This game should have never ended. It should have been fermented and then bottled, kept on the top shelf among only the finest of wines, waiting to be savored again and again when the need for basketball excellence arises. But, alas, all beauty must fade in time and, perhaps most unfortunate of all, a winner needs to be crowned. Here is a look back at the game whose personified excellence aptly capped off not just this superb series, but another fantastic season of basketball.
- The majesty of the 4-1 pick-and-roll
Among the many innovative plays Miami’s revolutionary five-out small ball style of play have spawned, the inverted goodness of the 4-1 pick-and-roll is probably my favorite. The Heat broke it out in earnest against Chicago and a befuddled Nate Robinson is probably still reeling from how badly it consistently burned him. Both George Hill and Paul George have also been on the wrong end of the switch on this play in multiple critical moments of the Indiana series, so much so that their overcompensation of not switching ended up being the deciding factor in game five.
Once again this play led to the Heat’s salvation, as the biggest jump shot of LeBron’s career came open because of the split second hesitation Kawhi had coming off Chalmers’ screen. This is a play usually run with Norris Cole, he’s a better screener than Chalmers, but it was Rio’s three point shooting that caused the fatal moment of hesitation from Leonard:
Kawhi stays connected to Chalmers for a split second too long and Tony Parker has no shot at impeding LeBron long enough for Kawhi to get back. The space he gets on the jump shot was comparable to the space he had been getting all game, and really, all series. And he nailed the shot.
- Kawhi Leonard, the silent assassin
Had Ray Allen not hit one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history, Kawhi Leonard may have been this year’s Finals MVP. It probably would have gone to Duncan out of sentiment or Parker as a reward for his play this entire postseason, but the Spurs best/most consistent player was unequivocally Kawhi Leonard. It went beyond just guarding both LeBron and Wade, and guarding them very well, it was the totality of his game and how big a paw-print his already massive hands left on the series. He averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds on 51 percent shooting and his astounding rebounding rate of 18.8 percent for the series would have ranked ninth in the league, just behind Tyson Chandler. He had 16 rebounds in game seven and unlike some of his high totals earlier in the series, born from opportunistic positioning off uncharacteristic laziness from LeBron, these were taken by sheer force of will.
The Spurs walked a tightrope all series with how much they packed the paint, even as they were consciences of who they can and can’t help off of, they still had to make some sacrifices. They did so successfully mostly because Kawhi was so adept at being just in the right position to rupture passing lanes while still providing an extra body in the paint. With hands that could blot out the sun, he harassed smaller guards like Chalmers and because they also allow him to palm the ball so effortlessly, he abused those with shakier handles like Miller and Allen.
As is the internet’s wont, Kawhi’s performance completely blew the caliber player he currently is out of proportion but it also served as a welcome platform for the uninitiated. Leonard still struggles with creating offense for himself and I have yet to see him put three dribbles together without traveling (although it rarely gets called), but he broke out an off the dribble game this series (and really this postseason) that could do wonders to his offensive ceiling. Being the young role player he is his shooting, especially from three, died on the road and he couldn’t make the space LeBron kept giving him behind the line pay. But he is 21 freaking years old, he already has an intimate knowledge of the many nuances of team defense, he can defend the hell out of you either in the post or on the perimeter, he has already developed a decently reliable corner three, and I don’t think there is a soul alive who has ever heard his voice.
- Unsolvable spacing, a James and Wade story
Nothing personified the struggles these two have been dealing with when they shared the court more than the late run by Miami in game six, where LeBron carried the team back from death’s door by himself only to be thwarted by a Wade substitution that nearly cost them the game. The disrespect the Spurs have shown for Wade’s jump shot has led to a fully packed paint whenever LeBron attempts a drive and the astounding on/off splits for the pair of stars reflect this. In the six games preceding this one Miami had a horrific net rating of -15.8 points per 100 possessions when Wade and James shared the floor, an amazing +42.7 when Wade sits (and James plays), and a surprising +13.9 when LeBron sits (and Wade plays). While the Wade being the only one who can stop LeBron narrative reigned supreme, what went under the radar was how San Antonio’s relative disregard for James’ perimeter shooting was also stifling Wade’s driving ability much in the same way.
Spoelstra understandably decided to trust in his two stars to figure it out (although he played them apart a little more than usual in game seven), and attempted to counteract some of the spacing issues by having Wade handle the ball while LeBron uses the space given to him as a launching pad for a baseline cut to the rim:
Miami had some relative success with this strategy but the Spurs (and Kawhi especially) grew adept at cutting off all of Wade’s passing lanes and usually ended up forcing him into isolations in the post (where he has been a disaster all series). No, LeBron and Wade solved their spacing issues in the most simplistic (and yet difficult) way possible, they made their jumpers (more on this later).
