NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.

Miami’s Role Players Got It Done

Nearly every game of the 2012 NBA Finals has been decided late in the fourth quarter – and things weren’t looking great for the Miami Heat as things got deeper into the final frame of Game 4.

LeBron James was hobbled with leg cramps and, despite a clutch three with under three minutes to play, required two bench stints late.  Dwyane Wade played through, but appeared to be slowed by some lower back soreness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, Russell Westbrook was playing like a man possessed, scoring 17 of his 43 points in the fourth.

Enter Mario “Mother—-ing” Chalmers.

Chalmers answered his point guard counterpart with 12 fourth quarter points (25 in total), including his team’s final five to preserve what was just a three-point, one-possession lead. His numbers were certainly boosted by Westbrook’s ill-advised three-shot foul with five seconds remaining on the shot clock (13.8 on the game clock), but the Kansas alum still had to convert his three crucial free throws to send his team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

On Tuesday, Chalmers filled the Shane Battier role. That is, the secondary Heat player to shine during these NBA Finals and, arguably, play as significant role as that of the Big Three. Battier was held to just one made three-pointer in Game 4, snapping a multi-trey streak in the Finals that had seen him make 11 shots from deep (compared to just four misses) over the first three games against the Thunder.

Earlier in the game, it had been little-used guards Norris Cole and James Jones who helped stabilize a listless Heat squad that seemed to be lacking energy. All of their 11 combined points (in addition to 3-5 shooting from long range) came in a first half that was dominated by Oklahoma City. Cole’s driving lay-up shot late in the first quarter stopped the bleeding after what was a 10-0 Thunder run, while his three at the buzzer of the opening quarter provided some life to his team despite a double digit deficit and sparked a 16-0 Miami run (they never trailed by more than five the rest of the way).

Yes, it’s been the play of James, Wade and Chris Bosh that has gotten the Heat to within one victory of an NBA championship, but every title hopeful needs supporting role players to step up when the situation calls for it.

It turns out that the critics who suggested three players couldn’t win a championship were right; good thing that the Heat’s Big Three have had help.

Perspective Is A Funny Thing

Perspective is a funny thing.

Basketball fans love to hate the Miami Heat because of their supposed arrogance. But, the reality is, all they did wrong was boast about winning NBA Championships a bit premature.

LeBron James didn’t endear himself to fans when he made a bad P.R. move and allowed ESPN to air The Decision. It instantly made him the most hated man in Cleveland and NBA fans sprained ankles jumping off of his bandwagon.

But none of Miami’s stars have run afoul with the law.

Heck, none of them have done anything off of the court that should taint their names or reputations.

Fans loathe players who show up only for a paycheck and don’t care about winning, yet James, Wade and Bosh all took pay cuts to ensure they would have the chance to battle for NBA Championships.

Instead of fans rallying around this selfless chase of championships, the Miami Heat have had a bull’s eye placed on their backs for the past two seasons. It’s baffling how two years later fans still haven’t been able to shake two relatively-small mistakes that can be chalked up to youthful folly.

Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics have been viewed as the good guys and they were the team most NBA fans cheered for in the Eastern Conference Finals this year.

Likewise, the Oklahoma City Thunder are fan favourites in the NBA Finals because they have produced their own talent through the draft while making a few shrewd trades along the way. In many ways, the Thunder are the ideal team for David Stern and the NBA to market and promote.

Basketball fans are quick to forget Oklahoma City’s owner, Clay Bennett, literally stole the franchise away from some die-hard fans in Seattle over some politics and the chance to make more money by moving the team.

That has to be worse than wanting to play with two buddies in South Beach or an ill-conceived TV special, right?

While the players on the Thunder have a squeaky-clean image, the same can’t be said about the Celtics. Kevin Garnett cusses non-stop during the course of games and has been known to bully younger and International players. Rajon Rondo was suspended a game for bumping an official in the first round of the playoffs. Earlier in his career, Pierce had some problems off the court and enjoyed his fair share of shenanigans.

It’s puzzling to me how fans are quick to turn a blind eye to some troubling aspects of the Thunder or Celtics, yet they continue to focus on some trivial things Miami has done off the court.

Plus, Boston started the whole “Big 3″ idea when Danny Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett in a flurry of summer moves that changed the entire landscape of the NBA. It’s not like the Heat started something new when three friends united to play for championships and live in Miami. And, if you’re being honest with yourself, wouldn’t you do the same? Personally, the idea of playing with two of my best friends and living in South Beach would be too tempting for me to pass up.

Somehow, fans are more than willing to turn a blind eye to all of this because they want to root for Boston or Oklahoma City. The reality of the situation is Boston and Oklahoma City both have their fair share of warts that could prevent fans from cheering against them. But, for whatever reason, fans are blinded to this in their hatred of Miami.

Hopefully you don’t fall into the trap of rooting against Miami because they are perceived as being the bad guys. Because, if you take a real close look at things, you’ll probably realize Miami isn’t really worth hating.

But, it all depends on your perspective, right?