LeBron James has perhaps a surprising take on the Miami Heat: To him, they're not the most talented bunch.
Yes, he was serious.
In James' eyes, much of Miami's success hasn't been primarily about talent, but more about execution and know-how — especially so in the closing moments of games, the stretch that the Heat have long called "winning time." Fourth quarters have been a strength lately for the Heat, something they hope is the case again on Saturday when their Eastern Conference title series against the Indiana Pacers resumes in Miami.
"We're talented, but we're not that talented," James said. "We have a really, really good team. We have some very talented guys. We're not the most talented team, I don't think, in the NBA. There's a lot of other talented teams. We have some very, very high-IQ basketball players. And I think IQ is more important than talent."
James wouldn't say which teams he thinks are more talented.
But there's no arguing which team has been the best in the last two seasons — and the way the Heat close games are a big reason why that's the case.
They've called it "winning time."
It's not a new thing for Miami, either.
There was the 28-15 fourth quarter that blew open a tied Game 7 against Boston in the 2012 East finals, the rally from eight down entering the fourth to oust Chicago in last season's second round, the 30-19 run in the fourth to eliminate Brooklyn in this year's second round — and of course, the season-saving comeback that included Ray Allen's unforgettable 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation against San Antonio in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals.
"I think everybody becomes more focused," Allen said.
Miami evened up these East finals at a game apiece with a strong finishing kick during Game 2 in Indianapolis, when the Heat were essentially carried by James and Dwyane Wade on the way to outscoring the Pacers 25-20 in what became a four-point win. Indiana had been 54-3 this season when leading after three quarters.
"When we follow and pay attention to what a team has been doing in the first three quarters, by the time we get to that fourth-quarter situation, when one of us creates a trigger somebody is going to have a good look at a shot and typically it's going to be a shot that's pretty much in one of our wheelhouses," Allen said. "You just do your job at that point in the game."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra preaches daily about the importance of habits, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the final 12 minutes of games. Over their last seven games, Miami has been outscored by 19 points in the first through third quarters — but outscored its opponents by a combined 39 points in the fourth quarters during that span.
Winning time, indeed.
"We're just confident that if we stay in the game and we stay with it mentally, that we'll eventually have that breakthrough," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "We say that a lot. We definitely throw that out there. Most importantly, we remind each other to mentally stay with it, through the ups, through the downs. People don't give us a lot of credit because they think it's all talent, but we're a very mentally strong group of guys."
Some of the stats in fourth quarters of these playoffs are eyepopping.
James is averaging 7.3 points in the closing period, the best rate of anyone still in the playoffs. Wade is shooting 59 percent in the final 12 minutes, 8 percent better than his clip in the opening three quarters of playoff games. The Heat are shooting an NBA-best 47 percent from 3-point range in those final quarters, and Miami is getting nearly two assists for every turnover committed in that crucial time.
"All of our habits that we've built over the years of playing together, year in and year out, I like to feel like those habits come into play when you get tired, when you've seen everything that everyone has to throw at you all game," Wade said. "Now it's about, 'How can you execute when you're tired? How is your will to win the ball game?' And I think more times than not we feel we have a good chance to win those games."