- The greatest zero point game ever
Chris Bosh has been Miami’s sacrificial lamb all year. In the name of fully realized small ball, Bosh was forced to completely abandon a post game that had been his bread and butter up to that point and to play defense in a way that would consistently get him hit with the “soft” label from the uninformed masses. And although it took some time for him to embrace his new role and even though his numbers (and the perception of him as an elite player) took massive hits throughout the season, he took the bullet for the team and became the unnoticed cog that kept everything together.
His martyrdom was amplified to extreme levels in game seven, as he finished the game with zero points and became the butt of many all too familiar jokes, which would have taken the turn for the cruel had the Heat lost. It was no coincidence that Duncan’s best two games of the series came after the Spurs three point shooting went from 44.2 percent in the first five games to 29.7 percent in the last two. Miami made the decision to take away the three at all cost and they sacrificed help on Duncan to do so, which more or less left Bosh on an island for games six and seven. The foul trouble that came as a cost of guarding Duncan alone and the energy he exerted defensively prevented any kind of offensive rhythm and he was quickly phased out of the game on that end.
But he still made his impact, as (much like in game six) his defense in the fourth quarter was something to behold.
On both possessions here, Miami abandons Bosh to stick with the Spurs shooters and Bosh plays excellent defense to stop Duncan one-on-one.
On the game sealing defensive stand, Bosh switches onto Manu, prevents him from turning the corner, and Manu, disbelieving that they would send a big to guard him on the baseline without doubling, makes an erroneous pass to LeBron. Bosh ended up a laughable nil on offense, but a closer look reveals how extraordinary his defense was and how instrumental he still turned out to be to Miami’s success
- Idiocies of assigned blame
The melancholy that washed over me as I came to grips with the fact that someone was going to have to lose this series was born mostly from the knowledge that someone was going to get blamed. It is one of the most unfortunate habits out of the many regrettable idiosyncrasies that make up sports fandom and coverage, that there must be a reason for losing and that, not only must it be snuffed out, but it must be criticized with all the power that hindsight gives. It is perfectly okay to question and even denounce a particular play, shot, strategy, etc. as long as the debate over what should have happened does not overshadow what actually did. And too many times that is exactly what happens.
Gregg Popovich and the Spurs made the Heat play exactly that way they wanted them to in game seven. All series the Spurs made their defensive principle to not allow open three pointers, points in the paint, and free throws and they executed this by welcoming Miami to take the mid-range jumper. And it worked. The Heat’s offense was more flustered than it had ever been and it forced LeBron into habits we hadn’t seen out of him since Dallas in 2011. But it failed in game seven, because Wade hit a bunch of shots he normally doesn’t and LeBron finally hit the shots he normally does. You could say San Antonio was playing with fire, leaving the mid-range jumper constantly open, but in reality it was the best of all bad options against a team like Miami.
We should be able to leave it at that. The Spurs employed a great strategy to shut down Miami’s spacing and they executed it beautifully. It ultimately didn’t work but that shouldn’t matter. The process was correct, and that’s the important thing. But it cannot be perceived that way, as the result will always be championed as more important and the wrong result will always breed blame. It is a sad process that grows more tiresome every year, and when the series is as even as this one was, it becomes all the more exasperating.
- History is written by jump shooters
- Shifting legacy
Come with me down this hypothetical rabbit hole for a moment. Say Kawhi makes both his free throws in game six and Ray Allen never gets his yellow tape repelling, watershed moment. How differently do we view LeBron James and his ever shifting legacy? How about if Duncan made that shot he’s made a trillion times before over Battier and the Spurs manage to pull out game seven, how do we see LeBron then? What if Shane Battier doesn’t pop off and Wade doesn’t hit those jumpers he improbably made all game, and Miami falls because of its lack of support? In all these hypotheticals, there is one constant and one variable. The constant is LeBron James and the variable is how we view him.
LeBron is the same player, with the same ability, and has the same game in every scenario, it’s just the mitigating circumstances that have nothing to do with him that change. And yet all these extenuating factors play such integral parts in how we judge him and this mercurial legacy of his. When you take a step back and look at it objectively, the sheer ridiculousness of how we determine our perception of LeBron James is overwhelming.
As LeBron took flight on the jumper that may end up defining the next stage of his career, he did so with the weight of all our expectations, fear, and reservations. When he touched ground again, the ball sailing toward its final destination at the bottom of the net, he set us all free and everything changed around him. But he didn’t. He was the same player before and after that shot and even if the result were different and the shot missed, he wouldn’t be any better or worse off as a basketball player. LeBron is the regal constant and we are the oscillating variable, and it is no one’s fault but our own for taking so long to appreciate him.