The evidence, decades worth of it, has been staring us in the facefor a long time: winning even a single NBA championship is brutallydifficult and requires the perfect combination of luck, health,matchups and talent. The Mavericks have had one of the 25 greatestplayers in league history in his prime for more than a decade, andit took a unique confluence to get them over the top last season,including health among the right players and a one-year rental ofone of the league's best defenders (Tyson Chandler), acquiredvia a savvy deal involving a bizarre non-guaranteed contract.Dallas had mammoth "everything has to go right"comebacks in both their second-round series against the Lakers inand Game 2 of the Finals against Miami, and, of course, benefitedfrom the puzzling meltdown from the game's greatest player. The 2007-08 Celtics, a management-created Big Three that fanstypically find less abrasive than the (partially) player-createdBig Three in Miami, blitzed the league in their first seasontogether. Since then, however, they have fallen short due to poorlytimed injuries and the emergence of a better conference rival inMiami — factors beyond their control. |
The list goes on and on, dating to the 1950s Hawks and the 1960sLakers, the latter a team which suffered so many heartbreakinglosses against Boston that a player literally nicknamed "Mr.Clutch" went ring-less until the very end of his career. Thetruly great teams who fell short of winning even a singlechampionship or "only" won that first ring outnumber— by a huge margin — the teams that have been fortunateenough to form mini-dynasties. All the "asterisk" talkafter Derrick Rose's sad knee injury in the very first gameof these playoffs — talk that, thankfully, faded weeks ago— ignores the fact that nearly every playoff season featuresmultiple injuries, big and small, nagging and crippling, that altertitle odds across the league. Put simply: There is a ceiling on NBA greatness, and this Heat teamwas never going to break through it.
The very best teams in NBAhistory have typically outscored opponents by between eight and 12points per 100 possessions, with fewer than a half-dozen teamsbreaking double digits in scoring margin. And there are always oneor two teams lurking just below the top dog, waiting to pounce ifan injury, coaching mistake or some bit of inner team turmoil tiltsthe championship equation in their favor. The Heat were always going to have to work hard for this, even ifthey didn't realize it when they held that ridiculous welcomeparty two years ago. And they have worked for it as injuries, age, on-court issues and random luckhave forced them — both as individuals and as a team —to become something altogether different than they were when thisBig Three experiment began.
Think about it this way: When the Heat re-signed Udonis Haslem andnabbed the versatile Mike Miller in the summer of 2010, NBA geekdomimmediately began salivating over the potential of a dream closinglineup of Haslem, Miller and the three stars — a lineup bothbig and small, without a point guard, that promised to reinvent thegame and present impossible matchup issues for opponents. That lineup played just 52 combined minutes in the regular seasonand playoffs this year, largely due to Miller's endlesshealth concerns and Haslem's stark decline on both ends ofthe floor. In fact, it appeared in just 15 of Miami's 89games, per NBA.com. Erik Spoelstra did not even use it until anearly February game in Philadelphia, a blowout Miami win that cameon the heels of a contentious team meeting in which the playersreportedly discussed the importance of selflessness and the dangersof hero ball isolation play.
That win ignited an 11-1 stretch inwhich all but one win came by double digits, a streak in whichMiami looked unbeatable. The stars committed to the quick-hittingmotion-based half-court sets that Spoelstra and his staff haveworked so hard to implement, sets that required James and Wade toset rental led screen, cut off the ball and work in a way they werepreviously unaccustomed to doing as alpha dogs. Miami's commitment to that sort of play waned at times. It istaxing, both mentally and physically, and the natural tendency forboth James and Wade over their entire basketball lives has been tohold the ball, survey the defense and go to work. That sort ofstagnancy seemed like a waste given the superstar standing awayfrom the ball, and, predictably, the Heat were vulnerable when theyplayed in that fashion.
Miami famously wilted in crunch time duringthe entire 2010-11 season, missing nearly every last-second shotthey took, culminating with that brutal late-season loss to Chicagoafter which Spoelstra admitted players were crying in the lockerroom. The alleged crunch-time yips surfaced again this season, mostfamously in back-to-back road losses to the Clippers and Warriors,and in another late-season overtime defeat in Chicago — agame in which James, again, appeared hesitant to shoot in theclutch. James even took (silly) criticism after passing to awide-open Haslem for a missed buzzer beater during a March loss toUtah. (There were clutch wins, too, against Minnesota, New York,Indiana, New Jersey, Philadelphia and many others, and James wasgoing to the rim more late in games. Not surprisingly, folksdidn't like to talk about those outcomes quite as much).
