Heat President Pat Riley trademarked "three-peat" 25 years ago, so no, this isn't his first rodeo.
He invented the phrase after his Los Angeles Lakers survived an epic Finals against the upstart "Bad Boys" Pistons to win their second straight title. Just to achieve that, they had to overcome a 3-2 series deficit and win a Game 6 in which they were trailing by three points with less than a minute to go.
Those Pistons were led by a superstar point guard battling a serious ankle injury, but were otherwise an unheralded and largely unloved crew of players who weren't exactly household names. League and television executives would've much preferred for the historic Celtics with Larry Bird or the young Bulls with the charismatic, majestic superstar Michael Jordan to have faced the glamorous Lakers than the working class, rough-and-tumble Pistons.
The Lakers, with a one-of-a-kind transcendent talent in Magic Johnson, a dangerous wing second-banana in James Worthy and a big man in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who made a career of hitting shots from much further out than the typical Hall-of-Fame center (and with a unique shooting form, to say the least), had a three-pronged attack supported with three-point shooters like Byron Scott, a three-and-D specialist in Michael Cooper, and a pair of plumbers in A.C. Green and Kurt Rambis. They used that core to win back-to-back titles, coming back late in Game 6 and then winning another tight one at home in Game 7.
Seriously, stop me when any of this sounds familiar.
Riley, never one to pass up the opportunity to make a buck, came up with the idea of trademarking "three-peat," so that anyone who uses it has to compensate him. For all I know I owe him money, but I'm not about to pay, so if you see the word "three-peat" redacted from the column, it's JRW's doing.
Anyway, the hungry Pistons were ready and waiting for the Lakers in 1989 having made it their mission all season to avenge that Game 6 loss. They felt they were the better team the first go around and outright robbed by a phantom foul which allowed Abdul-Jabbar to score the game-tying and go-ahead points with just 14 seconds to go.
This time around, they would have home court advantage.
Despite the hype, it was never much of a series. Scott tore his hamstring in practice prior to Game 1 and was lost for the series. Johnson hurt his hamstring in the third quarter of Game 2 and not only missed the rest of that game but he too had to quit after five painful minutes in Game 3. To their credit the Lakers still fought hard, even without their best player and starting backcourt, but they were swept nevertheless. No three-peat for Riley.
Spurs vs. Heat: NBA Finals series preview
The San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat meet again in a rematch of last year's NBA Finals, and we look at what has changed and what has stayed the same as Spurs fans cheer for a different outcome this time.
Fast-forward to 1998.
This time it's the Chicago Bulls going for a three-peat and for Jordan and his wing sidekick Scottie Pippen, the task is already old-hat, since they already achieved it from 1991-1993. Jordan took a year off in 1994 and by the time he returned late in the 1995 season he was just out of shape enough that he couldn't regain his full powers in time for those playoffs, his Bulls bowing out to the Magic in the second round.
In 1997 the Bulls prevailed over a veteran Jazz team, led by a graybeard power-forward bound for the Hall of Fame and a point guard well past his prime who was also a lock for Springfield. They had played their entire pro careers for the same team and for over a decade with the same gruff, no-nonsense coach. Chicago beat them in six games, but three of their four wins were coin-flip deals, where a play or two at the end made the difference.
The Jazz got their rematch in 1998, though an eighth-seeded team from Texas unexpectedly took them to the distance in the first round. They faced a young, stud power forward who was supposed to overwhelm their old guys in round two, but they won that series easily in five games. In round three they made it past a much-hyped two-man team where the stars weren't always on the same page and the coach was in over his head in managing those monster egos. The Jazz made it back to the Finals. And this time they had home court advantage.
Again, stop me when this sounds familiar.
As it turned out it didn't do them much good. Again, five of the six games were close, and the Jazz accomplished a monumental task in winning Game 5 at Chicago when they were already down 3-1 in the series, but even though they sent the series back to Utah, they just couldn't even force Jordan into a Game 7. They blew an 86-83 lead with 41 seconds to go, with the fateful sequence burned in your memory by now, a Jordan layup, a Jordan steal of Karl Malone, swiping the ball from his blindside, and then that push off and 20-foot jumper from the top of the key against Bryon Russell.
So, this is the third time since I've started watching basketball where we have the convergence of one team going for a three-peat and their opponent also being the vanquished foe from the previous title. What remains to be seen is whether the Spurs will play the role of the Pistons or the Jazz in our little drama.
Obviously the comparisons aren't perfect. For one, Tim Duncan is closer in stature to the 1988, 1989 version of Abdul-Jabbar than he is to any Piston (though I guess he has, on occasion, had similar reactions to foul calls that Bill Laimbeer did). Joe Dumars' Hall-of-Fame career was just taking off in those years whereas Manu Ginobili's is almost over. The Heat have no injuries of note and it's pretty unlikely that somebody like Mario Chalmers will tear his hamstring prior to Game 1 and unlikelier still that the bionic James will ever get hurt.
(Yeah, fine, I'm jinxing them. Behold my magic jinxing powers! Oooga-booga. Ugh. Whatever.)
There's no need to really rehash the 2013 Finals. We've covered them to death. The essential thing for me is that the Spurs basically lost the Finals because LeBron James, the best player on the planet and one of the top five or six to ever play, missed a shot so badly that it didn't even hit the rim. He was so far off the mark that the three Spurs in perfect rebounding position for that miss were caught off-guard just enough by the wild carom it took off the backboard, and Kawhi Leonard reacted just a micron too late to it, giving Dwyane Wade the opportunity to battle him for it, and then Leonard and Boris Diaw crash into each other on the back tap before the ball fell into the hands of Mike Miller and ... oh no -- I'm bleeding.
