Blame and Basketball: When and Why?

Jack Winter (StS Editor): Blame. It’s an undeniably hot topic this time of year as teams that were presumptive favorites bow out of the postseason earlier than most expected. It abounds in all sports during elimination play as games are thrust to the forefront, get more attention, and mistakes are exponentially magnified. But it’s unique in the NBA compared to other professional leagues, not just due to the nature of basketball but how the public perceives and has access to players and coaches, too. Missed shots, bad turnovers, stagnant sets, blown defensive assignments, player-coach interaction; the naked eye gets to see it all in the NBA, both on the court and postgame podium. The public, then, feels comfortable rebuking individuals for losses of a particular game or series they otherwise couldn’t. We understand basketball more clearly because it’s physically closer to us, most think, when in reality the game’s a series of sonnets whose success depends on not just the player missing the shot or defending the ball, but a series of stanzas players, coaches, and even officials help write.

So assigning blame to the eliminated Spurs and on-the-brink Heat for losing 2-0 Conference Finals leads isn’t nearly as simple as “Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard couldn’t stop Kevin Durant” or “Erik Spoelstra was out-coached by Doc Rivers.” Those things could very well be true, but just saying doesn’t make them so. Countless other factors contribute to each conclusion, and examining them and gleaning knowledge from there is the most prudent way to find fault in the the relative failures of San Antonio and Miami.

Bearing all that in mind, whose to blame for the collapses of the Spurs and Heat? We’ll let Jordan White of Blame It On the Basketball, Shoot Hoops, and Digital Refrain tackle that first.

Jordan White: Like you said, Jack, it’s never as simple as saying one person is to blame for a team’s demise. Sure, you could blame Erik Spoelstra for the Heat’s lack of focus and overall collapse, but that doesn’t take into account Chris Bosh’s absence or the fact that the players, at some level, must also share some of that blame for (seemingly) giving up on their coach. It’d be just as easy to blame LeBron James, since we apparently already blame him for so many other things, for the Heat’s shortcomings, but then we’d be ignoring Dwyane Wade’s up and down play and the consistent inconsistency of the Heat’s bench.

For the Spurs, it’s much more complicated, because there’s really no one to blame. Could you pin it on the referees? Maybe, but the referees didn’t score the Thunder’s 32 points in that decisive third quarter. The core of Ginobili, Duncan and Parker played as hard as ever, so you can’t put the blame there, either. Could it be, just maybe, that the Thunder were better? That no one’s to blame, but rather to praise? Let’s celebrate Scott Brooks’ evolution as an X’s and O’s coach, as well as the continued evolution of the Thunder’s homegrown core of Harden, Durant and Westbrook.

There’s obviously a place for blame for every team that fails to reach the ultimate goal. But when does blame start and praise begin?

Winter: Glad you brought up blame ending and praise beginning, as Miami’s struggles are the absolute perfect case study for it. When the Bosh-less Heat were down 2-1 to the Pacers and facing a must-win game 4 on the road, the narrative wasn’t that Indy had finally come of age after a long, painstaking process of overhauling their roster through the draft and prudent offseason moves. Instead everything was about the struggles of James and Wade and how Bosh was more influential to the Heat’s success than he’s normally given credit. There was all blame on the Heat and little credit to the Pacers, even though Indy’s length, ball movement, and intensity was giving Miami real problems.

As the tide of the Eastern Conference Finals turned, though, so did the story with relation to the Heat’s losses. The Celtics are former champions, replete with stars at the point, on the wing, and in the post and have a coach universally considered among the game’s best. So Boston’s game 3, 4, and 5 wins over Miami were met with typical Heat-hate from the public and skepticism from the media, yes. But what followed them, too, was praise for the play of Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett and story after story about how we should not have written off the Celtics.

June 7, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce (right) reacts to a call as Miami Heat player Lebron James (6) looks down during the second half in game six of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

Same with the Spurs and Thunder. I woke up today and read articles praising both teams, Oklahoma City for tearing through the West’s elite and delivering on their potential and San Antonio for a remarkable season and being game enough to push their younger counterparts to the brink. Nothing bemoaning Manu Ginobili for his 4-12 performance or Gregg Popovich for failing to adjust to the Westbrook-Durant pin-down OKC ran to death down the stretch. Just praise for the Thunder and respect for the Spurs.

