Tag Archives: lebron james

The Little Things

quinn.anya | Flickr

Any storyline you could possibly want could be transposed onto this series. LeBron battled the memories of the 2007 Finals sweep by killing the Spurs with his midrange jumper. Dwyane Wade powered through his injury and willed the team to victory. The Spurs are too old to compete.  The Spurs are a hardworking and disciplined team, sometimes to their detriment. The Heat bought their championship. The Spurs choked away Games 6 and 7. Vogel shouldn’t have sat Roy Hibbert. T-Mac is an albatross. Birdman! And so on.

We’ve assumed since the end of last season that the Heat were going to repeat as champions after mopping the floor with the Thunder after five games. They’re the best, and we’ve known they’re the best, however frustrating that may have been or continues to be. But just because we had that assumption doesn’t mean that it played out like we thought it would. We thought that the Heat thought that they were entitled to a title. But they played great basketball in two back-to-back seven-game series. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to earn it, even if we thought they’d get it anyway.

But I guess there has been one narrative rolling around in my head that I want to get out. The Heat were assumed to be invincible. And even though they eventually won the title, we saw that they’re not. There are real questions about their long-term success that are based mostly in Wade’s health and Bosh’s ability to contribute consistently without being taken out of a game. They’re not invincible, and they’re title window is finite. But those questions can come later. Now we should celebrate the fact that we just witnessed one of the best-played series in NBA history; I mean, it’s certainly the best series I’ve watched.

To me, last night’s game wasn’t about battling demons or defining legacies. No one choked, and no one willed themselves above anyone else. Thirty players and two coaches were ready to go last night–as they have been for the past two weeks and seven preceding months–and they went at it. Shots were made because passes were crisp. Shots were missed because defensive rotations were on point. Turnovers happened because sometimes your hands get super sweaty when you’re sapping all of the adrenaline in your body. And the game of basketball was played by two teams that can really play basketball. This quote from Shane Battier before Game 7 about this series at Eye on Basketball (H/T: PAPA BEAR) says it all:

“It’s gone back to the little things,” Battier said. “It’s gone back to the little things. It’s about transition defense. It’s about ball-you-man basketball. It’s about boxing out. As crazy as it is with the chess pieces being moved all over the board, the things that are deciding this game are the things you learn playing kiddie ball at the YMCA. That’s what makes it exciting for the basketball purists. As sophisticated as it is, it’s really about basketball plays.”

I mean, yes. Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. Great execution? Check. Great defense? Check. Even (though at times unpredictable) refereeing? Check. Lack of hard fouls that are clearly the byproduct of frustration? Check. Commitment to the system that got you to this high a level? Check. A possibly different winner had this been a shorter or longer series? Check.

A few weeks ago I wrote, “I just wish basketball could be about basketball.” After watching last night’s game and this series over the past two weeks, my wish definitely came true.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 6/21/13: GAME 7

Good things come to those who wait. From October through June we collectively watched 1,314 games of NBA basketball this year. Some were good, and some were bad. Some were awful, and some were downright legendary.  All of it culminated last night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s the game that every kid in their backyard dreams of playing in growing up, and we got to witness it in all of its sweet, sweet glory last night. This is the hardest Lion Face, Lemon Face column I have ever had to write not just because it’s the last one of the year, but because if I had my pick, both teams would have won last night. The fact that there was a winner and loser, heroes and goats, lion faces and lemon faces absolutely kills me. But what has to be done has to be done, so let’s get to it.

Lion Face: LeBron James

Big time players make big time plays in big time games. In the NBA, there is no bigger game than Game 7, and in today’s NBA, there is no bigger player than LeBron James. LeBron was absolutely sensational tonight delivering a Game 7 performance that will, or at least should, put together the debate on whether or not he’s “clutch” or not. In between Games 5 and 6, parody site Sports Pickle re-ran a post that they had previously developed titled “Pocket Guide For Criticizing LeBron James in Any Situation”. It poked fun at the numerous lines that fans and media alike could use in order to create a no win scenario for LeBron that was designed to be used no matter what kind of performance he turned in during the course of a game. The second statement on that list read “If LeBron has a big 4th quarter and leads his team to victory…say ‘Big deal. It’s only the regular season. Let’s see him do it in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.’” LeBron’s line in the fourth quarter alone last night? Just your casual 9-5-2-2 line including an absolute dagger 19 footer with 27 seconds remaining to push the lead to 92-88 and finally ice the series for Miami. Mission: Accomplished. He ended the game with 37 points and 12 rebounds; the 37 points are the most points ever scored in a Game 7 Finals win tying Boston’s Tommy Heinsohn in 1957 so you can go ahead and give LeBron both a championship ring and a Tommy Point for last night’s effort.

