They had to work far harder for it than last time, but the Miami Heat are NBA Champions once again (Image | Reuters)

They had to work far harder for it than last time, but the Miami Heat are NBA Champions once again (Image | Reuters)

In the final two rounds of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, the Miami Heat won back-to-back games just once. Pegged back three times by the gutsy Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and thrice trailing the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals, the Heat traded wins with their opponents throughout the final four weeks of the season.

Until it mattered most.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are champions again, twelve months after their five-game ousting of the fancied Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA’s poster children for building a franchise the ‘right’ way as opposed to Miami’s free-agent frenzy of 2010, in last season’s Finals. Their supporting cast – Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and new addisions Chris Andersen and Ray Allen – played pivotal roles in this triumph, but in the clutch over the final two games of the seasons, the Big Three made their plays count.

After putting plenty of mini-runs together early in the season, Miami went through a difficult 9-8 stretch after Christmas before igniting their season. A 27-game winning streak between February 3rd and March 27th, until Chicago snapped the run at the United Center, revitalised Miami’s year. They ended the regular season on a 37-2 tear before brushing a hopelessly outmatched Milwaukee squad aside in the first round.

Chicago, lacking Luol Deng (who historically has defended James very well) throughout the series and constantly having to deal with the will-he-won’t-he Derrick Rose saga, played feistily in the Conference Semis but were never likely to cause an upset. Then came the Pacers, who put up much more of a fight than expected.

The East Finals served as Paul George's coming-out party - but he couldn't lead Indiana to the big dance (Image | USA Today)

The East Finals served as Paul George’s coming-out party – but he couldn’t lead Indiana to the big dance (Image | USA Today)

Having knocked off New York in the Semis, the Pacers, behind new go-to man Paul George, gave Miami possibly the best preparation they could have hoped for ahead of a Finals series with the Spurs. Roy Hibbert exposed weaknesses down low which Bosh and Andersen worked on with Duncan in mind. George and Lance Stephenson attacked the wings in a style not dissimilar to that of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Pacers matched Miami for the first 25 quarters of the season – until a 33-16 Q2 in Game 7 ended their challenge.

On, then, to the Finals. Old v new. The King v the Big Fundamental. Miami’s Big Three have been together, with as much flair, promotion and excess as possible, for three years. San Antonio’s ‘Big Three’ – quiet, unassuming ultimate professionals with gritty determination and experience aplenty – have been together 11. Predictably, as is often the case in the Finals, it was the role players as much as the superstars who told the story.

Tim Duncan comfortably outplayed Bosh in the post. The four-time champion and future first-ballot Hall of Famer had too many moves for Bosh on his way to 19 points and 12 rebounds a game (Bosh: 12 and 9 in about 90 seconds less per game). Wade was arguably the outstanding guard although Parker monstered Chalmers at point. LeBron was comfortably more productive than Ginobili, but both were below the levels their teams expected of them (until James took over in the second halves of Games 6 and 7).

Role players aren’t that important during the regular season – if your best players turn it on against the majority of teams in the NBA, you’re going to win if you’re as good a team as either the Spurs or the Heat. In the Finals, when you’re playing the other best team in the league, it’s a little different.

Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were the toast of Texas for five games. Green’s record-setting performance from three-point range, going 25-38 through five games, looked set to be the X-factor that pushed San Antonio to their fifth title; Leonard, who played outstanding defence on James throughout the series, asserted himself as one of the rising stars of the NBA with an equally eye-catching offensive performance. He averaged 14 and 11, plus two steals, a game.

When the Heat turned the tide through the final two games, it was because their entire squad took a step up. Miller and Andersen had been impressive early on, but a series-best 20 points from Chalmers and perhaps the defining moment of Allen’s career in Game 6 precluded a resurgent 18-point performance by Battier, who had struggled so horrendously throughout the Finals, in Game 7. In those final two games, Green disappeared.

Before Allen’s shot, though, San Antonio had a three-point lead and were about nine seconds from taking the most sensational title in franchise history. After years of being dismissed as too old, they were nine seconds from proving all those critics wrong. Had Tim Duncan still been in the game, boxing Bosh, he probably would have caught that rebound, because he wouldn’t have strayed away from the glass. The Big Fundamental averaged over 80% at the free throw line in the Finals – a two-possession lead would have assured the trophy.

Too old? Not yet. Minor tweaks may be needed, but these Spurs are far from ready to lie down (Image | Reuters)

Too old? Not yet. Minor tweaks may be needed, but these Spurs are far from ready to lie down (Image | Reuters)

One thing seems certain – an unprecedented Finals defeat for Duncan, Parker and Gregg Popovich will fill this group of winners with a fire that will propel them, and their improving supporting cast, very close to the Finals again next year. Ginobili’s future is less certain, but to walk away in free agency now would be counter to everything he’s ever done as a professional for 17 years, 11 of them in the NBA with the Spurs.

Miami will be building too. They know they need more help inside. Whether that’s for, or in place of Bosh is a moot point at this time; Miami can’t tie in picks and some veteran role players this summer (James Jones and Joel Anthony could be rather more use somewhere else), so Bosh is their most valuable tradeable piece now that Miller has proven his worth in the Finals.

New challengers will arise next year. The Thunder, Lakers, Bulls and Knicks will get fully healthy again and come back stronger. The Spurs aren’t going anywhere. The young Pacers and Warriors (yes, really) are going to keep getting better. LeBron and Miami will be waiting.

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