Heading into the game that officially ended the Miami Heat’s chance at a three-peat, LeBron James was desperately resting his team’s hopes on clichéd mantras like “History was made to be broken” and ” Why not us?”
Because there was no way that basketball’s best team was letting the sport’s best player off the hook for a second time.
Last year, James was fortunate. The MVP of the 2013 NBA Finals, in the running to eventually finish his career as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), could have been seen as a goat when his 3-pointer on the Heat’s last possession of Game 6 in that series was off line.
One more defensive rebound by the San Antonio Spurs in regulation time would have changed the course of history.
With that, there would have been no offensive rebound by Chris Bosh, no game-tying, step back 3-pointer from Ray Allen, no overtime victory for Miami in Game 6 and no second straight title celebration for James and the Heat following a narrow Game 7 win over the Spurs last season.
One single rebound from the narrative changing on Miami’s super union of James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Certainly, there’s no shame at all in what that group has accomplished together. Any team in the league — including San Antonio — would gladly sign up for winning a conference championship each year while winning a couple of NBA titles over a four-year span.
Yet already, there’s talk of how the Heat can possibly add New York’s Carmelo Anthony and become a “Fantastic Four” and even whether Miami’s current star trio might have played its last season together.
If the run is in fact over, it should probably be viewed as highly successful, on the surface. However, that success is also relative, as seen through the prism of what the Heat expected of itself after James starred in his ignominious “Decision” spectacle on national television, and shamefully rubbed his departure from his hometown in the faces of Cleveland Cavaliers fans.
The next day, with Wade laughing next to him, the self-proclaimed King James famously and arrogantly declared that the Heat would win, “Not one, not two… not seven” championships.
In that light, a pair of titles in four years falls short of what Miami was hoping to achieve to this point (and again, save for that missed San Antonio rebound, it could have very easily been one championship thus far).
After predicting at least eight titles for the Heat, James continued.
“When I say that, I really believe it,” he said. “We believe we can win multiple championships if we take care of business and do it the right way.”
This year, it was San Antonio — not Miami — which did things the right way at the end.
While James got his numbers in the 2014 NBA Finals, he didn’t receive even close to the amount of help he needed.
Conversely, the Spurs’ aging yet still quite effective “Big Three” of its own, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, had absolutely no qualms whatsoever with stepping aside and allowing others — like Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills (who worked hard to lose weight and get in shape over the summer after not playing much last year) — share the spotlight while letting a third-year, 22-year-old in Kawhi Leonard top them all by earning his first Most Valuable Player Award of the Finals.
And when he did, Leonard’s veteran “Big Three” (ranging from ages 32 to 38), with their future places in basketball’s Hall of Fame secured, displayed genuine happiness for Leonard, who like those he’s learning from, is as humble as they come.
For San Antonio, the entire 2013-14 season was about making things right after the agonizing failure of last year, when Ginobili said, “We had it,” only to let it get away.
It wasn’t about “taking talents to South Beach,” or anywhere else, as James said during “The Decision,” before he formed a dream team with a group of proven mega-stars who were three of the top five picks in the 2003 NBA draft.
Nor was it about trying to match the “best player on the planet,” as James was described by Spurs legendary head coach Gregg Popovich, who seemingly holds everyone accountable, from team owner Peter Holt to ticket takers at San Antonio’s AT&T Center.
And it wasn’t mainly about the Spurs’ “Big Three” the way it was in past title runs. Several times, it was about the one player from that group (Ginobili) who now comes off the bench.
This year, it was particularly about the emergence of Leonard, a great but somewhat under-the-radar player at San Diego State, and a supremely unassuming talent who came into his own during the past season, before using the league’s biggest stage to let everyone know he arrived — to the point where he neutralized James at some key times, and even outplayed him during others.
It was about Leonard’s normally solid defense on James and his three games with at least 20 points — including a pair of double-doubles — in the last three games of the 2014 Finals after he totaled just 18 points and four rebounds over the first two games of the series.
And when the Spurs needed a response after the Heat tied the series, 1-1, with a win on San Antonio’s home floor, it wasn’t the Spurs’ “Big Three,” but rather, Leonard and Green who stepped up with brilliant, tone-setting performances — as they each made their first six shots — to run Miami out of its own building.
In the next game, it was mainly about Diaw’s near triple-double (eight points, nine rebounds and nine assists) in Game 4 and then Mills’ 17 points — 14 in the third quarter — in 18 minutes off the bench in Game 5, to complement Ginobili’s 19 points on a night when Parker and Green went scoreless on a combined 0-for-11 shooting, during a first half that ended with the team-first Spurs leading by seven points anyway. And even that was after James staked Miami to a 22-6 lead as he went off for 17 first-quarter points.
James gave San Antonio his best shot in Game 5 to keep his team alive, yet all he could do afterwards was admit, “They were a much better team. That’s how team basketball should be played.”
That comment was a sharp departure from the aforementioned moment four years earlier, seconds after James’ prognostication of at least eight Miami titles, when he said, “We’re going to challenge each other in practice, and the way we’re going to challenge each other to get better in practice, once the games start, it’s going to be easy.”
In other words, the type of statement no Spur would ever make.
That’s simply not San Antonio’s way, not through 17 straight playoff years (beginning with Duncan’s rookie season), 11 division championships and five NBA titles under Popovich. Not ever.
