Timeline of how the Heat and Spurs returned to the NBA Finals

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It has been quite the trek for the Heat and Spurs since last year's epic seven-game NBA Finals series. We recap their seasons and what had to happen for each team to return to the brink of the promised land.

SB Nation 2014 NBA Playoff Bracket

The San Antonio Spurs had the Larry O'Brien Trophy in their sights in the final minute of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, but two missed free throws and a failure to secure a defensive rebound led to Ray Allen's famous game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime. The Heat prevailed and LeBron James went on to deliver a tour de force performance in Game 7 to give Miami its second consecutive NBA title.

Following the gut-wrenching defeat, questions swirled around the Spurs about their future. Was it the end of the line for the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? How would the team respond to such a heartbreaking loss?

Meanwhile, with a second straight championship and third consecutive Finals appearance, the Heat were on the verge of a dynasty. Even so, they had their own questions about their future. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh faced the possibility of a final season playing together due to early termination options in their contracts. The supporting cast surrounding The Big Three wasn't getting any younger, and Wade's own health was a concern after he played through a knee injury.

But one year later, the Spurs and Heat are back for our first rematch Finals since 1998. How did these two juggernauts return to the Finals? Let's take a look.

Ginobili, Splitter ink new deals

Ginobili and Tiago Splitter had their issues in last year's postseason, especially against Miami. Ginobili scored in single digits in four of the seven games and he had eight turnovers and a clutch missed free throw in the crucial Game 6. Splitter barely made any impact, totaling just 36 minutes in the last four games.

But retaining both players was a priority for Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, and Buford got the job done. Ginobili signed a two-year contract worth $14.5 million, while Splitter inked a four-year, $36 million contract.

Ginobili did deal with some injuries this year, but when he did play, his presence was a boon for San Antonio. When Ginobili was on the court in the regular season, the Spurs posted a superb 112.4 offensive rating, per NBA.com's stats page. Ginobili's stellar campaign earned him third place in the Sixth Man of the Year voting. The 36-year-old also has performed much better in this postseason compared to last year.

Splitter only played 59 games in the regular season due to injury, but he was key to the Spurs' defense when he was on the court. San Antonio gave up just 94.5 points per 100 possessions when Splitter was in the game during in the regular season, according to NBA.com's stats page.

In addition to re-signing Ginobili and Splitter, the Spurs also signed Marco Belinelli to a two-year deal to replace Gary Neal. In typical Spurs fashion, Belinelli put forth the best season of his career, averaging 11.4 points and shooting 43.0 percent from long range.

Heat bring back Birdman, amnesty Miller

The Heat picked up Chris Andersen off the scrap heap in January 2013, and Birdman went on to become a key cog in the rotation, providing sorely needed depth up front. Andersen shot over 80 percent in last year's playoffs,and he also offered up solid defense and rebounding.

Miami knew keeping Andersen around was a must, so they inked him to a cheap deal with a player option on the second year. The big man again played extremely well this year, doing much of the dirty work the Heat needed him to do with not many other quality frontcourt options on the roster.

While the Heat did bring back Andersen, they did lose Mike Miller. Miller actually started several games in the Finals and did this:

Shoelessmikemiller

But due to a large luxury tax bill, Miami chose to use the amnesty clause on the veteran shooter to save some cash. The Heat owed Miller nearly $13 million over the final two seasons of his contract, so waiving him via amnesty saved about $17 million in luxury tax money.

Heat take chances on former top picks

Looking to round out the roster, the Heat turned to several former high drafts picks that haven't exactly panned out. In early August, Miami signed the oft-injured Greg Oden, who hadn't played an NBA game since late 2009 due to a slew of knee injuries. Getting back on the court was a major accomplishment in itself, but save for some garbage time in the series clinching victory over Indiana, Oden has barely made an impact.

The other "high profile" minimum signing was Michael Beasley, who was selected No. 2 by the Heat in 2008. Beasley's NBA career has been littered with problems, and although he showed some flashes of his once highly touted talent, he too has been stapled to the bench in the playoffs.

The Spurs start hot, but struggle against elite

The Spurs came out and almost immediately washed the bad taste of the Finals out of their mouth, winning 13 out of 14 games to start the year. The only loss was to the Portland Trail Blazers, a team San Antonio would later extinguish in the postseason.

The Spurs exited November with a 14-3 record, and December saw plenty of the same results, in addition to a bit of weirdness. San Antonio and the Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to play a game in Mexico City in early December, but the contest was postponed due to smoke clouding the court after a circuit shorted in the arena's generator room.

The Spurs finished the month of December with a record of 25-7, but despite the sterling mark, there were some concerns about the struggles against other elite teams. The seven losses included two apiece to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, as well as lone losses to the Blazers, Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers.

Spurs survive despite injuries

Gregg Popovich usually does a good job keeping his team fresh and mostly healthy, but the Spurs did deal with quite a few injuries this year. In January and February alone, Parker, Ginobili, Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all missed multiple games with various maladies.

For most teams, missing so many key players would result in a bunch of losses. But this is the Spurs we're talking about, so there was almost no setback. San Antonio went 17-9 combined in January and February, and when the team finally got healthy, things really took off.

