Home > Essays > Essay: Can This Be The Best Finals Ever?

Essay: Can This Be The Best Finals Ever?

Each year in the NBA, roughly 2,542* basketball games are played before the Finals arrive. For the most part these games are forgotten—not too many people are able to recount where they were in 2004 when Utah defeated Los Angeles 115-107, snapping their nine game losing streak. The fabric of each season consists of such inconsequential hardwood squabbles, but much like a 128 minute movie that’s more remembered for its special ending, the mental imprint that’s carved in our heads for each season is defined by whatever occurs in the final series.

In 2011 the league created an unusually high amount of unforgettable moments. If this season were a 400 meter race, “The Decision” served as both the weeks of preparation leading up to the meet and the starter’s gun. From then on we had a rookie dunking over a Kia at All-Star Weekend, the Miami Heat’s transcendent roster construction and ongoing soap opera, a 22-year-old MVP, the geographical shift of basketball power from West to East, and a trade deadline that, thanks to Carmelo’s hostage takeover of Denver and Utah’s fear of following in the Nuggets footsteps, made us question just who exactly is running the league. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. (For example, we also watched Zach Randolph murder Tim Duncan on national television.)

From March on, this year promised to be different from all others in that it didn’t matter who won the title, we’d remember this season for all the quirky happenings it produced; straight to a time capsule of strangeness it would lay buried in our minds. No need for a great NBA Finals this year; thanks to all that went on in the previous 10 months, people would be watching anyway! Then Dallas and Miami, in the least predictable season of my lifetime, came along, ready to serve us with, in the words of SI scribe Ian Thomsen, a push and pull seven game struggle. The shit had hit the fan.

Through the championship series’ first four games, Dallas and Miami have proven two things: 1) They’re clearly the two best teams in basketball (a combined 24-6 playoff record heading into the finals irrefutably proves it), and 2) nobody on Earth knows who’s the better team. The way things have played out, with each game swinging on a basket or two and so many historical, legacy linked variables hanging in the balance, it’d only make sense that through four games, The Season Of Stupefaction’s Finals would outdo every other series I can remember watching. It would have the power to make viewers feel like they were watching the type of basketball that had the power to make you, in the distant future, reminisce. Finally, the crazy NBA world was beginning to make rightful sense.

The way each basket—no matter the quarter or situation, whether it’s by athletic beauty or gift wrapped by a whistle—matters and each point is valued, this series is epitomizing why more people are tuning into watch the NBA now than ever before. Using a few plays from Game 4 alone, it’s clear this series is as mystical as it is brilliant. J.J. Barea’s don’t-try-this-at-home layup attempts, Jason Terry stopping the bleeding by shot-putting a basketball from the baseline as the shot clock expires, Dwyane Wade exerting all possible energy carrying his team on offense and then turning into Mount Mutombo. All are remarkable, and all won’t be forgotten or, most likely, ever repeated. Barea’s been hitting layups like that one all season, Terry’s hit awkward buzzer beaters, and Wade isn’t the best defensive two guard in the game for nothing, but for them to perform at their respective apexes in the single biggest game of the greatest season represents a tiny sliver as to how great this series is, historically speaking.

Recently, ESPN’s John Hollinger chose to rank the 100 greatest playoff series in NBA history. Coming in at number one was the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals between Philly and Boston: A seven game war for the ages that sprung Larry Bird into authentic legitimacy as a superstar. Games 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 were all decided by two points or fewer, with Boston coming out on top in three of them. In these finals, the last three games have been decided by three points or fewer. All coming down to the final possession, all entrancing in their excitement. Game 2 featured one of the greatest comebacks in Finals history, Game 4 featured an eight point effort by LeBron James that, if Miami loses, he may never recover from (I’m prone to exaggerating, but I really mean that last statement). These finals have promise to be better than Hollinger’s number one for some of the same reasons he placed that Eastern Conference Finals in the top spot. It has both contemporary and historical importance, it’s incredibly exciting, and the play is sophisticated with nuanced strategic wrinkles being thrown into the fold from game to game. What makes this better, besides the fact that it’s for a title and not the opportunity to play for one, is the fact that the players today are more aesthetically pleasing.

