I hated the cramp game.
This article (blarticle?) is going to be fun in a bit. Promise. The entire thing won’t be an Abe Simpson-penned letter to the president complaining about the over-abundance of states nowadays. But I hated the cramp game. I hated the game itself and all of the things tangentially related to it. It represented a new low in how we interact with sports in the social media age – most notably Twitter, a medium that seems to attract the lowest common denominator of sports fan. I’m talking about the daily ESPN commenter who dismisses coverage of the emergence of openly gay athletes and conversations about the moral fiber of the Washington football team’s nickname as wastes of the media’s time, while simultaneously championing memes centered around a dude not being able to move. Twitter, the Mastermold to comments sections’ Sentinels, has become maddeningly successful in projecting a consensual national perception that, while hopefully illusionary, has become increasingly inhabited by this type of sports fan. They’re like the hyenas from The Lion King, cackling madly at the misfortune of others while failing to realize that if they just walked about a hundred yards, they’d find a transcendent, sun-soaked safari land that stretches on for thousands of miles, where Elton John music plays all the fucking time.
I’ve always been too dour to consider myself a hyena, so I’ve settled for the role of sports fan. As a sports fan, the cramp game sucked. Because when a freak power outage removed LeBron James from a potentially epic two-point game with over half a quarter remaining, I, having watched basketball before, and thus having seen what happens to Miami on both sides of the ball when their best player is off the court, all but knew it was over. And that sucks, because while you can’t discredit San Antonio for the stretch they went on to end Game 1 (if you caught Game 3, you know they have a tendency to do that), we’ll never know if we were robbed of a great ending. Plus, these Finals games start really late, so when games end as abruptly as this one did, you’re left with nothing else to do the rest of the night except look at stuff like this:
So sure, I was rooting for LeBron James to come back Simba-style and establish the natural order of things in Game 2. When he took the court in San Antonio and did just that, it should have come to the surprise of no one. Because even though outlets like Twitter have reduced our collective long-term memories to that of goldfish, those of us who watch basketball know that when the country reacts to a LeBron James loss like this, he comes out and does this.
But at some point in Game 2, I realized that it was something more than that. I wasn’t just rooting for LeBron to score 50 so I could continue to pretend to act like I knew more about the game than the average person (though that was part of it) – I was rooting for Miami as a whole to prevail, not just in this game, but in the series. I was tilting my head on Danny Green three-pointers to force them to swerve right. I was slowly gaining an appreciation for Rashard Lewis as a legitimate scoring option. I was not praying for Tony Parker to be seriously hurt, which would serve only to dilute the legitimacy of the series even further. I was, however, praying for Dwyane Wade to not dribble the ball for more than five seconds or, even worse, give it up to Mario Chalmers for an open corner three.
What was wrong with me? I was in the same bars with everyone else in 2011, going nuts as the Mavericks pulled off the seemingly-at-the-time impossible. I guess that’s still how most of the country watches these games. Not me, or at least not anymore. Here are the five reasons I could come up with as to why this change had taken place:
1. Miami Is The Underdog
What happened to the days where America used to root for the underdog?
The perception that Miami should never, in any circumstance, lose a playoff series centers around the now-ancient concept that three of Miami’s players are of the top 15 or 20 best players the NBA has to offer. In reality, the “Big Three” now consists of the best player in the league, a fading star who probably rests just outside the top 20 at this point, and a talented athlete who has settled into very specific role, one with a skill-set not typically associated with traditional stardom.
First of many mini-tangents: Yeah, I see the rumors that Miami wants to add Carmelo to create a “Big 4” that have emerged in the last 24 hours (right after I started writing this.) That would be a colossal disappointment and, I think, a mistake, for reasons I won’t get into here. But see my far better rebuilding plan for Miami at my next tangent.
