There's something different about this year's incarnation of the Miami Heat. While they are a deeper, more complex team, they're also relying more on LeBron James and less on Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Miami has become "LeBron James and Friends," rather than last year's version that was closer to "LeBron and Dwyane ft. Chris Bosh."
While he's not scoring as much as he did last season, the disparity between his production and the team's second-best scorer has been bigger.
Last season, LeBron stormed through the playoffs—averaging 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game—but he had plenty of backup.
Dwyane Wade averaged 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists, while Bosh picked up 14 points to go along with 7.8 rebounds.
This season, LeBron is averaging fewer points, but they're as reliant on him as ever. He's at 25.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game.
Comparatively, Bosh is the team's second-highest scorer and rebounder—averaging 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds. Meanwhile, Wade (with his balky knee) is down to 13.7 points, five rebounds and 5.3 assists.
To get an idea of how much production the Big Three were responsible for, I've broken it down.
In 2012, the three amigos combined for 63.3 percent of the team's total playoff points, 58.9 percent of the team's assists and 48.7 percent of the team's rebounds. That's all with Bosh playing in just 14 of a possible 23 games.
This year, those same three players make up just 52.8 percent of the team's scoring—while they're up to 60 percent of the total assists and 50.9 percent of the rebounds.
Considering Bosh's nine games missed in 2012, the scoring and rebounding percentages from last season would have been bumped up another five percent or so had he played in every game.
The Big Three are supposed to be the motor that drives the team, but now it seems the motor needs a few spark plugs replaced and an oil change.
Having a developed core of role players is great, but generally it's those top two or three players who make or break a game.
Bosh, who had a moderate showing last playoffs because of his abdominal strain, was expected to have a bit of an improvement this year. At best, he's had similar effectiveness to his battered self of a year ago.
Wade has been the most shocking disappointment. His display this regular season was a slight downgrade from a year ago, but 21 points per game is nothing to scoff at.
Suddenly, we're in the playoffs, and he's averaging 13.7 points on 46.8 percent shooting. That's more than seven points per game fewer, with a five-percent drop in field-goal percentage.
In the past, teams have been forced to pick their poison against the Heat.
If they decided to play LeBron straight up, he would go off for 30, 40 or even 50 points when needed.
If they decided to double-team LeBron, with help coming every time he tries to drive or take a shot, then the defense would have problems stopping his two All-Star-caliber teammates.
This season, at least as far as playoffs are concerned, they seem to be a decidedly weaker team at the top.
Wade and Bosh have looked so shaky through the postseason that simply covering them with a solid defender (which Indiana is chock full of) is effective.
It gives LeBron the much more daunting task of beating a team almost on his own—which he's been forced to do in the past on many occasions, as it happens.
Many people will point to the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers when talking about LeBron's lack of help, but he was a younger, different man back then.
LeBron averaged 25 points per game in Cleveland's run to the NBA Finals, and only three other Cavs averaged in double figures.
The San Antonio Spurs knew that LeBron's teammates weren't the ones who would beat them, so they pressured him every step of the way, and the Cavs were ultimately swept.
This is more like 2009, when LeBron was the man that we know and marvel at today. The defensive focus shifted from him to the guys around him.
LeBron's playoff totals in '09 were legendary (35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists), and it seemed like the rest of the team would be enough to propel them into the NBA Finals. Offensively and defensively, the squad was among the top three in the NBA.
Once the Eastern Conference finals rolled around, everybody (save LeBron and Delonte West, interestingly enough) shot poorly. Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the rest of the team took a nosedive.
LeBron averaged 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while the Cavs lost in six games to the Orlando Magic.
It seems that Indiana is doing whatever possible to shut down the peripheral Heat players and adjusting the defensive pressure on LeBron on a possession-by-possession basis.
LeBron has scored 30 and 36 points in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 1, he was joined by 19 points from Wade as the second-highest scorer and 17 points from Bosh in Game 2.
The Pacers are doing their best to take away LeBron's toys every chance they get, and it's working so far.
Of course, he also proved that he can beat a team "by himself" after posting a triple-double and scoring two go-ahead layups at the end of overtime of Game 1 (sans Roy Hibbert on defense, of course).
I'm not against the roster that the Heat have put together, obviously. They won 66 games (the exact same number of games the '09 Cavs won, coincidentally) and have lost just four times in their last 50 games.
However, I'm also a firm believer that a superstar player, even a super-duperstar like LeBron or Michael Jordan, needs a solid No. 2 option for his team to be great.
During the regular season, Miami had that in Wade.
Now, Wade is struggling, making LeBron look like a great player surrounded by a bunch of very good role players.
It remains to be seen whether Wade will be able to break out of this funk anytime soon (or if Bosh will step up), but it would certainly ease a few minds in Miami if one did.
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