MIAMI — No more sitting out stars, and for the San Antonio Spurs, no more sitting around.
Finally, the NBA Finals matchup is set, and the Miami Heat will either win a second straight championship or the Spurs will go a perfect 5-for-5 in the title round while denying LeBron James a ring for the second time.
The Heat earned their third consecutive Eastern Conference title on Monday night, beating the Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of their series. So it’s Heat vs. Spurs for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, a series that will begin Thursday in Miami, on the same floor where the Heat and James finished off Oklahoma City to win last season’s title.
Miami is looking for its third championship, San Antonio its fifth. And for James, it’s a chance to erase a memory that has stung him for six years.
His first trip to the finals came when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, and it was ugly — the Spurs winning in a four-game sweep for what was their fourth title. San Antonio has not won the West since, so maybe it’s fitting that its return comes against James, albeit with the now four-time MVP in a different uniform.
“Obviously, I needed more,” James said. “Our team, we were really good, but we weren’t great. And that was a great team. We lost to a better team. So I understand that we needed more. We continued to get better over the years, but we never got to that level.”
When that series was over, Spurs forward Tim Duncan approached James in a quiet moment and offered some words of encouragement about his budding superstardom.
Four MVPs, two more finals trips and one ring — and counting — later, James’ star level is now meteoric. He’ll have a chance to not only win consecutive championships, but consecutive regular-season and finals MVPs as well.
“The best player in the world,” is how Indiana coach Frank Vogel described James.
When the Heat and Spurs play on Thursday night, it will mark their third meeting of the season. It may as well be the first.
Miami won both games this season, though it’s doubtful much of anything worthwhile could be gleaned for the scouting reports from those contests. The Spurs sat four regulars in the first meeting, and drew a $250,000 fine from the NBA after coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to send Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tony Parker home before the game and at the end of a long road trip.
Predictably, Popovich’s decision was immediately subject to scrutiny, and he even joked in his pregame media availability that night that the crowd of journalists around him resembled what he’d see in an NBA Finals setting.
Which, come Wednesday when both teams will practice in Miami, is exactly what Popovich will see. It’ll be a finals that have a clash of on-court, off-court and even cultural styles. The Heat play a flashier brand of basketball, have stars who are some of the world’s best-known — and best-paid — endorsers of products, and have had no choice but to embrace a constant spotlight.
The Spurs, meanwhile, seem to revel in shunning any sort of extra attention.
“I wouldn’t say we avoid the attention, but I don’t think we’re out seeking it,” Spurs forward Matt Bonner said. “Our team culture starts with our leadership, guys like Timmy and Coach Pop, that we focus on ourselves and what we need to do to complete the task, get the job done. Whatever attention we get outside of that, I don’t think we run from it, but we’re not out seeking it. At least, I think so. I hope so.”
When the teams met in San Antonio in late March, Miami’s 27-game winning streak — the second-best run in NBA history — had just ended, so the Heat kept James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers out while dealing with injuries. And Miami prevailed anyway behind Chris Bosh, who hit a late 3-pointer to seal an 88-86 victory.
Nobody will be resting anybody on Thursday night. The Spurs, who will have been idle for more than a week by the time Game 1 starts, finally know who stands in their way.
“I think the latter part of these days are kind of getting kind of long,” Duncan said Monday. “But good preparation, good recovery time, all that stuff. Just anxious to know our opponent and start preparing for them.”
The Spurs have been going live in practice, trying their best to stay sharp.
“It’s just long. It’s long,” Parker said of the layoff. “Wish we could play like right now.”
Soon enough, he’ll get his wish.