Lemon Face: Manu Ginobili

It’s never a good sign when you get a text in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals from a friend asking you what the record is for turnovers in a seven game series. While Ginobili, 22 turnovers through the seven games, didn’t come close to matching Charles Barkley’s in the 1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals v. Milwaukee (37 turnovers!), it sure felt like the ones he did make came at the most inopportune times in the ball game. Last night, he turned the ball over four times, all of them occurring in the final period of play, including a brutal attempted jump pass on the baseline with San Antonio trailing by 4 with 23 seconds remaining which once and for all finally extinguished any hope that the Spurs had of making a miracle comeback of their own.  While it would have been a fairy tale ending for Manu’s career to go out with a title, instead he is left wondering just what went wrong in his final games.

Lion Face: Kawhi Leonard

In a game featuring at least 6 future Hall of Fame inductees, it was Kawhi Leonard (and as I am contractually obligated to mention, his catcher mitt sized hands) who stole the show for San Antonio last night. Any lesser player would have crumbled after missing a critical free throw late in the potential championship winning Game 6 but the 21 year old Leonard responded with a monster 19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7. As Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker fade into the twilight of their careers, the future in San Antonio continues to appear bright with Leonard leading the way.

Lemon Face: Chris Bosh

I know he played solid defense. I know he came up with seven rebounds including corralling Duncan’s missed tip-in that would have tied the game, but to put up a goose egg in the points column in Game 7 of the NBA Finals? That’s true Lemon Face material. God help him if Miami would have lost that game because I don’t see any possible way he would be on the Heat roster next year if San Antonio won and shut him down like that. Miami still faces a decision this offseason on whether or not to trade Bosh, but it will be excruciatingly difficult to break up a team that has reeled off two consecutive titles.

Lion Face: Shane Battier

We may never see the adage that role players tend to play great at home and are dicey on the road more than this series. After earning a couple of DNP’s in the Indiana series, Battier turned in scoring lines of 0, 3, 0, 2, 7, and 9 points through the first six games of the series. Coming into last night, he has hardly thought of as an X Factor. But fittingly, in a series that proved to be as difficult to predict from game to game as any other we’ve ever seen, Battier responded with an NBA Jam style hot hand shooting display knocking down six threes in eight attempts on his way to the biggest 18 point game of his life. For the second straight year, the Heat rode to a title in a championship clinching game thanks to one of their shooters going unconscious from beyond the arc. Last year it was Mike Miller’s 7-8 from long distance, 23 point game that proved to be the difference in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. It one of those nights where you in the first half he was going to have a Lion Face game, and he didn’t disappoint. Between his insane three point shooting and cerebral interviews, who could have guessed that a guy from the most hated college in America playing on the most hated NBA team could be, dare I say, likeable?

Lemon Face: Danny Green

For as good as Shane Battier was as a role player, Danny Green was equally as bad for San Antonio. For a stretch during the first five games, it appeared that we were headed for one of the most unlikely Finals MVPs of all time as Green was turning three point attempts seemingly into layups by breaking the record for triples in an NBA Finals just five games into the series. At this point in the series, Cavs fans and other NBA fans alike were quick to criticize the Cleveland organization wondering how they could possibly let a player like this slip through their grasp. Well, now we know. Unfortunately for Green and the Spurs, the clock struck midnight on his Cinderella story sometime between the end of Game 5 and beginning of Game 6 as he would go on to shoot a ghastly 10.5% from the field (18% from 3) over the course of Games 6 and 7 in Miami. Even despite how cringe worthy poor he was last night, he nearly changed the complexion of the game just over midway through the fourth quarter. Following a Manu Ginobili three pointer that cut Miami’s lead to 85-82 with 4:20 to go in the game, Green stole Dwyane Wade’s entry pass and launched a 3. A make would have tied the game as part of an 8-2 run in the course of 45 seconds and conceivably could have changed the complexion of the game. Alas, it was not to be as the shot missed, and the next score came a couple of possessions later from Shane Battier who knocked down a 3 and pushed the lead to six. We’ll always have Games 1-5 Danny Green. We’ll always have Games 1-5.

