The Agony of Three-peat


Win or lose, the Miami Heat’s Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs may seal their fate in NBA lore

It was back in the summer of 1987 in Los Angeles as a parade rolled through Hollywood celebrating the “Showtime” Lakers’ NBA Finals victory over Boston Celtics. It turned out to be the end of the road in some ways for Larry Bird and company after appearing in the Finals four seasons in a row. The only other franchise to do that at that time were Riley’s Lakers. As he stood at a podium thanking the fans for coming out in the L.A. sun to see the 1987 NBA Champions, Riley took a verbal swing at fate by saying to the crowd, “I’m guaranteeing everybody here that next year we’re gonna win it again.” Riley snaps his head amusingly to his left looking at his team as the fans go crazy. No team at that point had won two consecutive titles since Bill Russell’s Celtics had done it 19 years earlier.

But Riley asked, and Los Angeles certainly received in 1988 when the Lakers pulled off back-to-back titles after a grueling seven-game series against the Detroit Pistons. Riley was smart enough to not make overtures about a fabled third championship in a row for the 1989 season, but the wheels in his head were already spinning. After hearing Lakers player Byron Scott utter the phrase “three-peat” during the season as the fans caught on to the potential craze, Riley used his corporate entity Riles & Co. to coin it. In 1989, before the playoffs began, the term “three-peat” was officially trademarked under registration number 1552980, giving Riles & Co. ownership and royalties whenever the phrase is used in any form of licensing. As many great things as Riley has done as a player, coach, and general manager in his basketball career, the licensing of that phrase may have been the smartest business decision he has ever made in his livelihood.

The great irony, however, for Riley and company was that although he owned the right to commemorate “three-peat,” the mission was not accomplished in Los Angeles. It certainly seemed like it was an inevitability earlier in the 1989 postseason as the Lakers won three Western Conference playoff series without losing a single game. But it was in their Finals rematch with the Pistons that Showtime’s fate was all but sealed. The Lakers got trounced 109-97 in Game 1 in Detroit before Magic suffered a hamstring injury in a Game 2 loss, sidelining him for the rest of the series. It was almost indignant that the Lakers, who had swept every playoff opponent they had faced leading into the Finals, got swept themselves in the Forum and the reservations to celebrate a three-peat were officially canceled.

Riley’s company retained the trademark for “three-peat” going forward but had to wait and see if a different team would pull off the incredible feat after Riley left the Lakers in 1990. The first team to give it a shot was the very same one that had dethroned Showtime in the Finals, the Detroit Pistons. After winning it all in 1989 in L.A., Chuck Daly’s “Bad Boys” duplicated the Lakers’ back-to-back accomplishment after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1990 Finals. During their first two title runs, the Pistons had taken care of division rival Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the conference finals before taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy thereafter. But in 1991, the tables were turned drastically on Detroit as Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and second-year head coach Phil Jackson dominated the Pistons in a four-game sweep. If the Lakers’ failure to three-peat in 1989 seemed unceremonious, then the Pistons’ fall in 1991 was flat out disgraceful as they walked past the Bulls’ bench into the locker room before the clinching game was over, vanquishing the “Bad Boys” from the Finals for good.

Michael Jordan puts up the six fingers after beating the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals. Jordan's Bulls had two separate three-peat runs in the 90's.
Michael Jordan puts up the six fingers after beating the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals. Jordan’s Bulls had two separate three-peat runs in the 90s.

After slaying his personal dragon in the Pistons and beating Magic’s Lakers in the 1991 Finals to win his first championship, it was Jordan’s turn to rise through history and dominate the league. The Bulls won their second straight title against the Blazers in 1992, but the stiffest challenge in that postseason for the league-best Bulls came from the New York Knicks in their first year under head coach Pat Riley. Who better suited to try to prevent the league’s prevalent star from winning three titles in a row than Riles himself, the man who had patented the concept of “three-peat”? While Riley’s Lakers were fast and exciting, his Knicks teams were blue collar and rough and tumble, a mutated, ‘roided out version of the “Bad Boys” in many ways. The Knicks pushed the Bulls to seven games in the second round before bowing out in Game 7 in Chicago in 92, and the mettle was truly tested in 1993 when Jordan and Pippen aimed for the vaunted three-peat.

