Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Miami Heat 2012-13 NBA Champions

There's really no need to get fancy or beat around the proverbial bush when it comes to what they accomplished. Once again the Heat was the last team standing & deservedly so. Last year with the lockout & shortened season, it was somewhat of a blur. This year however, was the usual grind that nearly every other championship team has had to go through. The fact that is was their second in a row does make it even more impressive. Once again, LeBron James was the biggest deciding factor in their championship.

I won't get into all the numbers of how many players in history have done this or that, don't need to. I don't like getting caught up in all those statical numbers, that's for the sports shows to make stories out of. Besides, my eyes tell me all I need to know: he is the best player on the planet. It's just that simple. Game 6 was a microcosm of his entire career wrapped up into 1 game. For most of the game he was having, by his standards, an average game. Not terrible but certainly not great. That's not something you should be able to say about the best player in the world at a time when his team's season is on the line. Then as has been the case before with James, when it seemed his story would be written in an unflattering tone, he lead the Heat back in the final 5 minutes to force overtime where they went on to pull it out.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm not a fan of LeBron's but not at all in the fashion that the so-called LeBron haters dislike him. I have no problem admitting his greatness. To not admit it would be foolish. He certainly has had his flaws but at this point in his career, he has now proven everything there is to prove. People shouldn't compare others to him (Carmelo Anthony & Kevin Durant), nor compare him to others (Michael Jordan). If you're really a fan of the NBA be glad you get to root against him or for him & let him define his career as his own, not in comparison to anyone else's. My issues with him started years ago, long before The Decision. I saw a young man who just hadn't proven he could win at the highest level behaving as though he had already accomplished everything. He was the self appointed King James & he certainly acted as though he thought he was the King. I never cared for all the pre-game antics like pretending to take pictures with his teammates or the whole throwing the talcum powder in the air nonsense.

The one that bothered me the most though was a game against the Chicago Bulls in Cleveland when he was still a Cavalier. The Cavs were up by well over 20 points, & while sitting on the bench, in the middle of the game he starting dancing...dancing on the baseline, in the middle of the game. Joakim Noah obviously felt as I did because when LeBron was reinserted into the game, Noah, while sitting on the bench could be seen telling James he was a clown & should be better than that. Noah was right. For all the fans of LeBron who will try to make excuses for him & say it's no big deal, ask yourself this: do you think you would ever see Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett or even Derrick Rose behaving in the same manner? The answer is an obvious no.

I continually told friends who were fans of his that, much like Dwight Howard, he wouldn't win until he got serious & focused all of his mental energy to the task at hand. Even his own current teammate Dwyane Wade was stoic & focused before games. So while James was busy taking faux pictures with his teammates, Wade would be mentally preparing himself for the game. When I finally saw that James was ready was last year in the playoffs when he took to riding a stationary bike in the tunnel outside the locker room. I told my wife as soon as I saw that, "he finally gets it & now he's ready".

I always felt that James would have to hit professional rock-bottom before he would realize how much focus & attention is required to be an NBA Champion. That professional rock-bottom was Game 5 versus the Boston Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Here he was about to lose to his personal arch nemesis the Celtics at a time when the Celtics were thought to be too old to even give the Heat a good series. That was the moment when LeBron James went from potentially Dominique Wilkins status to Magic Johnson status, (notice I did NOT say Michael Jordan). In that game 5 James finished with 30 points but went the final 8 minutes without scoring. That seems almost impossible that someone that dominant could go that long in that crucial a spot without even scoring from the foul line, but that was James to that point in his career, a roller coaster of personal successes & failures.

What he did from that point on though is prove himself to be unequivocally, the best player in the NBA & one of the greatest players of all-time. Game 6 versus the Celtics was one of the greatest games ever by one player, playoff or regular season. To score 45 points while only missing 7 field goal attempts is almost unthinkable. Since that moment he hasn't looked back & he again did some remarkable things this season. A lot of people put a lot of stake into the Heat's 27 game win streak this past season as to their greatness, but while impressive, to me is more reflective of the mediocrity of the eastern conference than anything else. But what can't be taken lightly is what he was able to accomplish this year in both the regular season & the playoffs.

Last year they lost Chris Bosh for a portion of the playoffs but with James & Wade still playing at a high level, they were able to win with a couple of tense moments. This year however, both Wade & Bosh were playing poorly. Since James came to Miami, they have had times where Wade or Bosh were either unavailable or just weren't playing well, but this was the first time they both weren't playing well at the same time. There were moments in the playoffs where it was starting to look like James was still in Cleveland only this time his jersey said Heat on the front instead of Cavaliers. He looked like a man on an island. It did help that in the Finals a number of Spurs weren't playing well either but they were getting additional help from unlikely sources like Danny Green, Gary Neal & Kawhi Leonard.

