One of the harder things about watching this season's NBA playoffs is the tense rhetoric about the Heat. I don't expect many people to share that reaction, because I'm the odd sort of sports fan who can't deal with high-cholesterol sports pundrity, which is why I can devote substantial percentages of my ever-passing existence to curious around-the-edges statistical analysis or elegaic essays inspired by old baseball cards, but five minutes of sports radio or half-time roundtables immediately sound, inside my head, like mommy and daddy fighting again. This year has been particularly bad. Every instance of the Heat falling behind by a game brings specters of Erik Spoelstra's predestined demise as a coach; every time they thump another team, it's time for the coronation.
It's a matter of taste; I would make a terrible announcer. I talk about as fast as Charlie Rose and with about the same dynamic range—he's from nearby where my family's from—but with a lot of stuttering inside those dramatic pauses, probably to compensate for how slowly I talk. But most the problem is I'd just as soon wait; I like waiting.
The Heat were given a difficult challenge in integrating LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, particularly James and Wade. Despite the former's much greater size, they have somewhat redundant skills and overlapping experience: both are big, fast players who are stronger penetrating than taking outside shots; both have point-guard handle and vision without being anything remotely close to true point guards. Much was made of how to fit two alpha-dog, team-leader personalities into one successful team, but on some level it was more of a practical problem: who handles the ball? Who takes the majority of the shots? Who takes the big shot? How do you spread the floor?
Last year, Wade and James split up the duties with clinical precision. In the first round, James outscored Wade, 24.2 to 22.2 PPG. In the second round, Wade outscored James 30.2 to 28.0. In the third round, James outscored Wade, 25.8 to 18.8; Bosh put up 23.2 a game against the Bulls. In the finals, Wade outscored James 26.5 to 17.8, with Bosh putting in 18.5. Neither cracked the top five in usage share, an "estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor"; they were nearly identical in offensive and defensive win shares, James with 3.8 and Wade with 3.7.
This year? James has outscored Wade in every game but two, and has easily outscored Wade overall. James is third in usage share for the playoffs—Wade doesn't make the top five—and is sporting a 5.4 win share, the highest in the playoffs. Wade is at 2.9.
It's not that Wade has played badly. He's averaging 23.0 ppg to last year's 24.5; his field-goal percentage is down a bit, but his three-point percentage is up. He's averaging the exact same number of assists per game. He still has that balletic talent—the best I've ever seen—for controlling the ball after a hard foul, like at about one minute here:
Or thirty seconds here:
James can do that occasionally, but not like Wade—it's a smaller man's skill, learned out of necessity, and James is simply too big and too tall to find himself in unfortunate angles like that very often.
But Wade has clearly passed the leadership over to James. It's not just stats; it's also that no one's really talking that much about Wade. James doesn't just have the numbers; he has the audience.
And it just looks like age. James is only three years younger than Wade, but they're three critical years—27, in the peak years for an elite athlete, and 30, when the bearings start to come loose. Wade's been battling leg pain throughout the playoffs; he's also been battling time. Paradoxically, it seems to have made the Heat a better team, by subtly forcing them to settle last year's questions.
What made the Spurs so brilliant over their long run as the NBA's most consistent team—15 straight playoff appearances, four Finals victories—has been their ability to handle the aging of players: David Robinson yielding to Tim Duncan, Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, then Parker finally taking over as the Spurs' leader. In Duncan's first year as a Spur, he and his legendary teammate put up near-identical numbers, and lost in the semifinals. In their second season together, Duncan became the dominant player, and the team won their first of four titles in nine years.
Wade is older; James is older, too. Just that brief passage of time can make a crucial difference, and now they're up 3-1 on a young team trying to figure out its own balance:
Once upon a time, the Heat were seasoned by the 2011 Mavericks and the 2012 Celtics, both savvy contenders with a ton of pride, experienced teams that forced you to beat them. The Heat beat themselves in the 2011 Finals, learned from it, then finally exorcised those choking demons two weeks ago. Now they're pulling a similar trick on the young kids from Oklahoma City. This is the law of the NBA. You learn from the team that keeps beating you, and eventually, you do it to someone else. Welcome to the 2012 Finals.
After dropping the first game, the Heat look poised to finally fulfill the promise of the Decision. But it's still worth appreciating the series, if not as competition, than as process. Sometimes you have to embrace getting schooled.