Lion Face: Mario Chalmers Shot

The Spurs were set to head into the fourth quarter with the lead. They would have been 12 minutes away from only having to match the Heat point for point in order to win the title. And then Mario Chalmers happened. It gave the Heat the lead and the momentum heading into what proved to be the final period of the NBA season. In a game where we got the entire Wario AND Mario Chalmers experience, this was one of the biggest shots of Chalmers’ career.

Lemon Face: Tim Duncan’s Shot

GIF via @SBNationGIF

Tim Duncan could retire right now with four championship rings, $200+ million in salary earned throughout his career, and the title of Greatest Power Forward Ever to Play the Game, but you can bet that he is going to be rehashing that missed tip shot in his nightmares for the conceivable future. With a chance to tie the game at 90 with under one minute to go in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Duncan missed both a hook shot and the subsequent tip in. Eons from now when people are browsing Wikipedia version 1239.1 on their super computers, they are going to see on the surface that this turned out to be an eight point game and, without reading a game story, not fully recognize that we were that close to having a tie game in Game 7 with each team having only a couple of possessions remaining to decide a champion.

Lion Face: NBA Fans

If someone had told you that this Finals would produce four games decided by double digits, including a 36 point blowout in one of those games, and yet it would still prove to be one of the best and most memorable Finals we have ever seen, how confused would you be? Your allowable answers are A) Very B) Really and C) Extremely. Luckily, that’s exactly what we got over the course of the past couple of weeks:  two teams that threw absolute haymakers at one another for seven straight games. For the rest of our lives, we’ll remember these Finals for Tony Parker’s incredible shot to put away Game 1, Danny Green going absolutely bananas in San Antonio, Ray Allen’s shot from the corner and Miami incredible comeback in Game 6, and LeBron James’ ultimate Game 7, but the chess match that was engineered on a game to game basis between these two teams was just as exciting. The constant adjustments needed on both ends to even get a result where no team through six games had won consecutive contests was incredible to watch. It was an honor and a privilege to watch that basketball series for seven games, and I think we all, Miami fans excluded, wish that it could have gone at least seven more.

From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of all NBA fans, thank you to the Heat, Spurs, and NBA for giving us this series. It was, as Zach Harper and Tim Bontemps described on their Eye on Basketball podcast earlier this week, the equivalent of basketball porn. And thank you all for your constant support of us here at Hardwood Paroxysm throughout the season. It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in a Panera Bread at lunch putting the finishing touches on my 15 Footer game preview for October 30, the opening night of the year. Time flies when you’re having fun, and we had a whole lot of fun here over the past eight months. Can’t wait to do it again next year.

History in a Bottle

In which Jared and I try to comprehend Game 6. 

Jordan: Jared. Help me put into words what I saw Tuesday night. I’ve seen some pretty good games over the years. I was at the Chesapeake Arena when Kevin Durant and Kevin Love dueled into double overtime, each one answering the other’s three-pointer as if they were the easiest shots in the world.

As the lone Kansan at the University of Connecticut in 2008, I cried out in agony and later victory after KU improbably came back and won the National Championship (the same game, by the way, that injected now-Heat point guard Mario Chalmers with his inextinguishable confidence). I’ve watched Boston ride Ubuntu back from 24 points down, and I’ve seen the Mavericks ride Dirk Nowitzki’s flowing, golden luscious locks and his one-footed turnaround to a championship.
But Tuesday night…it almost defies explanation, or reason. You may think this to simply be me at my hyperbolic best, but I assure you, I am still mesmerized by game 6. So please. Tell me. What did I see?