Not only did the Knicks secure home court advantage in the Eastern Conference, but New York soundly defeated and bullied Chicago to take a 2-0 series lead in the conference finals. The storyline had already been set by the Lakers and Pistons before them that the third title in a row was going to be the toughest one to win for the Bulls, and it looked like their downfall was near arrival. However, the Bulls held home court in Chicago and then came the infamous Game 5 where Charles Smith got stuffed under the rim in the final seconds at Madison Square Garden, ultimately losing the series in six games. Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Riley would defeat the Bulls get to the Finals a year later, but only after Jordan had shockingly retired. Michael’s exit came off the heels of winning the ’93 Finals over the Phoenix Suns and doing what none of his Hall of Fame contemporaries could do: Win three championships in a row.

During Jordan’s self-imposed exile from the sport of basketball, the NBA experienced yet another back-to-back championship run by the Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon and (in its second year) Clyde Drexler. By the time the 1995-96 season had arrived, the Rockets were two-time defending world champions but were not nearly equipped enough to go for three (Maybe we can blame their ugly new jersey design unveiled that season for the misfortune). Houston went 48-34 before (have we heard this before?) getting swept in the second round by the eventual Western Conference Champion Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics were a great team with a 64-18 record, but fell in six games in the Finals to a familiar face in Michael Jordan. After less than two seasons away from the game, His Airness returned to the Bulls and not only won league MVP in 1996 but, along with Pippen, the intuitive Jackson, and the eccentric yet brilliant Dennis Rodman, embarked on the greatest season in NBA history: A 72-10 regular season record followed by a 15-3 postseason record.

The Bulls continued their renewed reign over the NBA as they went 69-13 in the 1996-97 season. Their new Western Conference foe turned out to be the only one that they would play more than once in the Finals, a finely tuned Utah Jazz team led by Karl Malone and John Stockton that had lost in seven games to the Sonics the year before. Now it was Utah’s turn to try to unseat Chicago from their throne on the biggest stage that basketball has to offer. You could tell from the very beginning that the Jazz were going to be a tough out as the Bulls only won Game 1 after Malone missed two free throws and Jordan hit a buzzer beating fadeaway over Byron Russell. That series also included such epic moments as Pippen’s seven three pointers in Game 3, Stockton’s cross court strike to Malone to seal Game 4, and Jordan’s inspirational “Flu Game” performance in Game 5. Game 6’s storybook ending in which Jordan passed the ball to Steve Kerr for the game winning shot was a perfect ending to one of the greatest Finals we had ever watched.

The only way that the NBA could top the ’97 Finals was by pitting a rematch between the two, with not only another Chicago three-peat at stake but with the Bulls dynasty literally on the brink of collapse. Due to contentiousness between Jackson, the players, and general manager Jerry Krause, the writing was on the wall that the Bulls’ 1998 postseason would be its last go-around with Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman in tow. As it had been for the Bulls back in 1993 and their predecessors who had fallen one title short, the ’98 run was undoubtedly the most arduous one for the team. They had to go the distance against the Indiana Pacers in a hard-fought seven-game series before facing off once again with the Jazz, only this time with Utah having the home court advantage. The Bulls managed to take not one but two victories in the Delta Center in the Finals, the last one being the last game Jordan and Pippen would play as Bulls players. I assume most people know what happened in Game 6 in 1998, and with that game winning follow-through, Jordan put up six fingers signifying his second three-peat in the 90s before riding off into the Chicago sunset.

