(Sports Network) - Two of the NBA's most successful franchises, not just during this regular season, but over the past 15 years, will square off in the NBA Finals, starting Thursday night.
The Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, who also double as the defending NBA champion, will have home-court advantage over the Western Conference winners, the San Antonio Spurs.
The Heat finished with the NBA's best regular-season mark, a staggering 66-16, which featured a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in the history of the league.
The Spurs had the third-best record in the NBA at 58-24. If not for a Tony Parker ankle injury late in the season, San Antonio might have well earned the next-best record behind the Heat.
But one season hardly makes for a successful franchise. The measure of greatness in professional basketball can be counted by the number of Larry O'Brien Trophies in team headquarters.
Since 1997, the Spurs have the best postseason winning percentage in the league. The Heat are third.
The Heat won last season's title and lost in the Finals the previous year. The Spurs have four championships since 1999, with the last coming in 2007. That year, San Antonio knocked off a young Cleveland Cavaliers team led by LeBron James.
Fast-forward to June of 2013 and James is already staking claim to the title of one of the best players in NBA history. He's won four MVPs, including the last two, and is a much more-seasoned force.
"My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did," James said after the Heat's Game 7 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Monday's Eastern Conference Finals. "I think for this team, 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."
James had to be that much better a player to get by the Pacers. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other members of Miami's Big Three, which is slowly becoming the Big One, had dreadful series against Indiana. Wade came alive in Game 7 with 21 points, but he's battling a balky knee.
The Spurs have been sitting home since a week ago Monday. They swept the Memphis Grizzlies in four games in the Western Conference Finals. The rest is a good thing for an older Spurs squad, led by their own Big Three.
Tim Duncan, a three-time Finals MVP, enjoyed a career Renaissance this season. After shedding 25 pounds in the offseason, Duncan averaged 17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 2.7 bpg. He returned to the All-NBA First Team for the first time since the 2006-07 season and was Second-Team All-Defensive.
Parker emerged as an MVP candidate until an ankle injury sidelined him during the second half. And Manu Ginobili, while struggling with his shot during the postseason, is still a huge piece.
When it comes to sizing up Big Threes, San Antonio's is historic. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have combined for 98 playoff victories. That total is second all-time to the Los Angeles Lakers' trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Michael Cooper.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have played 150 playoff games together. That is 72 more than the next highest trio of active players - Boston's Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. (Wade, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers are third with 69.)
And while James at times took games over, he'll need Wade, Bosh and everyone in a Heat uniform to play at a high level.
"Obviously we're a much better team when we have everyone clicking at the same time. That's obvious," James said after the Game 7 win. "And we've had more games where everyone was clicking than not so. It just happened that this series guys were just not in the rhythm, not feeling like themselves."
These teams are both so strong and sadly, the head-to-head regular-season matchups offer little insight.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who can join Pat Riley and John Kundla in third place in NBA titles as a coach, famously sent Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green home the day of the first regular-season matchup in Miami. The NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 for the action, but the Heat barely squeaked out the victory
In the second regular-season meeting, this time in Alamo City, the Heat clinched the best record in the league and sat James and Wade. Miami still prevailed.
"They're still the defending champs. They're still the best in the regular season," Duncan said.
And the respect goes both ways.
"They've got a bunch of Hall-of-Famers, so I look forward to the challenge," James said.