As the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics ready for Game One of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, a number of story lines are coming together to lend the series a sense of drama and urgency that make it a must-watch for all basketball fans.
First is the probable end of the days of the old Big Three in Boston -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen -- as free agency appears likely to beckon. Until then, they will be looking for a second ring to add to the first one they brought home in 2008.
Second is the ascendancy of the new Big Three in Miami: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. LeBron is obsessed with getting a ring to solidify his place among the sport's elite. However, Bosh is out for at least the first two games -- likely longer -- with an abdominal strain that puts even more pressure on James and Wade to perform.
And third is the simultaneous battle between the Oklahoma Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, with the eventual victors looming large with their own unquenchable thirsts for a ring.
It's all getting tense as the 2012 NBA Playoffs move into the last two series before the NBA Finals, and the next couple of weeks will bring glory to the team that can handle the pressure and come through on the biggest stage.
And three other teams will be left crying in their jerseys, headed back to the locker room to try it all again next year.
But for now, the Heat and the Celtics are focused fully on one task: preparing for their matchup on Monday at 8:30 p.m. EDT in Miami. It's the 2011 Eastern Conference champs vs. the 2010 Eastern Conference champs, with everything on the line.
The consensus appears to be that the Heat have the edge, even without Chris Bosh. It may seem to be an odd assumption, given the Celtics were 3-1 against the Heat during the regular season, but with the way Miami is playing, the team is the good-money candidate to take home a championship this year.
Wade and James are dominating this postseason, and they were on fire when they closed down their series against Indiana Pacers a couple of days ago. That momentum should carry them into a confident, crushing win in Miami Monday, NBA commentator Stephen A. Smith said Monday on ESPN.
I think Chris Bosh is going to end up playing in this series in Game 3 or Game 4, Smith predicted. And I can see Lebron James and Dwyane Wade carrying the team's load until then.
The Heat should take this series in five games, Smith said: It's just not the Celtics' year to shine.
ESPN's David Thorpe wrote on Monday that he also believes the Wade-James offensive barrage will continue, and that it will bury the Celtics under its inevitability:
Neither may ever put together better games than they did in Games 4, 5, and 6 in the last round, Thorpe wrote. Still, what they will do will rate as 'scorching.'
That's not good news for the Celts, according to Smith: Father Time has caught up with this group, and they are going against some lions.