Greatness is always a combination of perseverance and raw talent. Perseverance is harder to spot than talent. Talent shouts from the rooftops, demanding the spotlight and we are more than willing to heed its call. Perseverance is quiet, gently whispering in our ear. Talent plays to an audience, perseverance is done in private. Talent wins you friends, while perseverance isolates. If we’re honest with ourselves,we’d much rather be known as talented than hard working.
Few teams in history have been as talented as the Miami Heat; they fascinate us, because at their best they are jaw-dropping. They score quickly and spectacularly. Is there anything more exciting in sports than watching LeBron James charge down the court on a fast break, defenders paralyzed like deer in headlights, as he leaps over (sometimes through) defenders on his way to a rim-rattling dunk? Heat games often seem unfair, like the two best kickball players in the school on the same team.
Talent makes life easier, and when you’re LeBron you can dominate without coming close to maximizing effort. If James and the Heat must choose between the easy way and the hard way, they’ll take the easy way nine out of ten times.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Heat don’t work hard. They’re professionals, and James in particular has worked to eliminate every weakness from his game. This is more about what goes on inside the collective psyche of the Heat.
The teams that give Miami the most trouble are experienced and mentally tough. These teams aren’t afraid of the Heat and they push them both mentally and physically. The Heat couldn’t beat Dallas in 2011 on talent alone, and they won’t beat the San Antonio Spurs that way either.
They are Mike Tyson in his prime, looking for a knockout, expecting their foes to fall down and not get up. They are shocked, maybe even a little annoyed when their opponents don’t stay down. During the series with the Indiana Pacers, I remarked to my brother that “the Heat look annoyed that the Pacers are trying so hard.”
As much as Dwyane Wade’s knee has been an issue, his entitlement has been too. Wade needed to change his game a series ago, and he’s mostly refused. He’s frequently out of position on defense and is far too willing to settle for mid-range jump shots that he hasn’t been hitting. When pressured, harassed and cajoled, Wade gives maximum effort. In Game 4 Wade was fantastic, rotating hard on defense, continually challenging Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan at the rim. Where was that Wade Sunday night? He didn’t show up because he knew that he still had two games left in Miami.
James has been similar, and his lack of aggression in this series has been startling. The Spurs have designed their defense to keep LeBron out of the lane, forcing him to shoot jump shots. Metaphorically, they’ve clogged the lane with obstacles, and instead of challenging them, LeBron has taken the path of least resistance.
At 6’8 260lbs., James is one of the most dynamic athletes we’ve ever seen. But instead of displaying that athleticism he’s allowed the Spurs to turn him into John Stockton. In Game 4, James was more aggressive, continually bullying his way into the lane with Spurs defenders draped all over him. James was more aggressive because he didn’t have a choice; a 3-1 deficit with a game to play in San Antonio would have been insurmountable.
The on/off switch isn’t a switch at all; it’s the Heat trying to win in the easiest way possible. If they don’t have to play defense they won’t. If they don’t have to drive to the lane they won’t. The Heat are the school yard bully. They’re bigger and stronger than everyone else, and most of the time that’s enough. But every now and then, a kid stands up to the schoolyard bully and pops him in the mouth. Most of the time the bully has no plan B. The Heat had better have one because just showing up and possessing more talent than the Spurs won’t get it done.
The Heat might go on to win the next two games against the Spurs or they may not, but they can never be called great because they’ve always settled for doing just enough to get by.
Ronny Carlton is an NFL writer for RantSports.com, you can follow him on Twitter here