Jared: WAIT. Were you AT all of those games? If you were, that’s pretty unbelievable. If you weren’t, well you just misled me you sunuvabitch.

Anyway, I honestly don’t know what we saw on Tuesday. It was mesmerizing. It was beautiful. It was just basketball, man. I can’t even pick out a “best” thing about the game. There’s just too much. Duncan’s first half. LeBron’s fourth quarter. Ray’s three. Parker’s three. The whole headband thing. Bosh’s block(s). For fuck’s sake I almost forgot about Kawhi’s dunk on Mike Miller in all the ridiculousness of the second half, and that literally made me jump off my seat when it happened.

It’s weird to know you’re watching history as it happens. Once the Heat started coming back and eventually tied the game and took the lead, the feeling that rushed over me was surreal. I knew I was watching the end of one of, if not the best game of my lifetime. I’m still not sure how to reconcile it. It seems to reactive to give it the top spot the day after, but I don’t know how else to convey the sheer awesomeness of what we watched. I actually don’t even know if watched is the best word for it; we – all of us watching – experienced it, together.

I said last night on Twitter I want to figure out a way to bottle the game up and distill it so I can get drunk off it the rest of my life, and I don’t at all feel like that’s a crazy thing to say. I want to bring a recording of that game with me wherever I go, so I can flick on the last 15 minutes at any point I want. Of all the games I’ve watched, this is one of the very few my favorite team hasn’t been a part of that gave me a feeling like that.

I guess that’s all a long-winded way of saying what you saw was a brilliant game of basketball between two ultra-talented teams that no one who watched it – whether in the arena or in the comfort of their home – will ever forget. Honestly, that’s part of why I wanted to do this. I want to get thoughts down on paper so when I go senile in 50-60 years, I have recorded proof that I definitely watched Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

Jordan: It’s not a crazy thing to say at all. But it’s not just the game that I want to bottle. As you said, this was something we experienced, not just watched. Try as we might, we can’t recreate that experience, which is just about the only bittersweet aspect of the entire game.

Tuesday’s game, to me, was a microcosm of the entire series. All along, these teams seemed to be so evenly matched. Even the blowouts never really felt like blowouts. Or, rather, they did, but it wasn’t one good team dominating another. Think about the major themes of this series so far, and how present they were in Game 6
Adjustments
It’s been a bonafide chess match (hi there, sports cliché!) between Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich, two of the best tacticians in the game. Last night, in the first half, Duncan was terrorizing Miami’s defense, particularly Chris Bosh. Spoelstra adjusted, and Duncan’s brilliance faded. Likewise, the Heat tried some new misdirection plays, and the Spurs switched defensive tactics accordingly.
By that same token, however, we also saw adjustments that went wrong, the most glaring of which has to be Spoelstra re-inserting Wade when Miami’s offense was humming like a fine-tuned tank without him (I’m sure you have a few things to say on the subject). Then, there was Gregg Popovich maybe outthinking himself by taking out Duncan for the possession that led to Ray Allen’s game-tying three pointer.
Stars
Tim Duncan’s first half was a moment of brilliance. Methodical, calculated, dull brilliance. Duncan’s never been a flashy player, which I surmise may play a part in his longevity, but the lack of flash doesn’t make it any less of basketball artistry.
LeBron James’ fourth quarter was thrilling, captivating, and maybe even a little terrifying. He wasn’t cold and distant like game six against Boston last year. There was fire, no there was a fucking inferno roaring within James.
Manu and Wade have had one good game apiece in this series, and last night’s game showed us those good performances were the outliers.
NARRATIVES (proven, disproven and created)
Narrative: LeBron can’t do this on his own, he needs to give the ball to Wade.
Narrative: LeBron is a choker (this, for some reason, still persists)
Narrative: The Spurs are boring
Narrative: The Spurs don’t get enough attention or praise
Narrative: If Miami loses, this “experiment” was a failure
Narrative: This could be one of the best series of all time
I’m sure I’m missing quite a few themes, but these were the ones that stuck out the most. Maybe that’s why it’s still so hard to process this game. It was so packed from all angles – tactics, narratives, history and so forth – that we’re not even done fully experiencing it.

