The NBA Finals of 2014 bring that rare occasion, a re-match of the season before, and although a handful of faces have departed and arrived the clash of the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat – which starts on Thursday – is likely to be just as close as their previous battle to the brink.
In 2013, San Antonio were less than 30 seconds from the championship in Game 6, only for Miami to pull off an improbable escape before landing their second straight title after a nervy Game 7.
This time, the Spurs are coming in as 1.76 favourites despite a more arduous run through the post-season with the Heat at 2.05 to clinch a three-peat.
And the positional scraps could make the difference between ending the campaign in celebration or with the misery of defeat, so who has the edge in the one-on-one battles?
Tony Parker v Mario Chalmers
Parker’s status is still a little hazy but there’s no chance the Frenchman is wearing street clothes come tip-off on Thursday.
Miami will doubtless have noticed the way other teams have denied him the room to penetrate but the problem is that the Heat’s bigs will have enough on their plate.
Chalmers is only asked to do just enough not to mess up but even if he can keep up with his counterpart, if TP is at full strength, this is his time.
Danny Green v Dwyane Wade
Wade, you sense, has been stashing away reserves of energy and resilience for this moment. All the games missed, the periods rested, simply for the Finals.
He’s been outstanding in the Playoffs and he’ll need to be again, especially defensively. Green made 25 three-pointers in Games 1-5 of the 2013 Finals and he can never be left alone, otherwise… boom!
Kawhi Leonard v LeBron James
James is the NBA’s best player, despite Kevin Durant’s MVP status. But he’s had to do more than ever to carry the Heat onwards. In last summer’s Finals, he notched 25.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game and it may require extra this time around.
Leonard is still improving, and even with those numbers, he defends LeBron pretty well. The truth, however, is that no-one can completely shut James down.
Matt Bonner v Rashard Lewis
Okay, two months ago, the idea of these two starting in the Finals would have been as likely as Donald Sterling selling the Clippers for $2 billion. Sometimes, life surprises you.
The truth is we’re going to see Boris Diaw against Udonis Haslem, Tiago Splitter facing Shane Battier, and a whole scheme of experiments in this glaring black hole of positions. But Diaw could be the X-factor for the Western Conference champs.
Tim Duncan v Chris Bosh
The Big Fundamental? Let’s call Duncan the Big Ageless. 38 years young, still beating up on opponents while throwing that unreadable poker face, the three-time Finals MVP has guaranteed a Spurs title.
Bosh has been up and down but his contribution is going to figure massively in the Heat’s hopes. On this duel rests the outcome.
San Antonio have Diaw, Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph. And some guy named Ginobili. Miami have Ray Allen, Chris Anderson, Battier and Haslem, plus the monolith that is Greg Oden. Allen will make big shots, guaranteed.
The Spurs bench will win at least one game by themselves. Or at the very least one quarter.
San Antonio are 15.00 to sweep the best-of-seven series 4-0. Miami 16.00 to do likewise. Ain’t gonna happen. These are two great teams, fierce opponents, and resilient foes.
However the Spurs have looked just a class above, even when Oklahoma City were testing them to the max. The Heat, for all the brilliance of James, have regressed from 2013.
And with home advantage, plus the knowledge this may be the last championship chance for this storied group, back San Antonio to roll.
PREDICTION: Spurs to win 4-3, available at 4.50