“Game 7s aren’t won, they’re survived.” Those were the words of ABC studio analyst Bill Simmons on the pregame show before last night’s finale in Miami, and that was exactly how it played out. Neither the Miami Heat nor the San Antonio Spurs played their best game, but the Heat got enough big plays from LeBron and forced enough Spurs’ mistakes to get a 95-88 win that was close all the way, and secure their second straight NBA title, and third in franchise history.
One player who did play his best game—or something pretty close to it—was King James. The Spurs laid off him defensively and gave him open three-point shots and jumpers from just inside the arc. This is the correct strategy and the only way to guard the game’s best player.
James shot a solid 12/23 from the floor, including 5/10 from three-point range to finish with 37 points so it’s easy to second-guess. But what was the alternative. Let James get into the lane, where he’d have been even more efficient, and get other players involved in the offense? When you go against the game’s best, strategy is about picking the way you are most willing to lose and with James that’s jump-shooting. He knocked down his shots and earned his second ring.
Dwayne Wade stepped it up with another big game at a key moment, scoring 23 points and scratching for 10 rebounds, cementing his role as one of the best pound-for-pound rebounders in the NBA. For a guard who’s not exceptionally big, Wade just finds a way to get to rebounds, and he was efficient with his mid-range jumper.
With James and Wade both hitting, and then Shane Battier stepping up for an improbable 6-of-8 night behind the arc, including a monster trey when the Miami lead was 85-82, this game would have had all the markings of a rout. But Chris Bosh was absolutely non-existent for the Heat, reducing the Big Three to a Big Two.
And while Battier was hot, the other three-point specialists had bad nights. Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller combined to go 1-for-11 and the one make was a desperation shot by Chalmers that banked in. The Heat as a team were 12-of-32 from three-point range, and while that’s a high enough percentage to justify shooting the trey, it’s not so high that a good game from the Spurs couldn’t have won anyway.
THE SPURS GUARDS CAN’T CONNECT
San Antonio got great games from Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, as the duo combined for 43 points and 28 rebounds. I particularly loved Leonard’s mental toughness. This is a 21-year-old kid who missed one of the free throws that could have secured Game 6 for his team. Yet he played well in overtime that game, and then came out aggressive last night looking for every big shot and nailing some huge ones down the stretch. If Leonard is this franchise’s future, then the Spurs are in good hands.
The problem for the Spurs came in the backcourt. Miami’s defensive adjustments on Danny Green clearly worked, as the shooter who lit them up for five games could get nothing going in the final two. Manu Ginobli had 18 points last night and shot well, but while the stat sheet says he has only four turnovers, it seems like every time he got the ball in the fourth quarter he was a train wreck waiting to happen.
And then there’s Tony Parker. He was 3-of-12 from the floor, concluding a two-game stretch where he shot 9-of-35. Moreover, he did not look confident going to the basket, and I have to believe his hamstring—one that reports said was “thisclose” to being torn held him back, both on the dribble penetration and with having the strong legs necessary to shoot well. It’s not unreasonable to think Parker’s injury was ultimately the difference in this series.
I’ve drawn analogies between this year’s Heat and the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers more than once during this postseason’s NBA commentary. I’m even more convinced today that this is the best historical basis for understanding Miami. The ’88 Lakers were a team that survived, as much as they won. They won three straight seven-game series. They trailed 3-2 in the Finals and went home needing to sweep a pair.
The ’88 Lakers looked all but finished in Game 6, trailing by three late in the game, when they somehow escaped. Then they won a Game 7 that was as much about survival as anything. The injury factor to the opposing point guard even came in—Detroit Pistons’ floor leader Isiah Thomas sprained an ankle in Game 6, and like Parker this year, Thomas played Game 7, but you have to wonder what happens in a close game with the point guard at full health.
Of course Pat Riley is the link between these two disparate teams, 25 years apart, coaching the ’88 Lakers and being the front office architect of the ’13 Heat. In both cases, it was a team that won consecutive championships. 1988 was the last hurrah for that Laker core group, led by Magic Johnson, even though they made the Finals a year later. I suspect the same will be true for Miami (though not necessarily LeBron, who can opt out of his contract after next season), but that’s a subject for October when it’s time to preview next year.
