On a nightly basis, you know exactly what to expect and what you’re going to get from Gregg Popovich’s squad. The Spurs trust their system of unselfish ball and man movement. It’s as if they’re on autopilot and the only possible variable is individual effort within the system. Popovich’s in-your-face coaching style stabilizes the effort.
System plus effort equals 20-game winning streak.
In Miami, there is no offensive system and the effort, particularly on the offensive end, varies significantly depending on the night and the opponent. We saw evidence of these facts Wednesday night when Rajon Rondo almost single-handedly knotted the Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had been on a four-game tear of Spurs-like ball and man movement. They’d whipped the Pacers three straight to close out one playoff series and opened the ECF against the Celtics with another impressive display.
Wednesday night, James and Wade returned to isolation, hero ball. The Celtics dominated the first half, building a lead as big as 15 points. The Heat, particularly Wade, summoned energy, focus and discipline in the third quarter and took control of the contest. And then in the fourth, James and Wade disappeared. Neither sank a field goal. Wade didn’t even assert himself offensively. If not for some very friendly, one-sided officiating, the Heat would’ve lost Wednesday night.
Instead, they won in overtime. They survived Rondo’s 44-point game. On a night when Paul Pierce fouled out, Kevin Garnett looked exhausted, Ray Allen remained a shell of his former self and the refs sent Miami to the line 47 times, the Heat, in order to escape, needed those same refs to overlook Wade’s near-beheading of Rondo late.
There are two easy cliche answers:
1. LeBron lacks the “clutch gene.” He missed a layup and then settled for a fallaway 20-footer over Rondo in the final seconds of regulation.
2. Erik Spoelstra can’t coach. It’s Spoelstra’s fault that James and Wade deviated from the style of offensive play that produced such magnificent results in four straight games.
I don’t believe in the “clutch gene.” And I believe controlling James and Wade — or any millionaire celebrity — is far more difficult than the typical talk-show host argues on radio.
And let me tell you what is extremely hard, quite possibly as difficult as landing a man on the moon: controlling a millionaire celebrity who was raised in a difficult, dysfunctional environment.
Stop. I am not dumping on James and Wade. I like and respect them. I’m rooting for them to win the championship this season. I think they are good people. In fact, they’re my two favorite athletes at the moment.
I just happen to believe their difficult upbringings make it hard for them to trust and submit to the will of authority figures. We know James was raised by a teenage mother who had some problems. We know Wade’s mom had problems with drugs and Wade credits an older sister for his upbringing.
It’s my belief Wade and James have childhood emotional scars that impact their ability to consistently operate in a team environment. Most of us have childhood emotional scars. Some scars — any kind of parental abandonment — are just deeper than others.
Gregg Popovich is a tremendous coach. So was Phil Jackson.
But coaching Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan is quite different than coaching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Again, I’m not denigrating Wade and James as people. They are good people. I’m saying they have justifiable trust issues stemming from their nontraditional upbringings, and those issues often manifest themselves on the basketball court.
Popovich can scream at and publicly belittle Duncan, Parker and Ginobili without damaging his relationship with his stars. Popovich is free to “coach” his stars. Spoelstra has to “manage” his stars. It’s simpleminded to attribute this difference solely to Popovich’s four championship rings and Spoelstra’s zero rings.
Popovich is coaching men who grew up in less chaotic, stressful environments. It’s not a coincidence that the greatest players and winners in NBA history — Jordan, Magic, Kareem, Kobe, Russell, Duncan — primarily came from solid, two-parent families. Larry Bird is the most notable exception.
The Heat can win it all with Wade and James. They’re capable of beating the Spurs this season. When James and Wade are focused and in the mood to be coached, they can push the Heat to a level as high as San Antonio. But, as we saw last year, as we saw in the Pacers series and as we saw Wednesday night, Wade and James can fall into a prolonged funk that turns the Heat into the Bobcats.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are the Spurs almost every night.