NBA Finals Wrap-Up: Some legacies defined, others left alone

I’m sweating blood, crying stomach acid and secreting brain fluid through my pores. A completely normal reaction considering the seven game gladiatorial brawl we just witnessed over the past two weeks.
 
Game 7 concluded Thursday night with an emphatic finish, a 48 minute slugfest living up the symphonic excellence the previous six games had composed before it. With less than a minute on the board, we had a two point ball game with both teams trading blows like the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin applying finisher after finisher to no avail. It seemed that in a series where the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs countered each other game to game to game to game, that still no team had an edge over the other.
 
Still, at the concluding bell, I wonder: did the best team truly win? Or was the dramatic, heart-rendering finish of Game 6 so emotionally resonant that we’ve all tricked ourselves into believing that Miami’s had the slightly upper hand? Was it all an illusion born of adrenaline and the singular greatness of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade?

As I wrote after Game 6, it still doesn’t feel like the best team came out on top. In fact, looking at these seven games, the Heat’s third title feels a bit hollow, like a victory that never should have existed at all. San Antonio, even with its share of white knuckle wins, still appeared to have dominated Games 3 and 5, most of Game 6, half of Game 4, as well as a scintillating finish at the end of Game 1. Overall, it feels like we’ve had less to criticize with San Antonio–Tim Duncan played as well as he feasibly could at age 37, pouring in a 19/12, all while playing as the fulcrum of the Spurs’ vaunted defense. SA’s role players were the most impressive, with five dynamic games from Danny Green and a coming-out party for Kawhi Leonard, complete with champagne and streamers. The former Aztec averaged 14 points, 11 boards and 2 steals, while slowing down LeBron James as best as anyone could over the rigors of a seven game series. Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter admirably filled in the gaps, while Boris Diaw was called into duty after an ignominious DNP-CD and sunk huge shots in the last three games. Tony Parker played poorly, but only relative to the extremely high bar he set for himself–after all, most teams are happily taking 16 points and 6 assists from their starting point guards. The only glaring individual criticism is Manu Ginobili, whose injury ravaged body seemed to catch up with him. The former Sixth Man of the Year finished up with 11/2/4 line, but those numbers sink heavily when not buoyed by what now can be considered an anomalous 24 point, 10 assist Game 5.

Overall, the Spurs’ defense was rock solid, shaving 10 points per 100 possessions off of Miami’s usually machine-like efficiency. All-Star contributor Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were undoubtedly hobbled by injury, but San Antonio didn’t make it easy on them. Bosh was limited to just 45% shooting and 11 ppg, undoubtedly bothered by a swarming Spurs interior defense that would force him baseline or push him out as a rhythm-less jumper shooter. Wade looked much more hurt than CB altogether, throwing down a completely forgettable first three Finals contests by not cracking either 47% shooting or 20 points in any of them. All in all, it felt that San Antonio controlled the pace of most of the series, excluding the finals six quarters from LeBron James. Just about the only thing that the Spurs allowed Miami to do well in seven games was shoot from the arc, which ended up at a deadly 40% shooting from the Heat. In the end, that could explain this whole theory: the Spurs bruised and battered an already bruised and battered couple of Miami All-Stars, packed the paint and caused LeBron James to shoot 10% below his regular season field goal percentage, but allowed the Heat easy, quick points to run up the score quicker.

If all this is true, Miami just won because they shot the three-ball well? No–they had the best player on the planet bail them out for six consecutive quarters.

From the second half of Game 6 to the final buzzer on Thursday, LeBron James had 69 points, which averages to a staggering  11 points per quarter. He drilled jump shots that San Antonio practically begged him to take, drew contact in the lane whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself and showed zero fear in the face of a potential firestorm of criticism that he may never have recovered from. He was the very embodiment of clutch–so much so that he now owns the highest Game 7 scoring average at 34.4 ppg. Much greater men have described in finer eloquence just how spectacular Bron was on Thursday–but suffice to say, he was unstoppable. We are all witnesses? That was once just a marketing catchphrase–not anymore.

That all being said, is the one man’s greatness prevailing in the face of certain doom enough of a facade to keep us from officially anointing that the better team didn’t win? Perhaps. Or perhaps the concept of “no “I” in team” rules here: James is part of the Heat, and perhaps without their simple presence on the court, he couldn’t have soared to such heights. Whatever it may be, Lebron James, with some timely help from Ray Allen and a couple of great games from Dwyane Wade, nearly single-handedly changed the perception of just how closely contested this series was. The Heat deserved this inasmuch as the stars succeeded, crystallizing the oldest adage in the NBA rulebook. The best team may not have won, but the team with two of the best three players in the series did. I wrote about how historic it would have been if Danny Green won the Finals MVP trophy with a Game 6 W. Apparently, the true nature of the NBA found it’s way to righting itself.

