|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
MIAMI -- It might sound counterintuitive, even now, but if you wanted to preserve The Way Things Are in the NBA you had to want the Oklahoma City Thunder to lose to the Miami Heat in the Finals.
Yes, the Heat were assembled overnight, compared to the Thunder's gradual ascension. But the Heat were the team that paid the painful price of losing in the Finals first. They were the ones who had to endure an offseason (an extended offseason at that) of, as Dwyane Wade put it, "so much pain, so much hurt, so much embarrassment." The Heat have already been through the stage the Thunder are in now, wondering how home-court advantage and a one-game lead in the Finals did not result in a championship of their own.
And that is the central reason the Heat stand where they do today, as kings of the NBA. We can get into the details, such as the way Miami role players from Shane Battier to Mike Miller came up with stellar games while no Thunder counterpart, not even Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, could do the same. Or Thunder coach Scott Brooks' inability to stop what became a four-game skid by switching lineups, using a zone defense, anything to stop the Heat takeover. But the essential difference that both sides kept acknowledging was that the Heat had been through this before and the Thunder hadn't.
"Now we know that every possession in the Finals matters," Harden said. "It counts. Some of the possessions, we just gave away."
And at the end of this journey for Miami from the brink of the depths to the pinnacle is ... liberty. That's according to Heat president Pat Riley, who entered South Beach restaurant Prime 112 to applause from the remaining diners in the 3 a.m. hour, then paused to share the thoughts he had as he watched the team he created consummate a championship.
"It frees us up," Riley said.
Freedom. He could be speaking for the entire NBA world, of course, which no longer needs to be consumed with speculation about whether LeBron James can translate his immense talent into a championship. Now the conversation can shift. It's no longer about his shortcomings; it's now about his degree of greatness.
For the Heat, freedom means no longer having to worry that the team would let down LeBron or Chris Bosh, who bore such criticism by assembling here, or disappoint guys like Miller and Battier, who signed up at lower costs to try to make this thing work. Riley said the thought of anything less for them sickened him and Heat owner Micky Arison. Now all have been rewarded with championship rings. No need to explain, apologize or be on the defensive for their approach; this free agency-dependent, star-driven, top-heavy squad was designed strictly to win championships. Perhaps, Riley hopes, all of the resentment harbored against the Heat can be released now that the means have been justified.
"Forgive us for 'The Decision,'" Riley said. "Forgive us for 'The Celebration.' Forgive us for a man saying, 'Not two, not three, not four ... "
One day we'll look back and realize the absurdity of holding those things against a team that has been a championship finalist and champion in its first two incarnations. Seriously, where would the NBA be without the drama provided by the Heat? And who should bear the brunt of our anger now? The Thunder, for failing to extend these entertaining 2012 Finals past five games?
The Thunder couldn't get the series back to their home court. They couldn't even make the finale close. Couldn't even give Brooks a reason to keep his stars on the court. Near the end of the Heat's 121-106 victory in Game 5, as the reserves finished the mop-up duties, the Thunder's three core players, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden -- Oklahoma City's Athos, Porthos and Aramis -- stood at the corner of the court near the Thunder bench and plotted their next step.
"We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling," said Westbrook, whose 43-point outburst in Game 4 was followed by a 4-for-20 shooting night in Game 5. "We kind of looked around and just ... we've got to get better. We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season and just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here."
Occasionally, teams get to skip this step. The Thunder weren't one of them. Neither were the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol Lakers of 2009, who had to be humbled by the Boston Celtics in the Finals the year before, months after Gasol joined the Lakers in a midseason trade. The 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks had five years of pain from blowing a 2-0 lead to the Heat in the 2006 Finals. Even the Heat team that beat them that year, in Miami's first-ever trip to the Finals, had been through the closest possible simulation: losing Game 7 of the 2005 Eastern Conference finals at home.
Because the Thunder had proved to be such quick learners in these playoffs, I thought they might be able to instantly convert the agony of dropping three consecutive winnable games in time to climb back into the series. Nope, it doesn't work that way. You need to spend weeks in a darkened room that doesn't get cellphone reception. You need to be forced to come to terms with your shortcomings. You need to take stock, then embark upon the journey that LeBron did. "It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and a person," James said.
It took more than LeBron's transformation. Erik Spoelstra had to get better at maximizing the talent on his team. Wade and James had to adjust to being teammates. Bosh had to find his place.
"A team doesn't get built so quickly, that chemistry," Arison said in the midst of a locker room so soaked in champagne you could skate across the floor. "The Finals is always going to be a couple of great teams. This Oklahoma team is a great, great team. As [Spoelstra] said, it's two or three possessions that make the difference in a game. If you don't have a team that's really together, really knows each other's moves without even having to think about it, it's not going to happen. I think we were the better team last year, but we weren't ready."
It's because James wasn't ready. He was outplayed by Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and outmaneuvered by his critics, whom he had tried so hard to prove wrong that he abandoned his core principles, stopped playing to have fun, tried to take on the world on his own and became psychologically paralyzed as a result.
Now it's Durant who must improve, even though his first Finals was vastly superior to James' first two Finals. Durant averaged 30.6 points and shot 55 percent from the field in the series. Still wasn't good enough.
"It hurts," Durant said. "It hurts, man."
Soon, he moved to the type of statements that make him so beloved: "I wouldn't want to play with anybody else. I wouldn't want to play for any other city."
It was by no means a shot at LeBron. Durant doesn't think that way. He just follows the path that he feels best suits him. And there wasn't a person in the building who didn't believe that path will cross LeBron's again in the NBA Finals, and we'll all be better for it.
Seeing that Michael Jordan Gatorade ad in the middle of the third quarter made me realize ... this series didn't need Jordan. The NBA misses him less than ever. James and Durant have provided plenty of entertainment and drama, not to mention the Jordan-like performances we saw from Westbrook and Rajon Rondo during the playoffs. I wouldn't go so far as to retroactively refer to Magic Johnson's transcendent 42-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist Game 6 in 1980 as "one of those LeBron games," as Riley did this week, but it won't be too long before James, Durant and the like become the standards by which future NBA descendants are judged.
LeBron got his championship, and he got his Bill Russell Finals MVP award with a unanimous vote. The two glistening trophies bracketed him at the postgame podium, providing visual evidence that made it unnecessary for him to say, "Told you so."
He stayed true to his pledge to be less angry and more joyful this season, even in his hour of vindication. He even finished his time with the media by saying, "Love you guys." Then he paused on his way out, held up the trophies once more, and exited into his new role of champion, a title that a Nike executive believes can boost him to Jordan-like brand status given today's social media and global impact.
Meanwhile, Durant is on the clock.