Let’s dive a little deeper into what’s exactly at stake for everyone involved. The Heat, the Mavericks, and more important, the rest of the league.

If you take a pot filled with water and place it on a stove, fill it with high intensity, relentless physicality, fearlessness, and a pinch of arrogance, let it sit for approximately 40 minutes, then strain it in your sink, Dwyane Wade would appear. In Game 1 he had 22 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists; Game 2 was 36, five, six, three steals, and two blocks; in Game 3 he had 29 and 11 boards (one less than LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Joel Anthony combined); Game 4 was both inspired and intriguing as he dominated the entire game with a ridiculous 32 points on 65 percent shooting. During the broadcast Mark Jackson made the claim that Wade would end up behind Jordan and Kobe as the third greatest shooting guard in league history. I’ve been thinking it over, and based on the way he’s stepped up to face the game’s largest stage why can’t it be true? If the Heat are crowned champions in a week it’ll be his second ring and, odds are, second Finals MVP award, all with the meter running. When matched up with Bryant and MJ, Wade hasn’t made as many All-Defensive teams, but those who watched basketball this season know he deserved a first team placement over Kobe. (Even if we fairly give Wade this year’s nod, he’d still trail Bryant 8-1 on All-Defensive first team nods.) If we’re summing up entire careers it’s difficult to predict when and where Wade’s will end. Where his numbers will be compared to, say, Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. But if we’re talking peak performance, the absolute pinnacle of ability? These finals are proving Dwyane Wade is the third best shooting guard who ever lived.

While LeBron is the one who’s most often compared to Jordan, Wade seems to be more similar when it comes to mental makeup. Wade’s the hyper intense, insanely focused guard. He’s the one who couldn’t care less if you like him or not. Wade doesn’t want to be your friend, and he’s grabbing offensive rebounds like he’s a power forward, refusing denial. Dwyane’s not only placed his team on his back in these finals, he’s his franchise’s catalyst, and there aren’t many players who’ve done that on both ends of the floor in multiple NBA Finals. (Jordan and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kobe are the only two who come to mind.).

After every positive play that doesn’t require him to run back on defense (which is a lot considering how often he initiates a whistle) Wade preens around the court’s perimeter as if he’s being taken on a tour of the arena. He does it at home, he does it away, he does it in big games, he does it in November against the Bobcats. He’s letting everyone know that he’s not here to make pleasantries and sniff pretty flowers, he’s Khal Drogo leading Dothraki warriors into battle. Unlike LeBron but much like Jordan, Wade enjoys being hated.

But of course, when comparing someone to Michael Jordan, it must be finalized. Michael would swish those two free-throws to tie Game 4, strip Dirk on the other end on a slithery double team, hit the game winner, and put his team up 3-1. For the record, that’s what Michael would’ve done.

Wade’s my favorite member of Miami’s Big 3—which is like saying I’d prefer drinking hotdog water from a sneaker over biting into a live squirrel or guzzling a banana-earthworm smoothie—and watching him perform the way he did in Game 4 made me realize something truly special was going on. But as great as he was, there was something about his effort that smelled of desperation. At nearly 30, Dwyane Wade is older than most people think. He flings his body towards the rim with the mindset of a daredevil at least eight times every game; the recklessness begs us to wonder how much more can the man put himself through? It’s for this reason I don’t buy into a Miami dictatorship over the NBA for the next five or six seasons. I know Wade works out with Tim Grover and is one of the most fit players the league has ever seen, but given the way he plays there’s just no way he can possibly sustain his high level of dominance for the next half-decade. (Wade’s averaged 68 games per regular season in his eight years as a professional basketball player.)

