Never Underestimate the Heart of the Better Team


If you break down a long list of the intangibles from yesterday’s Game 7 match-ups, you’d find that a shocking number of them fall to the losers.  Team chemistry, defensive cohesion, solid leadership, and resiliency are Rockets’ staples.  Toughness, confidence, and the championship pedigree belong to the Celtics.  But what we saw yesterday, and what Moore was lamenting pre-game, is the tired tradition of superior talent winning out over all else.

I’m not so sure this is a case of the evils of circumstance winning out over the inherent good of hard work/blue collar-ness.  If anything, painting the Rockets as the do-gooders in that equation essentially paints the Celtics in the same light, which just seems unsettling.  Both teams overcame serious roster limitations due to injury, with Yao and Garnett’s fall providing for the rise of Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis as players of import.  And, considering those circumstances, both faced undoubtedly more talented squads.  The Magic are a better team than the Celtics sans KG, just like the Lakers are better than a Rockets’ team decimated by injury.  If the Celtics are holding on to their ‘villain’ tag against the Magic, then the idea of superior talent’s triumph over the lovable underdog is hardly a moral endeavor.

We hate teams like the Lakers and Celtics for their privilege, but do we really despise them because of their track record or their providence?  Other dynasties and quasi-dynasties are demonized despite not sharing in L.A. or Boston’s extensive history, and somehow the rise of those teams is treated as superior managing and scouting rather than falling into greatness.  But isn’t a quality trade, a quality signing, or a quality draft all that we really ask of our general managers?  Nevermind the cronyism, or Danny Ainge fumbling Mr. Magoo style into a franchise-changing deal; the job of a GM is to find those moves and make those moves.  Say what you want about Kup and Ainge, but they did their jobs, even if they’ve failed to do so in the past.  Since when is it such a bad thing to fall into a run of good luck?  (The answer, of course, is when you’re part of one of the two most storied franchises in NBA history, but pipe down.  I’ll be rhetorical when I wanna be rhetorical.)

Interestingly enough, the Cavs may be the best team in the league, and achieved that status in large part by engaging in the league’s most insidious maneuver: tanking (…”allegedly”).  But LeBron’s brilliance, Ferry’s moves to surround him with an ample supporting cast for the system, and Mike Brown’s installation of an elite defensive system have suddenly turned the league’s cardinal sin into a blessing.  Because the Cavs play in Ohio and not on a coast, their success is a product of good midwestern hard work and values rather than underhandedness in the darkest of the league’s shadows.

All that really separates the Garnett and Gasol trades from, say, Ferry’s acquisition of Mo Williams for pennies on the dollar, is that the aforementioned blockbusters were universally accepted as game-changers.  Mo Williams was essentially a suped up Delonte West, but he’s undoubtedly helped move the team into a new era of offensive dominance.  Does this machine work without Mo?  Maybe.  But it definitely doesn’t roll without him.  Who knows the exact circumstances that allowed for Mo to be swept out from ‘Waukee, but I have my doubts that Luke Ridnour, Adrian Griffin, and Damon Jones were a more attractive package than the returns of Marc Gasol and cap space.  If we’re doling out blame for GMs that seemingly creating something from nothing, the Cavs certainly deserve their place among the Celts and Lakers.

The Cavs do manage to separate themselves with their play.  They’re visably hungrier than either L.A. or Boston, and that makes them endearing.  LeBron James is a rock star and basketball deity rolled into one, which is another way of saying that he’s awesome.  LeBron’s glorification may be the central reason why we don’t yet see the Cavs as juggernauts to be despised.  He isn’t nearly as hated as Kobe or as haughty as the Boston armada.  As far as the cast of characters goes, there are irritants but no real lightning rods.  Argue away that Cleveland’s style or dominance make them boring, but there’s plenty to get behind with this Cavaliers team, even if the journey to that destination is more tainted than we’d like to admit.  The road to King James’ throne is paved with good intentions…and the corpses of those who dare stand in his wake.

Like it or not, Cleveland is combining the talent of the powerhouses with the determination and heart of the underdogs.  That puts them as a hands-down favorite to take down the Magic in the conference finals.  After all, what conceivable edge would Orlando have?  They have a big man that isn’t really a dominant offensive threat and an arsenal of shooters, but the Cavs boast a defense that can slow down the most potent and diverse of offenses, and enough firepower to have their cake, eat it, and go back for seconds.  Buncha gluttons, if you ask me.  That’s why they’ll beat the Magic: they’re the better team.  The fact that they’re hungry only defines how they’ll win, but doubting Cleveland’s ability to win this series seems pretty ill advised based on the disparity in talent and execution.

I feel the same way about Lakers-Nuggets.  The Lakers are a better team than the Nuggets and they’re more talented, and though Denver’s current tear would indicate that they’re capable of beating L.A., it’s not going to happen.  The Nuggets can beat the Lakers, but they won’t.  Because as Moore pointed out, pro sports aren’t always here to teach us worthwhile lessons.  Unless, of course, the lesson learned is that sometimes there are intrinsic factors at work that will always screw over your hard work, no matter how much adversity you overcome.  No matter how far you come in life, there will always be a Lakers waiting in the wings to strike you down with their complete superiority, even if they couldn’t care less.  Last year’s Lakers may have suffered from hubris, but this team is simply overconfident; no less a flaw, but hardly ending in tragedy.  That won’t stop them from strutting their way to the trophy, regardless of whichever good guys or bad guys stand in their way.

Seth Carstens