The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs collide in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
Presumably, everybody plays.
The Heat swept a bizarre two-game series with the Spurs this season, although those results mean nothing when calculating how the teams match up because their best players never faced each other.
In a 105-100 loss at Miami on Nov. 29, San Antonio played without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green after coach Gregg Popovich sent them home.
They weren’t injured.
They were simply tired, Popovich said, after a road-heavy opening month of the season, and it was his job to protect them during the grind of an 82-game schedule.
Commissioner David Stern was not amused that four San Antonio starters needed to rest at the same time and missed a game televised by TNT. He fined the Spurs $250,000 for failing to provide proper notification and justification for the absences of its star players.
Four months later, it was Miami’s turn.
When the Heat made their only visit to San Antonio on March 31, coach Erik Spoelstra rested starters LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers.
All were injured — wink, wink — and needed to begin getting ready for the playoffs, according to Spoelstra.
Popovich reacted with mock anger after hearing Miami’s stars were resting.
“… There’s no place for that,” he said.
Despite missing James, Wade and Chalmers, Miami finished a sweep of the season series with an 88-86 victory.
Fast-forward to the present, when the teams renew their rivalry in Game 1 of a highly anticipated NBA Finals that has two possible results: San Antonio will win its fifth championship since 1999 or Miami will capture its second straight title.
The Heat, who won 66 games during the regular season, are heavily favored despite being severely tested in the Eastern Conference finals. Miami needed seven games to eliminate Indiana.
In the West, on the other hand, San Antonio swept past Memphis and has been waiting 10 days for the Finals to start. The rest could help a team with a veteran core like the Spurs, but it could also rob them of the crispness and execution they exhibited while overwhelming the Grizzlies.
Miami and San Antonio must control the other’s star player.
James averaged 29 points against Indiana — a huge number considering the slow pace and grinding tempo that characterized most of those seven games.
The Spurs are counting on second-year forward Kawhi Leonard to slow James.
“It’s just a great challenge for me — trying to help my team win by playing good defense on him,” Leonard told reporters this week. “I’ll just accept the challenge and [be] ready to play.”
For Miami, its defense must target Parker. He averages 23 points a game in the playoffs and is the catalyst of an offense predicated on a high pick-and-roll that scrambles the opposition and produces open shots from the 3-point line.
NBA Finals analysis
Game 1 • Thursday, at Miami, 7 p.m.
Game 2 • Sunday, at Miami, 6 p.m.
Game 3 • June 11, at San Antonio, 7 p.m.
Game 4 • June 13, at San Antonio, 7 p.m.
x-Game 5 • June 16, at San Antonio, 6 p.m.
x-Game 6 • June 18, at Miami, 7 p.m.
x-Game 7 • June 20, at Miami, 7 p.m.
All time MT
Road to the Finals
First round • Defeated Milwaukee, 4-0
East semifinals • Defeated Chicago, 4-1
East finals • Defeated Indiana, 4-3
First round • Defeated the L.A. Lakers, 4-0
West semifinals • Defeated Golden State, 4-2
West finals • Defeated Memphis, 4-0
LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard
James is the most dominant player in basketball. He gives the Heat a huge advantage against any opponent because his size, strength and inside-outside ability make him an impossible individual matchup. The Spurs will likely throw several defenders at him. But Leonard, the second-year player from San Diego State, will likely draw James most of the time. He’ll try to keep him away from the basket, contest his jump shots and force the ball out of his hands at the most crucial times. In the conference finals, James scored at least 30 points in four of the seven games and averaged 29 for the series. He must be as productive against San Antonio. If he isn’t, Leonard will have done his job and the Spurs will be difficult to beat.
Gregg Popovich has guided San Antonio to four championships since 1999. Under Erik Spoelstra, Miami is playing in its third straight NBA Finals and seeking its second straight title. Popovich did one of his best jobs this season, when top-four scorers Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili missed a total of 75 games because of injuries. The Spurs still won 58 games during the regular season. Spoelstra guided the Heat to 66 victories, including a 27-game winning streak. He counts heavily on LeBron James, of course, but his ability to keep veterans like Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Shane Battier content with limited roles is something that should not be overlooked. If Popovich has one advantage in this series, it involves the Spurs’ depth. San Antonio is deeper than Miami, allowing Popovich a greater opportunity to mix and match his players and throw different-sized lineups at the Heat.
There are two primary X-factors at play in this series. First, will the Spurs be rested or rusty after a 10-day layoff between their sweep of Memphis in the Western Conference finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals? The Jazz faced a similar situation in 1998. They never returned to the razor-sharp form they exhibited while sweeping Shaquille O’Neal and the 61-win Lakers before losing to Chicago in the Finals for the second straight year. Second, how much will Miami get from Dwyane Wade, who has been bothered by a sore knee? He averaged 15.4 points in the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, including 21 in Game 7. But the Heat’s No. 2 option on offense is not 100 percent and has struggled at times to find his shot and defend.
Miami wins if • LeBron James dominates and gets more help from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh than he got in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat must also continue to play excellent team defense, as they have against Milwaukee, Chicago and Indiana. None of those teams, however, is as versatile or efficient on offense as the Spurs.
San Antonio wins if • Tony Parker can’t be controlled. The veteran point guard is a master of creating open shots for himself and others while quarterbacking the Spurs’ high pick-and-roll. When Parker gets into the paint, he forces the defense to scramble and San Antonio’s stable of 3-point shooters get open looks. When those shots fall, the Spurs are unstoppable.
Who will win • Spurs in six.