Would defeat tarnish Heat legacy?
Should we go ahead and crown the San Antonio Spurs, holders of a 3-1 NBA Finals lead? Or do the Miami Heat have a history-making run in them as they face elimination in Game 5? Our 5-on-5 panel weighs in.
1. Fact or Fiction: LeBron has been a disappointment in the Finals
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fiction. LeBron James has put up better numbers across the board than Kawhi Leonard, and Leonard's in the mix for Finals MVP. I wrote last year about the challenge and rarity of superstars dominating throughout a playoff series. I've also discussed the difficulty of trying to beat the Spurs by yourself. The Cramp Game showed us that LeBron's presence might be the only thing preventing an even worse beatdown by the Spurs.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com: Fiction. Please, please, please do not mention the cramps LeBron suffered in Game 1 as a smudge on his legacy. The man couldn't move, let alone walk or shoot a basketball. Yes, it's a reason the Heat dropped the first game, but it wasn't the death blow in this series. Just the start of the spiral. James hasn't been his otherworldly self, sure. But he's still been pretty darn good. He's just been carrying too much of the load, and as great as he is, the Spurs are way too good for one man to conquer.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Fiction. I know there's a segment of people who love blaming LeBron, but he's averaging 27.5 points on 70 percent true shooting in this series. What more do you want? Miami's main problem is a total defensive collapse that has more to do with Dwyane Wade than James.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fiction. Although it's difficult to overlook the fact he couldn't finish Game 1 because of cramps and barely got started in Game 4, in part because of a bathroom break and ankle issue, until the Heat were already down double figures again. Looking at LeBron's production on the surface reveals he's having a solid series. But look deeper and you see the 18 turnovers and a lot of numbers essentially put up when the Spurs go to their cushion-safe prevent defense. That said, it's hard to argue against 28 points per game on 60 percent shooting from the field in this series.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: Fiction. Being universally labeled the best player in the world carries with it an incredible responsibility. Your team loses, it's on you. But LeBron has done anything but disappoint. The only thing that stopped him in Game 1 was debilitating cramps. Game 2 was a virtuoso performance of unrivaled dominance. Turnovers plagued him in Game 3, but it didn't matter how many points he scored because the Spurs were going to score more. And Game 4, LeBron attempted to shoot the Heat back in it, but he was all by his lonesome. He's done his part; it's his teammates that haven't.
2. Fact or Fiction: This is the best Spurs team ever
Adande: Fiction. If I were going to put a San Antonio entry into a tournament of all-time great teams I'd rather have a better version of Tim Duncan -- say, from the mid-2000s. A younger Manu Ginobili and vets like Robert Horry and Steve Kerr would be nice, too. I do like the versatility Boris Diaw and Leonard provide this team. And their commitment to the system might make this the most Spursiest team ever, if it can't be the best.
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Shelburne: Fact. It feels crazy to say that now, but when you look back at the four previous championship Spurs team, this one might be the most dominant. The 1999 team dropped the No. 8-seeded Knicks in 5 games, the 2007 team swept the Cavs, but that was a younger, jumpshot-lacking version of James. When have the Spurs ever had a fourth option -- if we can still call him that? -- as good as Leonard? When have they had a bench as deep and reliable? It's hard to rank any team ahead of the great Spurs teams with Duncan and David Robinson, but look at the rest of those rosters. This year's team, if it wins, is the best.
Strauss: Fiction. I'll go with the 2007 team that had Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker all in their primes. They aren't so well remembered because their Finals path was weak, but that was a truly great team.
Wallace: Fact. Perhaps this is prisoner-of-the-moment thinking. There's something about the 1999 team with Robinson and Duncan together, surrounded by cagey, defensive-minded veterans, that stands out. But the way the Spurs have played so far this series, especially on the road against a two-time defending champion, reveals how lethal this team is right now. The balance has been breathtaking. There been little, if any, dropoff from Parker to Patty Mills or from Duncan to Tiago Splitter at center. Add in Leonard's breakthrough and Diaw's masterful floor game, and there are no weakness. The only suspense left in this series might be deciding among as many as four players making a strong case for Finals MVP.
Young: Fact-ish. In terms of talent and dominance, the Spurs were probably better in Duncan's prime. But the Heat would be the best team they'd ever beaten in the Finals, and the way the Spurs are playing basketball with an almost effortless, clinical approach is something to behold. But they can't be the best ever until they finish the job.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Heat's front office deserves the most blame
Adande: Fiction. Blame the collective bargaining agreement, not the Heat. The numbers crunch forced Miami to dump Mike Miller (who would really come in handy right now) and take chances on low-cost gambles such as Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. It's not as if the Heat spent big money on busts. They were victimized by a system that's intended to limit super teams.
Shelburne: Fiction. Other than keeping Miller, what should or could they have done? It's not like the Heat had a lot of options or flexibility. No, if the Heat lose this one, it's because the Big 3 weren't really so big this season.
