“Why not us?” LeBron James had asked, rhetorically.
The San Antonio Spurs answered him Sunday night – emphatically.
“Follow my lead,” James had told his teammates just before the game tipped off.
And then he led, as promised, but he was a King with no army. “You’re on your own,” the rest of the Heat pretty much told him with their performance. One man charged valiantly. Too many others retreated.
Miami’s hope of a three-peat championship expired in the NBA Finals here in a 104-87 loss that left Spurs fans cheering their newly minted champions’ decisive 4-1 series triumph.
The Heat sought to make history by being the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit to win, after 31 teams had tried, and all failed. Now it’s 32.
“We’re not going down. We’re going to win this game,” Chris Bosh had promised, a Namath-esque guarantee, but one lacking enough of his own contribution to back it up.
Dwyane Wade, he didn’t do much, either.
Ray Allen started in place of slumping Mario Chalmers, a desperate lineup change by coach Erik Spoelstra, but that didn’t work, either.
Nothing worked but LeBron James.
“Not disappointed in any of my teammates,” James said afterward – even though he hadn’t been asked about any of his teammates.
James also deflected questions about his immediate future.
I’m going to deal with my summer when I get to that point,” he said. “I love Miami. My family loves it.”
Miami raced to an early 22-6 lead Sunday because James was unstoppable; he scored 17 in the first quarter alone. It seemed liked the Heat’s night. But it didn’t for long.
After 22-6, Miami was outscored 98-65.
It was such a rout that Heat owner Micky Arison congratulated the Spurs on Twitter before the game had even ended.
San Antonio was so clearly and dominantly the better team in this series, playing beautifully on offense, playing terrific on defense and flexing a depth and bench that thoroughly trounced Miami’s.
“Exquisite basketball,” Spoelstra called it afterward, the thumping on-court celebration nearly drowning out his words.
Yes full credit must be given the Spurs, who erased that 16-point deficit as if it had never existed and then rampaged to a 21-point lead by the third quarter.
There is no shame in Miami, at the end of this mesmerizing four-year run, losing to a Spurs team this great, even in the manner it did.
Somebody asked Spoelstra if his Heat had “underachieved.”
“It’s hard to feel it right now,” he said, “but you can’t be so jaded that you can’t appreciate what this team has accomplished.”
At the same time the Heat bear their responsibility, too, for how great the Spurs looked.
For the third straight game in this series, the Heat was routed in defeat.
For the third straight game, it seemed Miami barely belonged on the same Finals floor.
James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 to join forces with Wade and Bosh because he was tired of being a superstar alone and doing all the heavy lifting.
But that is what he was again Sunday night and in this Finals, a superstar alone, lacking help. On TV Jeff Van Gundy was saying of the Heat, “Where are they going to find enough offense!” – because it was LeBron or bust.
Somewhere along the line James’ two-time defending champions morphed into the Miami Cavaliers, a problem that will chase the Heat now into this crucial offseason, when all of Miami’s Big 3 players will be eligible to become free agents and leave if they choose.
All indications are James wants to be back, but club president Pat Riley and Spoelstra will need to pick through the rubble of a 4-1 Finals spanking, the whys, and come up with answers. Miami needs a younger, deeper, more athletic surrounding cast to augment James. Wade, at 32, must prove he is still capable of being a star who can take over the scoring load at times. He hasn’t been lately. He wasn’t again Sunday.
James finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and also a team-leading five assists Sunday, but the teammates who were supposed to follow his lead did not.
Bosh scored a quiet 13 points.
And Wade. My, my. Again! He scored only 11 points on 4-12 shooting. The last two games, with only everything on the line, Wade shot 7-for-25.
“I just struggled a little bit,” Wade understated.
Oh, and the Spurs bench once again trounced Miami’s depth.
A true and full team beat what too often seemed a one-man team in this series.
The sad thing is, James knows it. He knew going into this game he would have to take over, for the absence of anyone else capable of doing that.
He came into Game 5 averaging 27.5 points in the Finals.
“I’ve been telling myself I need to do more. Is it too much to ask myself? I don’t know,” he’d said. “I have to be not only physically but mentally and emotionally strong to help our season stay alive.”
It isn’t fair, the burden this team places on James. Sunday he even had to play point guard.
Something must be done.
Perspective is needed, though, especially right now, when there will be gnashing and wailing back in Miami and wherever Heat fans are found. There will be outsized anger. There will be a voluminous outcry on Twitter in every extreme, from fans accusing Wade of being washed up to others no doubt even hysterically advocating that Spoelstra be fired.
Deep breath, please.
Then another one.
This Big 3-era Heat team was the first team in almost 30 years – since the Celtics in 1984-87 – to play in four consecutive NBA Finals. Not even Michael Jordan’s Bulls or Kobe Bryant’s Lakers ever did that. And Miami, of course, won the previous two NBA titles before falling short this time.
That is not failure, by any fair measure.
That is success by any sane gauge.
“We’d love to be four-for-four,” as Wade put it, “but we have no reason not to be proud of each other.”
If this is the end of this era (which I doubt it is), Heat fans should say “thank you,” and without equivocation.
The standards have become so high, though. Second place isn’t good enough, especially when second place happened because the Heat lost three straight Finals games by a combined 57 points.
“For me it’s like you either don’t make the playoffs at all or you win a championship,” said LeBron. “There’s no in-between.” Riley coined a phrase of his own: “There is winning, and there is misery.”
In between those extremes there is also hope, if one believes the Heat will be able to keep the Big 3 intact, keeping LeBron as the mega-star hub and improving around him.
“It’s not ending tonight,” Bosh had said earlier Sunday, of the Big 3 era. “We will be here forever.”
The reality is that Riley has some interesting decisions to make amid Wade’s knee issues and seeming decline and an ESPN report that the club wants to go hard after pending free agent Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks.
“I can’t worry about what goes on after this series is over with,” James had said.
But now that it’s over with he can, and soon will.
Now, two championships in four Finals appearances are past-tense.
Now, what’s next for LeBron James and the suddenly ex-champion Heat is all that matters.