The Celtics’ Best Players Play Like Their Best Players, the Heat’s Do Not
When the Boston Bruins were in the midst of a losing streak during the 2011 NHL regular season NESN’s Andy Brickley famously said “you need your best players to be your best players.” He was talking about hockey, but the point he made resonates across all of sport. When the stakes get high teams need their best players to be at their best. That is the difference between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat in a nutshell – when the stakes get high the Boston’s best players step up and Miami’s best player, Lebron James, typically steps aside.
It’s hard to pinpoint any game in these playoffs and say that Lebron actually played badly. He is averaging over 30 points per game in the Heat-Celtics series and has carried the Heat for multiple prolonged stretches, keeping them in games until the rest of their roster wakes up. However that is the problem with Lebron right there – he will be Miami’s best player all night long and then suddenly vanish during crunch time. For the rest of the Heat roster this is like getting a rug pulled out from under them. It’s like being carried for the first 25 miles of a marathon and then suddenly dropped within spitting distance of the finish line. The fact is, when the stakes get high, Lebron James doesn’t want the ball, and the Miami Heat are not as good when he doesn’t have the ball.
Lebron came to Miami because he wanted to pass more and shoot less. Basically he came to Miami so that Dwyane Wade could take the big shots for him, and this in itself was a piece of flawed logic. Lebron is Miami’s best player and Miami is only at their best when he embraces that role. That is why they lose so many close games, because the longer a game stays close the less willing he is to be that guy. Lebron will be Miami’s best player for 42 minutes, but if the game is still close with under six minutes left he suddenly doesn’t want to do it anymore. It’s hard to win races when your horse suddenly stops running if the race is still tight entering the last furlong.
The Heat are so absurdly talented that they win most of their games via blowout, and they do this with Lebron leading the way, Wade being the game’s best sidekick, and Chris Bosh and the rest of Miami’s role players chipping in where they can. However on the rare occasions where a game stays tight they suddenly aren’t as good because, when crunch time rolls around and the other team doesn’t quit, Lebron suddenly doesn’t want to lead the way anymore. When the stakes get high he wants Wade to do it for him. This is just a bad game plan. Dwyane Wade is a great player, but if he has to be Miami’s best player instead of Lebron, Miami is just not as good. It almost seems like, if Lebron hasn’t put the game away after three and a half quarters, he turns to Wade and goes “go win this for me.” This sometimes works because, while he isn’t Lebron, Wade is still one of the best players in the NBA. But the Heat did not finish with the second best record in the Eastern Conference with Wade running the show. They are designed to have Lebron in the drivers seat, but every time the other car stays with them, he suddenly takes his hands of the wheel.
The Celtics are the exact opposite. They probably aren’t as talented as Miami, but every single player on that roster knows his role. Paul Pierce was not Boston’s best player in Game Five. He had shot an abysmal 5-18 before Rondo handed him the ball in isolation against Lebron. But in late game situations Pierce is Boston’s best option. He is their best scorer, so when the game gets tight and Boston needs a bucket the ball is going to Paul Pierce. That is his role. He knows it and embraces it. Lebron is Miami’s best scorer, but when the game is tight and Miami needs a bucket, he doesn’t want to do it. He is the reigning league MVP. On talent alone he is one of the best to ever step on to a basketball court. He can score on literally anyone, but if the game is on the line he wont do it. It’s hard to win that way. The Heat rely on Lebron to be their center piece, and it’s tough to have success when your center piece vanishes when you need him most.
Every team that Lebron has ever played on has been criticized for not helping him out enough. Every role player that has suited up with Lebron, in Cleveland or Miami, has invariably not been good enough, and every time Lebron loses it’s because he “doesn’t have enough help.” This could not be more unfair. How on Earth can anyone reasonably expect Udonis Haslem to hit that potential game winner in Game Four after he hadn’t taken a shot all fourth quarter? How can Shane Battier be expected to knock down that three when he had only attempted three shots to the point. In order to be successful in team sports, teams’ best players need to play their best, and when that doesn’t happen it is very hard to win. Lebron repeatedly dominates for the majority of a game, but when it stays close he suddenly expects Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, and Shane Battier to beat Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. That is just a bad idea.
Anyone who looks at the Game Five box score will see 30 points and 13 rebounds and think Lebron played well. Don’t look at the box score, it lies. He outplayed Paul Pierce all night long, but when the game was on the line he let a player who is older, slower, and shorter bury a three in his face. Miami built a thirteen point lead largely thanks to his efforts, but when the Celtics didn’t fade away he did. His only points in the last eight minutes came on an uncontested layup and he spent most of crunch time standing in the corner watching Wade operate. As a result Miami was forced to rely on Wade and Mario Chalmers instead of Wade and James. Chalmers and Wade are good players, but James is their best. They are relying on him to be their best and are built on the idea that he will be. They need him to step up. Unfortunately for Miami, the King keeps stepping aside. He needs to figure out how stupid this is, and quickly, or the Heat are finished.
Thank you to our friends at Sports Media 101 – 24/7 Obsessive Sports News Coverage.