Paths of Heat, Spurs finally intersect

MIAMI -- Eventually, it was inevitable.

So what in the world took so long?

All things considered, the only surprising element to the NBA Finals matchup between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs is the amount of time it has taken for them to finally cross paths with a championship at stake.

But when the teams play Game 1 on Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena, it won't be a clash of bitter rivals who despise one another. Instead, there are so many top-down connections the Heat and Spurs share -- from the heads of their organizations to the veteran voices at the end of their benches -- they'll enter the Finals far more like mirror images than mortal basketball enemies.

“The only thing I've known since I've come in the league is the Spurs have been run by [Gregg] Popovich and the Miami Heat have been run by Pat Riley,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday. “Because of that mutual respect and the consistency of culture, I think probably both franchises thought at some point in the last 18 years that we would have met in the Finals. And we haven't.”

Until now.

Those parallel paths trace back to 1995, when Riley took over the Heat a year before Popovich transitioned from the front office in San Antonio to the Spurs' bench. Since then, the two have served as either executives or coaches -- or in both capacities -- to established standards of excellence that render seasons a failure if they don't end in the Finals.

By the time this Heat-Spurs series is over, the teams will have combined to win seven titles in a 14-year span.

Along the way, the teams have maintained a mutual respect and admiration. So it was no coincidence when Popovich was one of the only coaching or front-office peers to call and congratulate Riley in July 2010 after the Heat acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in the biggest free-agency coup in NBA history.

Popovich reflected on that conversation with Riley on Wednesday as his Spurs prepared for perhaps the most formidable team they've faced in five trips to the Finals.

“He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster,” Popovich said Wednesday of a Heat team led by a four-time MVP in James, the 2006 Finals MVP in Wade and a perennial All-Star in Bosh. “So why wouldn't he get credit for that? Why wouldn't you congratulate him for that? He lets people do what they do, puts things together, and he put together a hell of a team. And so I called him to thank him because I respect him so much.”

Popovich paused, considered the task he has at hand in the coming days and immediately clarified his gratitude.

“Not to thank [Riley], but to congratulate him,” he said. “That's the last thing I'd do is thank him for doing that.”

In reality, all the Heat were doing was borrowing from the blueprint the Spurs had established years ago. Although the Boston Celtics tend to get much of the credit for reviving the Big Three era when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce in 2007, the Spurs had already perfected the formula to the tune of three titles with their core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

When Riley spoke to reporters near the end of the regular season in April about the future he envisions for the Heat, he mentioned the Spurs' model as the one he'd like to follow in designs to keep James, Wade and Bosh together for a decadelong run of Finals appearances and titles.

Normally, the Heat draw from some level of disdain or scorn to help inspire them to face a postseason rival. But this matchup is filled with far too much admiration to get outright nasty. And it's completely genuine.

The track record speaks for itself.

The Spurs have put together 14 consecutive 50-win seasons and are undefeated in their four previous trips to the Finals. Meanwhile, the Heat have had winning seasons in 14 of the 17 years Riley has been at the helm of the franchise.

San Antonio is built around a four-time champion in Duncan, who is regarded by many as the best power forward to ever play the game. Miami's catalyst is James, who at age 28 has won four MVP awards in the past five seasons and should be considered the greatest small forward -- if not best player overall -- by the time he's done.

The similarities also extend to the end of their benches, where Miami brought back Juwan Howard in the spring to be a veteran presence and leader in the locker room. San Antonio, on the other hand, reached out to former superstar Tracy McGrady for the same role and a shot at a ring.

But there are also a few approaches that make these franchises distinctively different. Although the Spurs have built their foundation through the draft, the Heat bought their major pieces in free agency. San Antonio has successfully mined foreign markets for players such as Parker, Ginobili and Tiago Splitter. Miami has strongly preferred players who have been groomed through domestic ranks.

Yet in the Finals, they've still landed on common ground.

James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals, said he has applied some of San Antonio's basic concepts to teams he has played with the past few years.

“I think the one thing that you kind of always see, no matter what, they've always shared the basketball and played as a team,” James said. “That's winning basketball. You always see the Spurs doing that. They're in the Finals for a reason; for their experience, how well they're coached, how balanced they are and their championship DNA.”

Parker returned the sentiment Wednesday by saying the Heat would be the toughest team he has faced in the Finals. Parker and James also faced virtually the same line of questions about their overall development since the 2007 Finals.

“Against Miami, it's the last step,” Parker said. “It's going to be the hardest one, because winning a championship is very hard. LeBron is going to be very tough. But it's a great opportunity for us to try to beat them.”

That feeling is mutual. But at least one thing the teams don't have for one another is envy. The Heat love the spotlight and the attention that comes with being one of the most popular and polarizing teams in any major sport.

But with that comes a level of scrutiny and ridicule that has critics speculating on the possible breakup of Miami's core every time there's a rough patch. It happened in the days leading to Game 7 of the conference finals against Indiana.

On the other hand, there was hardly any national debate as to whether Duncan, Parker and Ginobili needed to part ways as the Spurs fell short of the Finals in recent years. The dynamic isn't lost on Wade entering Thursday's game.

“Their team was put together through the draft ... the way people feel is the right way, and ours was put together a little differently,” Wade said. “So the conversation is different. We understand. We're not trying to be the Spurs. We're not going to get the same treatment, same talk. I'm sure they don't want to be us. Our team has done pretty decent. In our three years together, we've been in the Finals three years in a row. So we're doing something right.”

So is San Antonio.

And Duncan completely agrees with Wade in that the Spurs want no part of the scrutiny Miami faces daily. They're fine with the notion that they're overlooked and under the radar.

“We play the same way, we do the same things, we've been blessed to win four championships, and we're blessed to be back and have a chance to win a fifth one,” Duncan said. “So that's all that matters to us. I'm definitely glad I don't have that kind of [media] pressure on me. Absolutely.”