On Monday, the morning after, in LeBron James’ Coconut Grove neighborhood, handmade signs (We Believe! 3-Peat!) and red, black and white flags hung from palm trees. They were soggy and droopy following a thunderstorm and a 104-87 blowout in San Antonio. They were hanging on, gamely, as the sun emerged.
The party might be over for 2014. Second-place finishers don’t get parades on Biscayne Boulevard. But the Heat isn’t dead yet.
The Big 3 era does not have to end with a 4-1 NBA Finals evisceration.
Look only to the worthy winners, the Spurs, to see the power of failure as motivator.
Look to the Spurs to see the genius of adaptation and augmentation.
Look to the Spurs to see the value of building a dynasty that stands the test of time.
The rumor mill is grinding: James to Charlotte to play for Michael Jordan is the latest. Why not create one of your own: James to Cleveland — that is, to the Browns to play tight end.
But James is not leaving. The Heat is not disintegrating.
Pat Riley has his work cut out for him. He’s looking at a jigsaw puzzle that has been overturned onto the floor. Several pieces — Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade among them — won’t fit so snugly as before.
The Heat’s flaws, hidden by the comb-over known as the Eastern Conference, were exposed and exploited by a superior team.
Riley is going to have to wheel, deal, sweet talk, flash his rings and work through equations with salary whiz Andy Elisburg to reconfigure the roster.
Will James, Wade and Chris Bosh consider short-term pay cuts to keep the Big 3 together and give Heat management financial space to retool within the limits of the salary cap and luxury tax?
Just as the Heat’s Finals performance was going to hinge on Wade’s performance, the Heat’s offseason could hinge on whether or not Wade opts out of the last two years of his contract and renegotiates a longer-term deal.
Loyalty is a trait treasured by Wade and Riley.
Those who denounce Wade as washed up are panic artists. He hit a wall, or, rather, a ceiling, during the Finals.
But let Manu Ginobili be a beacon of optimism. Ginobili, 36, suffered through an awful 2013 Finals and took a slice of the blame for San Antonio’s loss. He came back better this season, “mentally and physically,” he said, and flicked away Ray Allen and dunked over Bosh in a pivotal play Sunday.
A bigger thorn for the Heat is at point guard, where Chalmers and Norris Cole have recurring productivity problems. Then there’s the center spot, where coach Erik Spoelstra has been able to use mirrors, but you wonder how long he can sustain success playing small ball, or, as he terms it, “positionless” basketball. The bench was a box of chocolates in 2013; an empty-calorie drag on James at crunch time in 2014.
Miami’s lineups simply looked shallow against the Spurs, unable to match their pace or impede their ball movement. How many times did we see the Spurs zing another pass to an open man and a tardy Heat player lunge toward him in vain?
It’s the manner in which Miami lost — by a total of 57 points in three consecutive routs and shooting well below its league-leading 50.5 percent average — that has Riley searching for solutions. He has torn up the roster before.
He can also look to what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has done in compiling five titles since 1999 and the best winning percentage in U.S. sports. Popovich has consistently retooled, first around David Robinson, then Tim Duncan, now viewing Kawhi Leonard as the future anchor. He has supplemented his core group of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with such smart additions as Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter.
As nonchalant as James tried to appear between Games 4 and 5, saying reasonable things like “it’s only a game” and referring to the perspective provided by his kids at home, the torment of losing was visible on his face as he sat on the sideline in the closing minutes Sunday.
Don’t expect a breakup of Miami’s Big 3. They’ve invested too much trust and sweat in a remarkable run of two titles in four consecutive trips to the Finals. James needs more cohorts now to get to a fifth.
New blood will keep the Heat’s heart beating.