Thursday marks the first Finals Game 7 of LeBron James
' career. (Greg Nelson/SI)
Which team needs to win Thursday's Game 7 of the NBA Finals more? Ben Golliver argues for the Heat below. Rob Mahoney argues for the Spurs here.
Leave it to Chris Bosh -- the Heat's sometimes-forgotten, sometimes-mocked, sometimes-celebrated, always-quotable Big Three third wheel -- to perfectly sum up the historical context surrounding Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Spurs on Thursday.
"Part of being a great athlete is continuously proving yourself to doubters," Bosh said Wednesday.
He was speaking specifically about LeBron James and the never-ending legacy talk that follows him game-by-game, year-by-year, but his point is as applicable to great teams as it is to great athletes. Great teams, as long as their key players are in (or close to) their respective primes, face ceaseless expectations and judgment. Miami's role as the central force in the NBA's universe began on the set of "The Decision" and hasn't let up for three years. Along the way, James and company have lost (2011), won (2012) and nearly lost (2013), only to deliver one of the most memorable Finals victories ever in Game 6 on Tuesday.
The stakes are big in every Finals and the pressure always ratchets up in a Game 7. The Heat, their coach and their key players, though, will take the court Thursday facing referendums that are exclusive to potential dynasties and generational talents. Let's take a look.
The most enduring quote of the Big Three era remains James' "Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" declaration shortly after taking his talents to South Beach. The bar for any greatest-of-all-time candidate is six rings -- Michael Jordan's number -- and here was the ring-less James racing right by that threshold, expecting even more. These were foolish words and they couldn't be taken back; all James can do now is go about checking off the numbers on the list.
Through three seasons in Miami, James is now one win away from hitting two titles. Should the Heat win Thursday, they would become the only team besides the Lakers to repeat as champions during the post-Jordan era, and James would surely join Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as the only players to win Finals MVP two years in a row.
Sure, those achievements aren't quite to the level of the eight titles predicted in 2010, but a win would put James and Miami in rarefied air, with the possibility for more. The Heat, who are able to bring back their entire rotation in 2013-14, will almost certainly enter next year as title favorites, like they did this year. Could Miami join the 1990s Bulls and early-2000s Lakers as the only teams to three-peat in the last 40-plus years? Why not? Would you bet against it?
There will be some who are never satisfied with what Miami accomplishes, usually because of philosophical disagreements over how and why the Big Three formed. For most everyone else, though, back-to-back titles will be sufficient validation for the "team up" game plan, given the constant scrutiny they have faced. This second title would make the NBA, officially, Miami's world, in part because it would be achieved against a Spurs team that reached pseudo-dynasty status in 2007.
As a nice (less important) bonus, a win would secure Miami's first title in a non-lockout year, removing any discussion of an "asterisk" on its 2012 title, which came in a 66-game season. This type of criticism hasn't gained much traction yet, but if 2012 somehow wound up as the Heat's only title of the Big Three era, you can be sure history would look upon that championship less fondly than we do right now.
One other footnote, and this should probably be treated as much more than a footnote: Winning Game 7 ensures that Miami's incredible 27-game winning streak isn't lost to history as some sort of oddity. Achieving such a consistent level of dominance for such a long stretch was one of the NBA's most impressive feats in years. But how much less would it matter -- and how much less would it be remembered -- if the Heat don't back it up by emerging victorious in the postseason?
LeBron James (right) predicted the Heat's Big Three would win eight titles. Through three years, they have one. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)
A Game 7 win would carry major potential legacy gains for everyone on the Heat, but especially James and coach Erik Spoelstra.
Jordan's six rings will likely hang over James for the next decade, if not the rest of his life. A second title this year, at age 28, would keep James exactly even with Jordan, who won his second title in 1992 at 28. Keeping pace there is particularly important, given how many miles James has already put on his body by virtue of entering the NBA straight out of high school and playing monster minutes every season for a decade. James has a body and a versatile skill set that will likely give him the ability to play past his 40th birthday should he so desire. But padding his championship total by late-career ring-chasing isn't going to be what puts him over the top in the comparisons with Jordan. Leading his teams to multiple championships as the No. 1 guy during his prime -- just as Jordan did -- is the only ammunition that will stand up to the nitpickers. Just ask Bryant, who has had his first three titles devalued by those who believe those Lakers were O'Neal's teams.
Thursday will be the first Finals Game 7 of James' career, offering him the opportunity to deliver a signature moment. As of now, his Finals record includes four games of frustration against the Spurs in 2007; "shrinking" against the Mavericks in 2011; and a dominating overall performance against the Thunder, but one that ended with Mike Miller's being the close-out hero. Even Tuesday's "No Headband" push in Game 6 was sandwiched around a very slow start and some late turnovers. The basketball world is ready and waiting for a vintage James performance on this stage, a "Flu Game" or a shove of Bryon Russell to be replayed endlessly for the next 50 years.
