To get another shot at LeBron James, the San Antonio Spurs may have to go through Dirk Nowitzki, then Dwight Howard and James Harden, and finally Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Survive all that, and maybe they can avenge that NBA Finals heartbreak.
“There’s definitely that burning desire in the back of your mind that really wants to get back there,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said.
They get started on Sunday, right before James and the Heat begin what they hope is a run to a third straight championship. Miami’s path seems much easier, but James’ team also appears more vulnerable than the one that was an overwhelming favorite in last year’s playoffs.
Maybe that was boredom, though. Count on the Heat to pick it up now.
“This is why we’re all here,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “The regular season is great and all, but this is the fun part. You wake up and you’re excited for the challenge of the playoffs. There’s no better time than right now.”
It begins Saturday with four games: Top-seeded Indiana hosts Atlanta, and Brooklyn visits Toronto in the Eastern Conference, while the West series openers include Golden State at the Clippers, and Oklahoma City against Memphis.
On Sunday, No. 1 overall seed San Antonio opens against Dallas, right before Miami welcomes Charlotte. Washington at Chicago, and Houston hosting Portland round out the action.
The postseason came to a thrilling conclusion last year, with the Heat rallying from a five-point deficit in the final 28 seconds of regulation to win Game 6. They went on to take a tight Game 7, helped when Tim Duncan missed over Battier from point-blank range down the stretch, to hand San Antonio its first loss in five NBA Finals appearances.
Many thought that was the last chance for the Spurs’ core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Instead, San Antonio won a league-high 62 games in perhaps the franchise’s finest all-around season.
Even the Spurs are impressed with the way they left disappointment behind, but all that matters now is what’s ahead.
“We are No. 1 overall and can’t be better than that. But it doesn’t mean anything,” Ginobili said. “The playoffs starts from scratch.”
And it starts with a Dallas team that won 49 games, which would have given the Mavericks the No. 3 seed in the weaker East. Houston and Portland tied for fourth with 54 wins — the same amount as the Heat earned to finish No. 2 in their conference.
Miami lost 14 of its final 25 games, often while playing without Dwyane Wade, and finished two games behind the Pacers. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy is picking Indiana to win the East, in part because the Heat just don’t quite resemble the team that lost only three times after the start of February last season.
“I think they have a lot of guys who are not in their prime right now and their ability to consistently play well individually is just not there,” Van Gundy said Thursday during a conference call. “And then you have the health issues that to me, if they didn’t have some of those health issues, they’d be a 60-win team and they’d be the favorite.”
Still, the betting site Bovada gave 3 to 1 odds of another Spurs-Heat finals, best of any possible matchup.
If it happens again, San Antonio would get the decisive game at home this time — though that may not even come into play if the Spurs have to face either the Rockets or Thunder, who both went 4-0 against them.
Every series in the West could be a slugfest, which would make the playoffs no different than the regular season. The East has a sub-.500 Atlanta team along with postseason novices such as Charlotte and Washington, potentially making things easier for the Heat and Pacers.
But Toronto, Chicago and Brooklyn all compiled better records since Jan. 1 than Indiana and Miami, and will try to prevent the Eastern Conference finals matchup that’s been expected since November.
“It’s always wide open,” Nets coach Jason Kidd told reporters in Cleveland on Wednesday. “You guys sometimes limit it to just two teams, but guys that are playing on a daily basis in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference feel like they’ve got a chance.”
The Spurs have been hoping for another one, ever since walking off the court in Miami where they were so close to victory in Game 6 that workers had already begun preparations for the celebration.
“We could have easily fell in a hole and let last year’s loss kill us,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “But we got back mentally together and trying to get the same goal accomplished.”