I believe Wade’s a reasonably intelligent person; he knows a serious injury is just one play away, which is why his desire was so evident during Game 4. The scowls he threw at Bosh, for failing to box out Tyson Chandler on a put back slam, and Mario Chalmers, for being Mario Chalmers, were evidence of a man who knows appearances in the Finals aren’t a birthright (a belief LeBron doesn’t seem to subscribe to). Wade plays each possession as if it’s his last. The way he goes about doing business, it very well could be.

Being that they’re teammates and two of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, this sounds like a comparison between Wade and LeBron but it isn’t. During a particular sequence in the fourth quarter of Game 4, James stood dribbling at the top of the key with DeShawn Stevenson a few feet off him. With breathing room to operate and the game now a see-saw battle destined to be decided on the final possession, James passed the ball to Chalmers (who was 10 feet to his left on the wing) and gave a subtle head nod as if to say, “Here. Do something”. Chalmers quickly brought his hands up as if he were saying “Bro, I’m Mario Chalmers”, and immediately passed it back. Now, with the shot clock winding down, the offense stalled, and a reluctant LeBron holding the ball, James quickly whipped a pass to Chris Bosh whose face quickly drew the same expression as Chalmers. The result was a long jumper that clanged off the back iron–one of the 10 shots Bosh misfired on in the three point loss. This play looked relatively meaningless as it played out on live TV, but in the game’s aftermath it served as a canister of gasoline pouring on the ongoing mystery that is the LeBron James big game meltdown.

I still think he’s best basketball player in the world, and, thanks to the Age of Uncomfortable Intrusion he both grew up in and is currently evolving under, also its most compelling athlete. The ferocious put back dunks he seems to throw down at least once a game leave observers in a daze—like, wait a second, you mean to tell me what he just did shares equal value with a Mario Chalmers floater?

His moves aren’t just otherworldly, they seem to come by way of another dimension. It’s why scoring eight points in a game that could have placed Dallas on a faulty respirator is unacceptable. We expect so much more from LeBron than we do any other player for the very reason that he’s the best. It’s Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse. How he internally uses that gift to combat his curse is just one reason why the last few basketball games of the 2011 season are as close to Must See TV as basketball can come.

Touching back on the Heat, and what they mean right now to the league, for a moment, it’s widely perceived that winning a championship this season would mark the beginning of the league’s next dynasty. It would begin a stark shift in the way team’s are constructed and how proper hierarchies are put in place. But if the Heat lose these Finals, I believe they’ll be more likely to win next season’s title than if they beat the Mavericks. They’ll be a full calendar year removed from “The Decision” and publicly promising eight rings. Not completely out of the spotlight, but certainly not placed under the same scrutiny as they saw in the first year. People (the media) will be used to them, and the loss of a regular season game won’t be headlining news. If they win it this year, all that outside interference grows twofold.

Throw in Wade’s questionable health, the unenviable target all defending champions inherit, a slight let up in motivation, the super experienced lingerers (L.A., Boston, and Dallas), and the league’s up and coming next era (OKC, Chicago, and Memphis), and what you have is a landmine loaded beach the Heat will be crawling through.

Moving onto the team most people, myself included, would like to see walk away victorious. The more traditional team that’s built around a singular superstar. A franchise that over the past five years has seen the most brutal tribulation professional sports has to offer. While their stake is more self-important than front-page-of-the-league-memo worthy, much is still at hand. Mark Cuban gets his ring, which means…well I’m not so sure. Maybe he buys a baseball team and lets his impact on the NBA chill out a bit after Dirk retires.

Then there are the group of veterans who’re still playing major, albeit relatively reduced, roles at a championship level. These guys are two wins away from putting a legendary spin on how we look at them long after they’re gone.

