MIAMI: LeBron James has the chance for revenge against the team that spoiled his first trip to the NBA Finals when the Miami Heat meet the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s championship series starting Thursday.
James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, will lead defending champion Miami into the best-of-seven showdown with the veteran Spurs, who won four titles from 1999 through 2007 but have not returned to the NBA Finals since.
“They have got a bunch of Hall of Famers, so I look forward to the challenge,” James said.
“This is an opportunity for us again to be able to win a championship. I have a lot of work to still do, but it’s a great thing to be in this position.”
James, likely destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame himself, first reached the NBA Finals with Cleveland in 2007, when the Spurs swept the Cavaliers to claim the crown.
Three years later, James took his talents to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Heat have reached the NBA Finals ever since, losing to Dallas in 2011 before beating Oklahoma City last year to give “King” James his first NBA crown.
“Our team is more experienced,” James said. “My Cleveland team, we were very young and we went up against a very experienced, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did.
“This is our third year advancing to the finals, so we’re very experienced as well. We’re not young. We’re not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have.
“And I’m a much better player. I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals. We’re all better.”
The Spurs have not sat on their laurels either, although they will have been off 10 days before the opener since sweeping Memphis in the Western Conference final while Indiana took the Heat to seven games in the East final.
“They are going to be more in a rhythm than us, but hopefully we’ll be rusty [only]in the first quarter, first half,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Hopefully we’ll be better in the second half.”
French playmaker Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, said the rest will help coach Gregg Popovich’s bruised squad heal, especially big man Tim Duncan and Argentine guard Manu Ginobili.
“It’s an honor to be the guy for a franchise like the Spurs,” Parker said. “You have Timmy and Manu and all my teammates, they’re counting on me, and Pop shows so much confidence that it makes me want to play great. My teammates, they push me to get better.”
Six years after winning his last title, Parker hungers for another.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling because it’s really hard to go to the Finals, to win a championship. I was 21 when I won my first one, and you think it’s easy and you’re going to go back every year.
“Every team wants to beat you, and that’s why it makes it even more special to go back after all those years playing at a high level with the same coach, with the same big three.
“If we go all the way it’ll definitely be my favorite because it gets harder and harder.”
The Heat went a league-best 66-16 this season to earn a home-court edge, including a 27-game win streak, the second-longest in NBA history. The Spurs went 58-24.
“That’s a hell of a team over there,” Wade said. “We’re going to have to make adjustments every game throughout the series. We’re going to see something different that we ain’t seen.”
Miami boasts James, Wade and Bosh while the Spurs are led by Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, a three-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player who averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. He seeks a fifth career NBA crown.
“They are still the defending champs,” Duncan said. “They are still the best in the regular season.”
Wade and Bosh have struggled at times in the playoffs but they will need to be on their game to face the challenge San Antonio provides.
“Obviously we’re a much better team when we have everyone clicking at the same time. That’s obvious,” James said. “We’ve had more games where everyone was clicking than not so.”
Wade had gone six weeks without netting 20 points in a game until the clincher over Indiana, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra warned that it would be dangerous for the Spurs to ignore the threat he poses.
“When you count Dwyane out, he has an uncanny way in big games of getting bigger,” Spoelstra said.
Miami won both regular-season meetings of the clubs but neither provided true insight into how the teams match up. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were benched by Popovich for the game in Miami, a move that brought a $250,000 fine from the NBA, and the Heat benched James and Wade for the rematch in Texas.