It was less complicated last year, the recipe more manageable, repair Wade’s funky knee, depend on Lebron, and even then the Miami Heat needed a Chris Bosh rebound, a Ray Allen three to get them to a seventh game and a second NBA title. Six months later the memory has faded into the present reality. The Heat are 6-5 in the month of January. Wanting a third straight title is not enough to drag them through the season when everyone wants to see them ruined. It is a long grueling Mount Everest basketball climb, a three-peat. At times it appears impossible. You win it because you had to dig deep to get there and in certain moments of the season you got a break or two. You win it because you had teammates who agreed this is the only thing that mattered. You win it because you led your teammates to an extraordinary place of chemistry and trust. You win it because you overcame attrition and fatigue and boredom.
The first title of Lebron James was an authentication. It was once said he lacked the ability to meet the moment, that he crumbled beneath the pressure and expectations, that he was not Michael, not Kobe- he was a lesser version. The second title he was supposed to win, and almost blew it. He subsisted on greed that year, so dedicated to returning to the NBA Finals. The seventh game was evidence he had the heart to take all of the punishment.
But far in the distance, nearly invisible, is that game seven of last year. It is January and a third title in a row lingers and waffles in front of him, a present Lebron James cannot unwrap for another few months, a gift he may never get to open and brag about. Wade is up and down depending on the current status of his knee. The season feels impossibly long and menacing, the league is better, the team is older and not as healthy, there is fatigue and nightmares about how it could end.
But if he wins once more this is true: his team becomes legendary, talked of with the great teams who have won three in a row. The 1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers. The 1959-61 Boston Celtics. The 1962-64 Boston Celtics. The 1991-93 Chicago Bulls. The 1996-98 Chicago Bulls. The 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers. Once again the names of Michael and Kobe are brought up, like a virus they infect the host. Michael and Kobe did it. Lebron, can you?
Six teams tried to win three in a row but failed for good reasons. The 1966-67 Celtics could not stop Hal Greer from scoring 30 points a game and lost in the semi-finals. The 1969-70 Celtics no longer had Bill Russell and did not make the playoffs. The 1988-89 Lakers were doomed when Magic injured his hamstring. The 1990-91 Pistons were at the end of their run. The 1995-96 Houston Rockets were in the last chapter of the Olajuwon years. The 2010-11 Lakers were older, uninspired and restless.
As good as he is Lebron James is not immortal, not yet. Two championships in a row have Lebron James poised to enter a higher realm, a place where Kobe is. Where MJ is. Already there are givens. His team is the best in the league until they are beaten. But the enduring question regarding the Heat and Lebron James and this era in which Pat Riley created this team of dynamic players/friends is will they win a third title in a row and join the Lakers, Bulls and Celtics as the only organizations to have three-peated? Will they be feted as a dynasty? Will sports historians, as they look back on what they accomplished, be in awe of their athleticism, open court style, defense and small ball? Will Lebron join the other iconic three-peat champions? Or will this just be one of those teams that is talked about as an anecdote, talented and exciting but we knew it wasn’t going to last.
Similar to the Lakers and Bulls as they tried for three in a row, the Miami Heat have appeared ordinary at times. Lebron has been brilliant but the team has lost 4 of the last 6 games. In their four recent losses they have given up 109 points a game. They have allowed their opponents to rack up a 34 point quarter, a 37 point quarter, a 43 point quarter, a 32 point quarter, a 33 point quarter. Their defense is uninspired. 52% shooting for the Hawks. 54% shooting for the Wizards. 53% shooting for the Knicks.
This is true: the Miami Heat are 30-12. So were the Lakers in 2002. They lost 6 out of 9 games. They lost to a Chicago Bulls team that had only won 6 games and were currently on a six game losing streak. They lost to a Miami Heat team that had only won 9 games. They lost to a Denver Nugget team who had only won twelve games. But the Lakers were 13-4 in March, 6-3 in April. They did not win their division but in the playoffs they lost only 4 games and swept the Nets in the Finals.
The Chicago Bulls were 30-12 in January 1998. The Bulls won 8 of their last 10 games. They lost by 27 points to the Miami Heat. They lost to a Philadelphia 76ers team that only won 10 games. The last nineteen games of the season they were 16-3. They were 15-6 in the playoffs, beating Utah and creating an iconic photograph: Michael Jordan walking off as a six time champion.
History is against history it seems. For a three-peat the odds are nearly impossible because so many things have to break your way. The team has to stay healthy. Kobe played 80 games for the Lakers in 2002. Shaq played 67 games. Rick Fox played 82 games. Derek Fisher played 70. Robert Horry played 81. When the Bulls three-peated in 1998 Michael played every game, Toni Kukoc played 74 games. Scottie Pippen recovering from a foot injury played 44 games. Ron Harper played 82 games. Dennis Rodman played 80. The team has to play well on the road. Miami is 13-9 away from home. The 2002 Lakers were 12-8. The 1998 Bulls were 9-11. The team has to have luck. Robert Horry’s miracle three point shot in the Western Conference Finals against the Kings tied the series. Scottie Pippin’s put back of a Luc Longley miss to give the Bulls the lead late in game 7 against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals put them on the road to the NBA Finals.
In 2002 the Sacramento Kings were the best team in the Western Conference. They won 61 games. They were the favorites to keep the Lakers out of the Finals, to keep them from winning three in a row. They had home court advantage. They had Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, a young Hedo Turgolu and Gerald Wallace. But in game 7 the pressure and inexperience of how to win a close game that meant everything overwhelmed the Kings as they clanked one shot off the rim after another. The Lakers won a game 7 on the road.
The Pacers are Miami’s Sacramento Kings. The one team able to keep Miami from three-peating. They are aggressive about their intention on getting the best record and keeping Miami from home court advantage. They have size in Roy Hibbert, skill in Paul George, toughness in David West and Lance Stevenson. They talk a lot, though. They think it is obvious that once they have home court they are getting to the NBA Finals, Miami is done. That is what the Sacramento Kings thought too.
In four months Lebron James will have his Kobe and MJ moment. Forget the MVP awards, the playoffs are legacy makers or breakers. Michael was 6-2 in Conference Finals. Kobe is 7-1. Lebron is 4-1. In the NBA Finals Michael was 6-0. Kobe is 5-2. Lebron is 2-2. Michael three-peated twice. Kobe three-peated once. What will Lebron do?
If he wins that is one more thing to cross off the list, one more Kobe-MJ mountain he has climbed. If he loses you know what they will say. Great, great player. Nice guy. Incredible leader. But he couldn’t win three in a row. He couldn’t be like MJ. Like Kobe.