You can argue that the team with the best player should always be considered the favorite, and I’d agree to an extent only because history has typically demonstrated this (the only outliers of this century being the ’04 Pistons, ’08 Celtics, and ’11 Mavericks, all exceptionally coached and deep teams, not unlike this year’s Spurs). But you can’t add “he was also part of the Big Three” to your argument in 2014 and expect it to add any validation. Put it this way: If you were asked to assemble your own Big Three from any of the players on either team in this series, you’re taking LeBron and some combination of Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker. Leonard is a more dynamic 2-way player at this stage. Parker is a wild-card who can dictate the pace of the game better than anyone in the series other than James, and he’s been quietly really good in the Finals for the second year in a row. And with all respect to Bosh, who I’ll lavish with praise later, I’m having trouble imagining a world where you take him over Tim Duncan in any series.
It was nearly consensus that San Antonio was the more complete last year, even when our memories of the 26-game winning streak, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier might say otherwise. It still took Miami a literal miracle to win that series, only the second time I’ve actively yelled at my TV because I couldn’t comprehend what had taken place. (This is the other time. NY Giants fans, you don’t want to click on that.) Hell, thinking back to two months ago, Miami somehow weren’t even unanimous or even overwhelming favorites to make it to the Finals, despite the East being the worst conference since the game of basketball consisted to two teams trying to throw rocks in cherry buckets and one of the teams had polio.
2. Two of Miami’s Big Three Are Undeniably Likeable
I’ll concede one thing – being a die-hard fan of the team that literally re-defined the meaning of tanking in the NBA this year has certainly helped me view the game through an unbiased lens. The Sixers haven’t been a realistic threat to win anything substantial since the actual meeting of David Vs. Goliath back in 2001. So yeah, I can get why you’d harbor some animosity towards LeBron if you live in Boston. Or New York. Or Orlando. Or Oklahoma City. I even kind of get why those of you in Cleveland might be upset. The truth that’s too bitter for many people to swallow is that LeBron is simply a really decent human being, like that handsome guy in your office who catches you at his cubicle trying to dig up dirt on him but casually laughs it off. James has never had off-the-court issues, whether criminal or personal, which is becoming alarmingly uncommon to say about our superstar athletes. Sure, we all agree that The Decision was dumb, but lest we forget it was the most charitable nationally-televised mistake of all-time, raising over $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. In general, LeBron is commonly regarded as one of the more charitable athletes on the planet, joining the ranks of questionable sports celebrities like Tiger Woods and loveable goofs like Eli Manning (for more on loveable goofs, skip ahead three paragraphs.)
What makes me so dubious of the hate-culture surrounding LeBron is that he’s simply so much more fun to watch play the game than anyone else. Sure, Tim Duncan is revered, but when was the last time you heard anyone say, “man, I can’t wait to see what Tim Duncan does tonight.”? In my 15 years of watching basketball, I’ve never seen a guy who makes passing the basketball so enthralling. Not even Steve Nash. Not even Cliff Paul’s brother. LeBron recognizes one of his teammates is open before the vast majority of the viewing public does, and we have access to a birds-eye view of the entire court on high-definition televisions. Take a moment to think about how insane that is. That’s like if your legally blind friend consistently beat you at Eye-Spy with his contacts out. LeBron finds people faster than a Google search. He sees Windows at Apple’s headquarters. He discovered holes in the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! He creates isolation better than Ian Curtis did! He dishes faster than a single mom getting off her shift at the Red Robin!
If you’re still with me at this point, what I’m saying is he’s fun to watch. Offensively, he doesn’t always catch fire the way Durant or Carmelo do, or the way Jordan and Kobe used to, but as he reminded us in Game 2, he’s still capable of it in big moments. Remember that one time when he scored a million points in a row against the Pistons? The media has over-played him more than a Katy Perry song, and maybe that’s part of the reason more people can’t appreciate him, and that’s a shame. We’re watching the prime of a really distinct, once-in-a-lifetime player. But more importantly, he’s an avid Boardwalk Empire fan, one of those tiny details that will always get you a life pass from me.