Even so: It was clear that a Miami team 75 percent committed toplaying the "right way" on offense would be among thechampionship favorites. The Heat have been playing a swarming brandof championship-level defense since the start of last season, andthat defense, coupled with a "good enough" offense,would place them on the brink of a title. Then the playoffs started, and after an easy five-game seriesagainst New York, things went haywire. Bosh suffered an abdominalinjury, robbing Miami of its only reliable big man on the roster.Wade looked like a lesser version of himself, and it was eventuallyrevealed that he was suffering from left knee issues that wereserious enough to require at least one draining procedure duringthe conference finals against Boston. The plan was in tatters.
Those quick-hitting motion setsdidn't work without Bosh to space the floor, set picks andwork as a facilitator from the elbow. The entire notion of playingtwo big men at once felt suddenly futile after a Game 2 lossagainst the Pacers, a defeat in which the Heat started theoffensively challenged Haslem and Ronny Turiaf pairing. And so Miami did what it had to: The Heat adapted on the fly,scrapping or at least demoting entire portions of the playbook thatSpoelstra spent two years assembling. They reinvented themselves asa small-ball team with James as the nominal power forward.
The Heathad long used James at the four position as a change-of-paceweapon, but that approach had never been the foundation of theirattack. No such lineup logged more than a measly 30 combinedminutes during their entire playoff run in 2010-11, and small-ballbasically went extinct after their second round series againstBoston, per NBA.com. But this postseason, Miami's three most frequently usedlineups all featured James as the power forward. And here'sthe remarkable thing: Miami played 23 postseason games, and nosingle five-man group appeared in more than 13 of them.
Think aboutthat for a moment. Most teams, including the stubborn Thunder,start the same five players in every single game, and Miamididn't even have one five-man group appear in 14 of their 23playoff games. That is grinding. That is adaptation.
The Heat had no choice but to adapt, and James had no choice but tounleash his refined post-up game in order to generate offense thatwasn't coming from Miami's typical sets. Bosh played awonderful Finals, especially as a help defender and pick-and-rollthreat, but he wasn't quite the focal point on offense thathe had been when healthy. Wade put up decent numbers, but digdeeper, and it's clear that he wasn't the same player.He shot just 36.6 percent in the playoffs when James was on thebench — compared to 49 percent with LeBron on the floor— and he attempted many fewer shots at the rim when he had tocarry the offense alone. Miami was +163 for the playoffs as awhole, but -34 in the 108 minutes Wade had to work without James,per NBA.com. Traditional Miami sets still surfaced, but they were less centralas the playoffs wore on, and often were used as triggers to feedJames the ball on the block.
And he simply dominated from there,displaying a relentlessness in the paint we have not quite seenbefore. James shot a horrific 7-of-39 on shots from outside tenfeet in the Finals, and he still managed to play as efficiently— both as a scorer and a creator — as just about anyonein league history. He finished these playoffs with a PER of 30.3,the second time he has cracked 30 for a full postseason. The entirelist of players to hit that mark in two or more playoffs: James,Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
The Heat offense, their weak link for two years, put up 111.1points per 100 possessions in the Finals, and 106.9 for theplayoffs as a whole. The first number would have led the league bya mile, and the second would have nestled the Heat in the top three— far better than they ranked during the regular season.Miami needed a new formula under pressure, and, unquestionably,they found one. This was a title won by star power and guts — the samecombination required for every title. How battered do you thinkShane Battier is right now after guarding everyone from David Westto Kevin Durant? This was hard work combined with super stardom and the necessarydollop of luck: Rose's injury, James Harden's numerousthrees that rattled in and out and the controversial no-call onDurant's miss that sealed Game 2 in Oklahoma City. But that's what it takes.
That's what it always takes. Miami has always had the makings of a championship team,but it had to dig deep to put all the pieces together. Before westart speculating about a dynasty in South Beach, let'sappreciate the effort it takes to win the Finals just once.
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