Last Thursday night, the Miami Heat completed one of the more difficult tasks in the National Basketball Association—they repeated as champions, winning the Larry O'Brien trophy in back to back years. The Heat have now appeared in three consecutive championship finals, and won two of the last three. For all the hate that LeBron James endured for The Decision and the trio’s pre-celebration, predicting multiple championships, the—or at least James himself—seem to have either fulfilled that promise or to be on the brink of doing so. 23 teams in NBA history have appeared in the Finals, and 17 of those teams have won at least one championship. But only the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, and Rockets had repeated. On Thursday night, the Miami Heat became the sixth team in NBA history to manage to do so.
Of course, Pat Riley, inventor of the term threepeat, and the team president of the Heat, will want to see a continuation of this championship run next year. And so will the members of the Miami Heat. Of course, it's fantastic for the fans of the Heat and for those fans of the NBA who appreciate the fact that LeBron James is, in all likelihood, the best player to ever play the game. Of course, this championship is also what the Vegas odds showed would happen.
And this is in no way meant to disparage the Heat or their fans or their amazing title run, but … Wouldn't it be more fun if we'd woke up this morning to a world where the Spurs won? A world where we continued to over-analyze James and question his place amongst the all-time greats? Where we puzzled over Dwyane Wade, formerly nicknamed the Flash, and whether we still had any gas in the tank? Where we wondered whether the Big Three experiment was already over, and whether Chris Bosh would be traded during the off-season, another victim of the continual under-valuation of big men who can pass well? Where the Spurs, the old team that had one more run left in them—for something like six seasons in a row now - finally got over the hump, against a team that was undeniably better than them?
Sometimes, in sports, the narrative becomes more important than the actual events. And sometimes, we only wish it did. The Miami Heat trounced their competition in the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference Playoffs and struggled mightily with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Spurs had one of the best teams in the West, but were undoubtedly aided by a bit of luck in their match-ups, as well as Russell Westbrook's unfortunate injury. The Spurs pushed the best team in the league to seven games and everyone on the Heat, from head coach Erik Spoelstra to James, acknowledged that this was the toughest series they've ever played. Next year, it all goes out the window. Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger and Rajon Rondo, amongst so many others, will be back from injury. Who knows what trades will occur during this off-season, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul? For now, the long grind of the NBA season—and the more-than two-month post-season—is finally over. The champs have been crowned. Congratulations to the Miami Heat.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday night when the San Antonio Spurs play in Miami against the Heat. The Spurs, idle for nine days after sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies will fight against the idea that they've had too much time to rest. The Heat, who rested only for a third of that time,after grinding out a game seven victory over the Indiana Pacers, look to repeat after winning the Larry O'Brien championship last year.
There are tons of potential plot lines going into these finals, but there's little concrete evidence to aid in a prediction. The teams played only two games during the regular season and they both have enormous asterisks next to their results. Coach Gregg Popovich—himself one of the most interesting subplots insofar as his brusque interview style during games—sent most of his starters home, without notifying the NBA in due time, before the Spurs' visit to Miami on November 29. Then, the JV lineup for the Spurs nearly beat the Heat. And Pop, officially for not giving notice in time, but ostensibly for throwing a nationally broadcast game with the reigning champs, was fined $250,000. David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, said the Spurs organization did a, "disservice to the league and our fans." Fans of the Spurs, on the other hand, saw their second-stringers nearly beat the best team in the league, on their court.
Given the hubbub surrounding their previous match up, when the Heat visited San Antonio four months later, the national media's interest was piqued. This time, the Spurs were near full strength, missing only Manu Ginobili, who sat out with a strained hamstring. The Heat, however, were not. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both out, the Heat still managed to eke out a two-point win in the AT&T Center. It's worth noting that James and Wade were definitely hurt as they had played in the previous game but did not play in the Heat's next, at New York. Coach Pop, feigning surprise and hostility at the news of James and Wade missing the game, was gracious enough to not comment on the fact that the Heat were not fined when their players missed the game.
So, the regular season games are tossed out the window, if not taken with an enormous chunk of salt. What does that leave prognosticators with? James has faced the Spurs in the Finals before. In 2007, when he was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers, his team was swept by the Spurs. He has acknowledged that he'd love revenge for the loss that came so early in his career. But James was a completely different player and these Heat are not only geographically different from those Cavs - the presence of All-Stars, in Wade and Chris Bosh, a former Finals MVP, again Wade, and the small ball revolution that the Heat fully embraced during last year's championship run - the past history seems just as invalid.
Looking at the paths both teams took results in just as much confusion. The Western Conference was seen as vastly more competitive. But the Spurs swept both their first round opponents, the Lakers, and their Western Conference Finals opponents, the Grizzlies. The Heat were far and away the best team in the East, almost universally assumed to come out on top. After sweeping the first round against the Bucks, though, they gave away a game to Chicago and fought for a five-game victory in that series. Then came the Pacers, who took the Heat to seven games, and had some pundits believing in Indiana's ability to take the series.