Despite their highly publicized differences, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant collaborated on three straight NBA Championships in Los Angeles from 2000 to 2002 under Phil Jackson.
Despite their highly publicized differences, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant collaborated on three straight NBA Championships in Los Angeles from 2000 to 2002 under Phil Jackson.

The duplicate deeds of three-peat by Jordan’s Bulls had cast such an overwhelming shadow over the rest of the NBA that it was impossible from a basketball and business standpoint to even try to match what MJ was able to do in the Finals. The next best installment in hoops dynasty came after the 1999 lockout-shortened season when Phil Jackson became the new head coach for the Lakers, which already featured the league’s most dominant player in Shaquille O’Neal and the best up-and-coming player in Kobe Bryant. Jackson’s Zen techniques and triangle offense was the tipping point for a new golden age in Los Angeles as Shaq won league MVP and the Lakers won 67 games in the regular season. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers had to deal with a unique sort of strife in the new millenium because their struggles came not only from teams like the Blazers, Kings, and Spurs but also from within. O’Neal and Bryant genuinely disliked each other behind the scenes even as they teamed up to pull off incredible feats like their fourth-quarter comeback against Portland in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals or losing only one game in the 2001 postseason.

That may speak to the coaching mastery of Jackson and his ability to steer two massive superstar egos in the direction of a common goal for two straight titles. But just as the Bulls had to scratch and claw to complete their respective three-peats, it was in 2002 that the Lakers were pushed to the absolute limit in their attempt to duplicate what Michael had done. After taking care of the Blazers and Spurs in the first two rounds, the Lakers faced off with the Sacramento Kings, a division rival that they had eliminated in the two previous postseasons. But this season, the Kings not only had home court advantage but were seen by many observers as more talented than the Lakers. L.A. took Game 1 in Arco Arena from the get-go, but the Kings more than made up for it when they trounced the Lakers in Staples Center in Game 3 thanks in large part to the amazing play of point guard Mike Bibby. The Lakers needed a miraculous bounce to Robert Horry at the top of the key with almost no time left to win Game 4 and tie the series going back to Sacramento.

As conspiracy theories about NBA games being fixed grew more and more popular in the information age, the skeptics certainly found their favorite axe to grind when the Lakers, down 3-2 in the series, received what can be fairly described as gross favoritism from the refs at home. As L.A. took 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone and the refs ignored Bibby gettting his face elbow smashed by Bryant in the waning seconds, the Kings not only had to prepare for a Game 7 back home but were eternally bitter about receiving, in the eyes of many, a “screw job” in Game 6. Regardless of the shenanigans from the game before, Game 7 was the golden opportunity for the Kings to thwart the three-peat from their Hollywood counterparts and become only the ninth team since 1980 to win a title. But despite balanced play under unbiased officiating, the Lakers’ experience and savvy thrived in overtime as the Kings suffered a shooting meltdown, leading to a 112-106 Lakers win to end a memorable series. It was the closest a team had gotten to downing a three-peat since the Pacers’ fourth-quarter lead in Game 7 against the Bulls in 1998, but destiny was on the side of the Zen Master and his dynamic duo as they swept the Nets in the Finals to win their third straight title.

While the break up between Shaq and Kobe was glaringly inevitable after a humiliating beat down from the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals, even the most bitter Laker hater cannot take away the fact that their two future Hall of Fame teammates pulled off something that only Russell’s Celtics or Michael’s Bulls have been able to do. Although the marriage between Shaq and Kobe was on permanent vacation, it did not take that long for the Lakers to get back in the good graces of basketball royalty. With Bryant in his prime and Jackson back into the fold as head coach, the addition of big man Pau Gasol via a lopsided trade turned the Lakers into Western Conference Champions three seasons in a row from 2008 to 2010. In those last two seasons, the Lakers won the NBA Championship, vanquishing the rival Celtics in the last year. All eyes were on a potential three-peat for Kobe, Pau, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest before the bottom fell out. In the same vein as the 1991 Pistons and 1995 Rockets, back-to-back was what the Lakers had to settle for as they got unceremoniously swept by the eventual world champion Dallas Mavericks in 2011. The final blowout loss in the second round turned out to be Phil Jackson’s last game as a head coach. The Lakers have yet to return to the conference finals since.

