Miami Heat 4 wins from ranks of greatest NBA teams ever
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you can’t stand the Miami Heat, stay away from the NBA Finals.
Here they are again: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company in the NBA championship round back-to-back-to-back-to-back, a feat not seen since Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics of the mid-1980s.
And if you can’t stand the Heat, you’re hardly alone. Haters emerged when James took his talents to South Beach and said they’d win championships — not two, not three, not four, not five. Don’t look now, but if the Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs in the best-of-seven Finals beginning Thursday, they’ll have won three consecutive NBA titles, a feat not seen since the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000s.
“We don’t take this for granted,” Wade says, “and hopefully our fans in Miami, our supporters don’t take this for granted, neither. This is not something that happens every day.”
Dynasties, by their nature, are not everyday things. The NBA has given us only a few: George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers (five titles in six seasons in the 1940s and ’50s), Bill Russell’s Celtics (11 titles in 13 seasons in the 1950s and ’60s), the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Los Angeles Lakers (five titles and eight Finals in the 1980s) and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (six titles in eight seasons in the 1990s).
The Heat are coming to San Antonio with a chance to join mini-dynasties on the next rung of NBA history, among them Bird’s Celtics (three titles and five Finals in seven seasons of the 1980s), the Lakers of Bryant and O’Neal and these Tim Duncan-led Spurs, who are attempting to win a fifth NBA title since 1999.
That makes this series one of dueling dynasties: the Spurs, who have never won consecutive titles, against the Heat going for a three-peat, a term their president, Pat Riley, trademarked back when he was coaching the Lakers.
“We’ve worked as a unit,” Wade says. “We sacrificed as individuals to be in this moment, in this position, so we understand where we’re at right now. But it’s still crazy, too.”
Here’s how crazy: Just two other franchises have reached four NBA Finals in a row. Bird’s Celtics and Johnson’s Lakers did it in the 1980s, and their skeins intersected. Russell’s Celtics played in 10 consecutive Finals from 1957 to 1966. When that streak ended, Riley was a junior at Kentucky. When the streak ended for Bird’s Celtics, James was 3.
“Just to piggyback off what D-Wade said, we don’t take this moment for granted,” James says. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of this four straight times.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talked with his team about the history within their grasp at the start of training camp — and then left the enormity of the task unsaid for the balance of the season.
“We talked about it from the first day,” Spoelstra says. “We talked about the legacy of this team. The players that weren’t here that first year, they inherited all of those experiences. But it was only that first day. We’ve never brought it up since then.
“What I was really encouraged about was our attendance and commitment in training camp in the Bahamas. Right from there, and we communicated during the summer that, if we’re real about this, about how difficult that journey is, that you cannot shortcut, that we would show it immediately in training camp. … It got us off to a great start.”
And now here they are looking for a great finish.
WEAR AND TEAR
Abdul-Jabbar knows about dynasties. He won three titles in three years at UCLA and played on six NBA championship teams, five with the Showtime Lakers. He looks forward eagerly to the Spurs-Heat rematch.
“Both of them are seeking to establish themselves as premier teams” of history, Abdul-Jabbar tells USA TODAY Sports. “If Miami wins it, they will start to take on that aura. I think they have some work to do, but they’ve gotten close. I think the Spurs are already there for what they’ve achieved over the last 15 years. I think the Spurs are more impressive over the longer period.”
Abdul-Jabbar gives the Heat a strong chance but picks the Spurs. “San Antonio kind of blew it last year,” he says. “They’re going to be really incentivized. They know what it takes, and they know how to prepare. All of those things are in their favor, but Miami is not any shrinking violet.”
NBA TV analyst Rick Fox played on the last team to win three consecutive titles, the Lakers of Bryant and O’Neal. He appreciates how hard it is to do.
“It’s extremely hard, because regardless of your desire or your experience or your basketball IQ, the greatest challenge in pursuing that is the health of your team,” Fox says. “If you tax your body into June on consecutive years, it builds up, and there is not the recovery you would normally get if you don’t go to the Finals.
“To win three in a row and be healthy enough to do that is already a miracle in itself. Every team is different, so to maintain a chemistry from season to season, you have to build that from year to year. … So I would say that’s why it’s only been done such a few number of times.”
Steve Kerr, recently named coach of the Golden State Warriors, understands how hard it is, too. He was a key contributor to the next-to-last team to three-peat, Jordan’s Bulls.
“Everybody is plotting to beat you. They’re building their rosters around guarding you. They’re scheming to find your weaknesses. Over the course of a few years, it just gets harder and harder.”
Kerr says the Bulls’ sixth title, completing their second three-peat, was the most difficult one for just those reasons.
“We were sort of teetering,” he says. “We knew it at the time. It just seemed a lot harder. We barely got past the (Indiana) Pacers in the East finals in 1998. We pretty much breezed through the playoffs in ’96 and ’97; we were never really threatened. In ’98, all of sudden, we’re down 13 at home in the first half against Indiana in Game 7. We had to win Game 6 in Utah (against the Jazz), or otherwise we faced a road Game 7. You could feel how much tougher it had gotten and everybody had gotten worn down.”
HEAT’S LAST RUN?
Abdul-Jabbar likes the Swiss watch precision of the Spurs offense, with five bodies in motion, Manu Ginobili curling around screens, Tony Parker probing the paint and Duncan scoring inside.
“This whole thing about the pick-and-roll while the other three guys are on the other side of the court doing crossword puzzles, that doesn’t appeal to me,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “I like the game when it’s a five-man game.”
Dave Cowens played center for the Celtics between the Russell and Bird eras. He likes the intensity of the Heat.
“There is this misconception that NBA teams don’t play hard,” Cowens says. “If you don’t, you don’t win. The Heat play hard. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. And they keep their eyes on the prize.”
The secret, Fox says, is finding ways to improve after you’ve won it all. That, he says, is the only way to win again.
“A season in itself is a balancing act,” Fox says. “You are constantly improving if you are going to win a championship. Improving your health or improving your understanding of an opponent. You don’t win a championship, let alone string three together, without that mentality.”
That goes for the Spurs, too, who have been in the hunt nearly every season since the last millennium.
“They are repeatedly in position to have a chance,” Fox says. “When they’ve fallen short, often it does not have to do with basketball IQ, it has to do with health. And age for them has been an ongoing challenge.”
The time is now for the Spurs: Duncan is 38, Ginobili 36 and Parker 32.
The time is also now for the Heat. Their core is younger — Wade is 32, Bosh 30 and James 29 — but all can become free agents this summer. This might be their last hurrah collectively.
Wade has made it no secret he wants to return to Miami, where he has spent his entire career. Bosh has also suggested he wants to return. The wild card is James, who has said he will weigh his options after the season.
But here’s another option to consider: James, Wade and Bosh don’t have to exercise early termination options. They can delay free agency for at least another year, or some or all can test free agency and still re-sign with Miami. If the Heat win these Finals, their Big Three would be in position to try for a four-peat next season. That’s rare air.
Only Russell’s Celtics, with eight consecutive Finals victories, have won more than three consecutively.
Make that kind of history, and James’ grandiloquence — not two, not three, not four — takes on the patina of prophecy. But the Spurs and their fluently precise offense stand squarely in Miami’s way. Sometimes it’s not the Heat, it’s the fluidity.