Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem and LeBron James watch action against the San Antonio Spurs from the bench during the second half Sunday in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The Spurs won the NBA championship 104-87. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Well after it was inevitable but minutes before it was official, LeBron James sat alone on the bench amid the party taking place at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
It was a reversal of fortunes from last June, revenge served unexpectedly for both the now five-time champion Spurs and Heat haters who wanted to see James and his team fail spectacularly.
James’ singular act wasn’t nearly enough to keep the Heat competitive, and sitting alone on the bench wasn’t dissimilar from his on-court play, when it felt like he was playing one on five — or 10, counting the Spurs stellar second unit.
The Spurs came in waves, and although Tim Duncan is probably the most accomplished player since Michael Jordan retired, it was viewed as a team-wide effort, punctuated by Kawhi Leonard earning MVP honors — a 22-year old who’s just becoming a household name.
It evoked images of the Pistons shocking the basketball world a decade ago when they beat the star-studded Lakers in a five-game shellacking, but it’s the Heat who looked like the contending Pistons of the last decade.
Going to the NBA Finals four straight years, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the Celtics of the 1980’s, takes its physical and mental toll on a team. The 87 playoff games the Heat have played since 2011 is the most in a four-year span in NBA history. The Pistons of 2003-06 and 2004-07 were third and fourth on that list.
James emptied out his reservoir every night — 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, four assists, two steal, 57.1 percent shooting, including 51.9 percent from three, 79.3 percent from the line — much like his days in Cleveland, where his free agency loomed in his final two years as a Cavalier.
The Pistons, of course, didn’t have a player of James’ stature, but that far away look James wore, where tired legs seemed to catch a deep, balanced and talented team, was so similar to the great Pistons teams that couldn’t get over the hump from 2006-08 — a hump aptly named “Game 6, Eastern Conference Finals”.
While one could argue the 2006 Heat and 2008 Celtics were better teams than the Pistons at that time, the mental fatigue of playing big game after big game, taking on all motivated comers from every corner, wore on a very good team having very little margin for error.
James’ co-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came up woefully short, and despite getting lifts from veterans Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, it wasn’t nearly enough consistent play all around.
Not enough young legs to take the burden off James — a challenge Heat boss Pat Riley must address this offseason if James opts in for next season, along with decisions Wade and Bosh face as well.
Wade looked a shell of himself in the Finals, signs of his body breaking down and no longer capable of being the second-best player on a title-contending team. But with a player option for $20 million, will he be willing to make yet another personal sacrifice for the sake of “team”, or take his last big payday at age 32?
Role players needed
With every hesitation or shot fake that defenders didn’t bite on, his demise no longer looks exaggerated but imminent — giving Riley another sell job if he wants James to remain in Miami, considering Riley needs flexibility to acquire more talent.
Not stars necessarily but dependable players with something to offer. James spoke admirably of the conquering Spurs, a team that was branded “old” but has youth by way of Leonard, Danny Green (26) and Patty Mills (25) to go with the graybeards Duncan (38), Tony Parker (32) and Manu Ginobili (36).
James’ load needs to be lessened next season, as he enters Year 12. Although he’s the best player in the NBA, he can’t be expected to carry any team for 82 games and through the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference is as vulnerable as ever and the Heat will be formidable as long they have James.
But he wants championships, and the Heat have work to do before solidifying their place at the top of the NBA’s best teams.