By Julian Linden
MIAMI (Reuters) - One of the most turbulent championships in National Basketball Association (NBA) history will reach its climax on Thursday when the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs meet in the decisive seventh game of the Finals.
Basketball fans in the United States have been whipped into a frenzy of excitement by what has already been a classic series full of wild fluctuations and escalating drama.
The teams have raised their games to new heights, producing an extraordinary standard of play and athleticism which peaked with Miami's exhilarating overtime win on Tuesday that tied the series at 3-3.
With everything on the line for Game Seven, the stakes could not be higher with millions of people around the world expected to tune in for Thursday's grand finale.
"They're the best two words in team sports, 'Game Seven,'" said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.
"Our guys aren't looking for games that are less meaningful. We're looking for games that are more meaningful. And there's nothing bigger than a Game Seven."
As defending champions, Miami were overwhelming favorites to win the title. They were almost unstoppable during the regular season, winning a franchise-record 66 games, including a 27-game stretch that is the second longest in NBA history.
With LeBron James, the sport's best player and biggest star, at the peak of his powers alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat's 'Big Three' seemed a sure bet to win back-to-back championships.
When they are on their game, few teams can contain them, and the crowds in South Florida love it, whooping and hollering as they pile on the points against overmatched opponents.
But the Spurs, chasing their fifth championship since 1999, have answered the challenge with their own 'Big Three' of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
As former champions, the three veterans know what it takes to win and have used all their streetwise knowledge to rattle the top-seeded Heat.
Every game, every quarter, every minute, every shot and every rebound has been fought over, with players leaping and diving on the hardwood for any possession.
"That's what this series is about, it's the competition," said Spoelstra. "It's not just statistics. It's not all the other storylines. It's about the competition against an equal opponent."
The first six games were a seesawing battle with the teams alternating wins and losses. If that pattern continues in Game Seven, San Antonio will be crowned champions but history favors Miami, who have the homecourt advantage.
Of the 17 previous NBA Finals that have gone seven games, the visiting team has won three times. The most recent was 35 years ago when the Washington Bullets upset the SuperSonics in Seattle.
"I don't really care what it's been like for anybody else at any time," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich growled. "All I know is we have had a hell of a year, and we have an opportunity to win a championship tomorrow night. That's all that matters."
The series was elevated to one of the all-time greats after Tuesday's breathless encounter, which has been described as one of the greatest games in NBA history after Miami pulled off a miracle comeback.
Needing a win the keep the series alive, Miami trailed by 13 points late in the third quarter and by five with 28 seconds to play in regulation after they had already fought back to take the lead.
Ray Allen, the sport's greatest three-point shooter, drained one from behind the arc with five seconds remaining to force overtime, where Miami went on to snatch a 103-100 victory.
James scored a game-high 32 points but no one is under more pressure than him in Game Seven. He is not only playing for a second championship but his place in history.
Despite being awarded the NBA's Most Valuable Player award four times, including this season, the 28-year-old continues to earn unflattering comparisons to Michael Jordan, who won five MVP awards and six championships with the Chicago Bulls.
James is appearing in just his fourth Finals. He lost his first with Cleveland then his second after moving to Miami three years ago.
He broke through for his first win last season but knows only too well he will bear the brunt of the blame should Miami fail to repeat.
"It is what it is. I understand the moment for me," said James.
"I'm going to be excited. I'm going to have some butterflies. I'll be nervous, everything. That's how I should be."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)