The Miami Heat, reigning NBA Champions, are looking to retain their crown.
The San Antonio Spurs, the benchmark of the NBA for so many years, want to get back the trophy for the first time since their dynasty appeared to have ended in 2007.
Welcome to the NBA Finals.
It is a finals matchup full of intrigue, full of individuals who are capable of winning a game on their own on any given night.
Here are some of the key battles that are sure to prove crucial in the eventual outcome of this series.
1. LeBron James vs Kawhi Leonard:
- The Spurs will prove just how much faith they have in the young Leonard by giving him the responsibility of containing the juggernaut that is LeBron James.
Everybody knows just how difficult James is to guard, ask anyone who has attempted it this season, the answers will all be the same. You can't stop James from having an influence on the game, it's now literally impossible. With his supporting cast struggling for form, LeBron has carried the Heat through these Play-offs. He is averaging 26.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals on 51.4% shooting. Only the great Michael Jordan has posted better numbers throughout a Playoff campaign.
James is as complete a player as we have ever witnessed. Equally dangerous in the post or on the perimeter, his power and speed for a man his size is extraordinary. He can affect a game from anywhere on the court. Whether it be his vision, his smothering defense, his strength on the boards or his motivational skills, James can do it all. If they are all clicking on the same night then the game is as good as won, the four-time MVP is just that good.
Leonard, despite his inexperience, is considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He is a tough nut to crack if opponents want to get to the rim, his size and quick-first step proving difficult to get around. Leonard is a workhorse and will contest every shot when he is able to. The second-year pro will not be intimidated by the presence of James and will no doubt be fully aware of the task that lies ahead of him. He represents the future for the San Antonio Spurs, yet he already has a veteran savvy that is grained into you as soon as you walk through the doors of the Spurs' training facility.
They have met once since Leonard came into the league. In January 2012, James scoring 33 points, 5 rebounds and 10 assists, with the then-rookie Leonard scoring 12 points and 6 rebounds. This should have no impact on proceedings during the finals, but it does give a slight indication of Leonard's ability to keep James off the glass. He can only have improved from another year in the league and if he could limit James' influence for at least two games, then the Spurs could have a real chance of an upset.
This is Leonard's chance to make a name for himself, and the Spurs chances rely more on him than any other.
2. Mario Chalmers vs Tony Parker:
- On paper, this is a sure-fire mismatch, yet how Chalmers performs will go a long way to determining the outcome of this series.
Parker is a machine, the shining star in the Spurs' crown. Now considered the best Point-Guard in the league, Parker will no doubt look to exploit this mismatch by getting to the line as often as possible. He has an incredible first-step off the dribble, something Chalmers may not be able to deal with. Depending how hot Parker gets during games, the Heat may switch LeBron James or Dwyane Wade onto Parker to take some of the pressure off Chalmers, at least for short spells. Parker, like all of the Spurs roster, is well rested and his 37 point outing against the Grizzlies in the final game of their series suggests there is much more to come from the Frenchman.
Chalmers is a facilitator for the Heat, a trend that is set to continue in this series. It is not his responsibility to be one of the team's primary scorer, not with the 'Big Three' taking most of the load on that front. His modest totals of 8.6 points and 3.5 assists a game this season confirm this theory, that doesn't detract from his importance to the team. His primary focus will be to stay in-front of Parker to the best of his ability, a task few are successful in doing. Chalmers isn't noted for his defensive prowess and the Heat's problems with quick Point-Guard's are well documented. This all points to Parker having an extremely profitable series and the Spurs will need him firing on all cylinders if they are to overcome the defending NBA Champions.
3. Chris Bosh vs Tim Duncan:
- The battle for the interior will focus around these two All-Star's. The victor will give their team the edge, making this the most important, and the closest, matchup of the series.
Duncan is a modern marvel, laughing at father time with every passing game. He was used sparingly at times during the season, with Coach Popovich understanding just how valuable a fresh Duncan will be for the post-season run-in. This has worked out perfectly for the Spurs, Duncan rolling back the years on more than one occasion in these Play-offs. In particular during the two overtime sessions against the Grizzlies during the Conference finals. His experience in these finals will be vital, Duncan being the focal-point of every great Spurs team during the last 15 years. The younger members of the Spurs will be looking for Duncan to guide them through the biggest set of games of their careers.
