Thursday, June 7, 2012
All that is wrong with the Heat
By Henry Abbott
J. Meric/Getty Images
After what Kevin Garnett did to them in Game 5, Miami is cloaked in doom.
LeBron James AND Dwyane Wade AND Chris Bosh, all the best free agents of the best free agent class ever, uniting on the same team -- in a comfy climate to boot.
"Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six," said James, of how many championships they'd win together in Miami.
That's exactly what everyone was afraid of: That the beautiful heartbreak of sports -- the never-ending cycle of pain, work, blood and uncertainty that is reaching the mountaintop -- was over. The Heat were breaking the rules of not just sports, but of life and the universe. Titles without toil ... reprehensible.
The Heat were playing with loaded dice, and basking in it.
Nearly two full years later, James proved ironically prophetic. Not one, not two: zero.
Now, as the Heat struggle for life against a team that almost lost to the 76ers, it is their critics' turn to bask. The word "Armageddon" has been invoked. Here are some of the trendy themes this week about the Heat:
Meanwhile, back in reality
- The Heat experiment has failed.
- Coach Erik Spoelstra is done.
- There's something wrong with LeBron James, likely in the head, that keeps him from success.
- The Celtics have a certain commitment to winning the Heat will never understand nor possess.
- The only right answer is for Pat Riley to disassemble his broken machine and try again with different parts.
For all the talk of Heat doom, and there is a lot of it, you'd have to expect Riley, Micky Arison and rest of the people who run the Heat to traffic in facts. They ought not have their heads spun by the swirling rhetoric.
One basic fact: When compared to, let's say, every other team in the NBA, the Heat have been splendid. Miami hadn't won a postseason series in four years, so Riley brought these players to change that -- and that's exactly what they did. Suddenly they won five postseason series in two seasons, and they might not be done yet. Suddenly they went to the NBA Finals in their first year together, and find themselves two wins from the Finals despite a significant injury.
And the record shows, despite the lack of a title, the Heat are particularly good at performing in the bright lights of the playoffs. Last season they were 1-6 vs. Boston and Chicago, until the postseason -- then they dismissed the Celtics and Bulls quickly, pulling out several close games and rolling through the East with a 12-3 record. They made the Finals thanks to an 18-3 comeback in the final minutes of the Eastern Conference finals' Game 5 in Chicago.
Overall the Heat's postseason record, against the best competition in the most pressurized situations, has been outstanding: 24-13. In terms of series, they have won five of six. Only the Thunder can claim similar. Today the story is that the Celtics are the masters of the playoff moment, but since the SuperFriends assembled, the Heat have taken six of ten from Boston.
Yes, the ring's the thing. But the best way to get there is to build the best team -- or one of the best teams -- and that's what Riley has already done. So far they've come short of their goal of a title. But so has every other team but the Mavericks, who have proved thoroughly over the last decade that very good teams win titles sometimes, not always.
MVPs without rings
For a role model, James can look to his nemesis in this series, Kevin Garnett. When Garnett was losing seven consecutive postseason series, and then missing the playoffs entirely for his last three seasons in Minnesota, he got crucified too. Fans and media alike preached along these lines: "Great stats, can't lead, can't take over the game, wants to pass the ball when the chips are down, can't win the big one."
So what happened? He bailed on the Midwest, found a better-run team, formed a Big 3 (or 4) and won a title that forever immunized him from the nattering nabobs. He has proven he's a great champion. But he was always a player of that caliber, even if we could only see that once it was reflected in shiny diamonds of his title ring.
You can say this about the Heat: They are not perfect. They do not win every big game. Compared to the standard of perfection, they have certainly failed. And they did not win a title the first time they tried. Their second attempt has gotten bumpy.
As we've seen often in NBA history, the path to a title often includes a few disappointments along the way. For all the talk about lessons the Heat need to learn, or changes they need to make ... improvement is always smart in an evolving and competitive league ... it is unconvincing that the Big 3 must change to succeed, or that the record now shows the model to be untenable. The Heat braintrust have built a team that wins as much as any team in the playoffs, which is not one begging for an overhaul.
No, a few strokes of free agents' pens didn't solve everything. Maybe the dice were not loaded. But if you're Riley, that doesn't mean you can't throw again, knowing time and attempts are all that are needed for the right number ("not one, not two, not three") to come up.