Were the Boston Celtics this the toughest test LeBron and the Heat faced ?
Let's get the most obvious facts out of the way first.
LeBron James is currently the best player in basketball. How good his career is, or will be is debatable, but his current status as the league's best player is not.
The Miami Heat are the NBA's best team. They're literally "Number One," having dispatched of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, including the final four of the series.
Miami beat Oklahoma City in the finals so that clearly makes Miami "Number One," and Oklahoma City "Number Two," right?
Not when Miami beat Oklahoma City in the manner in which they did. Not when they took one key player (James Harden) out of his game. Kept Kevin Durant, who had been unstoppable in the Western Conference playoffs, in relative check. Not when the Heat's defense was too tough, and their offense was so consistent.
Miami was able to play it's game against the Thunder. That involves LeBron scoring, but not needing to score 40 points to win games. LeBron averaged 28.6 points per game in the Finals. Just slightly higher than the 27.1 he averaged nightly during the regular season.
That wasn't the case against the Celtics. When Miami faced Boston in the Semifinals LeBron averaged 33.6 points per game, and 35.5 in the victories. What Miami ultimately likes to do is let defenses focus on LeBron, and then take advantage of James outstanding ability to pass the ball to get his teammates easy shots.
Against the Thunder this strategy worked quite well. Miami received some big contributions. Not just from LeBron's other two "Big Three" counterparts, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh but Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers all played key roles in the Heat's eventual Championship
The Thunder, in spite of superior athleticism, were not physical enough to fight through screens, nor did they extend out on open three-point shooters as effectively as Boston did. That was part of what facilitated Miami's more balanced attack.
In the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat shot 31.6 percent from three-point range. Against Oklahoma City the Heat connected on 42.9 percent of their three-point shots. The offensive strategy remained constant throughout both series.
The Thunder, who beat a deep, talented, but ultimately too old San Antonio Spurs team in the Western Conference finals found the defense of the Heat more difficult to handle than that of the Spurs.
Against San Antonio, the Thunder shot 47.4 percent from the field, and 40.4 percent from three-point range. Oklahoma City averaged 105.8 points per game against a Spurs team that entered the Western Conference finals with a perfect 8-0 postseason record.
Once the Heat were the opponent things changed a bit. The Thunder shot 45.5 percent from the field in the Finals, but connected on only 30.5 percent of their three point shots.
Miami also found containing Russell Westbrook to be easier than containing Rajon Rondo. Yes Westbrook averaged an impressive 27 points per game in the Finals. But the Thunder were not able to get production from the rest of the team.
The Heat were not focused on stopping Westbrook from scoring. Their defensive priority was to negate Westbrook's ability to run the offense as a whole.
When the Thunder played the Spurs, James Harden averaged 18.5 points per game on 49.3 percent from the field. Harden averaged 12.2 field goal attempts against the Spurs as well.
The Heat did a better job of defending Harden though. They smothered him and forced him to pass when he brought the ball up court, when the Thunder tried to get him the ball in good position the Heat played the passing lanes better, and made getting Harden the ball more difficult.
In the Finals Harden averaged 12.4 points per game. He shot 37.5 percent, and attempted only 9.6 shots per game.
What all of these statistics show is that the Thunder, in spite of being exceptionally talented, are a very young and inexperienced team. That inexperience made adjustments in games, and between games, more difficult.
The Celtics were older, they had numerous injuries. They also had a battle-tested coach, and a collection of battle-tested future Hall of Fame veterans. Even 26-year-old Rajon Rondo has far more postseason experience than Russell Westbrook.
In the Finals, Miami didn't require herculean efforts from LeBron where he had to totally dominate games to win them.
In Game 4, LeBron was able to sit out nearly all of the final five minutes of action with terrible leg cramps, and the Heat were still able to come away with a victory. Had that happened in Game 2 against the Boston Celtics, the Heat may never have even made the Finals.
The Thunder are without question a team to fear in the future. The Heat are without question the best team in the NBA right now. The Boston Celtics were not good enough to beat Miami. They presented a much greater challenge to the Heat than the Thunder, or any other postseason opponent did.