These NBA playoffs aren’t going according to plan. The Los Angeles Lakers, everyone’s favorite pick to win the West at season’s start, faltered all year and fell out of the postseason, victims of a four-game sweep. The Oklahoma City Thunder rallied after losing Russell Westbrook with a knee injury, but Kevin Durant wasn’t enough to get them to even the conference finals. And the Denver Nuggets, who had a 15-game win streak and this season’s Coach of the Year couldn’t get out of the first round.
Things in the East are at least a little less chaotic: while Chicago stunned more than a few in their first-round upset, mostly everything has unfolded to plan. Indiana, who was far back as January were being called title contenders, have come within one win of the Finals. So are the Miami Heat, nearly every sane person’s pick back in October. It’s come down to the most anticipated Game 7 this postseason.
That the Pacers are here isn’t really a surprise: they’re a strong defensive team, young and hungry. They aren’t a strong scoring team, ranked 23rd through the regular season, but they shut down offenses. This season, the Knicks averaged 100 points per game. In their second-round series against Indiana, they reached that just once.
But what about Miami? It’s not shocking to see them still playing basketball in June, but it’s fascinating to see how they got here. The Big Three isn’t so big anymore. The play of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has taken a hit, right as LeBron James took another leap forward, at a point when that hardly seemed plausible anymore.
This season, James has hit another level. While his points per game have taken a bit of a dip, everything else is up: rebounding, assists and even his shooting percentages. And this season, his PER and Win Shares were among the highest in NBA history. By a wide margin, he was the best player in the NBA, let alone on his team. The Heat rolled through the regular season, finishing with 66 wins, and lost just once en route to the conference finals. But that was all prologue.
What’s also changed in this series is James’ role on the Heat. He’s gone from being part of the Big Three to an unquestioned No. 1. Miami’s offense has been run though him, letting him carry the team, which he’s doing on a per-game basis.
In Game 1, he cut through the NBA’s best defense and scored the game-winning basket. This was James at his best, cutting around Paul George and driving past three defenders before the clock ran out. Two nights later, he scored 36 points, keeping the Heat close in an eventual loss. And in Game 5, James took over: in the third quarter, he scored 25 points, putting the game out of reach.
But as James’ play has heated up, Miami’s Big 3 has quieted down. Chris Bosh has yet to grab more than five boards in a game and was held to seven points in both Games 4 and 5. Wade hasn’t been much better: in those two games, he shot under 40 per cent, hitting just three shots in Game 5. Going back to Game 2, Bosh and Wade shot a combined 12 of 28 as James hit 14 of 20.
After Game 5, James had one of his most telling quotes this year: “I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days,” said James, “just see if the guys would follow me and lead them the best I could.”
He’s right, of course. This series is a flashback to his Cleveland days, when he dragged a team containing Daniel Gibson, Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic to the NBA Finals. Nearly six years ago, James dropped 48 points and carried Cleveland to a win over Detroit. Maybe that’s what James was thinking of when he spoke after Game 5: he’s carried a team on his back before.
It was more of the same in Game 6: James scored 29 points on 10-of-24 shooting; only Wade broke double digits, hitting 10 points on three-of-11. It was a rough night, with Bosh hitting one field goal and Ray Allen hitting two. It was one of the worst shooting nights for Bosh and Wade since they joined the Heat.
Throughout Game 6, the TNT crew kept talking about was how James was carrying the load. As Miami shots didn’t drop and the Pacers pulled away late, James looked more and more like he a guy trying to make it all happen without any help. Wasn’t this supposed to be a Big 3?
Maybe that’s what Wade was thinking of when he said “We’ve got to do a good job of making sure me and Chris have our opportunities to succeed throughout the game” after Game 6. But didn’t they have – and squander – their chances throughout this series?
And as we go to a seventh game Monday, it’s feeling like something’s about to happen. It won’t be over how good James will have to be, but if he’ll have to carry a team to the finals, again. And maybe if the Big Three experiment can work after all.