We often see so-called super-teams in sports, a collection of players that, on paper, appear impossible to beat. Remember all the hype around the Los Angeles Lakers this season, for example? Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol! You know, the team that barely made the playoffs.
In modern sports, when great players are collected via free agency and trades, it’s nearly a shock when they win the title. Two in a row: that’s an epic accomplishment. So seeing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade standing on the championship podium in Miami, after the Heat’s 95-88 Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs — James holding his second straight Finals MVP trophy, Wade clutching the championship hardware — you have to admire the Miami Heat.
Because so many thing could go wrong. Egos collide. Confusion over roles becomes rampant. We saw some of this in 2010-2011, the first year of the James-Wade partnership. Remember their slow start? Wade yelling at James in the Finals, against Dallas? James disappearing from that series, and reminding people that he could still rest easy, knowing he had a better life than most people.
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James learned from such mistakes. Last year, a humbled LeBron got rid of the “he’s never won a title” burden. This year, he aimed for efficiency — all substance, no style, but my, his game still has style — and shot a career high from the floor. He turned in a singular season, and won another MVP.
And here in Game 7, LeBron, two years ago a choker, now one of the best big-game players of all-time, again delivered: 37 points, 12 rebounds. And Wade, spotty all postseason long, came through too: 23 points, 10 rebounds. “I mean, basically they shoveled dirt on him, while he was still alive, all playoffs,” James said on ESPN afterwards, speaking of Wade. This is how it’s supposed to be: two great players of a generation, willing their team to a championship in a do-or-die game.
Ray Allen’s miracle three-pointer, that tied Game 6 at the end of regulation, will be the iconic moment of this series. But don’t forget the two guys on the stage, the ones who closed it out.
In some senses, Game 7 defied expectations. Many figured the Spurs wouldn’t be able to recover from the Game 6 heartbreak — who could? — and Miami would take the game easily. No such luck: Tim Duncan defied age once again, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 boards in 43 minutes, though he missed two simple shots in the final minute that could have tied it. But as many hoopheads also predicted, Game 7 was no classic like Game 6 — what could be? The game was at times ragged, sloppy, but always tense. A satisfying end to a satisfying series, and another satisfying NBA season.
The Spurs stuck to their LeBron-Wade game plan: shoot the outside shot, if you dare. Going into Game 7, LeBron was mentally prepared to let it fly. “I was like, you know, all the repetition, all the work you put in, don’t abandon it,” James told ESPN. “Just go out, and make it happen. And I was able to do that.” He made five threes. Wade often used an extra dribble to step back a bit, a subtle trick that keeps shooters in rhythm. He hit an efficient 11 of 21 shots.
Five summers ago, before the Beijing Olympics, LeBron held his annual charity bike race in Akron, his beloved hometown. His Cavs had fallen short in the playoffs again, eliminated in the second round by the Boston Celtics, the eventual NBA champs. A bunch of his Cleveland teammates showed up. So did one NBA player not on the Cavs: Wade. After the ride, LeBron’s family and friends retreated to the back of an Akron restaurant. Wade was right by James’ side.
You can picture them that day an Akron, already talking up the possibilities. Having one of the conversations that led to LeBron’s leaving Cleveland, a choice that was reviled, but ultimately did wonders for his career, his legacy, and the entire NBA. When smart, ambitious people hatch a plan, and stick with it through all the resistance, and are blessed by a fair share of luck, things can work out. Even in sports.
That’s the lesson of the Miami Heat.