When last season's NBA Finals ended, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was all smiles.
For a few minutes, that is. Popovich's first order of business after the season's final buzzer sounded in Miami was to go and embrace Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, giving everyone hearty hugs and offering genuine words of congratulations after the Heat topped his Spurs in Game 7 of one of the most dramatic, thrilling championship series in league history.
The pain of losing started setting in later, and lasted for months. But now, the dream scenario for San Antonio has arrived. Starting Thursday, the Spurs get a rematch in the NBA Finals against the only team to ever beat them in a championship series. San Antonio will be holding home-court advantage, so if another Game 7 awaits, the Spurs will have the decided edge this time around. If that wasn't enough, the Spurs even got basically five full days between games to get healthy and prepare.
It is, without question, everything the Spurs could have wanted. "We know what we're going against," said Spurs guard Tony Parker, who added that he has great respect for what the Heat have done in this four-year run. "It's a great challenge."
There are so many things that would seem like a distinct San Antonio advantage right now. First, while everyone's better at home, the Spurs dominate in San Antonio, winning 103 times in their last 123 games there. Over the past four seasons, the Spurs are also 25-5 when having three or more days between games.
Maybe most importantly, having nearly a week between the end of the Western Conference finals and the start of the NBA Finals gives Parker plenty of time to get his ailing left ankle ready to go for Game 1.
"I'll do my best," said Parker, who didn't practice Tuesday but is hoping to play in the series opener, as the Heat expect he will. This is San Antonio's sixth trip to the NBA Finals. The Spurs won it all in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, the last title in that run coming when San Antonio swept a Cleveland team that featured a young LeBron James making his debut on the league's biggest stage.
James is no finals apprentice anymore. He's been to the title round three times since, winning the last two. And James is quick to point out that the Spurs aren't the only team fueled by hunger in this championship round.
"Both teams have motivating factors," James said. "They have a motivating factor. We have our own." Losing the finals is one thing. Losing the way the Spurs did last June, that's something else. Forget Game 7 for a moment. Game 6 will be replayed for as long as there are replays, unforgettable for both how the Heat rallied and how the Spurs collapsed. A 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter was erased, in part because Mike Miller scored three points on one shot while wearing one shoe. And a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left, well, you know the rest.
Manu Ginobili misses a free throw. James makes a 3-pointer. Kawhi Leonard makes one of two free throws. James misses a 3-pointer. Chris Bosh out jumps Ginobili for the rebound. Ray Allen started backpedaling to the right corner, hoping for a chance.
ABC's Mike Breen described what happened next like this: "Rebound Bosh ... back out to Allen ... his 3-pointer ... BANG!!! Tie game!" The Heat went on to win in overtime that night, then found a way to win Game 7 and the title, 95-88. When this season began, Popovich started camp by showing his team Games 6 and 7, painful as it was.
"I try to learn something every game I watch," Popovich said. "That's what we do." And while there were plenty of teams that looked like contenders this season, neither club was surprised that the end result is the first NBA Finals rematch since 1998.
"We got wined and dined with some of the other teams that kind of popped up and showed greatness throughout the year," Allen said. "The Clippers looked great. OKC, they had their issues and then they popped up. Memphis looked good at the end of the year. Indiana was always hovering. But if you go back to the beginning of the year, most people said the same thing. Pop knew how to manage his team to get to this point. Same thing with us."
In other words, maybe Spurs-Heat II was meant to be. "It was," Allen said.
Associated Press Writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this story