After Ray Allen's three-pointer catapulted the Miami Heat to a Game 6 victory in the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron James told reporters, "It was, by far, the best game I’ve ever been a part of."
It was a fitting sentiment. James was indeed just part of the game. Despite his triple-double and 32 points, LeBron wouldn't have escaped Game 6 without a little help from his friends. Not without Allen's timely trey. Not without Shane Battier's trio of three-pointers. Not without Mario Chalmers' 20 points.
A year later, little has changed. The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat are again set to do battle in the NBA Finals, and Miami's Big Three will again need significant help from the supporting cast.
Just two years ago, some questioned whether that cast of role players would be enough. By the time 2013 rolled around, those role players had provided an answer in the form of two titles.
Before it came down to the do-or-die Game 6, James had gotten similar help in a pivotal Game 2. Miami ended up winning the game and tying the series at one game apiece, making life considerably harder for the Spurs as they headed home to San Antonio.
James had just 17 points in 41 minutes that night.
The team's leading scorer? Mario Chalmers with 19 points. The bench chipped in another 40 points en route to a 103-84 demolition job.
The Spurs know better than anyone else that Miami's penchant for winning championships isn't a result of the Big Three alone.
The Big Three happens to be firing on all cylinders at the moment, once again justifying the franchise's decision to invest in all that star power. But even as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh find their rhythm, the rest of the team is following suit.
Allen was instrumental to the Heat taking Game 3 from the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. He scored 13 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, converting on all four of his three-point attempts as Miami finally began to create some distance.
Norris Cole quietly came up big in Games 3, 4 and 5, scoring a combined 27 points in the three wins.
Then there was Rashard Lewis. Inserted into the starting lineup to provide a different look against David West, the 34-year-old finished the series strong. He tallied 18 points in a Game 5 losing effort and put up another 13 in the decisive Game 6.
The comparisons to Mike Miller's occasional brilliance in three seasons with Miami made themselves.
For all the talk about San Antonio's depth, the Heat have had some solid role players, too. The difference is that they're largely overshadowed. They haven't been woven into the narrative about why Miami wins.
Excepting Allen and his historic credentials, Miami's supporting cast tends to be viewed as some conglomeration of cheap help, ring-chasers and castaways. These are the guys that a cap-strapped organization could get its hands on. They're expendable and replaceable.
Reality begs to differ.
Perhaps the starkest symbol of Miami's depth is Battier. His minutes and production have been uneven in these playoffs, but he remains one of the club's most reliable contributors—especially on the defensive end.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen is another unsung hero. He averaged 7.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the Eastern Conference Finals, despite missing two games on account of a bruised thigh.
These are the kind of guys the Spurs have to worry about.
You pretty much know what you're going to get out of the Heat. Unless Wade gets hurt, he'll continue to put up 20 points per game. Unless Bosh starts missing from the perimeter—as he did early on against the Pacers—he could do the same.
But the Big Three don't win games without help. They put Miami in position to win games. The difference-makers are everyone else.
That will be the case against San Antonio. The Spurs will look to close off the painted area so as to keep James and Wade away from the basket and off of the free-throw line. Consequently, Gregg Popovich's crew faces an unenviable task: either rotate perfectly on the defensive end or leave someone open on the perimeter.
That's how Chalmers made such an impact last time around. He simply let his team's ball movement put him in position to drain long-range buckets.
Thanks to their arsenal of shooters, the Heat can get similar buckets from a handful of players. One night it might be Allen. The next, Lewis or Battier.
Even when they're not converting on all those opportunities, Miami's role players serve a vital function on the offensive end. By prying defenders away from the paint, they space the floor and open lanes for James and Wade to penetrate. Though the Spurs will be reluctant to leave the basket, they ultimately may be forced to do just that.
It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of dynamic. And it's a dynamic that works precisely because Miami's supporting cast is anything but a collection of cheap help, ring-chasers and castaways. It's actually a pretty well-oiled machine, one that fits into Erik Spoelstra's game plan and continues to step up when called upon.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that James is one of the game's best playmakers. He continues to set his teammates up as well as any point guard.
But it's a two-way street. For James to have confidence in sharing the ball, the rest of the Heat have to hold up their end of the bargain.
And they have.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!