Miami and San Antonio meet in the NBA Finals for the first time starting Thursday, but Heat superstar LeBron James has been here before, six years ago when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in four games by a Spurs team that won its fourth NBA title anchored by star center Tim Duncan.
Here are five questions about a Heat team looking to repeat in its third consecutive trip to the Finals and a Spurs team looking to get Duncan one more ring for his thumb:
Q Will the Spurs be rusty, or ready?
A They haven’t played in 10 days since sweeping Memphis in the Western Conference finals. The Heat beat Indiana in the East final’s Game 7 on Monday.
That’s three days, sports and mathematics fans.
“I’m ready to play now,” James told reporters Wednesday. “I would rather have the two days.”
While the Pacers and Heat slugged it out, the Spurs sat home, rested their old creaky bodies and observed.
“We learned a lot watching those games,” San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. “I can’t tell you what we got from that, but we learned a lot. Hopefully, it will help us.”
Q Did the Pacers provide the blueprint for beating the Heat?
A Yes and no.
Big Roy Hibbert demonstrated during the Eastern Conference finals what most everybody suspected all along: If you’re going to challenge Miami, you’ll do it with height, length and muscle.
Hibbert, and frontcourt mate David West, provided some of all three.
The Spurs have size, but neither Tim Duncan nor Tiago Splitter is Hibbert, a 7-2 shot-blocker whose presence tested the Heat.
The Spurs, like the Heat, will spread the floor more, with Parker’s ball handling creating space for three-point shooters Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal and Matt Bonner.
“It’s going to be a little different,” said Heat center Chris Bosh, who struggled to find his way against the Pacers. “It’s kind of like our practices playing each other.”
Q Has it really been six years?
A Yes, it has.
James was just 22 then when his Cavaliers met the Spurs in the 2007 Finals.
That was then, this is…
“That was like ancient history,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He was basically a neophyte at the time, wondering how all this stuff worked and how it’s put together. We were very fortunate at that time to get him so early. At this point, he has grown. He doesn’t care what y’all say. He knows basketball better than everybody put together in this room. He goes and plays the game and does what’s necessary.
“So he’ll be a lot more of a problem than he was in ’07. That’s for sure.”
James now has one title ring and is working on collecting that handful he playfully promised when he and his talents left Cleveland for South Beach in 2010.
“A lot smarter, more experienced, older,” James said. “I think that’s the most important thing, I’ve matured as a basketball player.”
Q Will James defend Parker?
A You bet.
But who knows, he might defend Duncan some, too.
That’s why teammates call James “1 through 5,” a guy who felt snubbed when he didn’t win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year but still can — and will — guard everybody from point guard to center.
“We’ll see it how it plays out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s our Super Glue. Wherever we need to put him, he’ll make it work.”
Many other teams have put taller, bigger players on Parker, usually in futile attempts to counter his pick-and-roll precision and slow his attacks to the basket. But no other team has a defender as versatile as James.
“We’ll see if they are going to do that,” Parker said, “but I’m kind of used to it.”
Q So why does network TV still bother with those Popovich sideline interviews?
A Maybe making TNT, ESPN or ABC sideline reporters anxious and uncomfortable is just sport to him, but it’s obvious the Spurs coach doesn’t think he — or his brethren — should be asked to do television interviews during games and everything about his body language and terse answers say so.
So why continue with something so predictably painfully and uninformative?
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who might next season again be answering those sideline questions in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, suggests it might be more productive to interview the head referee or some common fan.
“I think it would just as interesting interviewing a random fan because they [the coaches] are just not into it,” Van Gundy said. “It’s almost become funny how short Gregg is. … They’re trying to get to their timeout huddle to do what their job is.”