Stemming from his second title, the questions are obvious: just how great historically is LeBron James? The distinction is clear: he’s in the running for top 15 greatest players ever. Consider the evidence:

  • Let’s consider the following players untouchable, for now: Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. That’s 8 right there.
  • In the neighborhood, but likely not quite there: Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwan (their stories aren’t that dissimilar, in that Hakeem won his first championships in years 10 and 11), Jerry West, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy and Scottie Pippen. That makes 14.
  • With two titles, four MVPs and two Finals MVPs, LeBron has passed: Oscar Robertson, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor…and the list goes on.

Rarefied air, to be sure. But not an exaggeration–the only reason why he may not have yet passed Chamberlain and West, who only have two and one titles, respectively, is simple longevity. James is going into his 11th season, and if he maintains even three quarters of his production for the next 3 or 4 seasons, he’ll be sure to pass those two legends. In order to pass up 8-time champion Havlicek, 6-time champion Cousy and 6-time champion Pippen? Keep collecting them rings (and don’t even bother comparing LeBron and Kobe, Shaq or Duncan at this point–James might be the King, but he doesn’t control math. As far as I can count, 5, and even 4 is still greater than 2).

LeBron’s legacy is cemented at this point: winning one title allowed him to escape the sense that he’d end up a tragic sports figure, like Barkley, Malone, Stockton and Patrick Ewing before him. However, it could easily be diminished as a fluke win with a hot shooting supporting cast and a supremely over-qualified sidekick in Dwyane Wade. LeBron changed all that by bulldozing his way to a second title, and starring as the central figure in snatching away control of his destiny from the jaws of a forgone defeat. Make no mistake: he is one of the top 15 players ever to live, and climbing the list. Rapidly. Watch out.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the court Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker simmered in their self-imposed angst, as they realized time after time that they had let title #5 slip away in a Game 6 collapse. Still, even after letting a championship escape their grasp, the former titlists aren’t going to have their futures defined by one Finals loss. Regardless of the nightmarish end to this postseason, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will be remembered for their success rather than failure. Magic Johnson lost 4 out of his 9 Finals appearances, including a five-game defeat in his last championship shot against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. None of that seems particularly relevant when talking about Johnson, one of the greatest ever to play the game. Surely this Finals loss will be a significant footnote on the careers of San Antonio’s big three, but their legacies won’t be defined by Game 6 or 7. Parker and Ginobili have three chips to their credit, while Timmy’s top-10 all-time standing isn’t going anywhere, any time soon.

Some other random thoughts from Game 7:

  • Looking at Game 6’s epic comeback (or choke, depending on how you look at it), the 2013 NBA Finals brings echoes of the 2011 World Series to mind: a penultimate contest for the ages including multiple rallies by both teams and a great, though not quite as dramatic final contest. The emotional scars on the Texas Rangers ran deep after that postseason, to which they still haven’t quite recovered. It’s hard to see anything but the same fate for their Lone Star State brethren.
  • If the Spurs had been victorious, there’s little doubt that Tim Duncan would have been the Finals MVP–but Kawhi Leonard would have gotten some serious consideration. 14/11 and 2 steals are serious numbers which don’t even measure the true impact of just how fantastic his defensive pressure on James and Wade was. He could be a star in the making, but let’s hold the phone for another nine months.
  • Notably, Chris Bosh scored zero points–an unfathomable, almost unacceptable result from such a prolific All-Star. Tiago Splitter did more offensive damage in 4 minutes than Bosh did in his 28. However, the Heat’s power forward’s 7 boards were key in a dead even rebounding battle, not to mention numerous tip-outs throughout the game. However, it was Bosh’s defensive presence on Duncan in the middle that displayed his true value: yes, Timmy still went for 24 on 8 for 18 shooting, but imagine how much more damage he could have done with a less active, weaker big man on him. Bosh provided a solid buffer keeping Duncan from getting to his sweet spot at the front of the rim, and consistently battled him on elbow and corner post-ups. The 0-5 performance didn’t help offensively, but with LeBron and Wade hitting over 50% of their shots, they needed Bosh to do exactly what he did: rebound and defend.
  • Shane Battier, a now two-time champion, is going to go down in history as a Kenny Smith/Brian Shaw/Steve Kerr-type of shot making, role playing championship-level contributor that we remember, and keep on remembering. His defense and long range sniping have been key all season and postseason long, though his impact has been diminshed as his shot’s waned in the playoffs, as well as Coach Erik Spoelstra having to go with the hottest hand. Still, his 6 for 6 performance from the arc on Thursday was one of the primary reasons for a Heat victory–a memorable performance on par with all those fantastic, three-point specialists whose careers are largely undistinguished other than their postseason glories. I don’t want to remember Battier for anything other than hating him. This does not please me.

A fantastic end to a Finals that may truly etch LeBron’s greatness into stone. All hail the King. Seriously.

 

 

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