NBA Playoffs: LeBron’s Crowning Moment

The road that started on Christmas Day came to an end last night in South Beach last night, as the Miami Heat won the NBA championship in decisive, indeed anti-climactic fashion, in taking apart the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 and wrapping up the Finals in five games.

Oklahoma City had a chance in the early part of the third quarter with the deficit only at five, but it has to be noted that Miami had control of the general flow of play from the outset and as soon as the Thunder threatened to make a game of it, the Heat opened up and the rout was on before the third quarter was over.

Last night’s win was so thorough I won’t spend too much time going through the specifics. Though Miami is generally at its best when they are not shooting threes, the rules go out the window when someone gets as hot as Mike Miller did last night. The reserve hit seven of eight from behind the arc on his way to 23 points. Closer to the rim, Chris Bosh hit 9-of-14 for 24 points, as the Heat shot 51 percent from the floor, the biggest reason for the win.

The Thunder had a rough shooting night, hitting only 41 percent and Russell Westbrook went cold, going 4-for-20. But for as much grief as Westbrook has taken in this series, his Game 4 performance when the Finals were still in serious doubt was an epic and no one could fault his effort last night. And certainly no one could fault Kevin Durant, who dropped 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but he was the only one his team who played well.

Oklahoma City is a very talented team—in fact, I still think the most talented. But they became the latest evidence of the NBA truism about needing to lose before you can win. It happened to them in the Western Conference Finals last year against Dallas—another team the Thunder were better, but less experienced then. And it happened on the biggest stage this year.  I know OkC fans are upset about the officiating—it obviously didn’t matter last night, but there were gripes to be had in Games 2, 3 & 4, all narrow Miami wins and just reversing one of them would have put this series back in Oklahoma City with the Thunder holding homecourt.

But the Thunder also made some bad decisions of their own in key moments. Furthermore, an ironclad rule I adhere to when it comes to complaints about the officials are that you have to earn the right to do it—you can’t melt down. If OkC would have played another tough game last night, gone to the wire and seen Durant again mugged in the paint without a whistle, then sure, light up Twitter, shout at the TV set, do whatever you do. But championship teams don’t melt down in the biggest moments. And last night, with the season on the line and a chance to win and reclaim homecourt with a quarter and a half to play, meltdown is exactly what the Thunder did. In the end, they were a team not ready to win.

The organization has some decisions to make, with James Harden and Serge Ibaka coming up on free agency, but as long as Durant and Westbrook are around as the core, they have the opportunity to get back here again next year and a lot more years after that. And next time they’ll be the team that’s paid its dues.

Now let’s move on to the 2012 NBA champions and a guy named LeBron. His 26 points last night were below his Finals average, but not only was he pulled in the final minutes when the celebration began, but he had 12 assists. I’ve said it in these pages many times—the man is an excellent passer and it’s time to start acknowledging his willingness to develop and use this part of his game is a huge reason his team won a title. I know most reasonable basketball observers have, but for the casual NBA fan, please just start tuning out this silly stuff about whether he does or doesn’t take a game-winning shot. We didn’t see the passing skills of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as something to be suppressed. When Michael Jordan gave up Finals-winning shots to John Paxson (1993) and Steve Kerr (1997) we didn’t see it as a sign of weakness. LeBron’s winning a ring won’t quiet his critics on this front—undoubtedly things will shift to pointing out that he didn’t actually hit a game-winning shot per se in the Finals (a stupid argument) and that one ring is not nearly enough in light of the expectations when he came to Miami (a more reasonable point). It’s up to the fans to just not feed into this line of analysis.

Which brings us to the Legacy Of LeBron. Now TheSportsNotebook takes great pride in its historical development, and one thing you learn on going through past seasons and champions is that there’s a reason the Hall of Fames wait five years before induction. Putting something in historical perspective the morning after it happens just doesn’t work. Will this be the first of several rings over the next ten years for LeBron and Miami? Or will Oklahoma City, younger and now battle-toughened knock Miami off each of the next couple years and then see Dwayne Wade and some of James’ supporting cast—hardly a strong suit to begin with in spite of Miller’s show last night—start to fade. If you take the longer view, it’s not unreasonable to think this could be James’ only ring. Nor is it unreasonable to think they could win three of the next four. Let’s wait and see, and then do some historical perspective.

I’m not a LeBron James fan—I rooted against Miami in each of their playoff series  and only against the Celtics did I have a direct rooting interest in the other team. But nor am I a hater, and as I watch him play and see the things he says and does, I find myself increasingly wondering why people dislike the guy so much. He plays the game the correct way—he involves his teammates, he plays tough defense and does the unflashy things that win championships. Yes, I get the city of Cleveland loathes him for leaving via free agency. But why does that affect the rest of the country so thoroughly? Because James made his free agent announcement on a half-hour ESPN special? Because the Heat introduced him and Chris Bosh, along with Dwayne Wade, at a gaudy press conference, replete with talk of championships? As ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy pointed out last night, not only has LeBron apologized on this front, but the apologies are for things that are hardly capital crimes.

Let’s take “The Decision.” I thought the half-hour show for his announcement was silly when it was announced, and I didn’t watch it, seeing only clips of it later. My response now as the same as it was then—“So what.” I reject the notion that this was somehow a major diss to Cleveland. In fact, the only diss Cavaliers fans should be riled up is the diss owner Dan Gilbert gave to LeBron the years he was there, as the awful job of assembling a supporting cast was completely exposed when James left town. LeBron’s carrying of a terrible Cleveland team to the 2007 NBA Finals was a bigger achievement than last night’s win and Cleveland fans should thank him for the memories. At the very least, fans outside the city shouldn’t be all carried away.

The gaudy press conference has all the earmarks of Heat team president Pat Riley. I read Riley’s motivational books back in the 1990s along Showtime, his story of the 1987-88 Lakers. The coach is a believe that to have the will to win a championship you must feel no slack—and what better way to make sure you’re new free agents feel all the pressure than construct an opening sure to incite animosity throughout the league. We already know that the design of the press conference was a team decision, not one by the players and I’d bet that it was Riley’s idea, with a Machiavellian sort of motivational ploy—get everyone to hate you, tell them that you have to win and let that eliminate any slack you might feel.  As for LeBron himself he got carried away talking about how many championships he was going to win, but even that had the feel of integrating into the whole ridiculous display to begin with.

So we have a then 25-year-old who plays the game the right way, works hard, but announced a free agent decision on TV and got a little swept up in hubris on the day he joined his new teammates. For this he’s Public Enemy Number One. I don’t get it. And it seems even sillier when you factor in he’s openly admitted not handling things well, to having shown immaturity, to accepting responsibility well beyond the scope of anything he did wrong. Contrast LeBron’s willingness to admit he’s wrong to someone like Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds. Then come and tell me the Heat star is really all that’s wrong with the sports world.

Because I’m not a Miami fan per se, because I like conference rival Boston and because it tends to be more fun to root for an underdog, I doubt I’ll be rooting for the Heat too many times in the immediate future. But it’s not an anti-Laker animosity, which is purely on principle. I respect LeBron, not just as a player, but for his effort to take some minor mistakes and set them right. For all those reasons he deserves the ring and the celebration he got last night.