Talent alone won't win you an NBA title. LeBron James, widely known as the best basketball player in the world, learned that last year.
His Miami Heat squad was heavily favoured going into their 2011 finals series against the Dallas Mavericks. They had the three of the best four players in the series. Dallas had always been good, but they were old and creaky. Their point guard Jason Kidd debuted the same year Braveheart came out and can forecast storms with his knees. There were questions over how they could guard a player as athletic and versatile as James. Here's what stats guru John Hollinger said at the time:
"Miami has been the best team over the course of the season, leading the NBA in scoring margin and going 12-3 in 15 playoff games, and owns arguably the game's two best players... I like the Heat in six."
The Heat lost in six. James played his worst playoff series ever.
He looked like he was going to throw up on his shoes during key moments. His series average of 17 points a game was by far the lowest for his career. But that didn't reflect how badly he performed in fourth quarters, where he averaged two points and noticeably zoned out. His superstar team-mates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh struggled to pick up the slack. The more talented team looked discombobulated.
They ran into a team playing unstoppable basketball. Every Mavericks player knew their role. It wasn't just their star Dirk Nowitzki carrying them.
Bit-part players stepped up at crucial moments. Veterans provided tough, physical defence and dived for every loose ball. The right plays were called. Then they were executed. It was beautiful to watch.
That kind of basketball isn't seen often. In fact, it wasn't seen again until about two weeks ago, when the Oklahoma City Thunder started destroying everything in their path.
First it was the Spurs. Down 2-0 in a best of seven series, out of nowhere Thunder players started moving off screens, cutting and passing as if their minds were connected by telephone wires. The team rattled off four straight wins and advanced to the finals to face the Heat, who returned out of the Eastern Conference for a shot at redemption.
James must have had a sense of déjà vu when faced the Thunder in the first finals game on Wednesday. His team had the talent to win, but they didn't look enough like a team. This time James was aggressive. He vowed to have no regrets. But again, he was soundly beaten 105-94 by a team that always seemed to adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
The series will hinge partly on whether the Heat can respond in Game 2 today. Their imposing star trio of James, Wade and Bosh have to knit together cohesively, as they have through the post season. But even if they can do that, it's hard to see them overcoming the momentum, timing, luck and strange basketball telepathy the Thunder developed two weeks ago. The Heat may be doomed to heartbreak on the biggest stage, two years running.
Hayden Donnell will provide live updates of game two from 1pm.By Hayden Donnell Email Hayden