Posted Jun 13 2011 11:38AM
MIAMI -- Ultimately, the quickie blueprint for championship contention paid off. Free agency was the answer after all. The insta-team had prevailed.
"We were going to go out [last summer] and get our Big Three," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban teased, partly obscured by the big, golden Larry O'Brien Trophy on the table in front of him. The hour was late, the arena was Miami's and Cuban was having a little fun at the other guys' expense.
"Dirk did a lot of recruiting," he said. "He went out and got Brian Cardinal. He got Ian Mahinmi ..."
In other words, no. The insta-team had not prevailed. The Mavericks set some sort of record for most aging players winning their first rings on the same roster. They were old and they were old-school, eight or nine players knowing their roles and handling them well, little overlap, a team in the truest sense.
Miami? Still three stars and a lot of other guys. Still a model for rivals in New York, Chicago, Orlando and elsewhere, maybe, whenever free agency and trade maneuvers for 2011-12 begin. Still a version of what Boston did in 2007 with three future Hall of Famers.
Still not a guarantee, though, that someone else won't walk out of your building with the trophies and the rings the way Dallas did to the Heat Sunday night.
"An emptiness," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra called it, when the spotlight finally turned away from the NBA's most watched, most villified, most fascinating, most troubling and most scrutinized team. "There's no excuses. There's no blame. Sometimes you just simply come up short."
In the end, and in a word, the Miami team was not mature. It wasn't mature on the floor, in terms of playing together on trust and instinct rather than on talent and X's and O's. It wasn't mature away from the floor, either, in how it handled ... not so much actual success but the success it presumed would be there from the start, like some sort of birthright.
The organization celebrated back in July as if it had won a championship already, mere hours after the great free-agent roundup brought reigning two-time MVP LeBron James and All-Star power forward Chris Bosh to join 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade. The month was all wrong -- June is when championships get toasted -- but that didn't stop the smoke, the music, the lights, the adoration.
What was it that James said in the giddiness of that moment? "Not one, not two, not three, not four," talking about the Heat's lust for multiple rings.
Miami is right on pace as of Monday morning: Not one.
The Heat weren't mature in Game 2 when James and Wade did their silly antics and celebrated smack in front of the Dallas bench after opening a 15-point lead with (ahem) seven minutes left in the game. Mavs guard Jason Kidd lit up late Sunday when he got to finger that as the Finals' turning point.
No, the celebrating didn't transform or wake up the Mavs. But it stiffened them, reminded them of other comebacks and made them believe they could do it again. Particularly against the not-ready-yet Heat.
The same goes for the mocking of Nowitzki's illness from Game 4, the hallway video that captured it and the attention it attracted: That didn't transform the Mavericks either. But it picked at a scab from some old Wade remarks after the 2006 Finals about Nowitzki failing his team as a leader. And it was, as Nowitzki said, a little childish, a little arrogant.
A little immature.
Same goes for James' comments after the elimination, when asked about those who might have enjoyed his struggles in The Finals. "All the people that was rooting on me to fail," James said, "at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before ... the same personal problems."
Fine. But what about the Heat? Do they wake up to the same life they had before, to the same problems?
Miami accomplished a lot this season, even as it established itself as one of the most self-conscious and drama-courting operations in team sports history. From training camp at the military base through a dozen or more controversies -- dubbed "gates" by the vast media throng attached to them (as in Shoulder-gate, Cry-gate, Cough-gate and so on).
From a 9-8 start that delighted critics early to a 58-24 regular-season record that earned the Heat the No. 2 seed in the East playoffs and home court against Dallas in The Finals. From stretches of sheer, athletic dominance to the point at which the Heat find themselves now, one step short of their goal, searching for answers, maybe wondering about each other and trying to turn this disappointment to their advantage.
"Maybe it's as simple as it being a rite of passage before we have to move on and take the next step," Spoelstra said.
Nah, nothing that's simple for this team. Besides, Miami wasn't built for baby steps. This was supposed to be enough -- three signature stars and a bunch of grunts to caulk in the gaps. By the end, though, we saw one star (James) eclipsed by and deferring to another (Wade), reminding folks that his choice to leave Cleveland might have been driven by discomfort with the hero's role. James looked like nothing if not a sidekick in The Finals, and not even a reliable one.
Then there was Bosh, dropping some veiled criticism of James in his praise of Nowitzki. ("There's nothing extra, there's nothing super. He was just being himself.") And expressing frustration that, no matter how well he might play, no matter how locked in he might be, the storylines always will be about James and Wade, same as the opportunities. Bosh got nine shots and hit seven of them in Game 6, his advantages never fully used.
"I don't know what to say. Yeah, I should have shot the ball way more," Bosh said.
Miami has an aggressive, athletic defense, remarkable in its ability to double-team opponents' most dangerous scorers, recover and close out on perimeter shooters. With Udonis Haslem back for the Chicago and Dallas rounds from surgery that wiped out most of his season, the Heat looked more like the team Spoelstra and president Pat Riley envisioned from the start.
But in the end, three stars mattered less than 3-pointers (the Mavericks nailed 51 of them in the series, just one shy of Boston's record for a six-game Finals). If anyone was "15 Strong" this time (Riley's motto back in 2006), it was Dallas. Depth was a problem for the Heat, with museum pieces or trespassers on their bench who should have been paying for the seats.
What we saw will mostly be what the Heat are going forward: Haslem, Joel Anthony and Mike Miller are signed through 2013-14, with one-year player options beyond that. Mario Chalmers is the free agent most likely to be signed back. Riley will make his pitch throughout the league, hoping to replace this season's role players with new ones -- who will become equally expendable if 2012 proves ringless as well.
"Eventually we're going to build it," Wade said.
And when they do, it still will be about three guys, not 15.
The 2010-11 Heat team wasn't ready. It had not forged itself, developed the necessary callouses or banked a sufficient amount of trust. It tried to short-cut its way to a title, only to be shown by Dallas' jubilant veterans that the long way not only can mean more but often works better.
The quickie blueprint did not pay off. The insta-team failed to prevail.
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