Because of a 27-game winning, 66-win season, and a deep playoff run, the Miami Heat’s Big Three has played a ton of minutes this year.
LeBron played 2,877 regular season minutes (8th most in the league), Chris Bosh played 2,454 minutes and Dwyane Wade played 2,390 minutes.
Compare those numbers to San Antonio’s Big Three: Tony Parker played 2,173 minutes, Tim Duncan played 2,078, and Manu Ginobili played 1,393.
The disparity becomes more drastic when you throw in playoff minutes.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have played less minutes in the regular season and postseason combined than LeBron played in the regular season alone. No wonder Miami looked tired in Game 3.
The only Spurs player to log comparable minutes to Miami’s Big Three this season is Danny Green, the 25-year-old sharpshooter who has been the Finals MVP through three games. His 2,200 regular season minutes led the team, but to borrow a baseball term, few of those were “stress” minutes. Green is a three-point specialist and defensive player — he is never asked to contribute the ways James, Wade and Bosh must for Miami to succeed.
This is just another example of the superiority of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Several times Popovich has listed “old” as the official reason Tim Duncan did not play in a game. It’s funny because it’s true. Popovich’s long-view approach to regular season minutes reached its apogee when he was fined $250,000 for keeping Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Green out of a nationally televised November game against the Heat.
Maybe the Spurs have more left in the tank than the Heat when it matters most. Nate Silver of the New York Times points out that the considerable uptick in playing time for the Spurs best players has an impact equivalent to adding Blake Griffin to their rotation.
One reason LeBron plays so much is because the Heat roster is completely built around him. They don’t play a real centre because LeBron leads them in rebounding. They don’t play a real point guard because LeBron leads them in assists. Outside of the Big Three, the Heat are a coalition of specialists dependent on James drawing attention and creating space.
This is the paradox of LeBron’s greatness. He is so outstanding in so many areas of the game that teammates and general managers alike are unsure what kind of help he needs.
LeBron has vowed to do “whatever it takes” in tonight’s Game 4. Many critics say that means more of the same, that LeBron is best when playing his Oscar Robertson/Larry Bird role. That’s wrong.
LeBron realised his full potential in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and dominated the ball in the process. Facing elimination in Boston, LeBron scored 45 points on 26 shots. He came out firing and never quit.
It will be interesting to see if James employs such an approach tonight. It may be the only way to beat the compact Spurs defence. Or it could feed into the theory some NBA insiders have that such an approach is exactly what Popovich wants from LeBron.
The series has reached a point where LeBron needs to put scoring first and happy teammates second. If Popovich’s goal was to encourage LeBron to facilitate until eventually challenging him to win a game by myself, the gamble may work for the Spurs. Not because LeBron is incapable of scoring big, but because he is simply tired.
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