19 in a row

After a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 21, the Spurs embarked on a stretch of dominance akin to the Heat's impressive run in 2013. San Antonio won 19 games in a row from Feb. 26 to April 2 before losing to the Thunder on April 3.

During the streak, San Antonio won 14 games by double-digits, including a destruction of the Heat and beatdowns of the Pacers and Golden State Warriors. The Spurs scored 111.2 points per game during the streak, shooting 49.5 percent overall and a scorching hot 42.9 percent from three-point range. San Antonio was also dominant defensively throughout the run, giving up just 94.4 points per game.

The Heat's season-ending lull

Miami had a better record than San Antonio going into March, but while the Spurs spent that month winning every single game, the Heat stumbled. Miami went just 10-8 in the month, including a three-game losing streak and five losses in six games. One of those defeats was a 24-point loss in San Antonio.

The struggles continued into the final month of the year, as the Heat went 3-6 in April and lost out on home-court advantage to Indiana. Wade did miss extended time over the final month of the year and some players rested during the final games, but Miami did appear vulnerable.

Saving Wade

Due to deteriorating knees, people have been expecting Wade's demise for several years. With this in mind, the Heat entered this season with a plan to preserve the star guard by giving him time off whenever necessary. Wade played just 54 games, and he missed nine straight contests when the Heat struggled in March and April.

But the plan appears to have worked out, as Wade remained especially effective when he did suit up. Wade's scoring output was his lowest since his rookie season, but he was as efficient as ever, shooting a career-high 54.5 percent from the field in the regular season. The 32-year-old, at least to this point, has also been better in this year's playoffs than he was last year, averaging 18.7 points on 51.9 percent shooting.

LeBron superb despite being dethroned

James had arguably the best year of his career in 2012-13, posting a PER over 31 while notching career-highs in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebounds per game. For an encore, James delivered more of the same brilliance we've come to expect. After shooting a career-best 56.5 percent in 2012-13, James bested that by shooting 56.7 percent this season. He posted a true shooting percentage of 64.9 percent, also a new career-high. The two-time reigning MVP did take a step back in some other areas, including defense, but that could have been a product of some "cruising" throughout the year.

Per usual, James had his share of scintillating highlights, including monstrous dunks and clutch game-winners:

Lebrongw

There was also the epic duel against Kevin Durant, the man who dethroned James as the league's MVP:


In most years, James' season would have earned him the MVP. The fact that Durant won is a testament to just how phenomenal his own season was. But the way the postseason has played out, there's still little doubt who the best player in the world is.

Spurs tested early in postseason, get revenge on Thunder

The Spurs entered the postseason with a league-best record of 62-20, but they received a surprisingly stiff test from the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the opening round. San Antonio went down 2-1 in the series and faced a Game 7 at home, only to destroy the Mavs in that deciding game.

The second round proved to be easier, as the Spurs pulled off the most gentlemanly of gentleman's sweeps against Portland. San Antonio won the first three games of the series by a combined 56 points, and after the Blazers nabbed Game 4, the Spurs won Game 5 by 22 points to set up a matchup against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Oklahoma City had been a thorn in San Antonio's side for several years. The Thunder beat the Spurs in the 2012 West Finals, winning four straight after losing the first two. Oklahoma City also won all four regular-season meetings this year.

However, San Antonio caught a break at the outset of the series, as Serge Ibaka appeared to be out for the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury. The Spurs picked apart the Thunder in the first two games, only to see Ibaka make a surprise return in Game 3. With Ibaka back in the lineup, the Spurs struggled offensively, losing the next two games and going back to San Antonio with the series tied 2-2.

Back in the comforts of the AT&T Center, the Spurs found their groove in Game 5, winning by 28 points. Game 6 was the first close game of the series, and it was the Spurs who came out ahead in a thrilling overtime affair despite Parker missing the second half with an ankle injury. The wild contest featured some exceptional Spursian ball movement:

Diaw3

Heat beat Pacers again

Miami had little problem dispatching the Charlotte Bobcats (RIP) in the first round of the playoffs, winning all four games and three by double-digits with Charlotte's best player, Al Jefferson, limping around on an injured foot. That set up a second-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, who beat the Heat all four times in the regular season.

But Miami took care of business against Brooklyn in five games, with James scoring 49 points in a Game 4 victory and the Heat executing a furious late rally in Game 5 to advance. Miami became the first team in NBA history to win a playoff series against an opponent that had won all four regular-season matchups, a feat that was matched by San Antonio against Oklahoma City.

By beating the Nets, a rematch against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals was set. The Pacers rose to the challenge in Game 1, looking like their early-season selves in an impressive 107-96 win. However, the success was short-lived, as the Heat pulled out a hard-fought Game 2 and then went on to win Games 3 and 4 rather handily.

Miami did suffer a slight hiccup in Game 5, with James putting forth one of his more forgettable performances and Lance Stephenson annoying the Heat with hijinks like this:

Blow

But James and the Heat responded in the best way possible, dominating Game 6 to become the first team since the 1980s Celtics to go to four straight NBA Finals. Miami has done it with offense this postseason, posting an offensive rating of 113.7. That's the highest offensive rating of a team to make the Finals since the 1991 Chicago Bulls posted a 114.8 offensive rating heading into the championship round, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

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