The NBA Finals resume on Thursday night in Miami, and for the second time in four games the Miami Heat are going to face something right next door to a must-win game. LeBron James stepped up and took over in Game 2 and the big question now is whether he’ll do it again in Game 4. My answer is this—of course he will, but the real question should be how much James alone will matter.
There’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from an epic Game 6—not the sixth game of last year’s NBA Finals that haunts the San Antonio Spurs and looms large over this year’s Finals. I’m talking about the biggest night of LeBron’s NBA career, in June of 2012.
The Heat had just lost a Game 5 at home to the aging Boston Celtics and were faced with elimination at Game 6 in the Garden. Game 5 was notable for Paul Pierce drilling a monster three-pointer in the closing moments and coming to the bench after a timeout and shouting “I got the (cajones) to take that shot!” Whether Pierce was drawing a comparison between himself and James, no one knows, but the media didn’t hesitate to make the comparison.
What happened next is part of NBA lore. LeBron came out at the Boston Garden and silenced a raucous crowd, drilling 45 points, leading the Heat to a blowout win and then they won a tighter Game 7 at home. Miami goes on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to win LeBron’s first championship, then repeats the feat at last year’s epic Finals. Thus, Game 6 at the Garden was perhaps the seminal moment of LeBron James’ career in the NBA to date.
But if you watched that game—and as a Celtics fan, I certainly did—then the narrative of how “James just took over and there was nothing that could be done to stop him” should ring demonstrably false. Not because James wasn’t truly spectacular. But because Boston could have won the game anyway.
When I think of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I think of a night when the quality of basketball was very poor. No Celtics player, much less the team as a whole, had anything remotely approaching a good game. No Heat player outside of James, had a good game. In fact, here’s a brief clip of what I wrote here at TheSportsNotebook the following morning…
…had the Celtics been able to play cohesive offensive basketball and hit their shots this would have been anyone’s game regardless of James’ heroics. When you consider all the great players on the floor last night, along with the magnitude of the game, it seems more than a little odd that James would be the only one to even play well…
To me, the implications of that for this year’s NBA Finals are clear. The San Antonio Spurs cannot worry about whether LeBron is going to go off. I fully expect him to in Game 4, and if the Spurs get a third win, I expect James to be great in any game going forward. The issue is how the Spurs play and whether James’ supporting cast helps him out.
Let’s take Game 2, when James responded to his cramping of Game 1, with a big-time 35-point performance, including several big shots down the stretch. The fourth quarter of that game was also marked by the Spurs getting away from their offensive flow, going one-on-one, blowing defensive rotations (resulting in a wide-open three for Chris Bosh, whom LeBron immediately found), and missing free throws.
If the Spurs simply avoid making those errors, they would have won that game in spite of LeBron’s heroics. And that’s the message they must have going forward, and it’s also the message that Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh must have going forward.
San Antonio is a better team—by a lot—than the Celtic team of 2012 was. The Miami Heat team we see this year is not as good as that ’12 version was. If the focus of the Spurs is playing smart basketball on both ends and making sure that any explosion from LeBron doesn’t extend to Dwayne Wade and Bosh, then San Antonio will win the championship. If Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heat supporting cast take this same lesson to heart and give James the help any great player needs (yes, including Michael Jordan), then Miami can get a three-peat.
In short, it’s the nine players on the floor not named LeBron James that we need to give more attention to in the balance of these NBA Finals. That’s the lesson of recent history.