We don't know much about how the Spurs and Heat will play each other in the Finals. Both teams rested significant players in their two regular-season meetings, and there are few conclusions to draw from either matchup.
We do know that it will be nothing like the conference finals. Long gone are the giant behemoths in the paint like Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert, as well as the shaky benches and streaky offenses that defined the Grizzlies and Pacers as much as their dominant defenses.
If the conference finals were age-old battles of sluggers versus finesse, the Heat and Spurs are more like two brilliant boxers with enough power to deliver convincing knockouts. There are remarkable similarities between the two teams and just enough differences to make for a compelling matchup, perhaps the best the league has to offer.
They were the two best shooting teams during the regular season, making liberal use of the three-pointer, especially from the corner. Neither team makes hitting the offensive glass a priority. Miami was a little better offensively, primarily because they get to the free-throw line at a much higher rate, while the Spurs were more stout on the defensive end thanks to a strong rebounding rate and an ability to keep teams off the line.
This not only feels like a long series, it feels like it will be an epic long series, complete with subtle adjustments from two of the league's savviest coaches. Beyond the X's and O's, there are legacies on the line, from LeBron James' quest for a second ring to Tim Duncan's push to get one for the thumb.
Both teams also faced unexpected challenges en route to the Finals. The Spurs were pushed to six games by the upstart Warriors, and we all know what the Heat just endured against Indiana. But these are the Finals that were meant to be and the ones we deserve to have.
Here's a look at a few of storylines, matchups and narratives that will define the next two weeks.
THE LAYOFF AND INJURIES
The last time the Spurs played was May 27, when they wrapped up their sweep of the Grizzlies on Memorial Day. In the interim, the Heat played four grueling games against the Pacers before finally emerging with a Game 7 triumph. No one in the NBA ever said rest was a bad thing, especially for a team like the Spurs that relies on several key older players. But when does rest turn into rust?
San Antonio was terrific when it had three days off between games, posting a 4-1 record during the regular season. The Spurs also won eight of nine with two days off between contests. But it will be ten days of rest before they see the court again in Thursday's Game 1. Coming off a week-long layover between the first and second round, they survived a double-overtime thriller against the Warriors.
It's ironic that Miami is the more beat-up of the two, considering that the Spurs entered the postseason with health questions for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but that's the cost of attrition after battling two of the league's most physical defenses in Chicago and Indiana.
Neither Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh appear to be anything close to 100 percent, but as we saw in the conference finals, LeBron only needs one of them to play at a high level to make the Heat operate at an elite level.
1. Let's start with the obvious. In Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have a young, aggressive defender to match up against LeBron. Leonard isn't in Paul George's class, but he is active and athletic. One-time Cavs teammate Danny Green can also slide over and guard James on occasion, but both are giving up a significant amount of size.
Beyond that, Gregg Popovich's options are limited. Pour one out for Stephen Jackson, who would have been a fascinating backup option.
Whoever draws the assignment will have their hands full trying to contain the league's best player, who is at the height of his powers. James has been sensational during the playoffs, averaging better than 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while shooting almost 40 percent from behind the arc.
It's on the defensive end where this gets intriguing. James waited until Game 7 to guard George and he shut him down completely. Until that point, he was primarily on Lance Stephenson, which allowed him to roam and conserve energy on defense. No doubt he'll spend most of his time checking Leonard, whose offensive game relies on corner threes and cuts to the basket.
The Heat have been reluctant to use James against some of the league's better point guards, as seen in their matchups against Rajon Rondo and the Celtics. But if Tony Parker goes off, James could be called upon to serve as the stopper in select spots.
2. Just as LeBron is the fulcrum around which the Heat operate, so is Parker for the Spurs. If you were constructing a playoff version of the All-NBA team, the point guard spot would belong to Parker, who has averaged 23 points and seven assists while shooting 48 percent.
Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have been solid during the postseason and the Heat don't need them to be any more than that, but they haven't faced anything like Parker in the earlier rounds. Miami's defense is at its best when it's aggressive and swarming, but Parker is a master at changing speeds and controlling tempo.
Parker will throw all manner of pick-and-rolls at Miami and test the Heat's coverages with pick-and-pop options and his own shot-making. Whoever controls the pace will have the upper hand.
3. After spending the last few weeks getting worked over by Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh must be feeling good about spending some time on a player more to his size. Oh wait. It's Tim Freaking Duncan, who put together a remarkable season at age 36.
Duncan has been very good during the postseason, but he doesn't have to be brilliant to carry the Spurs anymore. His defense remains stellar and his high-post passing is a work of art. He can work out of the post or up high as a release valve for Parker. Tiago Splitter isn't Hibbert, but he's big and he's coming off an excellent conference finals.
Both Bosh and Udonis Haslem can draw the rim protectors away from the paint with their outside games, but they'll have to make shots to make the strategy work. Bad ankle and all, the Heat need more from Bosh. He hasn't had a vintage Bosh game in a month, when he went for 20 and 19 in a win over the Bulls.
4. If you don't know about Danny Green, you'd best get familiar. A second-round pick by the Cavaliers, Green appeared in just 28 games during his first two seasons, but he has emerged as a solid rotation player and is now a trusted starter for the Spurs. He's a classic Three-and-D player on the wing, but he has enough variety in his game to make him a tough matchup.
Green is making an excellent 43 percent of his shots from three-point range during the playoffs, and if the Spurs are going to emerge with the title, he'll have to continue knocking down open looks. Green figures to be matched up with Dwyane Wade, and it's a measure of how far Wade has fallen that this may not be an obvious mismatch. It still could be, and if Wade plays like he did in Game 7, this will be a major problem for San Antonio. But don't sleep on Danny Green. He may be the biggest X-factor in the series.
5. On the one hand, you have Manu Ginobili. On the other, you have Ray Allen. Two of the league's all-time greats playing out the final stages of their careers at something less than they were in their prime. Both are still dangerous, but consistency is a thing of the past. Joining them on the respective benches are shooters like Matt Bonner and Mike Miller and versatile forwards in Boris Diaw and Shane Battier.
This is where the matchups really get interesting. The Spurs are one of the few teams that can line up with Miami when it goes small, and both are filled with versatile players whose positions are undefined by design. Gregg Popovich is the master of this kind of thing, but Erik Spoelstra has been using his multiple lineups to great effect all season. This is the game within the game and a huge test for Spoelstra.
There is no need to make this any more complicated than it needs to be. The Spurs are back in the Finals for the first time in six years, when they took apart a gritty-but-undermanned Cavaliers team that relied heavily on the talents of a young LeBron James. This is a chance at redemption for LeBron, as well as the opportunity to join a select few who have won back-to-back titles.
We have seen during the playoffs just how thin the line is between a potential dynasty and an unmitigated disaster. No one knows that better than the Spurs, who have gamely stood the test of time while the rest of the league evolves and adapts to many of the advancements and nuances they created in their heyday.
Duncan has won four titles during his remarkable career, but it seemed like he would be deprived of a chance to make it five. This may be the last best chance for Duncan, Pop, Tony and Manu to win it. The Spurs have been heavy favorites in all but one of their other Finals appearances (2005, when they battled the defending champ Pistons through seven grueling games). This is by far the highest-profile matchup they have had.
There's a temptation to turn this into a contest between an organic collection of homegrown talent against the team that was literally created from nothing but convenience and cap space. But that sells the Heat short. We're three years into their existence and they have earned the right to stand on their own. They've overcome exhausting challenges before and have shown more heart and mettle than most people assumed they ever could.
This is as good as it gets. Despite some anxious moments, it's the Finals we were supposed to have all along.