With billions of dollars swirling in a 21st-century sports blizzard, the art of the deal too often takes precedence over bouncing balls. Yet never have we seen business interrupt a championship series quite like the buzz in Miami. The Heat, down 2-1 in the NBA Finals after a sluggish effort in Game 3, should be concentrating only on how to stop a Spurs team that is healthier, deeper, hungrier and better than a year ago.
Instead, rather astonishingly, there is chatter within the organization about signing Carmelo Anthony next month, meshing him with good friend LeBron James in a new incarnation of what Heat president Pat Riley envisions as “a generational team.’’ The story was reported by a pair of ESPN.com writers, one of which is closely tied to James and his management entourage. It’s safe to assume the story came from the LeBron camp, with no denials from Heat management, which reflects Riley’s still-burning, longstanding rivalry with Phil Jackson and his desire to steal Anthony from under Jackson’s eyeglasses in his infancy as New York Knicks president. If James and Riley, the league’s reigning power duo, want Anthony to bring his talents to South Beach, there’s a very good chance that will happen.
I just don’t want to hear about it now, as a three-peat bid wobbles.
If, as the report indicates, the wooing of Anthony has been discussed in recent weeks by all the Heat principles — and that James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and even lesser parts such as Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem will accept reduced salaries to make the deal possible — then it underscores an organizational arrogance not conducive to winning a championship. That isn’t to say a franchise can’t ponder its future, but not to the degree where interest in another superstar disrupts a defining moment. Before the Heat can win “… not four, not five, not six, not seven’’ championships, as James said infamously, they need to win No. 3. And no team in the NBA Finals ever has overcome a 3-1 deficit, which the Heat will face if it losses Game 4.
“We’re an in-the-moment team,” Wade insisted. “And right now in the moment is the day after a loss, getting better mentally, physically and then coming into tomorrow and playing the game of basketball here on our home floor and trying to win Game 4. That is all we focus on.”
Addressing the subject specifically, James echoed Wade’s thoughts, saying, “That’s kind of like on the back burner right now. (I’m) figuring out how I’m going to prioritize Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard and Duncan and Danny Green and Ginobili, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter and the list goes on and on. Matt Bonner, Gregg Popovich and (Spurs assistant coach) Ime Udoka and those kind of guys. (Free agency) is the last thing I’m thinking about right now.”
But with a June 23 deadline looming for Anthony to announce if he’s opting out of the final year of his contract, it’s clear the subject has been discussed extensively by all parties, including James. Bosh and Wade, both of whom would have to join James in opting out of their contracts next month, are on record as saying they’ll be flexible in any attempt to upgrade the roster. Though we’ll all wonder how a notorious volume shooter, defensive non-starter and postseason failure will fit in with a two-time title outfit, there’s no doubt the Heat would benefit from Anthony’s elite scoring ability with Wade no longer a force. James makes so much money in endorsements and business deals, he can afford to take less money so Anthony can make more.
Though Anthony is too selfish to be considered a classic Jackson player, the Knicks have no choice but to try and keep him. They need at least one major gate attraction at Madison Square Garden and need a superstar presence to attract a major free agent — such as Kevin Durant, who shares a close relationship with new coach Derek Fisher and could be free in 2016. Riley, who once made personnel decisions for the Knicks, would love not only to one-up Jackson but optimize the Heat’s chances of winning several more championships.
“We feel we have the best organization in the league for those players to stay, and to also attract others to want to come here,’’ Riley told ESPN.com recently “With our three guys, we hope that this turns into a generational team. And that it’s not just we’re at the end of this four-year run right now because players have some options this summer … It would be very hard for me to think anybody would walk away from the possibility of making this a long-term happening that can go for 10 or 12 years.’’
One question: Will commissioner Adam Silver veto such a deal, recalling how predecessor David Stern vetoed a Chris Paul trade to the Lakers because it wasn’t good for the New Orleans franchise or the league’s competitive balance?
It’s hard to believe this story is percolating, given Miami’s struggles in Game 3. Then again, do not overcommit to the immediate reaction in this series. It will bite you the next time, seeing how The Cramp Game led to LeBron’s Social Media Throwdown, and how LeBron’s Social Media Throwdown led to … Leonard outplaying James in Game 3? These maddening NBA Finals inevitably will be extended to a seven-game precipice again, as you surely know by now, and if Leonard and the Spurs continue to be unleashed like a playground team by a legendary system coach who urged them to run and run and run some more, then, no, don’t overreact to it, because LeBron will up the ante to 50 in Game 4.
“It’s not something you can plan for,” Manu Ginobili said after the 111-92 blowout. “There were no magic plays. We just moved the ball, and every shot went in.”