So what does it actually come down to? The Heat have the best player in LeBron James. There can be no denying that. But Tim Duncan, the rock of the Spurs for the last sixteen years, is just as good now as he was in the early championship days. The Heat have home court advantage, but the format shifts in the Finals to a 2-3-2, wherein the lower seed gets three games in a row at home. It's a matter of debate who this actually benefits. The Heat will look to run more than they got to against the Pacers, but Tony Parker, point guard for the Spurs, has looked incredible at all speeds. The Heat have the Vegas odds on their side, as well as the majority of the expert picks. They won last year and are a mere four games away from repeating. The Finals start tonight at 7 MST and all games are broadcast on ABC.
In the National Basketball Association, the country may not get quite as mad as the NCAA Tournament, but we are down to the final four, and there is plenty to pay attention to. The NBA Playoffs have delivered their fair share of surprises (The Bulls taking game one against the Heat) as well as caveats and disappointments (Russell Westbrook's injury in the series against the Houston Rockets), but they've wound down by this point to the Conference Finals.
On Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies got smacked around in their first game at San Antonio against the Spurs. The Grizz had a tough path in making their very first Conference Finals, taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in round 1 and the Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder in round 2. Their defense, touted all season, has looked strong and will give the Spurs a serious test. The Spurs, meanwhile, defeated the disappointing Los Angeles Lakers in a round 1 romp and the upset-minded, young star-studded Golden State Warriors in round 2.
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have rolled through the Playoffs as most suspected they would. After blanking the Milwaukee Bucks in round 1, they were surprised by the Chicago Bulls for a game, but ended up sweeping the remainder of the series. They'll start the conference finals on Wednesday against a team that is the Eastern Conference mirror of the Grizz, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers haven't made the Conference Finals since 2004, and many did not figure them to be back here this year, with the absent Danny Granger and his uncertain status during various points of the season. However, the Pacers have clearly found their way forward without their star player, recommitting to defense and grinding games out that may not be beautiful, but give them the win. They defeated the Atlanta Hawks in round 1 in 6 games and then did the same to the New York Knicks. In each series for the Pacers, home-court advantage has seemed to matter. They will not have it against the Heat, and the vast majority of sports pundits are picking LeBron James and company to beat the Pacers.
So the probable match-up is the Spurs vs the Heat. This would be a callback for James, as the first Finals he made, while he still played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, was in 2007, against the Spurs. Those Spurs destroyed that Cavs team, sweeping them out of the Finals in an unceremonious manner. James certainly remembers that and may use it as motivation if the two teams do meet. However, a player of his caliber is certainly not over-looking his current series and it's worth thinking about the possibility of the Grizzlies and the Pacers meeting. Memphis and Indiana are first and second in defense respectively and they'll both give their opponents more than a cursory spat in their Conference Finals games. San Antonio, known for its defense for seemingly decades, sits at a mortal 11th place in that category this year, but is balanced by the fourth-ranked offense. Again, the Spurs are the favorite in their Conference Final. But sitting above all other teams, in both esteem and odds, reign the Miami Heat. With both the fifth-best defense and offense they look, at times, unstoppable.
We'll find out about the Heat and the Pacers tomorrow. The Grizzlies and the Spurs, meanwhile, are off to a terrific start. All of the remaining Western Conference games can be seen on ESPN, while the Eastern Conference games will be broadcast on TNT.
Every time there's a seismic shift, things feel more important. And this year in the NBA, things feel important—like something is happening. Like a changing of the guard.
When the San Antonio Spurs were taken out by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, it was clear that the times they are a'changing. The Boston Celtics are still clinging to life—thanks to a one-armed Rajon Rondo—but their title window has been limited to "only this year" regardless of what year it is, and despite the fact that the pundits said the same thing last year. Finally, with the sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers by the Dallas Mavericks, the icing's on the cake and the writing's on the wall.
The coronation of Derrick Rose as MVP was a nice nod to the coming youth movement. But Rose has already been acknowledged as a high school prospect and as an elite college player who took his team to the promised land—even if they fell short, and that run has since been negated. When he said that he wanted MVP his rookie year, people looked at him like he was crazy. No one is now. But Rose has never been the ringleader of this movement—that honor falls to Kevin Durant. As the youngest scoring champion in the history of the league—and the fresh, smiling face of the Thunder—he was supposed to be the one. And he still might be.
But he'll have to get past Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and—most of all—Zach Randolph if he wants to continue his assault on the league. With the Grizz taking the fight right to the jaws of the Thunder and the Hawks battling the Bulls like no one expected, it's clear that the league is shifting right from under the feet of those who were privileged to come before, and even more quickly from those who just assumed they got next.
"Who got next?" is a persistent question in basketball. If you keep winning, you get to keep playing. You see the faces across from you shift, and you don't really care—you don't take time to honestly evaluate the opposition because it doesn't matter. All that matters is the fact that you're winning. Your time is now. But sooner, rather than later—because time bows to no man, woman or team—you will slip. The Spurs, Lakers and maybe the Celtics are learning that lesson now. And when you do slip, as they have (or will), it can be disorienting to look at the face of the team that beat you. You might find yourself wondering, "Who is this? How did they get here? How did they get me?"