There was something different about the 2013 preseason, when the Miami Heat faced the San Antonio Spurs after having met in the NBA Finals. Fans felt a sense of excitement as they prepared to watch a rematch of two quality opponents and despite the Spurs age, there was a hope that they would be able to renew their rivalry in the Finals.
That much did happen, even if the Larry O'Brien trophy now resides a few miles away from the Alamo and not near the glittering sands of South Beach. But as Miami travels to face the Spurs on their home court, that same excitement from last year is missing. The Spurs remain consistent and seeking annual excellence while the Heat is searching for a new identity that may take time to discover.
It's one of the byproducts of LeBron James' departure; when he went "home" to Cleveland, he unexpectedly took Miami's rivalries with him. It's a reminder that while these types of clashes usually involve teams, sometimes the rival narrative is driven by individuals. With James on the roster, the Heat's status as title-contenders was assured. Now, Miami's expectations are lower while the Spurs are looking for their first back-to-back championship season.
This has happened before, this sudden rivalry gone too soon before its time. The bad blood between Miami and the New York Knicks of the 1990's was substantially diluted as years went by and players were traded, retired or simply faded with the passage of time. Getting energized to beat each other senseless isn't as important as both teams struggled just to remain relevant.
Sometimes, a rivalry evolves differently as it did last season with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. As longtime antagonists while with the Boston Celtics, being traded to the Brooklyn Nets did little to endear this dastardly duo to Heat fans and players; sharp elbows and cheap shots aren't bound by geography. But as both Hall-of-Famers continue to age, their impact on a game - and a sense of rivalry - is diminished. Garnett is content to play out what will likely be his last season on a mediocre Nets team while Pierce, still effective in spots, gets to continue needling James as a member of the Washington Wizards (whose rivalry with Cleveland has suddenly been renewed with the return of the prodigal son).
We'll see this premise in effect later this season when Miami faces the Indiana Pacers. This vastly different team wants to simply make postseason, a far cry from the championship hopes that the Heat dashed so frequently during the "Big 3" era. But, even with Lance Stephenson blowing in the wind in Charlotte and with Paul George sidelined by a terrible injury, there's a feeling that as long as David West is trying to intimidate the Heat - and with Udonis Haslem always there to retaliate - there'll be enough tension to keep this contest interesting.
This doesn't remove all the intrigue from this Spurs matchup, of course. They're still a great team to watch and the precise way in which they carved up Miami in the Finals has inspired 28 other teams to develop more "Spurs-ian" offensive schemes (including the Heat, but excluding the Lakers who seem intent to quietly tank the season by refusing to shoot from distance while struggling defensively). Moreover, the Spurs are both a role model and a mirror image of Miami. Both teams have sustained excellence, a winning attitude reflected from the front office to the 12th man on the bench. While San Antonio has been viewed as a potential title winner every year since 1998, it's important to remember that they had gone through a large chunk of time without collecting any significant hardware. Part of what made their last title run so special to the team and its fans was that it had been seven years of "also-running" in the making.
But Miami can look to these Spurs and then back at their own team and see enough similarities to give hope for the future. With enough quality veterans in place, this team could be just one young superstar-in-the-making - like Kawhi Leonard or, dare I say it, James Ennis? - away from being a legitimate title contenders.
So this meaningless preseason game between two proud franchises that met in the Finals doesn't have the same luster as last year. But there's enough renewed hope in Miami that this team could once again be a championship threat.
Two teams with histories of success will meet, one with immediate title hopes and another simply hoping to keep improving.
Not as rivals anyway...at least not yet.