To call this a clinic is to devalue the immensity of the masterpiece. How do we deify the Spurs with the right words today? Answer: Describe their performance as an art form, an extravaganza rarely seen even on a championship level. All it took was Gregg Popovich to utter six words after their only sluggish game of an epic week — “You move it or you die’’ — for the Spurs to propel their long-sustainable system of selfless, expertly efficient basketball to new heights in the NBA Finals.
When was the last time we saw a team operate with such wondrous, mesmerizing precision? When was the last time you said “Wow!’’ or “Damn!’’ dozens of times about the same team on a June night? Normally, the Finals have some semblance of two-way competitiveness, but the Spurs have been so spectacular the last two games, they’ve reduced LeBron James to an afterthought and the rest of the Heat, including the suddenly useless Dwyane Wade, to bit players. Yes, the Heat are playing like demoralized dogs who lack heart and desire and are diminshing the legacy of James, who kept holding his midsection throughout a lackluster Game 4.
A second straight Finals blowout at home, this time to a 107-86 tune, must have made him sick to his stomach. There were times during this debacle that the Spurs, with no-look bounce passes and breathtaking ball movement, looked like the Harlem Globetrotters, which reduced LeBron and the Heat to the Washington Generals.
What you’re hearing, people, is the ceremonial opening of one door and the disgusted shutting of another. The Spurs, a special if nationally underappreciated empire since Popovich and Tim Duncan started making sweet titles together 15 years ago, are about to enter the pantheon of America’s all-time glorious sports teams. Unless they become the first ever to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals — their predecessors with that advantage are 31-0 — they will back up Duncan’s Swaggy T prediction of revenge over the Heat after last year’s Finals collapse. And unless James and his big-mouth entourage — didn’t I say the Carmelo Anthony-to-the-Heat whispers, which came straight from LeBron’s camp, would have a distracting effect? — sign the Eastern Conference All-Stars to join James before Game 5, this series will be over Sunday night in Texas.
Five titles in 15 years shouldn’t happen in the age of opt-outs and luxury taxes. But it’s happening for the Spurs and their crusty coach, Popovich, who thrives on a 21st-century sideline with military-school methods of discipline, ego compromise and team cohesion. “”I’m pleased that they performed as well as they did while we’ve been in Miami, and that’s about as far it goes,” Popovich grunted afterward. “Now, we’ve got to go back home and play as well or better.”
And what was that James said a while ago about “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven’’ championships? If the Heat are closed out, he’ll be 2-3 in the Finals, and while the current collapse is more about weak links being exposed and embarrassed by the optimum-performing, 10-deep San Antonio lineup, all future attempts to compare him to Michael Jordan will cease. As in Game 3, we kept waiting for James to assume control with his teammates looking awful, which is what basketball greats do if they aspire to be on the sport’s Mt. Rushmore — his stated goal. Put it this way: If anyone was starting to chisel his likeness on a mountainside, he went home for the summer. James has 15 assists and 18 turnovers in four games. Last year, in a seven-game triumph for the Heat, he had 49 assists and 18 turnovers. Do not make the mistake of letting him off the hook. Since quieting the social media in Game 2, LeBron has been ordinary and, at times, almost resigned that he can’t win this series.
“They smashed us,” James said. “Two straight home games, got off to awful starts. They came in and were much better than us in these last two games. It’s just that simple. They’re a high-oiled machine, and they move the ball extremely well. They put you in so many difficult positions. If you’re not right on time, right on target, they’re going to make you pay for it.”
Now LeBron suggests the Heat will win the final three games. “We put ourselves in a position where it is about making history,” he said. Really? Has he noticed the Spurs are fashioning one of the great postseason runs ever, having won 11 games by 15 or more points? Does he realize the Spurs are shooting almost 55 percent, the highest field-goal percentage for a Finals team through four games since the shot clock was implemented in 1954? Does he realize the Spurs have put together entire quarters in which they rarely miss a shot? Has he noticed that Kawhi Leonard — tell me Mark Jackson didn’t say on the ABC telecast, “Who? What? When? Where? And Kawhi?’’ — followed his Game 3 breakout by filling out the stat line with 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, three steals and more athletic-lockdown defense on James and other Heat players? Did he see Boris Diaw come close to a triple-double? Did he notice Tony Parker and Patty Mills again shame Mario Chalmers? How Danny Green doesn’t miss a shot anymore?
And did he see the Little Two, Wade and Chris Bosh, shoot a combined 8 of 24 from the field? Did LeBron hear the boos reign down on the two-time champions in a town spoiled by success but also disturbed right now by an alarming lack of effort?
“They played great and I can honestly say I don’t think any of us were expecting this type of performance,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They were great. You have to give them credit for that. We just couldn’t get into a rhythm on either side of the ball, and it went from there.”
Didn’t expect it? Might another coach have been better prepared? Spoelstra’s players seem more like impressed spectators than serious challengers. “They put you in positions that no other team in this league does,” James said. “It’s tough because you have to cover the ball first, but also those guys on the weak side can do multiple things. They can shoot the ball from outside, they can also penetrate. So our defense is geared toward running guys off the 3-point line, but at the same time those guys are getting full steam ahead and getting to the rim too.”
“They’re just one of those teams,’’ Bosh said, “where if you make mistakes, especially early, they’re going to capitalize very quickly. They’re doing a very good job of starting fast. Not only starting fast, but they’re hitting their shots and getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line. They’re pretty much getting everything they want.”
Maybe the James camp leaked the Anthony conjecture to plant a seed: LeBron needs help, because the teammates around him are fading fast. You know will see two days of stories linking him — he can opt out of his contract in three weeks — to the Knicks, Lakers and Cavaliers. And you will keep hearing about Anthony. With billions of dollars swirling in a 21st-century sports blizzard, the art of the deal too often takes precedence over the bouncing balls. Yet never have we seen business interrupt a championship series quite like the buzz in Miami before Game 4. The Heat should have been concentrating on nothing but how to stop a Spurs team that is healthier, deeper, hungrier and better than a year ago.
Instead, rather astonishingly, there was chatter within the organization about signing Anthony next month, meshing him with good friend LeBronin 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 nose 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 disintegrates.
If, as the report indicates, the wooing of Anthony has been discussed in recent weeks by all the Heat principles — and that James, Wade, 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. Besides, the Heat faces a serious decision on Wade, who looked old and done in Game 4 and has been struggling to stay healthy for years.
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, who 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, the Heat would benefit to some degree 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. 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 titles.
“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.’’
The way the Heat played the last two games, you don’t want to see them stay together another 10 or 12 days. James stole Game 2 in San Antonio and might need a 50-point boom to stop a Spurs celebration. “Ours heads are a little down right now,’’ James said. “It’s just human nature, but we still have to go out and play on Sunday.’’
If they do, it will be the first time the Heat have shown up in a week. Expect them to drown in the Riverwalk and begin the Anthony wooing quicker than Riley can say, “Reboot this clunker.’’