If you’ve skipped down from Eli Manning to read about another loveable goof, surprise, it’s Chris Bosh. As detailed in this great ESPN piece from earlier this week, Bosh is apparently prehistoric in ways that aren’t just physical. He still reads books. He teaches himself HTML. He knows languages that ain’t even English. But I’m more impressed with what Bosh has been able to do on the court in both recent months and years. He’s the only player where I can think of where he willingly sacrificed parts of his game for the betterment of his team, and in doing so, legitimately became a more complete basketball player. In some ways, Bosh’s newfound small-ball mentality, which focuses on floor spacing, perimeter shooting, and top-of-the-arch rotational passing, made Bosh more of a one-dimensional player. It also opened up his entire team’s offense in a way that made it immensely more versatile. Very, very few players in this league would give up big numbers to make their teams better, and Bosh has done it in a way that has made himself better, even if most of the country is failing to take note of that. If it sounds like I was shitting on him when I excluded him from potential Big Three combinations – and we know poor Bosh has had enough of feeling excluded – I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that he’s purposefully transformed himself from a raptor into a chameleon, blending in with his team’s system to achieve the highest level of efficiency.
Bosh has already stated that he’d be willing to take less money in the coming years if it means keeping the Heat’s foundation together, the true sign of a good teammate with an eye on the big picture. Then there’s the Heat star who has already made it publicly known that he doesn’t quite care what direction the team goes in, as long as he sees those nine-digit paychecks – he of the spell-check-busting first name (seriously, what is going on there?) – Dwyane Wade. D.W. Yane, who stole my pen-name, has built a tragic persona for himself since the arrival of James and Bosh, a fictitious hero image derived from sacrificing his money and alpha-dog status so that he can rest his deteriorating body for large chunks of the regular season and continue to collect rings. This isn’t to say that Wade wasn’t an integral part of the Heat’s last two championships – but for the first time, his inefficiency on the court is finally starting to catch up with his arrogance off of it.
In a series that, through three games, is shaping up to be one of the most efficient collection of games in NBA history, a series that consists almost exclusively of high-PER guys – James, Bosh, Birdman, Duncan, Leonard, Ginobli, Danny freakin Green, Tiago fucking Splitter! – Wade has stuck out like the lone black-out drunk girl at a bridal shower. (Mario Chalmers was also invited, but passed out at home before the taxi even arrived.) No, Wade hasn’t been Superdependent Chalmers levels of bad, but he’s been the most frustrating to watch on a consistent basis. He dribbles the ball way too long, which has often resulted in turnovers and easy fast breaks for San Antonio. He passes up open players to penetrate to the hoop, only to settle for more difficult passes to less-open players. He insists on taking five or six outside shots a game when metrics insist he should just never, ever take an outside shot (the worst part of that is that LeBron and Bosh are two of the only players in the game capable of explaining this to him, yet four years later, he still intimidates them.)
Mini-tangent: The best course of action for Pat Riley moving forward would be the ruthless approach. Overtly loyal franchises who reward players for past accomplishments – the current Lakers, my poor, beloved Phillies (we’re the best team of ’08, damn it! No, literally… it’s the same roster we had in ’08!)– wind up floundering for years at the cost of choosing the heart over the head. Miami’s entire roster is essentially in some form of free agency this summer. They need to cut ties with Wade and build around a still-improving Bosh and a, yes, still-improving LeBron. Give James the max contract he’s deserved for eight years, pay Bosh something in the range of 5 years for 40 million and the promise of a new robot every Christmas, and rebuild your aging bench with young, inexpensive, intelligent shooters who can space the floor – upcoming free agents like, I dunno, Jordan Hamilton? Jodie Meeks? JIMMER??? To cap it off, make an appealing offer with the money you were going to give Wade to a much-younger D Wade clone, one with a gift for creating around the rim and taking on a large leadership role, someone like, oh I don’t know, ARCH RIVAL LANCE STEPHENSON??? I know a lot of this is contingent on the current players, Udonis Haslem included, opting out of their contracts this summer. What I’m saying is, opt out Dwyane!!!
But my Wade qualms aside, the Heat still have a slew of lively personalities in LeBron, Bosh, Birdman, Ray Allen, the hulking beast that is occasionally seen roaming their bench, and Norris Cole’s flat-top. In contrast, the San Antonio Spurs head coach is easily – by, like, well over a mile – their most intriguing media figure. And 95% of the time, he looks like this:
3. It’s Never To Early To Start Thinking About Next Year
Here are the two possible outcomes of this series, and the most-likely off-season scenarios they lead to:
Outcome 1: Spurs Win, Spurs Win!
