1. The Heat will win this series if ...
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: If they find a rhythm defending the Spurs. It's not easy trying to contain Tony Parker, and bother Tim Duncan, and keep a body on Kawhi Leonard, and stick to Danny Green and Manu Ginobili on the perimeter, and do it all multiple times every single possession. But if the Heat are going to three-peat, it'll take their most exhausting defensive performance of these playoffs.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: If LeBron James doesn't take a few games to get going, as he did in last year's Finals ... and if Dwyane Wade can continue to be pretty spry for seven more games ... and if the role players rain in the 3s when needed as they did in crucial moments last year.
David Thorpe, ESPN Insider: Among dozens of variables, if D-Wade can be a prolific and efficient scorer, and/or if he can make 3-pointers as he did against the Pacers (he made six 3s in that series after making just nine all season), Miami's offense has the potential to beat up the Spurs' defense pretty well.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: If they get three things: (1) one or two dominant LeBron games, when he just carries them to victory, preferably in San Antonio; (2) a role player to step up and have some breakout shooting performances; and (3) steady focus and aggression on the defensive end -- this is their weak spot this season compared to last season.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: If Dwyane Wade plays at his highest level of the postseason. And that's saying something, because Wade has been tremendous thus far. But the Heat's bench is largely thinned, and expecting considerable production there is iffy. It's going to be about how good Miami's Big Three can be. We have a pretty good idea what LeBron is going to bring, and the same goes for Chris Bosh. But the unknown is Wade.
2. The Spurs will win this series if ...
Gutierrez: If Tony Parker is dominant for an entire series. Last Finals, he started off great but then was inconsistent, perhaps because of a nagging hamstring injury. If Parker can shake off a left ankle injury this time around, he can make life miserable for Miami by constantly collapsing the defense.
Stein: If Parker is healthy enough to play at or above 80 percent capacity ... and if Manu continues to be a playoff force, as we've seen for much of the first three rounds ... and if the Heat's disruptive defense doesn't derail the NBA's Ball Movement Champions.
Thorpe: If they put together four games of good-to-great shooting, low turnovers and excellent work on the defensive glass. The Spurs' offensive flexibility with both personnel and scheme options should get them great looks on many possessions, but they still have to knock them down. Plus, Miami's "shark around blood" defense can throw their rhythm off and create largely unforced turnovers.
Windhorst: If they get three things: (1) Parker proves to be reasonably healthy and has his quickness so he can do damage in the paint; (2) they keep their offensive flow going even when they go on the road and can pass their way through the Heat's defense; and (3) they find the right matchups to beat the Heat at their own small-ball game, which the Spurs are capable of doing.
Young: If their role players play well in four games. Danny Green's home/road splits this postseason are staggering -- 59.2 percent from 3-point range at home, 31.3 on the road. And when the Spurs are rolling at their highest level, a lot of that is off Green and how he spaces the floor and ignites runs from deep. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are obviously the load-bearers, but Green and the other role guys can neutralize the Heat's blitzing pressure defensive scheme.
3. Who has the most riding on this Finals outcome?
Gutierrez: LeBron. The Spurs can only add to a legacy of extended greatness with a championship. And it'll feel extra special because of the revenge factor. But LeBron's goal is to be the greatest ever. And falling to 2-3 in his first five Finals would hurt that cause. And he wouldn't have the three-peat that Jordan and Kobe have. And he'd likely be forced to question his future with Miami.
Stein: You'd have to say LeBron and the Heat because they're so tantalizingly close to a three-peat. Instinct tells me that another championship won't dramatically alter the way people think of the Popovich-and-Timmy Spurs. But a three-peat takes your legacy to another level. A three-peat would also presumably extinguish any fears Miami has of LeBron leaving in free agency. That's a lot at stake.
Thorpe: No one team or player. I know what it would mean for LeBron to win three straight, or for Duncan to win his fifth. But LeBron has plenty of years left and he will be on a final-four team every one of those years, and whether Duncan gets five or is left with four rings, does it really matter to his legacy? Neither team has a motivational advantage.