The 2013-14 Heat set a whole new definition of the term "on/off switch." They made the '03-04 Lakers look stable and consistent by comparison. Wade missed a third of the season with knee ailments, Miller was a cap casualty and guys like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem looked like shells of their former selves. Michael Beasley and Greg Oden (!) were brought in as reinforcements, but neither is currently in the rotation. Lately they're starting Rashard Lewis at power forward, and his last relevant NBA moment was beating James in the Eastern Conference Finals five years ago.
On paper, there is absolutely no way, even with James, this series should be all that competitive. The Spurs have been a completely different animal at home in the playoffs. Their defensive energy goes through the roof, they shoot three-pointers like they're layups (Danny Green in particular), and Ginobili plays like a man ten years younger than he is. Parker, who's been dinged up all year and is currently nursing a bad ankle, has come out like gangbusters in Game 1 of each series so far and has mostly sustained those efforts until the first plane ride at least.
The Spurs have everything you'd want on paper if you were playing Miami. A post scorer in Duncan who's too stocky for Chris Bosh and too big for Chris Andersen. A speedy point-guard who can penetrate, score and kick in Parker. A secondary play-maker/shot-creator/shooter in Ginobili. Deadly three-point shooters in Green, Leonard, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli to punish their trapping doubles. Athleticism and size to throw at James in the person of Leonard. Last but not least, they have a French-Army Knife in Diaw, who has James' size and even more girth and who can do a little bit of everything, whether it's score from the post, shoot outside, create for others or guard numerous people.
I had a pretty good feeling the Spurs would beat Miami if they happened to meet again in the Finals back in early March. I know it's silly to make much of regular season games -- after all, the Spurs just defeated a team that they went 0-4 against in the regular season and Miami did the same to Brooklyn after going 0-4 against them -- but there was something different about that Spurs-Heat game on Mar. 6. I watch every game and I've never seen the Spurs ever come out that intense, that energetic for a regular season game. They come out focused all the time but this was beyond focused. They were visibly angry. No, more like they were pissed. They played like men possessed in that game, particularly Duncan, Leonard and Parker.
It's true that that game wasn't their first true rematch since the Finals and that the Heat had beaten them fairly easily a couple months earlier, but the Spurs weren't whole in that game. Green, Leonard and Tiago Splitter were all out with injuries. At home in March they had their full squad back and unleashed the Death Star on Miami.
I don't think it was an accident or adrenaline or anything else when Duncan declared that the Spurs were going to win these Finals. Even when he had a chance to compose himself sometime later in the postgame presser, he repeated that they wanted to face the Heat all along. They know they're the better team and they know the Heat were incredibly fortunate to win last year (even though their stars are loathe to admit it). There were hints that Erik Spoelstra dropped before and after that game in March that the Heat were probably second-best last year and are definitely a grade below the Spurs this season. There's no way anyone can tell me they weren't rooting for the Thunder to do them a favor in the Western Conference Finals.
All I know is I didn't hear Duncan or any other Spur express how thrilled they were to face the Thunder after the second round. I didn't hear any of them say they were gonna win that series. The Spurs didn't have that level of confidence going into the Western Conference Finals. How could they after having lost four straight to them and 10 of the past 12? It's a different story against Miami. They play at a different size and speed. Compared to quicksilver Russell Westbrook, Wade will look positively glacial. Compared to the 6'10 Kevin Durant and his 7'5 wingspan, James will look like a stumpy point guard to Leonard. The Heat have been the most efficient offensive team of these playoffs scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions, but they're also playing at the slowest pace of any playoff team. After three straight walk-it-up series against the Bobcats, Nets and Pacers they're going to be in for a culture shock against the run-and-gun Spurs, like going from a Pinto to a Ferrari. It's could take them five or six quarters just to adjust to that, let alone to having to play a team that can shoot and pass and, you know, play basketball (sorry, Indy).
I picture the series going much like the last one did, with the home teams winning the first five games. In Game 6, finally the Heat will crack. The Spurs will be buoyed by their Game 5 performance, play carefree knowing they've got Game 7 at home in their pocket if need be and the Heat will have just enough doubt in their heads Do we really want to fight this hard when we're probably just gonna get annihilated in San Antonio anyway? and they'll fold.
Honestly, six games is my conservative estimate and it's largely a symbolic one. It could just as easily be five games, with the Heat facing their home moment of reckoning in Game 4. I just think this Spurs team is better than last year's and Miami got worse. I think the whole playoffs have set up perfectly for San Antonio, with the Dallas series and Dirk Nowitzki giving them a guidebook for how to guard Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, with an athletic, top-heavy Blazers team giving the Spurs a preview of OKC's speed-demons and non-bench, and the Thunder's superduperstar tandem of Westbrook and Durant giving them a heads up for James and Wade. Last season the Spurs were completely untested and unprepared, going against two slug teams in the Lakers and Grizzlies with a sharp-shooting but undersized Warriors squad sandwiched in the middle. Nobody remotely like Miami. After six games with the Thunder though, I don't think there's much Miami can throw at them that can faze them.
Or maybe I'm wrong and the Heat really are the best. Maybe Battier will get hot at the worst time or Lewis will do a great Mike Miller impersonation or some random like Beasley or James Jones will be their hero. Maybe Wade will look like his 2006 self and James will prove he really is the best of all time, even better than Jordan. If he drags his crew to a third straight title and beats the Spurs even without home court advantage, I think it's a serious debate.
The '98 Bulls are the only team to win a Finals rematch. In the previous five times we've had repeat Finals in NBA history, the squad who lost the first one always got their revenge. History is on the Spurs' side and they look to be the better team on paper.
Good enough for me.
The moral of the story: You don't want to be the Jazz. You never want to be the Jazz.