After a Game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James celebrates his second championship in a row. He will face the Spurs again in hope of the iconic three-peat.
After a Game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James celebrates his second championship in a row. He will face the Spurs again in hope of the iconic three-peat.

In that same 2011 postseason, the new kids on the big boy block were the Miami Heat with not only former Finals MVP Dwyane Wade at the lead but alongside his buddies Chris Bosh and the King himself, LeBron James. People were disgusted with their confetti-adorned entrance in South Beach after LeBron’s controversial “Decision” to leave Cleveland on ESPN and the thought of building a microwave dynasty. “It’s not supposed to be just that easy!” exclaimed every sportswriter and casual fan aghast with the pompousness of James’ master plan. It should be easy to see why plenty of people were relieved to see the new Big Three, in their first year as a unit, get a stern kick in the ass from Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, losing in six games at home. LeBron’s performance was not only a muted one but a disgraceful one: The best player on planet Earth barely even present at times on the court in crucial situations. Throughout the 2011 lockout, all LeBron heard from the omnipresent naysayers was about how he couldn’t win a championship and was not chiseled from the same stone as Magic, Michael, Hakeem, Shaq, or even Kobe.

James, however, squashed those doubts nearly in unison in the lockout-shortened 2012 season when he not only won his third regular season MVP award, but carried Miami to defeat the Boston Celtics, LeBron’s proverbial white whale, in a classic seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series. The Heat went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder (led by perhaps the second best player in the world in Kevin Durant) and LeBron did not pull a Houdini act this time, taking on all comers through a five-game Finals victory. James’ celebration for winning his first championship was an unforgettable moment, but the ease with which the Heat won in the Finals over the Thunder made LeBron’s journey feel like it lacked in culmination. Every team that has pulled off a three-peat in NBA history has at least one milestone or indelible mark of greatness that puts that team far ahead of its contemporaries. The Bulls’ first three-peat had the 15-1 postseason record in ’91 along with the Dream Team escapade. The Bulls’ second three-peat had the 72-win and 69-win seasons in ’96 and ’97. The Lakers’ three-peat had a 67-win season in ’00 and a 15-1 postseason run of their own in 2001.

The Heat may not be done yet in their attempt to match what the Bulls and Lakers have done, but if there is one thing that will forever put them on a commendable pedestal over time, it will be their 27-game winning streak during the 2013 regular season. Sure, the Heat had to struggle through a seven-game series in the conference finals against an up-and-coming Indiana Pacers team, but the champs seemed to be in cruise control during the playoffs in 2013 when they faced off against the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. A four-time champion during the NBA’s dark ages after the fall of the Bulls and in the midst of the Shaq and Kobe melodrama, the Spurs were a seasoned team led by Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan that prided itself not on stardom but on steadiness. Before the 2013 Finals, however, an argument could be easily made (many times by myself) that the Spurs never defeated a truly great opponent over the course of its four title wins in ’99, ’03, ’05, and ’07. When San Antonio fell hard to Kobe and Pau’s version of a Laker reign reboot in 2008, it had the tone of a eulogy.

But thanks to Popovich’s unflinching focus on staying ahead of the game and a series of tactical adjustments both in the playbook and on the depth chart, the Spurs had become a 60-win team once more by the time we reached 2011. The Spurs lost to the Grizzlies in that postseason followed by a Western Conference Finals loss to the Thunder in 2012, but when San Antonio re-entered the Finals stage last year, they had to take down their toughest opponent yet. It certainly played out that way as the Spurs took a 3-2 series lead heading back to Miami for Game 6 hoping to close it out. The game had the same feeling in many ways that Dallas’ Finals-clinching Game 6 win had as Miami seemed both overwhelmed and desperate to get out of a 10-point hole in the fourth quarter. What changed from the Mavericks loss, however, was LeBron’s newly found ability to not only rise to the challenge in the Finals but his uncanny ability to take over games on both sides of the ball. Ray Allen’s season-saving three-pointer to force overtime will forever be the stuff of legend and rightfully so, but it was James’ headband-free avalanche of incredible plays down the stretch that truly got Miami back into the game and rescued them from systematic doom at the hands of the Spurs.

