As much as we want to reduce this game down to heroes and legacies, basketball has grown out of the isolation-era 1990s. It’s a team sport, and while superstars can have a big impact on the outcome, they don’t wholly determine it. Remember that as you watch highlights of the balanced, Euroball-style Spurs picking apart the Miami Heat from all angles, leading to a 104-87 NBA Finals-clinching win in Game 5. If Miami wants to forge forward with LeBron, they have to be more than a vehicle for his talents.
When the series started, it was easy to convince yourself these teams were similar. They spread the floor, worked defenses in pursuit of corner 3-pointers. Both were creative, versatile units, dedicated to and successful in uncovering analytically savvy shots. Both lived by the mantra of moving the ball, not letting it stick for too many Hero Ball possessions.
The final four games of this series revealed the magnitudes of difference between these two squads in a way that reflects less on Miami’s superstar than on the cast that surrounds. San Antonio delivered an unrelenting fire hose of points from everyone, save for the ball boy. Before Kawhi Leonard took the honors, there were multiple plausible candidates for Finals MVP. The Spurs were a team in the truest sense, and the Heat had dissolved into LeBron-dependence.
For his efforts, James ended the series with an average of 28.2 points on 68 percent true shooting. This wasn’t a repeat of the 2011 Finals, where James really was subpar. He showed up in this series. His teammates did not.
The points James scored might as well have been water poured into a bottomless bucket. In Game 4, James claimed more than 90 percent of his team’s points in the third quarter. That was the extreme of what happened all series. James was scoring efficiently, surrounded by teammates who couldn’t. The points that did come were futile because San Antonio was scoring more on the other end, buoyed by a better bench, and veterans with fresher legs.
Ironically, Miami’s silver lining is they got crushed. Had they lost this Finals by a play, or even by a game, it’d be easy to convince themselves that little needed changing. Instead, they’re starkly confronted with a mandate to make necessary moves. They put a lot into Dwyane Wade’s maintenance plan this season and the upshot is they can’t rely on like they used to, at least not until he develops an accurate 3-point shot.
The Heat also learned the extent to which they could trust Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole -- not a whole lot, it turns out. Erik Spoelstra’s starting lineup with Ray Allen at nominal “point guard” might be a window into the future. A team with LeBron doesn’t necessarily need to be playing 6-foot tall guys. They have a big guy with point guard skills. There’s little reason to play a little guy if you’re not getting the offensive punch many smaller players bring.
Above all, Miami should look to San Antonio as a model for how to handle their stars’ minutes. Tim Duncan was able to win championships 15 years apart because he was adequately rested along the way. James played nearly 38 minutes per contest this season. That figure has to come down if the Heat are to rise -- and that figure will come down only as the quality of the rest of the roster comes up.