If there's any player on the Heat roster who needs a big series, it's Chris Bosh. The former Georgia Tech standout and 8-time All-Star has been largely disappointing during the Play-offs, struggling with his shot and seemingly a step slow on the defensive side of the ball. Despite struggling with his shot in Game 7 of the East Finals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh provided the Heat with exceptional defense on Roy Hibbert and David West, demonstrating the sort of grit that had been missing from his play in the post-season. His shot must improve, as the Heat can ill-afford to have no offensive output from their main interior threat. The ex-Raptor has apologised to Heat fans and his teammates for his less than stellar play thus far during the most intense stage of the season, suggesting Bosh has been working hard on his game to improve his fortunes.
The positive for Bosh is the two games he played against the Heat this season were some of his most profitable, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. Granted, one of these games the Spurs rested Duncan, but those averages should give Bosh confidence he can be effective for long spells in this series. Duncan played just once against the Heat this season, scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. If he can replicate those numbers throughout the Finals, it will give the Spurs an outstanding chance of doing some damage.
The wildcard in this matchup is the role Chris Andersen is set to play. Andersen could provide the menacing defense on Duncan should Bosh continue his struggles. Whether Duncan will be on the floor when Andersen is remains to be seen, but rest assured if he is then Andersen will make his presence known. He is an irritant, a menace but above all he is a great defender and he has proven the can give the Heat 15-20 minutes of effort than can make a significant difference. Duncan and the 'Birdman' have previous, stemming from the Andersen's time playing for the Denver Nuggets. If he can rattle Duncan in any way, shape or form, it will undoubtedly aid the Heat. The Spurs need Duncan to be great, not just good, if they are to defy the odds.
4. Dwyane Wade vs Danny Green:
- There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Dwyane Wade is injured, it's been apparent for some time now. He isn't playing with his normal fluency and has definitely lost the spring that makes Wade the player he is. There were signs of life in Game 7 of the Conference finals, where he scored 20 points for only the second time in these Playoffs. The Heat will need Wade to be more consistent during the finals, which may be asking too much of a man who has battled against his body for the majority of the season.
Danny Green is another solid perimeter defender who has done a stellar job against some tough competition during the Play-offs. He is physically imposing and does a great job of staying in-front of his opponent, making shutting down would-be drivers to the rim his speciality. If you want an example of Green's dominant defense you only have to look at the job he did on the Warriors Steph Curry. In 6 games, he held the hottest shooter in the NBA to 23% shooting. Given Curry's form, this was a astonishing feat and Wade will have his work cut out if he is going to make an impact on this series, given his limitations.
That's not to say this will be one-way offense. Green was red-hot from beyond the arc during the regular season, something that has continued throughout the Play-offs. He shot 43 percent from three-point range during the season, making him one of the best catch-and-shoot commodities in the league. Wade will have to be wary of the threat Green can pose, which will take more energy away from the Heat's second scoring option.
The significance of this matchup cannot be underestimated. If Green gets the upper hand, barring a colossal effort from LeBron James, the Spurs would be favourites to win it all.
5. Eric Spoelstra vs Gregg Popovich:
- This will be as intriguing as anything transpiring on the court. The young upstart versus the old coach with a renewed sense of vigour who is looking to get back to the top of the mountain.
Popovich has done a stunning job with this group of players this season. He has come under scrutiny from the big-wigs at the NBA this season for resting his 'Big Three' for high-profile games this season. Commissioner David Stern fined Popovich $250,000 for resting his three stars for a nationally televised game against the Heat. Now they have made the finals, Popovich will no doubt feel his decision to wrap his ageing stars in cotton wool, was the correct one.
Spoelstra continues to have a no-win situation in Miami. The minimum requirement for this team of superstars is to win a Championship, if he does achieve it, then he has done his job. If he doesn't succeed, then his job will be on the line. It might sound harsh, but it comes with the territory when you coach players of the quality of James, Wade and Bosh. Spoelstra is a very unassuming character, his calmness and intelligence are a great benefit to his players. Miami incurs the media spotlight more than any team in the league, besides the Knicks and Lakers, Spoelstra does a magnificent job of maintaining their focus, which has seen them make their third consecutive NBA Finals.
Popovich has the longevity and experience, but Spoelstra won't be overawed by coming up against one of the greatest coaches in NBA history that's for sure. Back-to-back Championships would ensure the pressure is off the Miami coach, until next season at least.
- It's going to be a close-run series that will captivate the Worldwide audience. I have a sneaky suspicion the Spurs are going to take the Heat right to the wire. While there may be some rust having not played for so long, the Spurs have definite Matchup's they can exploit and they could be playing the Heat at just the right time.
The Heat will once again be relying on LeBron to carry them through, something he seems more than capable of doing. He will need help along the way, particularly from Bosh and Wade, which isn't guaranteed given their injures and lack of form. It will be James' greatest achievement if he could get his limping team to a consecutive Championship.
Prediction: Heat in 7. 4-3.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_