Tonight brings us Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, pitting the 4-time champion San Antonio Spurs against the defending champion Miami Heat. As I sit in front of my keyboard and ponder what it all means - the culmination of a crazysexycool season (TLC reference? Why not?) that boils down into at minimum 48 minutes of action between the two best teams in the NBA, I have fears. I have doubts. I am worried.
I make no token gesture of objectivity; I've pulled for the Spurs ever since the Thunder lost Russell Westbrook and I considered in my mind that San Antonio was the only team left that had a shot at taking down the defending champs (sorry, I didn't see you there Indiana). They have Tim Duncan, a 16 year veteran and 4 time champ, who is looking to put a stamp on his legacy as having gone undefeated in 5 Finals appearances. They have Gregg Popovich, the basketball embodiment of a cross between a drill sergeant, Clint Eastwood, and Mr. Rogers (aside: the late Roger Ebert once wrote, "I would like to grow up to be like Clint Eastwood." Well, when I grow up, I want to be like Gregg Popovich). The Spurs have a host of past, present, and future all-stars who play the game in a beautiful way that I could only reserve for teams like the Celtics and Lakers of the 1980's, featuring Magic and Bird. There is a lot to like/love about this Spurs family.
On the other side of the court, we have the Miami Heat, who amidst the superficial glamour of being a high-flying, high scoring team that can roll off 27 wins in a row while featuring the best basketball player on the planet, we sometimes miss the fact that at their core, their real essence that makes them so dangerous, is that they're a predatory defensive team. They play defense the way we would like our team to play defense, always attacking, challenging shots, destroying spacing, erasing passing lanes, always looking to demoralize opponents. If they can't quite summon the defensive focus as often as say, the 1996 Bulls, is that really such an unforgivable thing? Miami's defense, more than any other thing, will define the length of their legacy.
Above all, both teams are well coached, very smart, understand their strengths, and know how to maximize comparative advantages over the course of 48 minutes to such a parallel degree that a championship can rise and fall with the simple flick of Ray Allen's right wrist.
Why then would I be afraid? Why would I have doubt? For what should I be worried? In the best played finals in perhaps 2 decades, what could possibly derail me from enjoying this Game 7?
It is because I've been spoiled. We all have been. If you're visiting this site as a Thunder fan, or you've witnessed Duncan's career, or LeBron's rise, you are privy to some of the greatest collection of basketball talent and competitiveness the league has ever seen. Yes, you could argue that it has been diluted, but I would argue that the NBA has never been as flush with talent and competitively driven players as it is today. Better yet, the old adage that the championship usually goes to the best team with the best player is going to hold true regardless of who wins tonight - either LeBron and his repeat championship performance, or Tim Duncan and his new thumb jewelry. Something really, really cool is going to happen tonight.
So why am I fearful?
Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote a great post today which once again illuminates us all (and a special shout-out to Mr. Lowe - Bill Simmons got it oh, so right by taking Lowe away from Sports Illustrated and then giving Zach what seems like carte blanche to do whatever he wants. The result has been a solidification that Lowe is the best NBA writer alive right now).
This statement by Lowe is what has made this series so great:
Enjoy Game 7, the end of this great series and this great season. Enjoy the basketball, not the prepackaged narratives being hashed out in the middle of the second quarter. Game 7 is liberating. There is no Game 8, no X's-and-O's questions to ponder in preparation for the next one. This is for everything, and everything matters.
He's right - everything matters. Even in games 2-5, which all resulted in double-digit wins, the determinant events for the outcomes were still relatively small, but once the crack in the dam gave way, the winning team burst through. With the exception of Game 3, I'd argue that none of them were what we might call 'blow-outs' - each was a closely contested affair in its own way heading into the 4th quarter, and then a sequence of events either swung it one way or the other. However, in Game 6, we got the culmination of the phrase 'everything matters,' and Lowe runs down the list of amazing craziness in his post, so make sure to digest all of it. I would also add to it that the reason why everything has mattered is because both teams have treated everything like it does matter. Both the Spurs and the Heat treated an oversized helping of plays, big and small, with the proper level of respect and focus. The Heat could have folded at the end of Game 6 and failed to give Ray Allen a shot at immortality. You know what? The Spurs could have too, after they saw their 10 point 4th quarter lead evaporate. They didn't either, and because neither team did, it set the stage for a remarkable ending.
When everything matters, a sequence of events in the 1st quarter can have every bit as much of an effect on the end as a sequence of events in the 4th.
Why do I have doubts?
I saw the bullet the Heat dodged in Game 6, which will empower them to continue their defensive hunt on the late-game shakiness of the Spurs offense. I also saw how crestfallen the Spurs were, knowing that they had emptied the tanks of their 3 stalwarts, they knew it, and they were not ashamed to let everyone else know it too. I honestly don't know how much the Spurs have left. I have no doubt that their minds are ready, but as one famous guy from history once said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Duncan, Parker, and Manu were out of gas at the end, and I don't know how Coach Pop is going to correct this energy issue in order to make sure that their 4th quarter minutes are more effective than in Game 6. With that Heat defense, ready to pounce and devour whenever the opponent shows a sign of mental fatigue, the end can come abruptly and irrevocably. We saw it in the Eastern Conference Finals as Miami buried the Pacers in the 1st half. We saw it last year when the Heat buried the Thunder in a Game 5, 3rd quarter 3-point fury that sealed the Thunder's fate long before Durant, Westbrook, and (stomach punch) James Harden walked off the court together for the last time.
I have doubts because that could happen again. The table is certainly set for it. These Finals, having given us so much, could end in an inevitable rout that sees Tim Duncan's sun finally set. It could be over long before we want it to, and that makes me nauseous to think about it.
What am I really worried about?
It is not that the Heat might win or that the Spurs might lose. That outcome would make me sad while it might make somebody else happy, but this is the way of sports and those emotions linger for a time but are simply part of the human experience.
Lowe wrote that everything matters, but he was only referring to what happens on the court and in the locker room. The truth is though, that these two amazing teams have made everything matter...to us. Through each team's planning, execution, adjustments, wins, and losses, they have made us, the NBA onlookers, care not just about the game in a macro sense, but in a micro sense as well. They have spoiled us by educating us about how great the game can be when everything matters.
And now, because everything matters to them and everything matters to us, what I want is one more and I'm worried that I might not get it. I want one more game where plays in the 4th quarter are as important as in the 1st. Where each team's trajectory remains intertwined until the final horn goes off. That when the trophy is raised, either by the visiting team or the home team, that Game 7 can stand on its own as the proper denouement.
Can Duncan, LeBron, Parker, Wade, Manu, Bosh, Pop, and Spo give us one more perfect meal to savor as the 2012-13 season recedes forever?
"You askin' too much."
"Yeah. But I'm askin'"