I think we’re getting to some kind of happy medium when it comes to evaluating the legacy of LeBron James. The rush to compare him with Michael Jordan has mostly died down, and so long as His Airness is not the standard, we don’t have to nitpick every facet of James’ game. We now have a 28-year-old who’s won two rings, carried a lousy 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers’ team into the playoffs mostly by himself, and when surrounded with a good supporting cast and a legitimate sidekick in Wade, has never failed to reach the Finals and won it twice.
Can we also acknowledge that LeBron, by everything we’re able to see, seems like a pretty good guy? Cleveland fans, you’re exempt from having to acknowledge this, but the rest of the world should be able to. We have a star player who’s never in any trouble, shows a genuine appreciation and respect for the achievements of other teams and players, reaches out to people off the court. I understand legitimate arguments over his place in the historical pantheon and what he needs to do to attain certain historic plateaus. But whatever mistakes he’s made off the court have been minor, and he’s apologized for.
I don’t root for Miami, simply because it just seems a little too easy, and unless it’s a year where the Celtics are the favorite, I’d like to see a genuine surprise happen in an NBA postseason that’s often all too chalky. Even the last two games, you had the feeling you were watching a movie where the protagonist is in trouble, but you don’t really doubt that he’s going to get himself out of it. The NBA is the only sport that is this predictable, year-in and year-out and I don’t think it’s good for the league.
I’m digressing a little bit here, but that’s the reason for the contradiction between my general rooting against Miami, while still liking and respecting their focal point player. It’s time to acknowledge that James is a player who works hard, stays out of trouble and has basketball in a healthy perspective in terms of life.
THE SAN ANTONIO LEGACY
When I see Gregg Popovich, I find myself likening the Spurs’ coach to New England Patriots’ boss Bill Belichik. Not only because each are equally non-charismatic with the media, to the point that their lack of humor is funny unto itself. But because I look at their rosters and wonder “How”?
Just like I wonder how a Patriot team with a shaky defense and questionable running game still advances deep in the playoffs and has reached a couple recent Super Bowls, I look at this Spurs lineup and just can’t figure out how Popovich got them as close as he did.
Tim Duncan is 37-years-old, Parker is 30, and after that everyone is a role player. How does this team come through the Western Conference, easily the superior of the two. Even with Oklahoma City losing Russell Westbrook, there were still several teams that were better than anyone outside of Miami in the East. And a lot of credible observers felt San Antonio would win the West even before Westbrook went down.
Yet in spite of all this, San Antonio was in the following position—down 90-88 in Game 7, on the road and watching Tim Duncan go to the hoop for what looked like an easy game-tying basket. Duncan missed, LeBron hit a jumper at the other end and that all but sealed it. If you could have offered that scenario to any Spurs’ fan at the start of the series and said that’s what the championship will come down to—Duncan at the hoop and LeBron shooting jumpers, they’d have taken it. It didn’t work out, but it underscores how superbly San Antonio maximized its contributions from everyone.
Earlier in the postseason, I wrote that while the Spurs had four titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007), the one thing they didn’t have was a Finals win over a marquee opponent. As I thought more about it, I realized that wasn’t altogether fair. The 2005 win came over a Detroit Pistons team that was the defending champions, and would go on to make the conference finals for three years after that.
If you want to say that Detroit didn’t have a marquee star, then let’s go to 2007 and the win over LeBron’s Cavaliers. If that’s still not good enough, then I suspect you won’t be happy until the Spurs beat a combination All-Star team of the Magic-era Lakers and Bird-era Celtics. And in either case, San Antonio beat the Kobe-Shaq Lakers en route to the 2003 championship. Case closed. I know Spurs fans are feeling the disappointment, just like Patriots fans have in recent seasons, but the reality is that everything they do now is icing on an already tasty cake.
A SEASON IN THE BOOKS
And thus, the 2013 NBA seasonis in the books. It was an exciting year all season long in the Western Conference, and in the joust to see who would at least get a crack at Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat made a run at history with their 27-game win streak and we saw new contenders like Brooklyn, Golden State and Houston start to emerge.
TheSportsNotebook will release a complete compilation of the NBA articles written this season, something that should be put together and available on Amazon by next weekend, at which time the 2013 NHL season will also be finished, and its article collection compiled. Keep an eye out for that. NBA commentary then returns in October when it’s time to preview next season.
In the meantime, congratulations to Miami and another shout-out to San Antonio as these two teams gave us the most compelling Finals since the aforementioned Lakers-Pistons battle a quarter-century ago.