Pat Riley originally trademarked the phrase "Three-peat" back in 1989 when his Lakers team failed to do so. As Heat team president, he gets his second chance in this year's Finals.
Pat Riley originally trademarked the phrase “Three-peat” back in 1989 when his Lakers team failed to do so. As Heat team president, he gets his second chance in this year’s Finals.

After that epic Game 6 in which the Heat survived an overtime win to force a Game 7, I likened the Finals in many ways to the 1988 Finals between the Lakers and Pistons in which the Pistons were so drained from an excruciatingly close Game 6 loss to end the series that having to play one more game on the road proved to be just too much to handle. Thankfully, just like in the ’88 Finals, Game 7 between the Heat and Spurs was, instead of a defensive rock fight like the 2005 and 2010 editions were, a nicely paced, nail-biting thriller down the stretch as LeBron sank one jump shot after the next, the Heat found Shane Battier open for threes, players made tough shots, and Duncan missed a hook shot deep in the post on mismatch with less than a minute to go that would have tied the game. As the clock wound down and James, Wade, and Bosh celebrated their second championship in a row, Pat Riley was smiling ear-to-ear with that classy suit and tie and million-dollar smile. The slicked-back hair is a lot greyer now than it was under the 1988 Los Angeles sun when Riley first dreamed the dream of a three-peat with the Lakers. But with those greying hairs symbolize experience and wisdom in many ways, as Riley, the Heat’s team president for nearly two decades and architect of this Big Three, re-ups those trademarks he established so many years ago to benefit from the fruits of his long-lost labor, an established promise finally fulfilled.

Going into the 2013-14 season, all signs seem to point in the direction that the Miami Heat was not only going to struggle the most with this regular season (which they did), but also stare death in the eye when they played in the Eastern Conference Finals. Every team at the third leg of their three-peat throughout history has had the roughest go of it. In 1993, the Bulls needed to stop Charles Smith under his own basket to avoid getting eliminated by the Knicks. In 1998, Chicago needed to play championship defense to overcome a fourth quarter deficit in Game 7 against Indiana. You could almost squeeze your fingers together to describe how close the Lakers came to losing to the Kings in 2002. This season, the Heat had to face off with an Indiana Pacers team that not only had home court advantage, but had gone the distance with Miami the year before. It seemed to me that the Heat would need to give everything they had to take the Pacers out and get to a fourth Finals in a row.

Obviously, that turned out to be wishful narrative thinking. The Heat won Game 2 in Indiana and decisively took control of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers with convincing home wins, each one a more lopsided score than the previous one. By the time we got to Game 6 and the Heat took a 37-point lead in the third quarter to clinch the Eastern Conference title, all of the trends that had haunted the previous three-peat’ers seemed to go by the wayside in a matter of moments. In fact, this may have been the smoothest sailing for the Heat in terms of the Eastern Conference playoffs leading into their Finals appearance, especially more so than the previous two title wins. Not all title runs are created equal, obviously, and the Heat may be on the verge of what happened to Pat Riley’s 1989 Lakers when they swept through the West then got body slammed by the Pistons in a Finals rematch.