The 2014 NBA champions prefer to do their talking on the court.
Most of all, the Spurs are always about everyone buying into a solid system, with everyone on the same page.
They’re about passing up a good shot to get a great shot, regardless of who takes it.
And they’re all about hard work, dedication, focus, attention to detail, fundamentals, preparation and professionalism, and a consistent adherence to execution, sacrifice, selflessness and sharing the ball on offense, balanced with communication and commitment to playing as a unit on defense. And they’re about making adjustments and quickly correcting mistakes when any of those things go wrong.
Basically, they’re about about everything that basketball should be about.
Moments after he became a four-time champion last Sunday night, Parker said, “We’re not letting our egos get in the way because the main thing is to win the championship.”
The same couldn’t always be said during the Heat’s run over the past four years, as successful as it has generally been.
Arguably the league’s best all-around player, James is one of the NBA’s best passers and looks for his teammates the way the Spurs do.
But as a team, Miami didn’t play that way against San Antonio while getting humiliated in the 2014 Finals. The Heat put far too much of the burden on James. As a result, he cramped up when Miami lost Game 1, and when he was healthy and playing great, he had no Leonard, Green, Diaw or Mills of his own when Wade and Bosh weren’t enough assistance.
By the time the series was over, the Spurs had made the two-time defending champions look like James’ Cavaliers team which San Antonio swept for its fourth NBA title seven years earlier.
Ultimately, the top-heavy Heat not only succumbed, but got repeatedly exposed and embarrassed by the Spurs’ brand of European-style basketball, predicated on a deep roster — the most diverse in league history (with eight foreign-born players) — that was only concerned with winning.
While it seems that Miami’s players went into a mode of using each other to boost their own individual career resumes, San Antonio played for each other. It’s why Leonard was the most shy and reluctant Finals MVP Award recipient in history, and why his teammates were more happy for him getting the accolade than Leonard was to receive it.
It’s also why Parker’s Finals average of 18 points per game was the lowest ever of any leading scorer on any NBA title winner. And why even with future Hall of Famers leading the charge, the Spurs won it all with no one on their team playing more than Duncan’s 32.7 minutes per game all season.
Going back to one of those clichés James mentioned, notice the use of “me” and “I’ve” instead “we” and “we’ve” when James said, “History is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great. That would be a great story line, right? But we’ll see what happens. I’ve got to live in the moment.”
That insight into James’ mindset paints the megastar as being continually aware of his own legacy, perhaps even more so than the the Heat’s.
Or to use another cliché that James didn’t, Miami, despite its two recent titles, can learn from the Spurs in that it’s always been about the name of the front of the jersey in San Antonio, rather than the ones on the back.
Perhaps James — who once aspired to dreams of becoming the first billionaire athlete (until Michael Jordan ironically beat him to it during the Finals last week) — has been humbled since Miami’s Finals loss to Dallas in 2011.
Back then, a reporter asked him, “Does it bother you that so many people are happy to see you fail?”
“Absolutely not,” James said, before exhibiting a lack of respect toward some fans. “At the end of the day, all the people that was rootin’ on me to fail, they gotta wake up and have the same life that they had before they woke up today… they’ve gotta get back to the real world at some point.”
There’s the self-concerned, flashy way which James and the Heat have done things, and there’s the consistent, model franchise in San Antonio going about its business for the past 17 years.
It shows in their opposite styles on the floor.
There’s little doubt that Popovich is correct in calling James that best player on Earth.
But James also gets away with playing bullyball, while bowling opponents over and pushing off as NBA refreees swallow their whistles.
With the Spurs, it’s often about keeping the ball moving and letting everyone play a significant role.
“This is a team,” Ginobili said when asked how the Spurs’ infusion of talented youth guided San Antonio to its fifth title as much or more than the elder statesmen Ginobili, Parker and Duncan had.
The long-term philosophy appears to be different too.
When other teams might have blown things up, San Antonio stayed the course, even after losing as the Western Conference’s top seed in the first round, to eighth-seeded Memphis in 2011, and getting beat in heartbreaking fashion by Miami last year.
Instead, the Spurs were rewarded this year for retooling around the core that carried them to their previous four titles.
In contrast, Miami’s main men could already soon be calling it quits long before trying to make James look good on the multitude of titles he thought the Heat would in.
The league office would never consider a short five-game NBA Finals — in which each of the NBA champion’s victories came by at least 15 points, while that team set a franchise record with a plus-70 point differential in its favor — good for the league over a series more like the competitive seven-game battle the year before.
But in 2014, it was.
Excellent team play with refreshing movement and fluidity very easily trumped the usual NBA philosophy of isolation and clear-out basketball. And growing an outstanding franchise and seeing things through over a considerable amount of time outclassed the latest NBA trend of going for the quick fix by instantly pooling established superstars from different teams together on the same club, while blindly hoping the chemistry and fit all works out in the long run.
Those results are great for the league so long as other teams, in a copy-cat era, try to emulate the same.
They should, given the track records of the Spurs’ sustained success as perennial title contenders, relative to what could very well end as a mini-run culminating with a couple of quick-hit titles followed by a possible fast flame-out for the Heat.
Such a realization would be terrific for the NBA’s teams, fans, media and for everyone else who loves seeing the game played as it was always meant to be.