BY CHAYIM TAUBER
The Heat prevailed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against a very game, veteran, San Antonio Spurs team. In so doing, the Heat became the first team to successfully defend their title since the Lakers did it in 2009-2010.
This series was a tightly contested one, and though the attention was on LeBron and his “legacy” throughout the series, it wasn’t until Game 7 that the onus was on James to perform. The real story of this series was which of all the old-horses had more left in the tank?
Manu Ginobli’s been with the Spurs since 2002. He’s a two-time All Star, 2x All NBA (3rd team), 6th Man of the Year, is one of the 50 greatest European imports in NBA history, has won Olympic and FIBA Gold, and is a three-time NBA Champion. His counterpart at shooting guard is Dwyane Wade: a champion in his own right who has 3 Championships (now), is a Finals MVP, a 9x All Star, 8x All NBA (2 first team, 3 second, 3 third team selections), scoring champ, and Olympic gold medalist. In this series however, it was how these aging, injured, fading stars were handled that made all the difference.
The Miami Heat were -56 with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James sharing the court (+48 when LeBron played without Wade). Wade had one vintage performance, a 32 point barrage in game 4 in which he got into the paint with ease and regularity. He scored 20 points in the paint in game 4 on 10-of-12 shooting in what was an homage to the player that last led the Heat to a title before the arrival of James. Unfortunately, his performance throughout the rest of the series had been putrid and Erik Spoelstra had tinkered with lineups to offset the impotence of his hobble, diminished star.
Greg Popovich, the man at the helm for 17 seasons with the Spurs and who has four championship rings in his own right, was facing the same dilemma. The former Air Force coach is known to be fiercely loyal to his players and Ginobli has been a good solider for a decade (assuming the role of “super-sub” way before it was popular). Ginobli, like Wade, is an injury riddled star in the twilight of his career. His play throughout the NBA Finals had been abhorrent though the play of neophyte Danny Green (the former D-leaguer who set the NBA Finals record for three-point-shooting), the always steady Tim Duncan, and star Tony Parker alleviated the void he left in productivity. Like Wade, Ginobli had one vintage performance in him in Game 5. He was a surprise starter and took advantage to the tune of 24 points and 10 assists though it was his lone productive game in the series.
It all came to a head in Game 6.
Despite Ginobli’s ineffectiveness, the Spurs had built a 13 point lead with just 4 minutes left, moments away from tasting the champagne. Dwyane Wade was nowhere to be seen for the Heat with their season in serious danger as LeBron James and any/every shooter Spoelstra could find fought desperately to save their dreams of a dynasty alive. The “Cleveland Lineup,” fronted by a dominant James (32 points 10 rebounds and 11 assists, the first player to go 30/10/10 in the Finals since Barkley in ’93) shot their way back into the game. On the flip-side, Manu Ginobli did everything in his power to keep them in the game as well. Ginobli turned the ball over 8 times and was a woeful -21 in the game. Still, Popovich insisted on trotting him out there as the yellow tape was hastily being removed and the Champagne hurriedly hidden. The series should have been over. Ray Allen should never have been given the opportunity to drive the dagger into the Spurs and force overtime. It was the coaches that chose what pieces were in the game at the time. Ginobli was there, Wade was not.
The next night, LeBron James once again took on his critics.
Not Clutch : “Watch this”.
Can’t do it alone: “Oh yeah?”
Can’t shoot the outside shot: “Here’s ‘can’t shoot’ for ya”.
LeBron reaped the fruits of his offseason labors and featured his perimeter jumper. Dwyane Wade had his knee drained before the game and turned in a solid performance though it was James and his 5 3-pointers that stole the show and secured the Larry O’Brien trophy. LeBron was the Heat’s top rebounder, the top assist man in the postseason, has the signature defensive plays of the postseason (his blocks on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter).
LeBron brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to South Beach but it was Spoelstra’s shrewd maneuvering and the handling of his fading stars that was just as much a factor.