The Silverware Stays in South Beach

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Everyone take a breath; that was some incredible basketball.

For the second straight season the Miami Heat are NBA Champions, defeating the San Antonio Spurs, 95-88, with LeBron James claiming Finals MVP after a 37-point, 12 rebound, ‘screw everyone, I’m the man’ type performance. King James now has his 2nd ring, D-Wade his 3rd, and Shane Battier is quickly morphing into Robert Horry 2.0.

What a game. What a series. What a league. And LeBron James: WHAT. A. PLAYER.

At the risk of sounding like I’m on his payroll (I wish I was), if you still don’t like LeBron as a person, then fine, your choice, but if you don’t like how he plays the game of basketball: you’re a straight-up hater, an idiot, or both.

And let me just say this: the National Basketball Association is in a very good place if the next few Finals can come remotely close to the kind of spectacle that the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat put on over the course of 7 grueling games—just basketball at its absolute zenith. A joy to watch.

As with every titanic sporting contest there had to be a winner and a loser—although it’s really hard to call the Spurs losers. The Spurs pushed the Heat all the way to the edge, but Miami deservedly clinched Game 7. It was another classic game for the ages, and the Spurs were left pondering what might have been, both in terms of their Game 6 collapse, and a couple big plays that didn’t go their way in Game 7.

After Tuesday night’s epic drama it might have been a little greedy to wish for a deciding game that would come close to Game 6 for sheer edge-of-your-seat theater, but Game 7 really was something to behold; all the more so given that deciding games can be anticlimactic, flat affairs. Game 7s in 2005 and 2010 were hardly classics. Tonight, however, WAS a classic. The Heat threw punches, the Spurs punched back. The Heat landed a couple near knock out blows; the Spurs pulled themselves off the canvas and counter-punched. And then LeBron landed one last right hand and the Spurs finally stayed on the floor. Again, playoff basketball at its finest.

And although not quite Game 6-dramatic, the concluding minutes provided a fitting end to a great season.

After Kawhi Leonard (Quick indulgence: KAWHI LEONARD IS AWESOME!) drained a 3-pointer to cut the Heat’s lead to 2 (90-88), Mario Chalmers was fouled and missed both free throws. Tim Duncan, the ageless, awe-inspiring Tim Duncan, who finished the night with a gutsy 24 and 12, missed a running hook shot that he’d normally make (he slapped the court in disgust on the next possession) and LeBron drained a 20-foot dagger to finally kill off the Spurs.

This game was decided by the smallest of margins and from the tip-off it always looked as though that would be the case.

 The early stages of the game were tense—both teams looked nervous and a little exhausted from Tuesday night. The defense was intense, but there was also some sloppy turnovers that were a result of mental fatigue—professional basketball players dribbling the ball off their feet is evidence of that. But the game picked up in the 2nd quarter as both teams started to shake off the cobwebs and find their offensive rhythm. 

And no player was in better rhythm than Shane Battier. Just like last season Battier struggled to make baskets before coming up big at the biggest moment. “It’s better to be timely than good” he told Doris Burke during the post-game celebrations. He was both timely and good, however. What Mike Miller was to last year’s clinching Game 5, Battier was to tonight’s game. His first two 3-pointers—he went 6-7 overall—set the tone for Heat and proved to be a major factor in the game. The Heatas a team hit twice as many 3s as the Spurs did in Game 7, with Battier and LeBron combining for all but one of them.

The Heat’s outside shooting was great, but a big part of their success was a result of the Spurs’ strategy of giving them space, attempting to take away the opportunities to drive. LeBron made five 3s in the game—I was half expecting an MJ-style shrug after the 5th—and on each shot he was wide open. It’s a testimony to how many weapons James possesses that Popovich chose to live with him taking a shot that he nailed 40% of the time during the regular season. Josh Smith he was not.

In the first half the Spurs were also daring Wade to shoot from 18 feet—and he obliged, and did so successfully. Wade’s rope-a-dope playoffs continued in Game 7. He finished with 23 points and really set the tempo for the Heat by hitting his jumpers and rebounding extremely well. He’s not the same player he was even two years ago, there’s no doubt about that, but Wade’s a born winner who plays his best basketball when his back’s against the wall. One of the greatest shooting-guards of all time.

Speaking of born winners, there are plenty of those who left everything on the table for the Spurs too. Manu Ginobli fought back from an awful Game 6 performance to put up more than respectable showing in Game 7. The turnovers were still there—you’ll always have to live with those with Manu—but he was far more aggressive driving to the basket and kept his team in contention late on with some good dribble penetration. And with Tony Parker having a bad game—he finished 3-12 from the field and wasn’t even on the floor for the final possession, and Danny Green completely taken out of proceedings—Ginobli needed to be much better.

But more on Danny Green and what the Heat did to him.
 
 

Green played 5 fantastic games of basketball at both ends—hell, if the Spurs had pulled out Game 6 he might have been Finals MVP—but winning a playoff series is all about making adjustments and that’s what the Heat did. In the two biggest games of the series—for 86 minutes of basketball—Green found himself open once. Just once. The Heat did a fantastic job chasing him off the 3-point line, as they did with a lot of San Antonio’s shooters in Game 7—Gary Neal included—and forced him to put the ball on the floor that led to bad decisions and turnovers on his part.

But for all the inevitable heartache and certain second-guessing in their locker-room tonight, the Spurs have much to be proud of. Gregg Popovich, who stated post-game that he couldn’t be prouder of his team, led a team that many felt was on the downward slide, to the NBA Finals, pushing the best team in basketball all the way.

Tim Duncan had an improbably great season, and playoffs—it’s no surprise that
Wade ran to hug him at the end of the game—and he’s certainly cemented his place among the all-time greats. And looking forward, the Spurs have an absolute gem of a player in Kawhi Leonard. Where he is offensively and particularly defensively in just his 2nd season as a pro is astounding. A real star in the making.

For the Heat there will be celebrations long in to the night. People will nitpick about whether this was a truly great team—how it took them too many games to win the championship—but 2 championships in 3 seasons is nothing to sneer at. Sure, they have weaknesses—the centre position will need to be addressed in the summer (*cough* Chris Bosh had zero points tonight *cough*)—but they are what they are. They’re not MJ’s Bulls, they’re not Magic’s Lakers, or Bird’s Celtics; but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re a really good team—the best team in a really good league.

And no one can take away LeBron James’ status as the best player on the planet—and a pretty clutch one at that. Let’s take a moment to remember that for the past two seasons LeBron has done everything humanely possible to win basketball games: hitting big shots, getting to the line, going into the post, playing point-guard, being the best rebounder on his team, guarding the opposition’s best player and 3 other positions, and being involved in every single play down the stretch. He may be just a guy from Akron, Ohio, as he said post-game, but we won’t see another LeBron James in our lifetime. It’s during moments like tonight where we have to ignore the tired worn-out narratives that no longer apply to James, and appreciate his genius.

Thanks for the fantastic entertainment, NBA. See you in October.

 

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