bunch of times, they always seemed to find a way to win against your favorite team. But it’s been six years now since they’ve won or even made the Finals, and so very much else has happened since. The Lakers and Celtics have come and gone, the Mavs, Grizzlies and Thunder have all supplanted them at various points, and of course, a new villain has emerged, LeBron ensuring with one ill-fated TV special that the Spurs would never be the league’s most-hated (or most-feared) team again.
So now, over a half-decade removed from their true era of dominance, here we have the Spurs again in the Finals, but now remembrances of their reign of terror have been washed over in sepia-toned nostalgia — like hearing a song on the radio which you grew to hate due to its ridiculous overexposure when it was popular, but listening to it for the first time in a little while, it makes you smile more than you’d expect. After all, you have so many memories attached to it, and hey, you know what? In retrospect, that song really wasn’t half bad.
5. Bandwagon full vs. Bandwagon empty.
If it wasn’t already, with Justin Bieber’s ridiculous appearance at Heat-Pacers Game 7, I’d say it became official that the Heat had replaced the Lakers as the league’s ultimate bandwagon team. There are going to be celebrities that you had no idea had any connection with either Miami or the sport of professional basketball showing up at the Triple A for Heat home games these Finals, in addition to your average Flo Ridas and Uncle Lukes of the world. By contrast, if anyone of even a Mike Epps-level of celebrity has showed up at a Spurs home game, it certainly wasn’t one that I was watching. Even the Grizzlies have the lurking threat of Three 6 Mafia or Justin Timberlake showing up at some point, but San Antone lacks even those humble aspirations. (One San Antonio site points out photographic proof that Tommy Lee Jones and George Strait have indeed attended Spurs games in the past, so some hope there, I suppose.)
To be fair, there are two big variables here. One is rapper Lil Wayne, who, having been kicked out of just about every high-profile NBA bandwagon there is (particularly with adopted hometown Miami, with whom I’d say he’s cut the cord pretty cleanly), might go crawling to the Spurs just for lack of remaining options. The other is multi-platform starlet Selena Gomez, who grew up in Texas, has rooted for the Spurs in the past, and of course, has reason to root against the teen heartthrob who just aligned himself with the opposition. Worth monitoring.
6. Some other miscellaneous notes:
Team strengths in common: Shooting (Miami and San Antonio finished Nos. 1 and 2 in FG% for the season, 2 and 4 in 3PT%).
Notable players to have played for both teams: Bruce Bowen, Steve Smith, Kurt Thomas, Brent Barry, Terry Porter.
Opposing players who used to be teammates: Danny Green and LeBron James (Cavs, ’09-’10), Matt Bonner and Chris Bosh (Raptors, ’04-’06), and most interestingly, Matt Bonner and both Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (University of Florida, natch, ’99-’02).
Best regular season highlight between the two teams: Probably this Kawhi Leonard dunk on Udonis Haslem.
An almost-interesting note about team history: The largest margin of victory for both teams in a regular season match between the two is 30 points. Two such victories happened within 10 days of one another, when on March 4th of 2011, the Spurs beat the Heat 125-95, then on March 14th, the Heat returned the favor with a 110-80 beatdown. For what it’s worth, those were also the only two games the teams have ever played with all six stars (Parker/Ginobili/Duncan and Bosh/LeBron/Wade) active at the same time.
The only song I could find that mentions both San Antonio and Miami: Sir Mix a Lot’s “Jump On It.“