Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
So that certainly was an interesting few days since we last checked in.
Just when I think I’m able to turn to my old fallback column fodder about the imminent implosion of the putative Dream Team that’s really just two superstars and some replacement-level role players—complete with infighting with the coach, canceled practices, and The Hunger Games—the Heat cause the entire blogosphere to do a 180 after they did something they had yet to do with their backs against the wall: push back.
Make no mistake, after Game 3’s here-we-go-again no-show that had every Miami doomsayer preening all the way until tipoff Sunday afternoon, the Heat was underdogs. This wasn’t like Game 5 against Dallas last year where everyone wondered what the hell was happening to LeBron James and why the Heat wasn’t rising to the occasion as Jason Terry was shooting them out of a title; those bewildered reactions were the exact reason why they weren’t underdogs—people were questioning what was wrong, and until the buzzer sounded and the series was over, they were still expecting the real Heat to arrive at any moment.
Game 4 of this series was completely different. There was agreement that James needed to have a vintage Cleveland-era game, but no one would’ve been surprised if he didn’t. Everyone agreed Dwyane Wade had to put the team on his back the way he did with a similarly flawed supporting cast during the 2006 title run, yet there was no rebuttal to claims he was injured or washed up. Literally anything was possible: Wade punching Eric Spoelstra; Pat Riley taking over at halftime; the Heat’s 13th man accosting Lance Stephenson (wait, that happened?). We expected anything, except an impressive, convincing, dominant bounce-back win. And why should we have expected it? This group hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. The only basis for comparison was last year’s Finals, and in a similar situation, they crashed and burned in spectacular fashion.
Trust me, I wasn’t planning on analyzing a basketball game Sunday. Like the rest of America, I came to rubberneck a trainwreck.
Before Sunday, the most impressive postseason game I witnessed from LeBron James was Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland won 109-107 in a double-overtime thriller after James went for 48 points and played 50 minutes, helping turn the tide in what was previously a 2-2 series and catapulting his upstart Cavaliers to their first Finals appearance by overcoming the top-seeded Pistons. What made the performance so remarkable wasn’t the points or minutes, but rather his Jordanesque tenacity in single-handedly willing his team to victory. But as we learned in retrospect, something else stood out: It was the last time LeBron had no expectations.
Michael Jordan didn’t get past Detroit and reach the Finals until his seventh season; LeBron was doing it in his fourth.
Since that performance, he became a three-time MVP, one of the richest and most telegenic athletes in the world (hard to fathom that he once hosted the ESPYs and Saturday Night Live), and eventually decided to join two buddies to try and win a title in the most unconventional manner the league has ever seen.
But even before The Decision, we were surprised when James’s teams fell apart against the Magic in 2009 (robbing us of the Kobe vs. LeBron Finals subplot) and shocked at his complete absence in the Celtics series in 2010. That Game 5 outburst against the Pistons proved to be a blessing and a curse: It marked the true coronation of the King, but also forced him to carry the title-or-bust millstone every year for the remainder of his career.
Perhaps that’s what made James and the Heat’s Game 4 response to their supposed inevitable flameout so refreshing, even to their many critics. With the Pacers taking a 10-point lead as the third quarter got underway, at no moment then or before had James looked ready to go into meltdown mode. With the pressure bearing down on him, he didn’t cower. He once again had that Game 5 willing-his-team-to-victory attitude that he’d given us no reason to believe he could muster up.
In the first quarter, he either scored or assisted on every Heat point. After the half, he put on an inspired and ineffable display that, if you believe in such abstract things, must’ve fed off onto his teammates—or at least two of them. James went from being on his way to an “It’s not your fault” performance in a losing effort to taking the game over himself to both continuing his dominant outing and somehow rejuvenating Wade and getting him involved in the process; it helped that he fed him some easy looks, including this gorgeous no-look pass that I’ve re-watched 15,000 times. (Approximately.)
(A fluid-draining knee procedure and Tom Crean probably had just as much to do with Wade’s comeback, but how often can we give LeBron credit for anything?)
James and Wade eventually set Miami off on a 25-to-5 run that swung the game in their favor. They outscored the Pacers single-handedly in the third quarter by a margin of 28-to-6 (scoring all but two of their team’s points in the process). Wade sunk nine consecutive shots in the second half and eleven total dating back to the end of the second quarter; he and James scored 38 straight for the Heat during that span. To illustrate how bad this team was in the third quarter of their previous two losses and how sudden and remarkable this about-face was, they shot just 21 percent (7-of-34) as a team in the third quarter of Games 2 and 3.
Most importantly, with one of the series’ crucial advantages for the Pacers being points in the paint, Miami outscored them 18-to-6 in that category in the third quarter, relegating the previously unstoppable Roy Hibbert and David West to nonfactor status. Even Udonis Haslem went from amnesty candidate to an ersatz Chris Bosh, successfully executing the pick-and-pop and chipping in 14 points and some incredibly clutch baskets down the stretch.
There are legitimate questions to be asked regarding whether this is sustainable and how A-plus performances from two of the league’s five best players was still only good enough for an eight-point win. There’s no reason to believe a two-man team can win a title, a series, or even another game. Then again, there was no reason to believe they could even win this one.
Playing without expectations for the first time since the Big Three came together, the Heat answered their critics by doing something we never thought they’d be able to do: surprise us. But now, with that elusive and intangible idea of momentum supposedly shifting back to Miami as the series returns to the confines of American Airlines Arena, the Heat is expected to take a 3-2 lead before heading back to Indiana. If this team is truly different—if LeBron is truly different—then they need to prove they can handle being the favorite once again after getting back in America’s good graces.
LeBron James surprised us all after dominating a game with no expectations. He can surprise us even more by dominating a game with high ones.
Scattered thoughts and observations:
-None, really. I squeezed them all into the column.
-Okay, one: Did you know that Hyde from That ‘70s Show is the bearded guy in the Men at Work ads? Somehow, Turner Broadcasting has forced that commercial down my throat for the past month and yet I couldn’t put my finger on who that was. I just assumed Hollywood was trying to peddle their latest Zach Galifianakis knockoff.