Two teams that were built to win will meet in the NBA Finals when Miami Heat defend their title against San Antonio Spurs in a classic match-up between some of the league’s most experienced talent.
The Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and their quality supporting cast, will start as odds-on favourites but the Spurs are the perfect example of the benefits of continuity.
For the Spurs, 37-year-old Tim Duncan is aiming for a fifth championship, having been part of San Antonio’s triumphs in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Frenchman Tony Parker and Argentine Manu Ginobili were part of those last three championship teams, providing a veteran core for the Spurs.
While some of the teams who were defeated in the playoffs, such as the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, can console themselves with the knowledge their young squads have at least learned lessons for the future, the two finalists will be able to take no consolation from defeat.
The Heat are in their third straight finals, having lost to Dallas in 2011 and beaten the Thunder last year, but such a feat was expected of them – and indeed promised – when they acquired James and Bosh in free agency in 2010.
For James, the meeting with the Spurs, which begins with Thursday’s game in Miami, will be the second time he has come up against them in an NBA Finals. He played on the Cleveland Cavaliers team that lost to the Spurs in 2007.
“My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did,” said James.
“This is our third final. So we’re very experienced as well. We’re not young, we’re not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have and I’m a much better player.
“I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
Inevitably, so much of the focus in the best-of-seven series will be on the performance of James, the league’s most valuable player and one of the greatest in the game’s history.
But as the Pacers showed by pushing the Heat to a game seven, the Heat can be beaten when James does not get the support he needs from his team mates.
Wade is playing through pain with a knee injury that weakened his presence until a stellar display in the deciding game and Bosh has not delivered quite the level of consistency expected of him.
While the series promises numerous tactical challenges for both teams, the outcome is likely to come down to the straightforward issue of how effective the Spurs can be in stopping James.
Duncan and Brazilian Tiago Splitter, both 6 feet 11 inches (2.11 metres), provide the basket protection while Kawhi Leonard is likely to be charged with main duties in restricting James.
On the offensive side, Miami knows full well the threat that Tony Parker presents, particularly off the dribble, and one of the keys will be how he copes with the physical attention he will receive from the Heat.
On the coaching side, Gregg Popovich has masterminded all four of the Spurs titles since 1999 and is arguably the league’s finest tactician.
Miami’s 42-year-old coach Erik Spoelstra is 22 years younger than his counterpart but has had to learn quickly and has defied many sceptics with the way he has skillfully managed the strong personalities in his locker room.
On every level it promises to be a fascinating series with age dictating that many players on both sides knowing they might not get another chance like this.