With two more victories over the Indiana Pacers, the Heat will win the Eastern Conference and reach the league’s championship round for the fourth straight season (Game 4 is Monday at Miami). That would be a significant accomplishment for any team, let alone one as flawed as this edition of the Heat. The mere fact that the Heat is even in position to accomplish the feat provides yet another example of why James is an all-time great.
Only two franchises have made four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals: the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Behind Bill Russell — the greatest winner in professional sports history — the Celtics played in a record 10 straight from 1957 to 1966. During the Larry Bird era, the Celtics won four consecutive East titles from 1984 to 1987. Directed by Magic Johnson, the Lakers won the West from 1982 to 1985.
The Celtics and Lakers had strong leadership and future Hall of Famers throughout their lineups. By guiding the Heat to the past three East titles and back-to-back NBA championships, James has proven he’s also a good guy to follow.
Through his words and actions (no one outworks the four-time league MVP), James has created a culture of accountability in Miami’s locker room. When the game’s best player demands of himself as much as he does from others, his teammates either get in line behind him or wind up playing elsewhere. The Heat is all in on doing whatever it takes to win. Belief in the group, primarily inspired by James, has formed the foundation of the Heat’s success.
During their impressive runs, Russell, Bird and Magic created environments in which second was unacceptable. Confidence helped the Lakers and Celtics overcome obstacles. Injuries, fatigue, ego, age, complacency — there’s a long list of things that could have derailed them. Russell, Bird and Magic possessed the mental toughness to block out the noise.
In that area, James has joined their exclusive club. He still falls way short when comparing supporting casts.
Although Russell, Bird and Magic made their teammates better, many of those players were already darn good. Russell relied on fellow future Celtics legends, including Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones. Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and Robert Parrish had Bird’s back. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo helped make Magic’s “Showtime” Lakers the hottest act in L.A. Mostly because of James, the Heat is a must-see attraction in Miami.
When James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Heat in free agency, most league observers decried the move. Teamed with Heat future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade and all-star forward Chris Bosh, who also arrived in the summer of 2010, the club would be too good, the thinking went, which would hurt the NBA’s competitive balance and, ultimately, its popularity.
The Heat’s dominance has hardly ruined the NBA. And despite the accomplishments of Miami’s Big Three — James, Wade and Bosh — the road hasn’t been smooth.
After Wade’s performance in the 2013 playoffs suffered because of severe knee pain, the Heat’s training staff developed a program designed to help him enter this postseason in top form. During the regular season, Wade missed 28 games, most of which were scheduled in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on his knees. With James having to shoulder more, the Heat finished two games behind the Pacers for the East’s No. 1 seed.
Wade has been sensational in helping the Heat take a 2-1 lead against the Pacers in the best-of-seven conference finals. He’s just not the consistently dominant player he was earlier in his career. Neither is Bosh.
You have to respect the sacrifices Bosh has made. Because of management’s inability to fill the team’s void at center, Coach Erik Spoelstra has utilized a smaller lineup with the undersized Bosh at center. The Heat usually has a major advantage in athleticism against its opponents — the Pacers can attest to that — but Bosh’s rebounding, among other things, has dropped off considerably. This season, Bosh averaged a career-low 6.6 rebounds.
James has received a big assist from Ray Allen. After all these years, the NBA’s second-oldest player, who turns 39 in July, is still a marksman from behind the three-point arc. In Saturday’s Game 3 victory, the league’s all-time leader in three-pointers put on a shooting clinic. At this stage of his career, though, Allen is a role player — albeit a really good one.
As for the rest of the roster, the Heat has a lot of so-so players. Their biggest strength is that they give everything they have on defense. They’re also good at getting out of James’s way. Often, James has done so much to enable the Heat to win, you wonder whether he’ll have enough left to do it again.
Obviously, the book on James’s career isn’t finished. He still has mountains to climb. But an important peak is within reach.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.