SAN ANTONIO -- It's easy to get lost in the big picture here in Texas, where everything's bigger, as the Heat and Spurs get set to tip off Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a rematch of last year's epic, classic, timeless series that still provokes heads shaking in disbelief among even the most bitter of reporters. There are questions permeating the air about legacy, about dynasties, about what this series means in the greater landscape of sports.
And you can get lost in the little picture, hovering inside X's and O's, matchups, and counterbalances, smallball lineups and pick-and-roll play.
But wrapped around the outside of a series which no one can deny features the two very best teams in the NBA, two of the best organizations in basketball, is a question that keeps gnawing, tearing off bits of excitement and dread.
Can these NBA Finals really, truly be as good as last year's?
That's a question I've been dreading since it became clear there really was a good chance it was going to be Miami-San Antonio again. The Indiana threat faded into basically a puppy dog nipping at a tank. It became clear even before Serge Ibaka's injury, the Thunder's matchup advantage might not take hold this year. When Manu Ginobili hit the late three vs. the Thunder in Game 6, that's when it became apparent, cemented when the buzzer ran out and Tim Duncan said it.
"We wanted Miami."
It took me until Monday to get up for it, honestly. Before that, I was filled with dread. Not out of a rooting interest. These two teams are unbelievably great teams who both are worthy of the title, and I get paid no matter what happens. But covering that series last year was mentally exhausting even for the media -- don't even get started on the players or coaches. Watching that series play out on press row was unlike anything I've seen. Normally stoic reporters with years of experience, blown back in their chairs by the enormous swings, by the huge performances. And that's before Ray Allen caught the ball backpedaling in Game 6 and all hell broke loose. It was unbelievable to watch, to witness, to realize you're in the building for sports history for what may be the best Finals of all time.
A repeat? How can this be anything but a disappointment? How can this series not be a letdown compared to the greatest shot in NBA history, an unbelievable comeback by a super team lead by one of the greatest players of all time, against one of the greatest players of all time? Forget topping it, how is Heat-Spurs II going to even match it?
I know this all sounds like the craziest thing to complain about, but it's not a complaint. It's not unfortunate that these are the Finals we're given; it's a blessing. Two legitimately great teams that are so much about basketball, that do things the right way, that play at such a high level.
If anything, the drama is heightened this year because the Spurs, despite themselves, have largely admitted to this one being personal. The Heat are aspiring to do something which has rarely been done, and which so many have doubted they could do. And from a purely basketball perspective, it just does not get better. I asked Shane Battier last year if it was the highest level of execution he'd ever seen, and he couldn't argue. Nothing can come close to it. Wednesday, I asked Battier if it's remotely possible for both teams to play that well again.
"That's what both teams do. They execute. They've both got pride in their offensive and defensive execution," Battier said.
Neither team's comments this week have been the same blank, expressionless confidence. They've admitted to a knowledge of how exhausting this is going to be. It took so much out of them last year, not physically, but mentally, having to be so sharp, to live with ups and downs from moment to moment, shot to shot. Both Battier and LeBron James mentioned "the numbers" -- the lead changes, the number of ties, the point differential being so close. Someone had informed them of how close it was, and it stuck out to them.
The Heat talk about the toll that the Spurs' execution takes on you mentally, the need to be focused on every rotation and to get every rebound. The Spurs talk about how you have to be constantly aware of how the Heat can get out in transition and level you. They're not afraid of the other one. There's a resolve that you can hear in their voices. "Not again," is the tone of San Antonio. "We won't break," is the Heat's.
No matter if this series can live up to last year's, or what that would mean for the team on the losing end, the series is here. All we can do is hope this series can somehow approach last year's greatness, and to hold on to these moments of observing two all-time teams, of all-time players, decide the title in what might be another seven-game series.
I asked Mario Chalmers Wednesday about the one thing the Heat learned about San Antonio from last year's series.
He paused, turned and looked at me.
"They're going to fight to the end."
Game 1 is Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.