Take Jason Kidd, for example. If Dallas wins this championship where does he rank as an all around player—not just point guard—when we look at the best three dimensional talents in league history? Is he in the top 20? Does he crack the top 15? Right now Jason Kidd, to a very small degree, is playing the modern day Dennis Johnson role. The differences are numerous and substantial, but for whatever reason Kidd’s situation reminds me of a player who thrived before I was born. Boston brought Johnson into the fold before the 1984 season in an attempt to add both experience and someone to give Magic Johnson a migraine. He accepted the role, helping the Celtics win two more championships. The Mavericks dealt for Kidd after coming up short in the 2006 Finals and then being upset by Golden State the following year. Three years after that deal was made, Kidd has proved to be that necessary defensive presence in the backcourt. If anyone deserves to add a ring to his resume it’s him.

How about Terry? A 6’2”, 175 pound bench player who talked the talk with two of the best players in league history and stood his ground? The way he attacked LeBron in the latter half of Game 4—after getting called out publicly by Dirk and responding like a true professional—was awesome to watch. It made my mind flash forward 10 years, to a day when Jason Terry Atlanta Hawk jerseys are leading the way in a retro fashion trend.

Then there’s “The Matrix”, a player I went into detail with last week for being the enigma he is. Shawn Marion has been on fumes for about two weeks now, yet in those 25 crucial Game 4 minutes, he did all he could to make LeBron’s life miserable, scoring 16 crucial points on 58 percent shooting.

The final, most important player here is Dirk Nowitzki. With his perfect shot—have you ever seen a penny plop into still water in super slo-motion? That perfect, sequential dance the drops of water do as they soar against gravity before eventually succumbing back to the ripples? In the opening moments of Game 4, this was the net on a Dirk jumper—and ability to make premeditated passes out of a double team, he’s the one who allows all things good to happen. Today Dirk stands alone as the one man who can hold off the menacing threat Miami has brought to the league’s front door. He’s grizzled, battle tested, weathered. Whatever you want to call him, as you read this he’s either the best or second best player in the world.

Most years the days of rest between each Finals game are filled with imaginary subplots attempting to divert the series from its preordained narrative. Except for a few back page callouts that have come across more as candid and honest statements than provocation, this year’s battle for the title feels different. There’s a much needed lacking in off the court drama, and the most interesting aspects are the actual games, exposed and stripped down to their skeletal remains by journalists, fans, and bloggers alike.

Will J.J. Barea’s insertion into the starting lineup make Rick Carlisle look like a genius? Are the Mavs stopping LeBron or is he pulling the plug on himself? Has there been a big name player in Finals history whose statistics trumpet his actual value more than Chris Bosh? How can Miami adjust to that Jason Terry stagger screen Dallas is employing late in ball games? Will “Joel Anthony” successfully replace “Hands for Feet” in describing a person who seriously lacks coordination?

This year more than ever before people are asking questions, pick and roll coverage is being dissected and digested; fans are sitting amongst other fans either in their living rooms or sports bars pointing out Dallas’ zone defense and lauding its timely deploy. These finals have engaged people, allowing the league to capitalize on its most unpredictable season in a decade.

Before this series began it had all the ingredients to be special: Great actors with reputations, legacies, and historical precedence on the line. Thanks to the beyond stellar play we’ve seen through the first four games, it looks like we have something even better: An Instant Classic.

*I arrived at this number by multiplying the number of games in a season (82) by the total teams (30) and then estimating the total number of playoff games by gauging approximately how many games are played in each round (40 in the first, 24 in the Semifinals, and 18 for the Conference Finals and Finals) and adding that to the set regular season amount.

  1. June 13, 2011 at 10:27 am | #1

    A “pinch of arrogance”, more like a tablespoon.

    And is it possible that the only thing more “otherworldly” than Lebron’s moves is his overwhelming stupidity? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONcHXal5VAQ While the crown for the world’s most compelling superstar will always be up for debate, the award for most out of touch will be locked up by the King for years to come.

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