The shallow blame was missing just as it should have been. That says more about the respect the basketball world has for the Spurs than a sudden shift in thinking, though, and that will be obvious if Miami falls flat in game 6 or 7.

*Editor’s note: this passage takes place after Celtics-Heat game 6

White: I so wanted you to be wrong on your last point. I wanted the respect and admiration we saw of both the Spurs and the Thunder, regardless of who won and lost, to signify a shift in our thinking. Alas, my hopes were dashed to the ground after last night’s Heat-Celtics game.

LeBron James, by any metric or narrative, had a historic performance in game 6. My naive self wanted so badly to believe that, for once, even the most arduent of LeBron misanthropes would just appreciate it for what it was. But, when the game ended, what did we hear from those cynics?
He still can’t do it in the fourth quarter
Game 6 isn’t a clutch performance
Skip Bayless, ever the LeBron cynic, tweeted: Did tonight prove LeBron is clutch? HECK no.

Of course, these cavilers fail to take into account (or just actively dismiss) that LeBron’s performance ensured there would be no need for fourth quarter heroics and that his defense on Pierce was otherworldly. No, instead, they blame Pierce and Garnett for having off nights, and are already blaming James for his failure in Game 7, despite the fact that it still hasn’t happeend. What’s interesting about the blame, at least on the Celtics part, is that there was no vitriol behind it; it was more excuse than blame.

To your point about the lack of blame in the Spurs-Thunder series, I couldn’t agree more. The stories the next day concered the arrival of the Thunder and the cementing of Kevin Durant’s place among the NBA elite (as if he wasn’t there before). Very rarely was there a mention of San Antonio’s shortcomings or failure to adjust to Oklahoma City’s strategies. The majority of articles about the Spurs were those of reverence, a reflection on what was an unprecedented decimation of the league. Perhaps the fact that the Spurs were playing transcendent basketball and still were beat by the Thuner forced us to realize that the Thunder did more things right than the Spurs did wrong.

Or could it be something else? Could it be that the Spurs and, by proxy, Greg Popovich, as a reward of their continued excellence, are above reproach?

Winter: Exactly. Championships hold unfathomable weight in the eyes of the casual basketball laymen, and Popovich-Duncan have four; they earned their stripes, and were obviously beaten by a superior foe so the blame game is subtly pushed aside.

Same for Boston. You mentioned “more excuse than blame” with regard to the Celtics’ loss last night, and that’s exactly how I view it, too. Pierce played one of the worst games of his career by any measure, but instead of crucifying him for a 4-18 closeout game performance like we would LeBron or Wade we shook our heads, sighed, and said “make or miss league, make or miss league.” He proved his worth in the 2008 Finals and is admittedly on the downside of his career, so play like last night’s makes us more more apologetic than ashamed? And is that fair to a guy like LeBron? Is that even fair to a Hall-of-Famer like Pierce? Do we think he wants to be held to a lesser standard because he has a championship ring and aching knees?

Thinking about it more, what I’m really saying is that a player’s legacy shouldn’t be cemented by whether or not he has a title(s). So much more goes into winning than the individual play of a superstar, but that’s all forgotten once the playoffs finally roll around and “great players rise to the occasion.” In reality wins and losses are all that matter then (now, I should say), but all too often we refuse to toe the line between appreciating performances of both an individual and the team overall. LeBron can play well and the Heat can lose; he can play poorly and the Heat can win. But that’s not the story the public wants, so we take the easy way out and make his play and the team’s go hand-in-hand, and in turn our reaction to it. Is that a respect thing? I think so, and if LeBron had a championship to fall back on during his rare times of struggle it wouldn’t be an issue.

It seems like we’re off on the inevitable LeBron tangent, and in a way we are. But it’s only because he’s such a perfect, if extreme, test animal for this “blame” prompt given his status as the league’s best and his current opponent, Boston. We’ll know much more about all this after game 7 on Saturday. Should the Heat win, will praise go Miami’s way and reverence Boston’s? Or will we continue to question LeBron while disrespecting the Celtics by not blaming them for losing a 3-2 series lead? Should Boston advance to the Finals, will the story be that the Heat failed or the Celtics succeeded?

Unfortunately, I think we all know how the coming narrative will go no matter the game’s outcome, and that’s not how blame and praise should be doled out.

Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanSWhite