This is the match-up everyone hoped for.
It took a full regular season and playoffs to get to the expected, and hotly anticipated, rematch — the San Antonio Spurs versus the Miami Heat in the NBA finals.
The manner in which the 2014 postseason played out simply added to the realization that these two National Basketball Association titans would clash in the finals for the second straight year.
The best team in the league — San Antonio — will take on the best player in the league in the Heat’s LeBron James, and for the top seeded Spurs, their bruised egos simply won’t let them forget a seven-game loss to the Heat last season.
“They wanted this, they wanted us and we will be ready for the challenge,” James said Monday.
San Antonio and two-time defending champion Miami are set for the first rematch series since the 1997 and 1998 finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz.
The Spurs will host the first game on Thursday of the annual showcase that pits the top teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences.
“It is unbelievable to have regained our focus after that devastating loss last year,” said Spurs forward Tim Duncan. “We’ve got that bad taste in our mouth from last time. We got four more to win. We will do it this time.”
“There is a reason why they are back there and are two-time champs. We have our work cut out for us, but we are happy with going back, just not satisfied,” added Spurs guard Danny Green.
Injuries could be a factor in the finals as Spurs star Tony Parker did not play in the second half of San Antonio’s series-clincher over Oklahoma City because of a sore left ankle. Parker said Tuesday he plans to try to play in game one.
– Road to the finals –
Miami opened the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats and then polished off the pesky Brooklyn Nets in the second round in five games.
In the final step before the finals, the inconsistent Indiana Pacers pushed the Heat to six games, but eventually succumbed.
The Spurs traveled a more difficult road.
They needed seven games to get past the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and then ousted the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.
The Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Spurs trouble in the semi-finals, but San Antonio eventually advanced in six games.
The Spurs have been looking for redemption ever since Miami’s Ray Allen drained a clutch three-pointer in game six of the finals last year that capped a frenzied Heat comeback from a five-point deficit in the final 28 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Two days later, Miami won game seven and all the Spurs could do was lick their wounds.
At the beginning of training camp this year, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich replayed those moments to remind the players that they have some unfinished business.
“We just had a weird year this year,” Duncan said. “We were pressing hard early on and grinding on each other, just because of what happened last year.
“We were able to settle ourselves down. We played with a bunch of different line-ups all year. We had guys ready to play and it has shown throughout the playoffs where guys step up and step in and are ready to play.
“I am proud of the team for just being ready, just not letting that weigh on us and using it as an excuse for anything. We are back here now and we want to get it done this time.”
James, of course, has other plans. But he is more concerned with how his team performs that what the Spurs are saying about them.
“(Duncan’s) comments don’t bother me,” said James, who is trying to lead the Heat to the first NBA three-peat since the Los Angeles Lakers between 2000-2002.
“We are confident. We are not shying away from them. We want them too.”