Last year, we saw the San Antonio Spurs cruise their way into the playoffs. They won ten in a row down the stretch and 21 of their last 23. They faced Utah in the first round, and ran through them in four games. The hungry Los Angeles Clippers were up next, but somebody forgot to tell San Antonio that they were supposed to be afraid, and the Spurs swept them too.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs took on the young Oklahoma City Thunder, who made it to their first Conference Finals in their brief, but successful, stint since moving from Seattle.
San Antonio won the first two games at home against the the Thunder and all of a sudden, the Spurs looked like their dominion was in full force. Once again, it looked like Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were primed for another title shot.
Then, something funny happened.
The Thunder took the next four games from the Spurs, led by the athleticism of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the steady scoring of Kevin Durant and the clutch shooting by one of the best bench players in recent history, James Harden.
What happened to the Spurs? How did they go from winners of 18 straight to losers of four straight in the blink of an eye?
The loss was a combination of things. It was about Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka’s maturation as a group. The group was the second best team in the league last year. If those four would have stayed together this year, all wearing the same color, all with subtle improvements to their game, they would have had a second showdown with Miami. The only difference being that this year, it would be a fair fight.
Fortunately for the Houston Rockets (and much to the delight of this particular writer), Oklahoma City traded Harden before the beginning of the regular season, and Russell Westbrook went down in the playoffs, giving the Spurs a much easier path to the NBA Finals.
Fast-forward to today, as every NBA fan anxiously awaits Game 3 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio, with the series knotted at one game apiece. We saw the Spurs take Game 1 by taking care of the ball, playing their usual brand of (as close to perfect as you can possibly get in the NBA) basketball.
Then we saw Miami take Game 2 on the heels of a second-half run that rendered the Spurs—and everyone watching—amazed. Miami looked quicker, younger, more athletic and downright better than the Spurs in the second half: They flipped the switch.
The same switch they flipped last year after game five against Boston. The same switched they flipped in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals this year against Indiana. The switch they never turned off during the NBA Finals last year.
Is the combination of LeBron James’ excellence, Dwyane Wade’s quickness and spurts of scoring, the rest of the rotation's individual defense, help defense, floor spacing and three-point shooting too much for Tim, Tony and Manu at this point in their careers?
Is this Heat team going to run through the Spurs as quickly as the Thunder did last year?
Are the adjustments by Eric Spoelstra from Game 1 to Game 2 going to dictate the outcome of this series?
What’s Greg Popovich’s counterpunch? How do Duncan and Ginobili recover from their miserable performances?
Right now, there are more questions than answers.
Don’t think for a second that if San Antonio falls tonight, their minds don’t wander towards the 2012 Western Conference Finals, where they saw the wheels come flying off after having early control of the series.
Don’t think that Miami isn’t going to get San Antonio’s best punch tonight in this crucial Game 3.
This is why we wait all year for the Finals. This is what it’s all about.
Some say San Antonio is a superior team while others say Miami is the best. After seeing Harden go to Houston, I didn’t see anyone in the league who could beat Miami—a field of teams that obviously included San Antonio—and I still don’t.
I’m sure someone uttered something similar in 2003 about the Lakers though, when the Lakers were going for number four. Timmy and the Spurs placed a ring on their finger after that season too.
This is why they play the games, folks.