On Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics went into Miami and took Game 5 away from the would-be champion Heat on their floor. They'll head back to Boston with a chance to win the Eastern Conference Finals in six games on Thursday night.
And the Heat failing would be the best thing that could happen for the NBA.
First, let me be perfectly clear: this isn't losing by the Heat.
When you put that much money on the table, it isn't losing any more.
When you have a parade at the end of free agency, not the end of the postseason, it isn't losing any more.
When you go to the Finals and lost, and have a summer to "fix" the roster and bring back a reloaded winner, it isn't losing any more.
When the league's Most Valuable Player wears a mouthpiece that has the roman numerals for the number of games it takes to win a championship on them, and smiles at every camera he can find through the first two rounds, it isn't losing any more.
And the Miami Heat are failing right now.
Their effort has brought harsh comments from even their biggest fans and defenders. Those that are on the Heat bandwagon have been left to wonder where the full game, and full court, effort has been in the last three games. After handling their business in the first two games, the game results would make a novice viewer wonder which team has all of the "ancient veterans" who are "at the ends of their careers" and which team has the multi-millionaire 20-somethings in their prime.
Second, let me perfectly clear again: the Boston Celtics are playing wonderful, inspired, team basketball. They have earned each of their wins in this series. Please don't let my strong words regarding the performance of the Heat take anything away from a wonderful effort from Boston. Kevin Garnett has been everything a Hall of Famer should be in this series, and Rajon Rondo has been special as well.
But the heart of my argument is simple: the Heat failing is good for the NBA.
Consider for a moment the four teams that, at least when we all go to bed on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, are still alive in the NBA's postseason.
The Boston Celtics are an older team that has been up big in games, down huge in games, and battled in tight games as well. Nothing has caused the Celtics to lose their composure in the series, which is remarkable considering the stakes and the level of competition wearing the opposing jerseys. When Doc Rivers opens a press conference by saying "We're just hanging in there," which he did on Tuesday night, you know it's all about the team.
Five Celtics are averaging in double figures in the playoffs. Among those five players is Brandon Bass, who is making "only" $4 million this year. He's a role player that Rivers has used perfectly in the series by allowing him to play an undersized power forward (he's listed at 6-8, 250) with Garnett at center. Rivers has also used Mickael Pietrus perfectly; his minutes per game have increased from 16.7 in the first round to 19.3 in the second and now to over 21 in the conference finals. Pietrus and Bass making big shots at key times is testimony to the power that a team effort brings to a playoff series.
In the Western Conference, you have to more teams that bring striking approaches to the game.
San Antonio, who have also blown a 2-0 series lead and now face elimination on Wednesday night, couldn't be more different from the Heat if they had to be. They're eighth in the NBA in team salary, and have three players on their roster - Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Boris Diaw - that are making less than $2 million this year and averaging over 20 minutes per game in the postseason.
The Spurs have their own "Big Three," but there wasn't a parade when they were put together and Tim Duncan has more rings than the entire Heat roster combined. They put together one of the longest winning streaks in NBA history to close the regular season and through the first two rounds, but Manu Ginobili could walk down the street in any city in the country other than San Antonio and nobody would recognize him. They have won as humble, hard-working team.
If the Spurs are eliminated on Wednesday night, it will be to perhaps the most stunning contrast to the Heat in the game: the Oklahoma City Thunder. They rank 19th in the NBA in team payroll this year, paying their entire roster just over $62.6 million. To put that in perspective, the Heat are paying LeBron, Wade and Bosh over $47.5 million this year, and their team payroll is over $80 million.
Kevin Durant, who has the killer instinct many have criticized LeBron for lacking, is arguably the best player in the game. He signed a long-term extension to stay in a small market when he could have commanded a king's ransom. How was his big deal announced? A tweet. By Durant. That he was staying put to see things through. No special on ESPN. No sit-down conversation with Jim Gray. No nationally televised week of begging from general managers in a hotel. Just a tweet.
Durant is the only player on the Thunder making over $7.2 million this year. Like the Spurs, they have their own "Big Three" but the third member of the group comes off the bench. James Harden won the league's Sixth Man of the Year, but the more defensive-minded (former Chicago Bull) Thabo Sefolosha starts. Once again, maybe two or three guys are household names for NBA fans, but they're one win away from the NBA Finals because they play the game as a team.
And what do we get from the Heat?
Not a team.
They're a collection of talented pieces. Talented, well-paid pieces that haven't shown much effort in trying to become a team over the last two years. Their coach is over his head, which is a problem. But self-proclaimed "leaders" like LeBron and Wade display enough contempt for their coach to give the poor kid an ulcer. The lack of respect from the Heat's "leaders" for their teammates, the coaching staff, and the defensive end of the court is both sad and laughable at the same time.
As Joakim Noah once pointed out (and Stephen A. Smith reminded everyone on "Sportscenter" after the Heat's loss on Tuesday night), Miami's "Hollywood as hell." They're there to get paid and fill highlight packages. If they win a championship while they're taking care of the other two, it's an added bonus. A couple of the game's all-time greats, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, have been public with their criticism of the Heat as well. The point is: they perception from most of the viewing audience is that Noah is right.
LeBron held the league hostage two years ago and decided to take his talents to South Beach with Wade and Bosh. Their experiment has since carried over into Carmelo Anthony forcing a trade to the Knicks, and Chris Paul forcing a trade to Los Angeles. Players in the NBA have spent much of the last two years believing they can collect talent in big markets, make a lot of money, and hopefully win championships.
But this postseason is serving as a strong referendum on that mentality.
It takes a team to win in the NBA. The Dallas Mavericks showed that last year when they beat the Heat in the Finals, and the three teams surrounding the Heat in the respective conference finals series this year are reminding the world that a collection of talented players aren't the answer.
This could be the end of the "Big Three" in Miami. There continue to be rumors that the Heat will look to move Bosh, the underwhelming, non-jersey-selling member of the trio. And LeBron can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2014, which has already led to speculation that he'll leave after four seasons. If they fail to finish again this season, the coach might not be the only change made on South Beach.
The league would/will be better off if the Miami Heat fail. Highlights last through a couple episodes of "Sportscenter," but banners (and rings) are forever. Championships define a player's legacy, and the last time I checked LeBron has zero. It takes a team to win one.