Spoelstra, meanwhile, would join a short list of coaches with multiple championships. Only 12 NBA coaches have won multiple titles, including San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, of course, and only five have won three or more. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy argued earlier this month that Spoelstra, who is just 42, is on the Hall of Fame track. It's early to make that type of statement, and James' greatness overshadows everything that Spoelstra does, but the titles will speak for themselves historically. In the immediate aftermath of a Miami win over a Popovich team, Spoelstra would, at the very least, be a signed-and-sealed coaching prodigy.
Many others on the Heat would benefit in their own ways from a Game 7 victory. Wade would get a third ring, ensuring that he hangs around the discussion of "best shooting guards of all time," regardless of how his knee injury affects his play over the next two-to-three years. Bosh would win a second title, another ace in the hole against those who object to his perimeter-oriented style. Ray Allen's reputation as one of the greatest shooters in league history was further solidified by his remarkable series-extending three-pointer in Game 6; a win would put his three into the pantheon of big shots and give Jesus Shuttlesworth his second ring. Chris "Birdman" Andersen would reach a new peak during his tumultuous NBA journey, a career that has seen him suspended for drug use and amnestied by the Nuggets. No one would be surprised if he celebrated his first title by tattooing the Larry O'Brien trophy across his entire face.
On the flip side, the whole picture changes if Miami loses. While the Heat are already one of a select few teams to make three Finals appearances in a row, NBA history gives out no silver medals. A loss to the talented, deep, disciplined Spurs shouldn't open up the second-guessing floodgates when it comes to the Heat's big picture, but it would deny -- or at least delay -- their entry into the conversation of the all-time great teams.
A loss would also drop James to 1-3 in the Finals, giving him more losses in the championship series than Jordan and Bryant combined. James has proclaimed his desire to become the greatest of all time repeatedly this year. How many titles would he need to accumulate over the rest of his career to offset the drag of three losses when compared to Jordan's 6-0 Finals record? Seven? Eight? Is that realistic or achievable, especially considering that he's already 28 and that the new collective bargaining agreement is designed to make it difficult to keep groups of highly paid stars together?
As for Spoelstra, you can easily imagine the doubters after a Game 7 loss, can't you? "What kind of bum coach can get only one title in three years from the greatest player in the world, two other All-Stars and a hand-picked cast of quality, veteran role players?" Fair or unfair, hindsight or reality, that's what awaits him should San Antonio pull off a road victory.
The vultures are already swarming when it comes to the Heat's long-term future. Wade's shaky knee, the extraordinary luxury tax and repeater bills the Heat could face and the ability for James to opt out of his contract next summer are all major variables in determining how long the ride extends in Miami.
Does a loss on Thursday affect that future all that much? It's unclear. If the Heat had lost to the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals or gotten smoked in the Finals by the Spurs, the possibility of major roster changes would have been topic No. 1 heading into the summer free-agent period. The Bosh trade rumors would have picked up big-time, the amnesty talk would have followed soon after and every free agent listed at 6-foot-11 or taller would be immediately linked to the Heat in one rumor or another.
These Finals have been so, so, so good, and played at such a high level by both teams, that overreacting to a loss would be a mistake. There's no shame in losing to this Spurs team, just as there is no shame for San Antonio in losing to this Heat team. Both teams should exit the series feeling as if they can get back next year, aging players or not. The Thunder, Bulls and Pacers will be major competition next year, and a few other teams might move into that championship picture, too. Still, the quality of hoops displayed over the last two weeks is just unimaginable for, say, 24 teams in the league. At least for next season, the status quo -- or close to it -- should reign in Miami.
Past that, there's plenty of food for speculative thought. Would a loss make James that much more eager to kick the tires on his available options in free agency next summer? One would think so. Would a loss add some distance between James and Wade, a two-man tandem that grows increasingly imbalanced season by season? It should, as Wade's growing shot-selection issues and up-and-down defensive attentiveness will likely catch up to James eventually. Would a loss push Bosh's status from "certain to return" to "available for a high price"? Probably not, but he would surely be a popular scapegoat for those outside the organization, as always.
Don't forget one last variable that could swing based on the outcome of Game 7: the future of Heat president Pat Riley. A win would offer him the chance to ride off into the sunset with one last ring; a win could also fuel a desire to do it again with the same group next season. A loss could create the opportunity to exit stage left before the collective bargaining agreement and the Big Three's contracts throw everything up in the air next summer; a loss could also make unbearable the thought of leaving on a sour note. Riley is rarely available to the media and his plans aren't clear, but he represents one more angle -- a major one, given his decades of success in the NBA as a player, coach and executive -- to consider during a night that has the potential to be one for the ages.