Jared:  I want to start with the Duncan/Bosh match-up, because the 180 from first half to second half was really amazing. Duncan played one of the great halves in basketball history in the first half of Game 6. It was truly spectacular – a throwback treat that, like most of the rest of the game, I will never forget. Duncan had largely had his way with Bosh in the post for most of the series (I’m pretty sure ESPN Stats & Information tweeted out at halftime that Duncan was shooting 62% against Bosh to that point in the series), but the first half was the first time he just eviscerated the guy. Bosh looked utterly helpless.

And then the second half started and somehow everything flipped. Bosh was everywhere. He was fronting the post with such tenacity, rotating like a mad man, blocking shots, snagging boards, playing passing lanes, darting out at pick and rolls, just doing it all. It was a marvel. One of the most dramatic half-to-half shifts in performance I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of dramatic shifts… let’s take a look at some numbers I tweeted last night courtesy of NBA.com/stats

1. LeBron was 5-17 [in Game 6] with Wade on the floor. 6-9 with Wade off the floor. -19 in 33 mins with Wade. +18 in 16 mins w/o Wade.

2. 7 restricted area shots in 16 w/o Wade minutes for LeBron. 3 in 33 minutes with Wade.

3. Heat O-Rtg [in Game 6] with LeBron + Wade on court: 92.0. Heat O-Rtg with LeBron + no Wade: 143.3

4. Oh and Heat D-Rtg [in Game 6] with LeBron + Wade on court: 112.2. Heat D-Rtg with LeBron + no Wade: 72.7

5. Let’s go for the full series now. O-Rtg/D-Rtg with LBJ/Wade: 100.8/112.7 … O-Rtg/D-Rtg with LBJ/NO Wade: 131.7/89.5

6. Full series LeBron with Wade: 35-90 (38.9%), 17-32 in RA. Without Wade: 20-37 (54.1%), 13-14 in RA. 194 min w/ Wade, -56. 62 min w/o, +48.

Yeah… D-Wade, not so much with the helping the team while sharing the court with LeBron. Look, obviously Spo is not just going to bench Wade for the entire game, nor should he. But the dude needs his minutes cut dramatically. The Spurs are ignoring him on the perimeter like he’s Tony Allen or Chris Duhon, for crying out loud. And the whole thing where the Heat run out of timeout plays for him has got to stop. No. Just no. I mean, I want the Spurs to win because Pat Riley is the antichrist, but for the sake of basketball, Spo needs to chill with that shit.

The LeBron-Miller-Allen trio with take your pick of Cole/Chalmers and Bosh/Birdman lineups need to get on the floor more. The spacing is worlds better, and in small samples, the defense is too. It’s just time. It’s not an indictment of Wade’s career that he isn’t the Wade he used to be. He’s clearly hurt. The Spurs clearly don’t respect his outside shot. His defense is hit-or-miss at best. It’s time for a change in tactics.

The tiny adjustments made by both coaches throughout the series have been fascinating. Miami abandoning traditional lineups to go small-ball full time resulted in the Spurs mostly doing the same, depending on how you categorize Boris Diaw. After a conference finals that included big-all-the-time teams in Memphis and Indiana, it’s interesting that the Finals have shifted back to wide open small ball. I love it. The “death of the center” stuff is overblown – they really just have different responsibilities now than they used to, both as a function of rule changes and style of play, but seeing both teams play perimeter oriented attacks for the back half of this series has been pretty awesome.

Speaking of, man did the Heat shut down San Antonio’s three point game last night, huh? Chris Bosh wasn’t lying when he said Danny Green wouldn’t be open. Green’s 1-7 performance and general disappearing act for much of the game may have permanently knocked him out of Finals MVP contention if the Spurs eventually win, which is crazy after the shooting display he put on in Games 1 thru 5.

As to your NARRATIVE NARRATIVE NARRTIVE BLAH BLAH BLAH point: I’m so happy that the game was so amazing that it knocked all the narrative bullshit on its ass. No one’s talking about who was clutch, who choked, any of that garbage. All everyone cares about was how freaking good the game was. I actually stopped taking notes at midway through the fourth quarter because I didn’t want to miss anything. Good lord it was fun.

