The apex of my childhood sports fandom was the 1996 major league baseball season that saw the New York Yankees end an 18-year championship drought. That team played more nauseatingly close games than my pre-adolescent, lightweight stomach could handle, but I always knew if my beloved Bronx Bombers made is past the seventh inning with a lead all was well.
Mariano Rivera pitched the eighth.
John Wetteland handled the ninth.
I donâ€™t have the time, nor the energy to go game-by-game to exact the data, but I can say with absolute certainty that the Yankees played an inordinate number of close games that season, but if they led with six outs or fewer to go, that demonic bullpen duo shut the door with all the aplomb of an assassin.
Now, 15 years later in the wake of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I am reminded of that devastatingly potent late game pair after watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade finish off the Dallas Mavericks.
The production of Miamiâ€™s bench and Dallasâ€™ inability to hit open shots (or the Heat willing them to miss) unquestionably played significant roles in the final outcome, but nothing trumps the competition like a deadly closer. Wade and LeBron were responsible for scoring or creating 14 of the Heatâ€™s final 20 points in the last seven minutes of regulation, at once operating in unison and trading haymakers with devastating resolve. This game serves as the quintessential example of why Miami can not only win this series, but win a handful of NBA championships in the future â€“ if they keep it close watch out.
Some have claimed the Heat offense has underwhelmed in the postseason. Maybe theyâ€™re right, but does it matter anymore? It certainly used to when the Fighting Spoelstraâ€™s were searching for a harmonious existence and an identity amidst a season-long media firestorm. Now on the gameâ€™s biggest stage, the ends justify the means. During a televised timeout last night the head coach calmly told his bench to grind it out, buckle down and grind it out. Six months ago the thought of a team built around two of the most transcendent athletes of their generation grinding it out just didnâ€™t seem a likely reality. We knew of Wadeâ€™s and Jamesâ€™ prodigious ability to get to the line, but certainly with both on the floor forming perhaps the most devastating open court duo in history, Miami would run teams out of the arena.
But having finally put it all together, the reality is the Heat attack doesnâ€™t need to be perfect â€“ far from it. Entering Game 1, Miami was a paltry 3-27 when shooting less than 40% from the floor. Theyâ€™re now 4-27 because when push comes to shove you simply canâ€™t contain both stars down the stretch. Itâ€™s akin to a now Methuselah-like Rivera remaining a dominant closer throwing one pitch that tops out at 90 miles per hour. Every hitter and every fan knows the cut fastball is coming each and every time, but it doesnâ€™t matter. As long as New York gives him a lead, no matter how slim, more often than not heâ€™s going to get the job done.
Miamiâ€™s offense was far from great last night, but they kept it close until the critical juncture when they could go to their bullpen. Itâ€™d be easy to analyze and break down each critical possession in the closing minutes, but the simple fact is two of the best players in the world are wearing the same jersey and you canâ€™t double-team both. There are dynamic flashes as the end unfolds, James’ buzzer beater to end the third. His usual barrage of confidence shattering dunks, Wade’s geometric bending forays to the rim. Taken in the context of the finished product though, its a steady diet of the same pitch, the same attack, the same result. It’s mind numbing in its effectiveness.
Somewhere in South Beach is a 10-year-old kid who will grow up looking back fondly on the days when he could watch his beloved Heat play, knowing if it was at least close in the 4th quarter, he stood a good chance to see a win.