After the Game 2 loss in San Antonio, Popovich said with a glum face that the Spurs needed to move the basketball more crisply or they would “die.’’ Ambulances were not necessary Tuesday night, but heart palpitations were an issue throughout America as the Spurs made 19 of their first 21 shots and set a Finals record with 75.8 percent shooting in the first half. Don’t chalk it up to dumb luck. This was a technical clinic that took advantage of San Antonio’s quality depth and ability to push different buttons, none hotter than Leonard. Heretofore, he has been known as a project who eventually, after the departure of the Big Three, will be the cornerstone of the next Spurs era. He also is known for his uncommonly large hands, which measure 11.25 inches when stretched from his thumb to his pinkie finger. Whatever they say about large hands also applied to his 29-point breakout performance, which answered concerns about his relative no-shows in the first two games.
“I just was in attack mode,” said Leonard, who hit 10 of 13 shots. “Trying to be aggressive early. Just knocking down a couple of shots got me going. My teammates found me. They did a good job of getting me involved.”
And, sorry for the pun, but here’s a question: Kawhi did the Heat play matador defense when every game in the Finals should be approached with optimum desire and intensity? Can they afford to take nights off against the Spurs? If the Heat lose the Finals and fall sort of the three-peat, we’ll remember this night. “They came out at a different gear than what we were playing at, and it just seemed we were on our heels the most part of the first half,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“They jumped on us,” James said. “They were the aggressors and had us on our heels from the start, which shouldn’t happen at this point in the season.”
As for James’ seven turnovers, many forced by Leonard, what’s the deal? “There we go, it’s a new storyline for LeBron,’’ James said.
In delivering a crushing performance, the Spurs overcame any mental block about losing last year’s Finals in the same waterfront building. The immediate-reaction crowd assumed the Heat were in control of the series, having won its first eight home games this postseason, and figured the Spurs would be haunted in American Airlines Arena after blowing a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left in Game 6 and going on to lose Game 7. In the middle of the Game 6 mess was Leonard, who missed a free throw that kept the margin close enough for Ray Allen to hit his epic three-pointer and change the course of sports history.
“That’s why we’re here again,” Leonard said. “We knew we threw away the game. And we’re back at it. We’re not really thinking about last year like that. It’s a new year and we’re trying to get this series.”
Leonard has been a story for reasons beyond basketball ever since the Spurs, unearthing talent as they do, found him at San Diego State. From the dangerous streets of Compton, south of Los Angeles, he was 16 when his father was gunned down at the family’s carwash. Now, he is maturing in Popovich’s system and, after Ginobili and Duncan make their gradual march into retirement, should be one of basketball’s great players for the next 10-12 years. A gifted scorer, he has grown quickly as a defensive force and gained second-team All-NBA defense status this season. His performances still tend to ebb and flow, as seen in the first two Finals games, which prompted Popovich to punch him in the chest during a timeout and have a serious talk with Leonard after he fouled out of Game 2.
“Family business,’’ Popovich said.
Leonard didn’t mind the motivational tactic. “He beat on me,’’ he said, per the New York Times.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Spurs are positioned to clinch the series this weekend at home if they win Game 4. Popovich will make damned sure no such thoughts enter his players’ consciousness — “I don’t think we’ll ever shoot 76 percent in a half ever again,’’ he said, almost apologetically — but the Heat have no defensive answer for Leonard if he remains on this level. The Spurs were fueled by his surge, not only offensively but with solid defensive help on James, who had lit up Leonard and other defenders in the first two games and was slowed only by severe leg cramps that haven’t been a problem since.
“It was a cumulative of everything,” James said. “One thing about them, if you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay. And they made us pay more often than not. … We will get better from tonight. We hate the performance we put on tonight. But it’s 2-1, not 4-1.”
While we’ve seen the Heat climb from deficits throughout the title reign, we haven’t seen much finger-pointing. Dwyane Wade, who showed up offensively but still hurts the Heat defensively, didn’t hesitate to rip his team’s point guard play. While Parker and Mills were igniting the Spurs engine, Mario Chalmers was going 0 for 5 from the field while Norris Cole was 3 for 9. “Mario is a big piece of what we do, and we’re missing that piece right now,” Wade said.
Said Chalmers: “Still at the drawing board. Everybody else is doing their job, and it’s me that’s not helping the team right now. And I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t know what it is right now, but I have to figure it out.”
That said, blaming Chalmers is a byproduct of a larger Miami dilemma. Simply, the Spurs are better, healthier, deeper and hungrier this year. When they are playing at an optimum level, they are the best team.
But will they play at an optimum level Thursday night? It’s your move, LeBron. And Carmelo isn’t going be walking through that tunnel anytime soon, you hear?