When the Miami Heat got together over two fateful days in July 2010 -- first with Chris Bosh announcing his intentions to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach, then with LeBron James revealing his plans in a primetime special, no one thought the arrangement would last only two seasons. There were minor fears that it might last only one because a new labor deal in 2011 would force the break-up of top-heavy salary cap sheets, but those fears turned out to be unfounded or at least exaggerated.
No one thought that there were structural basketball issues that would so limit the Heat that we'd legitimately be discussing the need to break up the party two years in. This isn't to say folks lacked skepticism of their ability to win not one, not two championships: there were plenty of Heat doubters. But there always also seemed to be some resignation that despite their evil excesses, the Heat were going to be darn near unstoppable.
The Heat are one loss away from missing the NBA Finals in their second season, a year after losing the NBA Finals in pretty much the same fashion: against an older, less talented team that used clever schemes and relentlessness to overcome Miami. That LeBron's mystical fourth quarter issues in 2011 have translated into mystical team defensive breakdowns is weird, but almost understandable. Communal confidence relies on a wide base of strength. If LeBron is again losing confidence in himself -- as he appeared to in the 2010 series against these Boston Celtics, and again in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks -- there's little expectation that Dwyane Wade and the others will preserve their own confidence in LeBron.
For while he is the best player on the planet, he's not playing like it. A huge heaping batch of credit goes to Boston's killer defense, and Miami missing the real Chris Bosh all series long can't go unmentioned. But in the end, it all comes down on LeBron, because all things come down on LeBron. And if LeBron can't win Game 6 for the Heat and eventually this series, and eventually the Finals over the Thunder, the Heat will be seen as a failure. Two straight No. 2 seeds and five playoff series victories in two seasons are nothing to sneeze at.
But two straight No. 2 seeds and five playoff series victories in two seasons weren't the goal. Multiple championships were.
"Were." As if there still isn't time and opportunity for the Heat to upgrade a couple spots, drop the regular season minutes of LeBron and Wade down at the expense of seeding, maybe look at the coaching chair and get into the winner's circle before James can opt out in 2014. There are two more seasons before any player-led shake-up can even occur. There's time to still come out of this with rings, even if the Heat lose to the Celtics.
But will there be the will to do it all again? That question is left to Pat Riley, who couldn't care less what the national columnists write. Riley may be as flummoxed as anyone by what has happened to his team this series. But he's not about to take cues from pixel-stained wretches or disembodied TV voices about what ails his team. If he decides to break off the blueprint and trade Bosh for a center or Wade for a point guard, it'll be because he has seen the innards of this monster and because he needs to destroy it from the inside.
As folks like Bethlehem Shoals and I argued for the very beginning of the Decision-era Heat, the only new twist the Heat provided as a basketball entity was the partnership of two top perimeter creators. There had been dozens of Big Threes. And there have countless examples where two of the best 10 players in the league ended up on the same team. But it was almost always a big and a small, an anchor and a creator. The Heat went with two creators in Wade and LeBron. That was different, and appeared to be a powerful idea.
Now, that powerful idea is looking fragile. That's the decision that needs to be made. Not whether LeBron has a strong enough will to overcome whatever demons haunt his mind -- whether Miami's arsenal and assets are properly deployed.
(I understand why folks would prefer to talk about LeBron's heart and his lack of pain over losing: it's easier to B.S. through, it requires little critical thinking and it taps into that steady vein of anti-LeBron/anti-Heat ore. It's a nasty but powerful brand of character assassination masked as sports populism, as if LeBron's lack of self-awareness and excess is really worthy of our darkest anger. Given the number of actual villains in sports, that the mainstream holds LeBron up as Supreme Evil is disgusting.)
The entire operation comes down to this game, these games if Miami survives. The philosophy -- that having two devastating isolation players running near-constant high pick-and-rolls and a few neat plays gaffled from other teams is a better set-up than a more traditional pairing -- is at stake.
Or is it? We look to the Western champs, who have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way. Westbrook is a legit point guard, and Durant has become an excellent passer -- not LeBron, but among the better passing small forwards. But this is still the closest proxy for the Miami dual-creator machine we have in the league. Will the world recognize Sam Presti's two-headed monster victory amid a failure of Pat Riley's two-headed monster? Will the idea survive the Heat's implosion? Can OKC carry the mantle of creativity?
I think so. What the Thunder have done offensively over the past four games is nothing short of astounding. Zach Lowe has an excellent rundown on the new creativity in OKC. This is the sort of symphonic collaboration we expected in Miami, the sort of collaboration we didn't get, the idea we stand to lose if Riley and the Celtics break up LeBron and Wade. But it lives in Oklahoma City, where a championship -- where vindication for the experiment -- is just four games away.
Somewhere, the revolutionaries -- the Earl Monroe/Walt Frazier tandem, the Gus Williams/Dennis Johnson duo, the Larry Hughes/Gilbert Arenas pairing -- salute you, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for keeping the dream alive.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.