MIAMI (AP) - No more sitting out stars, and for the San Antonio Spurs, no more sitting around.
Finally, the NBA Finals matchup is set, and the Miami Heat will either win a second straight championship or the Spurs will go a perfect 5 for 5 in the title round while denying LeBron James a ring for the second time.
The Heat earned their third consecutive Eastern Conference title on Monday night, beating the Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of their series. So it’s Heat vs. Spurs for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, a series that will begin Thursday in Miami, on the same floor where the Heat and James finished off Oklahoma City to win last season’s title.
Miami is looking for its third championship, San Antonio its fifth. And for James, it’s a chance to erase a memory that has stung him for six years.
His first trip to the finals came when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, and it was ugly _ the Spurs winning in a four-game sweep for what was their fourth title. San Antonio has not won the West since, so maybe it’s fitting that its return comes against James, albeit with the now four-time MVP in a different uniform.
“Obviously, I needed more,” James said. “Our team, we were really good, but we weren’t great. And that was a great team. We lost to a better team. So I understand that we needed more. We continued to get better over the years, but we never got to that level.”
Four MVPs, two more finals trips and one ring _ and counting _ later, James‘ star level is now meteoric. He’ll have a chance to not only win consecutive championships, but consecutive regular-season and finals MVPs as well.
“The best player in the world,” is how Indiana coach Frank Vogel described James.
Miami won both games this season, though it’s doubtful much of anything worthwhile could be gleaned for the scouting reports from those contests. The Spurs sat four regulars in the first meeting, and drew a $250,000 fine from the NBA after coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to send Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tony Parker home before the game and at the end of a long road trip.
Predictably, Popovich’s decision was immediately subject to scrutiny, and he even joked in his pregame media availability that night that the crowd of journalists around him resembled what he’d see in an NBA Finals setting.
Which, come Wednesday when both teams will practice in Miami, is exactly what Popovich will see. It’ll be a finals that have a clash of on-court, off-court and even cultural styles. The Heat play a flashier brand of basketball, have stars who are some of the world’s best-known _ and best-paid _ endorsers of products, and have had no choice but to embrace a constant spotlight.
The Spurs, meanwhile, seem to revel in shunning any sort of extra attention.
“I wouldn’t say we avoid the attention, but I don’t think we’re out seeking it,” Spurs forward Matt Bonner said. “Our team culture starts with our leadership, guys like Timmy and Coach Pop, that we focus on ourselves and what we need to do to complete the task, get the job done. Whatever attention we get outside of that, I don’t think we run from it, but we’re not out seeking it. At least, I think so. I hope so.”