Making Sense of These NBA Finals
With 4:24 left in the second quarter, the Heat were shooting 59 percent and trailing by 18 points.
That’s Game 3 in a nutshell. Still playing some very good basketball, the Heat were nearly out of contention before halftime thanks to a record setting half from the Spurs. And I only say “nearly” because it’s the Heat, because whatever team LeBron James is on can come back from almost any deficit. But with the Spurs shooting 76 percent through halftime, compiling the most points ever in the first quarter and the most ever in a half, it’s certainly fair to say things looked bleak for the Heat, down 71-50 at the break.
Thanks to a camera inside the locker room, those watching on TV were made privy to Head Coach Erik Spoelstra’s halftime speech. Favoring practical over inspirational, Spoelstra reminded the Heat there is no 20 point play to get back into the game – they would need to slowly and consistently chip away at the Spurs lead. For much of the third quarter, it looked like they just might do it; the Heat pulled within seven points with 1:57 left on the clock.
There was just one problem: they were playing the Spurs bench. Right on cue, the Spurs’ stars came back out, and Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, along with several others, snuffed out the comeback attempt. Turning the single digit lead back to double digits, the Spurs were quickly up 14 early in the fourth quarter, and here’s where it gets tricky. Down by double digits, do you play LeBron?
Spoelstra chose to, and LeBron ended up playing 40 minutes in a 111-92 Spurs rout. With hindsight Spoelstra didn’t have, many analysts have criticized his decision to play LeBron, arguing that the Heat’s star needed to rest after logging more minutes than any other player during the regular season, and, most recently, after suffering from leg cramps in Game 1.
It’s a tough call to make in hindsight, let alone in the moment when you were briefly within seven points. But let’s review what I thought I knew before the NBA Finals – what I suspected would happen if the two teams faced off. Here’s what I said on May 30th: “…make no mistake, the Spurs have the edge if these two teams meet. Like last year, the Heat have the two best players on the court, when healthy. Unlike last year, the Spurs are moving the ball better, Miami’s defense has been vulnerable, and *AND* the Spurs would have home court advantage in Game 7.”
And what has ended up happening? Well, the Spurs are moving the ball better, Miami’s defense has been seriously lackluster at times, and the Spurs Game 7 home court advantage is back in play. On the other hand, I was very wrong about the two best players on the court being LeBron and Wade. Wade, for all his promise early on in the playoffs, has disappeared in big moments against the Spurs. As of this series, the Big Three should be called the Big 1, 4a, and 4b – and Bosh is 4a. Unlike last year, in 2014, the Heat go as LeBron goes. Lose him to cramps? Lose by 15. Net 35 points and shut down the Spurs best player? Win by two. Play his B game with just 22 points and 7 turnovers? You know what happened.
The significance, it turns out, is pretty clear, even if it goes against everything you’ve been taught growing up: There is an “I” in team, at least on this team. And want the responsibility or not, LeBron has to recognize that. For the Heat to win, he has to carry them to the title. Last year, down 2-1, LeBron went off in Games 4-7, averaging almost 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. But can he do that again this year? It’s an unfair, and I think unrealistic, expectation.
So, almost half way through the seven game series, would I change my original prediction of the Spurs winning in seven games? Only slightly: I have them winning in six.