The evidence, decades worth of it, has been staring us in the face for a long time: winning even a single NBA championship is brutally difficult and requires the perfect combination of luck, health, matchups and talent. The Mavericks have had one of the 25 greatest players in league history in his prime for more than a decade, and it took a unique confluence to get them over the top last season, including health among the right players and a one-year rental of one of the league’s best defenders (Tyson Chandler), acquired via 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 in and Game 2 of the Finals against Miami, and, of course, benefited from the puzzling meltdown from the game’s greatest player.
The 2007-08 Celtics, a management-created Big Three that fans typically find less abrasive than the (partially) player-created Big Three in Miami, blitzed the league in their first season together. Since then, however, they have fallen short due to poorly timed injuries and the emergence of a better conference rival in Miami — factors beyond their control.
The list goes on and on, dating to the 1950s Hawks and the 1960s Lakers, the latter a team which suffered so many heartbreaking losses against Boston that a player literally nicknamed “Mr. Clutch” went ring-less until the very end of his career. The truly great teams who fell short of winning even a single championship or “only” won that first ring outnumber — by a huge margin — the teams that have been fortunate enough to form mini-dynasties. All the “asterisk” talk after Derrick Rose’s sad knee injury in the very first game of these playoffs — talk that, thankfully, faded weeks ago — ignores the fact that nearly every playoff season features multiple injuries, big and small, nagging and crippling, that alter title odds across the league.
Put simply: There is a ceiling on NBA greatness, and this Heat team was never going to break through it. The very best teams in NBA history have typically outscored opponents by between eight and 12 points per 100 possessions, with fewer than a half-dozen teams breaking double digits in scoring margin. And there are always one or two teams lurking just below the top dog, waiting to pounce if an injury, coaching mistake or some bit of inner team turmoil tilts the championship equation in their favor.
The Heat were always going to have to work hard for this, even if they didn’t realize it when they held that ridiculous welcome party two years ago. And they have worked for it as injuries, age, on-court issues and random luck have forced them — both as individuals and as a team — to become something altogether different than they were when this Big Three experiment began.
Think about it this way: When the Heat re-signed Udonis Haslem and nabbed the versatile Mike Miller in the summer of 2010, NBA geekdom immediately began salivating over the potential of a dream closing lineup of Haslem, Miller and the three stars — a lineup both big and small, without a point guard, that promised to reinvent the game and present impossible matchup issues for opponents.
That lineup played just 52 combined minutes in the regular season and playoffs this year, largely due to Miller’s endless health concerns and Haslem’s stark decline on both ends of the floor. In fact, it appeared in just 15 of Miami’s 89 games, per NBA.com. Erik Spoelstra did not even use it until an early February game in Philadelphia, a blowout Miami win that came on the heels of a contentious team meeting in which the players reportedly discussed the importance of selflessness and the dangers of hero ball isolation play. That win ignited an 11-1 stretch in which all but one win came by double digits, a streak in which Miami looked unbeatable. The stars committed to the quick-hitting motion-based half-court sets that Spoelstra and his staff have worked so hard to implement, sets that required James and Wade to set screens, cut off the ball and work in a way they were previously unaccustomed to doing as alpha dogs.
Miami’s commitment to that sort of play waned at times. It is taxing, both mentally and physically, and the natural tendency for both James and Wade over their entire basketball lives has been to hold the ball, survey the defense and go to work. That sort of stagnancy seemed like a waste given the superstar standing away from the ball, and, predictably, the Heat were vulnerable when they played in that fashion. Miami famously wilted in crunch time during the entire 2010-11 season, missing nearly every last-second shot they took, culminating with that brutal late-season loss to Chicago after which Spoelstra admitted players were crying in the locker room. The alleged crunch-time yips surfaced again this season, most famously in back-to-back road losses to the Clippers and Warriors, and in another late-season overtime defeat in Chicago — a game in which James, again, appeared hesitant to shoot in the clutch. James even took (silly) criticism after passing to a wide-open Haslem for a missed buzzer beater during a March loss to Utah. (There were clutch wins, too, against Minnesota, New York, Indiana, New Jersey, Philadelphia and many others, and James was going to the rim more late in games. Not surprisingly, folks didn’t like to talk about those outcomes quite as much).
Even so: It was clear that a Miami team 75 percent committed to playing the “right way” on offense would be among the championship favorites. The Heat have been playing a swarming brand of championship-level defense since the start of last season, and that 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 series against New York, things went haywire. Bosh suffered an abdominal injury, robbing Miami of its only reliable big man on the roster. Wade looked like a lesser version of himself, and it was eventually revealed that he was suffering from left knee issues that were serious enough to require at least one draining procedure during the conference finals against Boston.
The plan was in tatters. Those quick-hitting motion sets didn’t work without Bosh to space the floor, set picks and work as a facilitator from the elbow. The entire notion of playing two big men at once felt suddenly futile after a Game 2 loss against the Pacers, a defeat in which the Heat started the offensively 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 that Spoelstra spent two years assembling. They reinvented themselves as a small-ball team with James as the nominal power forward. The Heat had long used James at the four position as a change-of-pace weapon, but that approach had never been the foundation of their attack. No such lineup logged more than a measly 30 combined minutes during their entire playoff run in 2010-11, and small-ball basically went extinct after their second round series against Boston, per NBA.com.
But this postseason, Miami’s three most frequently used lineups all featured James as the power forward. And here’s the remarkable thing: Miami played 23 postseason games, and no single five-man group appeared in more than 13 of them. Think about that for a moment. Most teams, including the stubborn Thunder, start the same five players in every single game, and Miami didn’t even have one five-man group appear in 14 of their 23 playoff games. That is grinding. That is adaptation.
The Heat had no choice but to adapt, and James had no choice but to unleash his refined post-up game in order to generate offense that wasn’t coming from Miami’s typical sets. Bosh played a wonderful Finals, especially as a help defender and pick-and-roll threat, but he wasn’t quite the focal point on offense that he had been when healthy. Wade put up decent numbers, but dig deeper, and it’s clear that he wasn’t the same player. He shot just 36.6 percent in the playoffs when James was on the bench — compared to 49 percent with LeBron on the floor — and he attempted many fewer shots at the rim when he had to carry the offense alone. Miami was +163 for the playoffs as a whole, but -34 in the 108 minutes Wade had to work without James, per NBA.com.
Traditional Miami sets still surfaced, but they were less central as the playoffs wore on, and often were used as triggers to feed James the ball on the block. And he simply dominated from there, displaying a relentlessness in the paint we have not quite seen before. James shot a horrific 7-of-39 on shots from outside ten feet in the Finals, and he still managed to play as efficiently — both as a scorer and a creator — as just about anyone in league history. He finished these playoffs with a PER of 30.3, the second time he has cracked 30 for a full postseason. The entire list 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 111.1 points per 100 possessions in the Finals, and 106.9 for the playoffs as a whole. The first number would have led the league by a 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 same combination required for every title. How battered do you think Shane Battier is right now after guarding everyone from David West to Kevin Durant?
This was hard work combined with super stardom and the necessary dollop of luck: Rose’s injury, James Harden’s numerous threes that rattled in and out and the controversial no-call on Durant’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 we start speculating about a dynasty in South Beach, let’s appreciate the effort it takes to win the Finals just once.