Sometimes it's best to step on the throat after knocking down an opponent.
Still, they must possess that type of mentality. The longer this series stretches, the lower the team's chances are of successfully defending its title for yet another year.
LeBron James is tired. That much is obvious when you watch him make uncharacteristic mental mistakes early in games before finding his stride. It's even more readily apparent that other main contributors for Miami are exhausted as well.
Technically, teams get seven games which they can use to dispatch a tough opponent. But if the Heat have to use all seven of their chances, they might as well have already lost the NBA Finals.
Already Spent So Much Extra Time on the Court
The Heat are already in a tricky spot, simply because of how successful they've been over the past few seasons.
An 82-game campaign is grueling enough, but it's made even more difficult when followed by a lengthy playoff run. And since Miami has advanced to the NBA Finals each of the past three seasons, they've played an exorbitant number of games over that stretch.
In fact, take a look at how many contests each of the four remaining teams has participated in since the start of the 2010-11 season, when LeBron came to South Beach and helped form the Big Three:
|So Much Basketball|
|San Antonio Spurs||88||80||103||96||367|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||99||87||93||97||376|
That's a monumental difference, as 14 extra games (compared to the second-place Oklahoma City Thunder) over the course of four years is nearly an extra series per season.
And it grows even larger when you account for the featured role that LeBron filled for the 2012 Olympic squad, which essentially knocked out an offseason for him. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have that excuse as well, but no members of the Indiana Pacers do.
Quite simply, the Heat have played a lot of extra basketball, and that hinders their ability to recover from the rigors of any one game. Human bodies can only withstand so much, and it seems as though Miami is collectively pushing the limit this season. It explains the sluggish play, the mental mistakes and the lack of energy.
Each extra game takes its toll on the two-time defending champions. Going seven grueling contests against a tough, physical opponent like Indiana would essentially prove a death knell in the NBA Finals.
LeBron is Wearing Down
If any player has had to shoulder a ridiculous burden, it would be the man who Kevin Durant displaced as league MVP.
James' effort level seemed lacking to me at times throughout the season; it rarely appeared as though he was giving 100 percent and instead exerted the minimum amount of energy needed to spur his Heat on to victory. This appeared to be especially true on defense, where his reactions were noticeably slower.
"It's a long and grueling season for all of us," James told ESPN's Brian Windhorst in the middle of January. "We've played a lot of basketball in our four years together and it's taken a lot of wear and tear on our bodies. Mentally it is fatiguing. We’re trying to find the motivation the best way we can as a group."
And as Ethan Strauss wrote for ESPN around the same time, it was pretty obvious that the level of care had declined:
Times have changed. The LeBron of three years ago likely would not have been so magnanimous over eight turnovers and a home loss. The post-Decision maelstrom led to heavy negative scrutiny over the Heat’s 9-8 start. Every game was a referendum on Pat Riley’s experiment and LeBron’s career. The stakes were high and the players were moved to tears by defeat. Now, the players don’t even bother to pretend they’re broken up over losses.
That didn't exactly change over the course of the season.
Miami, just as it's done to a lesser extent in years past, seemed to rely on "the switch." When games mattered, they were going to flip everything on and start exerting previously unseen levels of effort and passion. But flipping that switch is often hard to do, even if the Heat have been largely successful with this approach over the years.
Making it even tougher is LeBron's workload.
King James suited up in 77 games during the regular season, and he averaged 37.7 minutes per contest. Per Basketball-Reference.com, that left him as one of eight players to top 2,900 minutes during the 2013-14 campaign, joining Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Nicolas Batum, John Wall and Monta Ellis.
Sure, LeBron played fewer minutes than all of the aforementioned guys, but now let's bring involvement into the picture.
Among the eight, LeBron's usage rate of 31 percent is lower than only Durant and 'Melo. Even the rates of guards, like Ellis and Lillard pale, in comparison.
Because Dwyane Wade missed so much time this season as part of the maintenance plan for his problematic knees, LeBron was forced to take on an inordinate amount of responsibility. Is it any wonder he's playing as though he's a bit worn out?
LeBron is one of the most cerebral players in the NBA, which makes it all the more shocking when he comes out flat in a postseason contest. Yet that's exactly what happened in Game 2, when he appeared to have almost checked out early in the proceedings, if the mental lapses and veil of detachment were any indication.
Granted, the four-time MVP recovered and spurred his team onto victory in the hard-fought contest, but how many more times can he do that? Sheer force of will only works for so long.
It's not as though the playoffs suddenly put an end to LeBron's heavy workload; he's spent nearly three extra minutes per game on the court, and his usage rate has risen ever so slightly. Oh, and that's against a tougher slate of competition during a stage of the season in which everything becomes even more physical than ever before.
Toughest Test Hasn't Yet Arrived
The Heat have played too much basketball over the last four years, and it's wearing them down. That's a valid concern, but it's one that can ultimately be overcome by the talent on that star-studded roster.
LeBron is slowing, both mentally and physically, largely because the absence of Wade put too much weight on his broad shoulders throughout the course of the 2013-14 season. That's also a legitimate problem, but once more, it's something that can be overcome.
The biggest issue of all is that this is coming up during the Eastern Conference Finals.
At a minimum, Miami will have to play three more games to close out the Pacers and advance to the final round of the NBA postseason. That seems unlikely, though, even fresh off the dominance down the stretch of Game 2.
This Indiana squad has been ridiculously inconsistent over the last few months, to the point that another outing in which it appears unstoppable seems inevitable before this series is over. Miami knocking off its Eastern Conference nemesis in six games is a much more reasonable expectation—and, really, this series has the feel of a seven-game affair.
Let's run with it nonetheless.
After being badgered by a brutal defense for a handful more games, the Heat are then looking at running into a buzzsaw. Assuming the Thunder aren't able to bounce back from their Game 2 humiliation, Miami will be squaring off with San Antonio for the second season in a row.
And, quite frankly, this rematch could come against an extraordinarily well-rested bunch of Spurs.
A San Antonio sweep of OKC is a realistic possibility, as the loss of Serge Ibaka has been way too much for Scott Brooks and the Thunder to handle. But even if Oklahoma City manages to steal a game or two, the Spurs look like the best team in basketball and will be coming off two consecutive series in which they weren't truly tested.
On top of that, Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job of overcoming injuries and keeping everyone fresh for a lengthy postseason run. This is a deep team, and the starters all spent less than 30 minutes per game on the court throughout the regular season.
During the playoffs, not much has changed.
Nine players are spending over 15 minutes per contest on the floor, and Tim Duncan is leading the charge at 33.1. Only he, Tony Parker (31.4) and Kawhi Leonard (31.5) are above 30, which bodes well for their ability to avoid wearing out down the stretch.
It's also a far cry from the Heat's strategy.
LeBron has spent 40.3 minutes per game on the court. Wade (34.6) and Bosh (34.1) are both playing more playoff minutes than anyone on San Antonio's roster, and the Heat have only seven players above 15 minutes per contest (though Shane Battier is right on the verge of qualifying).
Which team sounds like it's in better shape? The one playing heavier minutes against an opponent bound to challenge you in a lengthy, physically taxing series, or the one that looks absolutely unstoppable, despite not forcing its stars to endure a heavy workload?
That's not to say San Antonio should be considered heavy favorites over Miami, should both teams advance to the 2014 Finals. Favorites, sure. Just not prohibitive ones.
But Miami failing to quickly dispatch the Pacers could change how people view a prospective rematch of last year's finals. After all, each extra game diminishes the Heat's hopes of successfully earning the coveted three-peat.
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