Four storylines for the NBA finals
After the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan found a young LeBron James and told him "This is going to be your league in a little while. I appreciate you giving us this year."
It took more than a little while, but the Spurs star turned out to be right. LeBron was named league MVP in three of the last four years and won a championship with his new team the Miami Heat last year. Now six years on, he's back in the finals preparing to face the same Spurs stars that humiliated him back when he was with the Cavs. The matchup is the true test of Duncan's astute, if booze and euphoria-addled, prediction. Does the league really belong to LeBron now? Or can Duncan and his Spurs use their mix of intelligence, coaching and crafty old person skill to steal one more NBA championship trophy from the greatest player since Michael Jordan?
Which Dwyane Wade is going to show up?
The Heat's superstar shooting guard Dwyane Wade has been great these playoffs. He's also been terrible. He's getting a steal and flying in for a dunk. Then he's hobbling around like his legs are holding him hostage. It could be because he's actually having to adjust his kneecap back into place all the time.
Despite the injury, Wade was able to be effective in game 7 of the Heat's Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Indiana Pacers: Flying in for offensive rebounds, driving and cutting to the basket and sneaking into passing lanes.
The question is whether the Heat will be getting that same Wade for the finals. It depends on whether the glue keeping his left knee together holds out.
If he can't show up, a huge amount of responsibility is going to be resting on LeBron's shoulders. This series could start looking like 2007 all over again.
The veteran great vs the young upstart.
Not Duncan vs LeBron. This is about the coaches: Gregg Popovich vs Eric Spoelstra.
Popovich has won four NBA championships. His teams have won more than 50 games in 14 straight seasons. His play calling out of timeouts is so legendary that some say opposing teams should just give up a layup rather than waste their energy trying to play defence. Winning this championship will put him in the conversation with Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach as the greatest coach of all time.
Standing in his way is Spoelstra - a former video analyst/stats guy who worked his way through the ranks to become one of the youngest head coaches in league history. His 22-year age gap with Popovich is the largest in finals history. If he wins, it could signal a change in the coaching ranks.
There's also the front office match-up between Spurs GM RC Buford and the greasy Heat boss Pat Riley to think about. Buford does the boring stuff better than anyone else in the league. He manages the salary cap, unearths unloved overseas talent and finds improbable steals late in the draft or out of it completely. Riley put together the most flashy front office move in the history of the league when he brought LeBron, Wade and Bosh together in 2010. Having the two in the finals is the front office version of the race between the tortoise and the hare.
The battle of the superteams
On one side is a trio whose sustained success is the envy of the NBA. On the other is the trio who want to eclipse them.
The Spurs 'big three' of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have the best record in basketball, with three championships over the last decade despite a revolving cast of supporting players. They're also very old. Incredibly, that hasn't hampered them this postseason, where a 37-year-old Duncan is averaging 18 points and nine rebounds and Parker, 31, is contributing an excellent 23 points and seven assists per game. Even a slightly hobbled Ginobili (35) has put in an array of clutch shots, including a game-winning three pointer against the Golden State Warriors. It just remains to be seen whether they can keep up with the Heat, and especially the ultra-athletic LeBron, in a seven game series.
Meanwhile, the Heat are the NBA's reigning superteam. When Riley got his three superstars to sign, LeBron famously promised "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" championships. They have one. But going for their second, they're looking more vulnerable than anyone would have thought. Will they be able to overcome their injuries and weaknesses to beat a well-coached team of veterans and prove the NBA really does belong to LeBron now? Life's no fairytale.
Spurs in 7.