I said in my preview of the finals (see: Tipoff Is Here) that every year an unknown who you least expect, steps up & makes their mark on the Finals. For the 1st 5 games it was Green & for a couple of games it was Neal. Leonard stepped up for the entire series but much like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker & Manu Ginobili, he missed a crucial free throw in game 6 that could've won the series for the Spurs. What I nor most people would be able to account for though was Ginobili having one good game out of 7 in the series. Even when you get an unknown to step up, you still need your all-stars to play like all-stars. The Spurs didn't get that from one of their most important players so if 2 out of those 3 unknowns didn't step up, it would be difficult for an injured Parker & an older Duncan to carry them over the hump.

For Miami though, the fact that both Wade & Bosh were missing in action was offset by James stepping up to new heights. He had some help along the way as a guy like Ray Allen was able to hit a couple of big shots including of course the game tying shot in game 6. He also got defensive help from Shane Battier & Chris "Birdman" Anderson. Mario Chalmers stepped up the final 2 games & unlike Ginobili, Wade was able to dig deep & come up big at the end of game 6 & all of game 7. So while the Spurs needed more from a couple of people to win, the Heat got even more from one guy in LeBron James who already does everything for his team.

One forgotten guy in all of Miami's success has been their head coach Erik Spoelstra. At the most crucial point in the series, he out coached Gregg Popovich. Popovich beat himself with a couple of moves he made late in game 6, right up to the Allen 3 pointer but Spoelstra pushed the right buttons in getting great play from Battier, Anderson & Chalmers at crucial times. Popovich opened himself up to scrutiny when in the final minute of game 6, for some odd reason he chose to sit Duncan in favor of a smaller quicker lineup in order to protect the 3 point line. Obviously that didn't work on multiple levels because with Duncan on the bench, Bosh was able to secure the offensive rebound that lead to the game tying Allen 3.

At the time when I realized he was sitting Duncan, my 1st thought was he must want a defense for offense substitution but you only do that when you have timeouts so you can reinsert him. They of course had no timeouts. The last thing you want a head coach to do at crucial moments is to over think the strategy. By taking Duncan out of the game you're allowing what the Heat do, to dictate what you do. Plus you're talking about sitting one of the greatest players ever in Duncan. Pretty much anyone else you put out there is going to be a worse option than leaving Duncan on the court.

Spoelstra on the other hand sat Battier for most of the Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers & leaned heavily on Anderson during that series. In the Finals, Battier was having a hard time with his shooting & Anderson all of a sudden got a couple of DNP's CD (Did Not Play- Coach's Decision). In layman's terms, he was a healthy scratch. Then at the most crucial point in their season, he turned to those 2 guys & they came up big. Chalmers also stepped up & Allen played 41 minutes in game 6. Now you can say the players did what their supposed to do but it's the coach's job to have all 12 of his players motivated & focused, ready to go at a moments notice. Spoelstra was successful at that.

It's not easy sitting & watching your team fight while you sit on the sidelines. Every single guy on that bench should want to be in there competing. You think Spoelstra didn't want a guy like Udonis Haslem in there if for no other reason than out of respect for all he's meant to the franchise? But he wisely made the decision to go with Anderson when he sensed what Haslem was bringing to the table wasn't enough. Meanwhile Popovich made minimal adjustments. He continued to go to Taigo Splitter even as the Heat were done taking turns blocking his dunk attempts. He finally went with Boris Diaw, who provided a much needed boost & actually helped get them their biggest lead in game 6 & helped keep them in game 7 but it was too little too late. But besides the Duncan benching at the end of game 6 the biggest mistake he made may have been worrying a little too much about getting his aging stars rest.

While it's obviously a legitimate issue for a team with 2 stars who are 36 & 37 respectively, you are talking about the NBA Finals here. There is really no tomorrow. You can't burn them out but you also can't stick to the script when it comes to substitution patterns. You follow that scrpit to a point, not to a fault. If Ray Allen can play 41 minutes at the age of 38, then you can certainly expect a guy like Duncan to find that extra something it takes to get over the top. So while Popovich is widely regarded as one of, if not the best coach in the league, Spoelstra certainly needs to be recognized as having out coached him at least in this series.

So while the Heat bask in the glory of back-to-back championships, they do have some serious questions they need to ask themselves this coming off-season. The most difficult one may be what to make of Wade. Is this who he is going to be for the remainder of his career, a broken down version of himself who can will himself to great moments or will he somehow regain his all-time great form? Also will they keep their Big 3 together or should they trade Bosh for a legit big man or at least a guy who can play with his back to the basket more often? Those are both tough questions especially when you consider that most teams are not going to go out of their way to help out the defending back-to-back NBA Champions. Gone are the days of owners making decisions that help the league more than their own franchise so the Heat may be left with bringing back pretty much the same team while adding a few vets who may be looking to chase a ring before they retire. Having said that though, as long as they bring back LeBron James, they will probably be right there at the end, defending their title in the NBA Finals again.