This Finals may not be a sweep like that one, but it is a rematch of its own between Miami and San Antonio. We have not seen one in the Finals since the Bulls and Jazz did it in 1998 right before the collapse of the Jordan dynasty, and it is only the sixth occurrence in the last 35 years. For the Heat, we have already illustrated the monumental rewards at stake for Riley, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Allen, and head coach Erik Spoelstra as they aim for a third title in a row. The Heat have already become the third franchise in NBA history to go to the Finals four times in a row alongside the Lakers and Celtics, and they would become only the fourth franchise to pull off the three-peat. Spoelstra joins Red Auerbach, Riley, and K.C. Jones as the only coaches to lead his team to four straight Finals, and if he wins, he would be only the third coach to pull that off along with Jackson and Auerbach. James’ legacy already speaks for itself, but three Finals MVPs would be the feather in a cap that only Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan wear.

Gregg Popovich has coached in the NBA Finals five previous times. This will be the first time that the Spurs have gone to the Finals in consecutive years, hoping to avenge last year's historic loss.
Gregg Popovich has coached in the NBA Finals five previous times. This will be the first time that the Spurs have gone to the Finals in consecutive years, hoping to avenge last year’s historic loss.

Duncan may be seeing a lot of red jerseys as he patrols the paint on his home court in San Antonio starting tonight in Game 1 on ABC, but the usually stoic power forward is already seeing red in the figurative sense. After missing a shot that he has made a million times and punching the floor in anger as he ran back in the waning moments of Game 7 last year, Duncan was particularly focused on exacting revenge on Miami to right what has to feel like his greatest wrong as a basketball player. Duncan never talks trash, even in the privacy of the locker room, but when Duncan told TNT’s David Aldridge after eliminating the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals on Saturday, “We will do it this time,” you could almost hear the fists pumping on the River Walk. Popovich is not one for the “rah rah” sort of motivational speaking, but even the curtly secretive head coach admitted to the media that they talked often about the heartbreak in South Beach last season and how much it would mean to avenge that empty feeling. The only potential pitfall for the Spurs, and all of its fans, is this: What if, like the Bulls did to the Jazz, the Heat simply win again?

Last year for my Finals preview, I wrote about how the Heat and Spurs were not at the finish line of their respective runs yet, but you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Spurs, as they almost always do in their organizational ways, have done a good job of proving me and many soothsayers wrong. We have all prematurely claimed multiple times that the Spurs’ number is up, but the only thing going up these days is the number of wins. This season, the Spurs won 62 games and went on a team-record 19-game winning streak. After a fun seven-game series in the first round against division rival Dallas, the Spurs made mincemeat out of the Blazers before a six-game series win over regular season MVP Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Popovich’s Spurs may have had a Godzilla of their own a decade ago in Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, but this may truly be the Moby Dick to San Antonio’s Captain Ahab. No team had beaten the Spurs in the Finals before the Heat did, and only Derek Fisher’s game winner with 0.4 left in 2004 has put the Spurs in a catatonic state the way those last two games in Miami did. In many ways, it will not only be the Spurs facing off against the Heat but the classic tale of robotic precision staring at the vulnerability within.

In the case of the Heat, despite the up-in-the-air nature of expiring contracts and opt-out rumors up and down the team’s roster, projecting the demise of this dynasty is not as easy to track as we once thought. The state of the franchise relies so heavily on LeBron’s decision to opt out that if he simply stays another year, then Heat fans can get ready for another title run in 2015. Learning from his mistakes in Cleveland, James has smartly kept his future dealings on the hush hush and kept the postseason focus on the court instead of behind closed doors. But to paraphrase what Bruce Banner said in “The Avengers,” a super team can quickly turn into a time bomb if things do not fall into place just right.

It is difficult to simply predict the end of the road for Miami after their Finals against the Spurs is over, win or lose. But just as it is with any team on the top of mountain, you never know when the slip-up, and steep fall thereafter, will occur. Will the Spurs, a basketball machine more ready than ever to prove the critics wrong, be the ones that push the Heat off that perch? Or are they both going down together? The Heat and Spurs are meeting at the top of the mountain once again for NBA supremacy, and they may both go down in a blaze of glory, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. When you are a champion, be it three times in a row or right before the fall, glory is the only way.