We pretend to be happy for this rag-tag team of Hall of Famers who just captured their fourth title in the last 11 years because they play the game right, damn it. Popovich and Duncan call it quits, going out together on a flying carpet made from strands of their own greatness. Ginobli shows off his impressive lip-synching skills on Jimmy Fallon. Matt Bonner meets a nice lady and settles down at last. Finally, Popovich hands down the Secret Tome of the Spurs to the Chosen One, Kawhi Leonard. “It’s yours now, son,” Popovich whispers as he sets sail on that ship from the end of Return of the King. Meanwhile, Miami disbands, with LeBron leaving for a team where he can somehow be even more disliked (Lakers callin!), Wade leaving in a huff after Miami’s actually-generous offer disrespects him, and Bosh turning around to ask where everyone went. The two best teams of the last decade are suddenly no more.
Outcome 2: Heat Win, Heat Win…
To the majority of the country’s chagrin, Miami has captured its third title in a row. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh confer and agree they have to go for the 4-peat, of course. For LeBron, it would mark one of the few feats Michael Jordan could never boast. For Wade, it would tie him with Kobe for total rings, and pass him for total rings won without Shaq. For Bosh, it would keep his friends around a little longer.
Meanwhile, Popovich and Duncan are compelled by a fire demon that only they can see to come back for one more go at ring 5. Duncan, increasingly unbalanced and approaching levels of actual insanity, is at the center of a homicide rumor during the off-season that is quickly, perhaps suspiciously quickly, squashed. A key member of the team, either Parker or Ginobli, departs, prompting Pop to go on a viral tirade denying that they were ever on his team, which quickly becomes the top Youtube video of the year. Danny Green fears for what will happen to his family if he doesn’t knock down 80 percent of his three-pointers next season. Bonner flees the country before Pop can find him. When the second rematch arrives between Miami and San Antonio one year from now, Duncan is literally screaming and bleeding throughout the entire 48 minutes of all 7 games, and the first three chairs to either side of Pop are kept taped off for precautionary measures. He dies in the immediate aftermath of Game 7 while staring at Craig Sager, win or lose.
Here’s where I force you to concede: even if you hate Miami, wouldn’t you still rather see outcome 2?? (Minus Pop kicking it, of course.)
4. Erik Spoelstra is Basically James McAvoy and Pop is Patrick Stewart in the New X-Men Movie, So Spoelstra Needs to Become Who He Is Now Or He Will Never Become Popovich and Lead The Spurs To Their Fifth Ring Over His Former Self Anyway
I think this one is self-explanatory.
Mini-tangent: I think Erik Spoelstra is a legitimately great coach, regardless of whether or not I can’t look at him without thinking of Rico from Six Feet Under. He’s generally underrated in terms of how he kept his team together through 2011 while crafting an offense that caters to each players’ strengths. On a team with so many personalities, that’s easier said than done. But my favorite thing about him is his seemingly-randomized yet somehow effective line-up and bench management. I like to think that he huddles over several astronomy charts in order to determine whether Lewis, Battier, Jones, or Haslem is going to see playing time any given night.
5. The Birdman Factor
Look, I’m by no means a bandwagon Heat fan. It’s hard enough narrowing my support of Miami to five legitimate reasons as it is. Let’s just end this by re-iterating the personality argument. Come on. Look at me with a straight face. I respect Parker and Duncan and Ginobli and Leonard as much as the next pee-wee hoops coach. Hell, I’m doing everything I can to get my first child named after Tiago Splitter. But unless you’re reading this from San Antonio, are you really going to tell me you’re going to be happy for the Spurs if they win this series? Like, deep down, in your heart of hearts, you’re going to feel a measurable and lasting warmth? You’re going to experience actual, Wikipedia-defined happiness? Wouldn’t you rather just see this guy – who literally has more personality on one arm than the entirety of the Spurs roster combined – celebrating in South Beach for the second year in a row?
And for the record, yes, Miami will win tonight. That’s just what they do. No one, not even those among us gifted with the prophetic powers of the Ancient Ones, can say at this point who will take the series. But I’m glad to finally be pulling for someone.