Strauss: Fiction. I'm not inclined to "blame" a front office for finishing second out of 30 teams. They gave themselves a shot this season, and drew the worst possible Finals matchup. It happens.
Wallace: Fiction. Blame for what? So in a span of five games, the Heat have gone from a team that rolled through the East and were praised for pushing to a fourth straight Finals to now being questioned about the construction of the roster? Wasn't it just five minutes ago when LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh were viewed as three of the top dozen or so players in the league when healthy? Weren't we just talking about Rashard Lewis stepping up nicely to give the team a boost? Wasn't Ray Allen still Ray Allen a week or so ago? No question, there are tweaks that need to be made and will be made in the offseason. But there's no reason to blame anyone for what largely has been a successful run. Credit the Spurs, people. Credit the Spurs.
Young: Fiction. The roster is certainly flawed, no question. The Spurs are flexing their depth muscles as the Heat's bench holds them back in painfully obvious ways. But it's about the players playing, and the Heat's aren't doing that. It's not on Pat Riley that Mario Chalmers has forgotten how to play basketball. The Heat's front office has been celebrated non-stop for assembling a powerhouse roster. Was it all R.C. Buford's fault the Spurs lost last season? Sometimes, it just doesn't go your way because you're playing a better team.
4. Fact or Fiction: Another Finals loss tarnishes the Heat's legacy
Adande: Fiction. There's nothing wrong with losing to a better team that has home-court advantage. There is some shame in getting blown out in two home games, but ultimately we'll remember the loss more than the how. And we should remember the achievements more than the shortcomings. They've gone to four NBA Finals and won two championships; both are twice as many as the KG-Pierce-Allen Celtics, and we don't consider that group a failure.
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Shelburne: Fiction. I suppose if you judge them by the "not five, not six, not seven" proclamation, a loss this year tarnishes their legacy. But who really thought that was realistic for a group of players approaching 30? It's historically difficult to win three in a row and go to four straight Finals for a reason.
Strauss: Fact. Any series loss tarnishes a legacy and any playoff win helps said legacy. In the grand scheme, though, the Heat had a great run, and still have potential for more chances in the future.
Wallace: Fiction. I get it that a loss would drop LeBron to 2-3 in the Finals overall in his career. But discounting the Cleveland sweep in 2007 and counting only his Miami years, he'd be 2-2. He'd fall short of duplicating the three-peat of Jordan's Bulls or the Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers. But Magic Johnson's Lakers were 2-2 during the early 1980s when they went to four straight Finals. Larry Bird's Celtics were 2-2 when they did the same later that same decade. And we're not talking about either of their legacies having been tarnished. It's unfair to judge LeBron's Heat by a harsher standard. And yet, if this team comes back with the Big Three intact next season, they'd be favored to get back to a fifth consecutive Finals. Go figure.
Young: Fiction. The cloud of LeBron's "not one, not two, not three ..." declaration is going to haunt him forever, especially after a loss. But come on, let's have some perspective. First team since 1986 to go to four straight Finals, with back-to-back titles within that. It's not six straight as LeBron clumsily pandered, but two out of four ain't bad at all. And there are still potentially more to be won. Just ask the Spurs.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Spurs close out the Heat in Game 5
Adande: Fact. Game 4 showed that the Spurs aren't going to let up. They could have been satisfied with a split in Miami, but they chose to pound the Heat to the brink of submission. San Antonio has the right level of appropriate fear. It helped them close out the Thunder in Oklahoma City; it will help them beat the Heat at home.
Shelburne: Fact. I was 90 percent sure of that before Saturday. I'm down to 70 percent after listening to the preternatural calm coming from James on Saturday. He wasn't just calm, he was confident. That has to mean something. So too does the idea that come hell or high water, Duncan ain't letting his team get back on a plane for another Game 6 in Miami after what happened the last game. I think this one's close, but Duncan wills the Spurs to win in the final minutes.
Strauss: Fact. I've seen little from the Heat defense to believe they'll hold the fort in an elimination game. If they couldn't do it the last two (vital) games, why should I believe in them now?
Wallace: Fiction. There's no evidence to suggest the Spurs will have a letdown at this point. Absolutely none. But I would not be stunned at all if the Heat have an act of defiance and pride in them Sunday and force this series back to Miami. This team has a track record of trolling folks when it seems like their backs are against the proverbial wall. Over the past four years, I've seen them respond time and time again. Call it blind faith. LeBron and Co. have earned the benefit of the doubt. No team in the league has as much of a puncher's chance as the Heat. So they'll work the rope-a-dope for at least one night.
Young: Fact. Something tells me the Heat just aren't going to go out like this, but what we all saw in Games 3 and 4 is too much to go against. Game 5 surely will be closer -- right!?!? -- but the Spurs are on the brink of a title and have learned lessons from Game 6 last season. They're ready to finish this thing.