Windhorst: The Spurs. They're older, for one. Losing twice in the Finals to the Heat, especially after they were convinced they were the better team last season, would tarnish their image.
Young: The Heat. The potential of a three-peat is something truly special that places you in rarefied air. But with virtually the entire roster up for free agency in a month -- including LeBron -- there's a certain lurking weight that's attached to it, as well. It's simple: Walking away from a team that just won three straight championships seems pretty unlikely.
4. Are the 2014 Spurs the best Finals team this Heat core has faced?
Gutierrez: That's to be determined. Last year's Spurs were pretty great. And yes, Ginobili looks more like himself this year, but Parker might not in this series. And Marco Belinelli isn't giving the Spurs what Gary Neal did in last year's Finals. Leonard might be a more confident player, but it'll be hard to improve on his 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 51 percent shooting and two steals a game from last year's Finals.
Stein: By virtue of the fact that this is a better facsimile of the Spurs, I would say yes. But that Dallas team in 2011 is routinely shortchanged and deserves a mention here. Maybe those Mavs won it all with a template that history says works on only the rarest of occasions -- one star in Dirk Nowitzki surrounded by a bunch of perfectly suited role players -- but it's easy to forget now how many problems they caused Miami.
Thorpe: That remains to be seen, right? Who cares what it looks like on paper? The Spurs' new role players will have to play big, and Ginobili will need to play at a solid if not spectacular level for the Spurs to have a good chance to win. The Heat have been the best team on paper in all their playoff series for four consecutive years, and they have won every one of those series except one. If the Spurs win four games, they can safely say they're the better team, period. This Miami team is far better than the one that lost to Dallas.
Windhorst: Maybe, but it's not clear. The 2013 Spurs were pretty darn good, and they got some great performances in the Finals, most notably from Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The 2011 Mavericks were not loaded with future Hall of Famers, but they were a perfectly balanced team that was primed to deliver on that stage. I can't put either of them down.
Young: Really close, but yes. The 2011 Mavericks were a perfect playoff team that peaked and came together right on time. The 2012 Thunder are probably the most talented team the Heat have played, but they were young and unprepared. Last season's Spurs are mostly this season's Spurs, except there's a bloodthirst for revenge, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills are better combined than Gary Neal, plus Ginobili looks spry and healthy.
5. Who will be crowned the 2014 NBA champs?
Gutierrez: Miami. It's not just because Dwyane Wade is healthier than last year, or that Parker's ankle could be problematic. It's also because LeBron likely won't be hypnotized by that Spurs defense to start this series, and the Heat defense always seems to find a way in a seven-game series. No outcome would be shocking in this series, though.
Stein: I went with Spurs in seven in a nod to their improved depth compared to 2013 and the fact that they have Game 7 at home this time. But it'd be a lot easier to make a declarative pick if we knew in advance what Parker's ankle looks like. It's not exactly going out on a limb to say San Antonio's fortunes are tied to Parker's health in a big way.
Thorpe: Miami. In the end, I have to give the slightest of edges to the Heat. If I thought Parker would be close to 100 percent healthy all series, I might change my mind, but I don't, so I won't. Miami has a good chance to have the first-, second-, and fourth or fifth-best player of these two teams, though LeBron alone is now Duncan's equal in leadership and in overall ability to inspire his team. The Spurs have more weapons, but the Heat have better ones. Barely.
Windhorst: I have Spurs in seven. Obviously, it's narrow, as it was last season. The differences since then -- the Spurs are slightly deeper now, the Heat are a little thinner, and San Antonio has home court -- make me nudge it in that direction.
Young: Spurs. I feel ridiculous picking against the Heat, because I really just can't picture LeBron being beaten in four games right now. But everything about this series says the Spurs are deeper and better, and if it goes the distance, they'll host four games in a house of horrors for every visiting team this postseason. The Heat have so much more working against them than last season.