Here’s the NBA Finals in one sentence: It’s the best player in the league against the best coach in the league.
It’s LeBron James against Gregg Popovich, the four-time MVP against a coach with four championships.
When the Heat and Spurs square off Thursday at Amer-icanAirlines Arena in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the best-of-7 series will feature plenty of compelling story lines, but all will be secondary to the king on the court versus the league’s reigning king of coaches.
James has idolized Popovich for years — ever since a 22-year-old phenom for the Cleveland Cavaliers willed his young and inexperienced team to the 2007 Finals only to be completely eviscerated by Popovich and his seemingly eternal core of stars: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Duncan won his first NBA title in 1999. Remember the Duncan and David Robinson days? Duncan, now 37 years old, has won four NBA championships.
Parker, the 30-year-old Frenchman, was named Finals MVP against James’ Cavs in 2007. In the Spurs’ sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, Parker never looked better. He led San Antonio with 24.5 points and 9.5 assists per game.
Naturally, getting a second shot at Popovich and the Spurs’ Big 3 brings extra meaning to James’ fourth appearance in the Finals. Then 22 years old, James averaged 22.0 points per game in the series. His ability showed but so did his inexperience. He averaged 6.8 assists per game to go along with 5.8 turnovers.
“First of all, I think our team is more experienced,” James said. “My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did.
“I think for this team, this is our third year advancing to the Finals. So we’re very experienced as well. We’re not young; we’re not inexperienced. … And I’m a much better player. I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
James let Monday’s Game 7 victory against the Pacers marinate before shifting his full attention to the Spurs. The Heat didn’t hold a formal practice Tuesday, but preparation for the Finals went into overdrive for the Heat’s coaching staff and support personnel a few hours after the Heat defeated Indiana 99-76 at AmericanAirlines Arena to earn its third Eastern Conference championship banner in three years.
“I’m definitely going to savor this for my friends and my family,” James said during Monday’s postgame news conference. “And deciding what we do as a team [Tuesday], I’ll start to get back into the books and get back into the film on a team that’s very good, very disciplined, well-coached.
“They’ve got a bunch of Hall of Famers, so I look forward to the challenge, but I’m not quite there yet mentally, because I’m not going to take it for granted what we were able to accomplish.”
The Heat defeated the Spurs twice during the regular season, but good luck trying to analyze the Finals based on those results. It’s pointless. The Spurs rested starters in the first meeting and the Heat returned the favor March 31 in San Antonio. It’s almost like both teams knew all along that they would be meeting up in the Finals and neither side wanted to give away any secrets.
In the first game of the regular season between the Heat and Spurs, Popovich traveled to Miami without Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Danny Green, the team’s three-point specialist. Despite not playing with its top six scorers, the Spurs nearly upset the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Just as inexplicable, the Heat defeated the Spurs in San Antonio despite resting Dwyane Wade and James. For the season finale between the two teams, the Spurs featured their full complement of players and Chris Bosh made a game-winning three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left.
The Spurs have been waiting around for a week for the Eastern Conference finals to end and will have rested nine days when the Finals begins. Of course, don’t assume that’s an advantage for San Antonio. After all, the Heat had plenty of rest before its Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Bulls and still managed to lose Game 1. The Bulls had only one day between series.
“That’s a hell of a team over there,” said Wade, who has averaged more than 24 points per game in his career against San Antonio. “We’re going to have to make adjustments every game, throughout the series. We’re going to see something different that we ain’t seen.”
And so will everyone else. This is the first time the Heat and Spurs have met in an NBA Finals.