 

Jordan: My point wasn’t that the narratives weren’t discussed, more that they were present. Narrative is good, it’s important. It creates intrigue and drama, taking the game above just a pure X’s and O’s analysis. Of course, not all narratives are created equal, nor do each of them hold equal weight. We saw as much last night.

The more concrete angles, such as this possibly being one of the best series of all time, were mostly proven right, while the other, tired and outright wrong ones, such as LeBron’s penchant to choke, were swiftly, as you so eloquently put it, knocked on their asses. What was so great about last night, and you touched on it, was that the story didn’t dominate the action. The game itself was theater enough, and all of those aforementioned sub-plots played out as the game wore on without us needing to continuously bring them up. So captivating was the game that the discussion rarely deviated from the action at hand.
Oh, and it wasn’t just San Antonio’s three point game Miami shut down last night. Tony Parker, in both the 4th quarter and overtime, was 2-of-8. Granted, those two makes were the two most important ones, but Parker was downright EXHAUSTED heading into the extra frame, (he missed all four of his attempts), and there’s little doubt that’s due to James’ physical play.
Another performance unfortunately overshadowed by both the loss and a missed free-throw: Kawhi Leonard. He has been phenomenal in the playoffs, on both ends of the floor. He struggled last night against James on defense, especially when the Heat went with their shooting line up, because he didn’t have any help when LeBron went down low. But he was the second best player on the Spurs last night, and maybe the third, at worst fourth, best player overall. He is the embodiment of the Spurs system and process, and yet another microcosm of a larger theme of this series.
One other thing I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned: Doris Burke has mastered the Pop interview.
Jared: So many people were talking about how LeBron would get tired guarding Parker that they overlooked how exhausting it is to be guarded by LeBron. TP looked like he was about to keel over by the end of the game. Being hounded into a 6-for-23 by the best player on the planet will do that to you.

And Kawhi, man. I don’t think enough can be said about how good that dude is. He’s just a Spur. That’s the best way to put it.
Re: Doris, she’s the best, isn’t she? She knows how to ask questions, which is more than you can say for a lot of the people “asking” “questions” in the post game pressers. And Pop always seems to actually give her answers, which is nice of him. How does she get so lucky?
Jordan: It’s because she knows the game, and I think Pop has a certain, yet still grudging, respect for those who know the game.

But back to basketball. Game 7 now looms large on the horizon. Will it live up to the drama of Game 6, or will it be more like Miami’s Game 5 victory in the finals last year, where the came was over after the first half. In a series that has given us everything from blow outs to nail biters, it’s impossible to know what to expect, much less what will happen. All we know is that, by the end of the night, we’ll have a new NBA champion crowned.
Regardless of what happens, we should consider ourselves lucky. Perfect moments, and in this case, perfect games, are rare in life. We got one on Tuesday night.
Photo by tom.keil via Flickr

The Headband, and Other Stories

I’m still trying to process the nirvana we all witnessed last night. For now, here are just a few thoughts. 

Tim Duncan, long-overdue for even a good game after an overall disappointing series, was superb in the first half, shooting 11-of-13, including a perfect 6-of-6 in the first quarter. He didn’t so much turn back the clock as he did perform his greatest hits: a bank shot just below the elbow, a turnaround hook, even an opportunistic dunk after Tony Parker sucked in three defenders at the rim. However, it was not to last. Bosh, the most frequent student of Duncan’s harsh tutelage, played terrific defense on Duncan in the second half, both fronting him and playing him extremely well in one-on-one situations.

When a star turns in such a performance in a loss, there’s a tendency to cry that the team wasted that player’s effort. Maybe, sometimes, that holds true, if that player was the only one on the team producing anything of substance. This was not the case here, as Kawhi Leonard, with his 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Tony Parker (also mostly ineffective after the first half, save for the last twenty or so seconds of the game), also put up valiant efforts. It’s a shame San Antonio couldn’t capitalize on one of Duncan’s finest finals performances, especially when the game seemed to be firmly in their grasp, but it’s a stretch to say it was a wasted effort.

The last minute or so of the game was one of the most exciting periods of basketball of the entire season. Threes abound, from LeBron’s second-chance, to Tony Parker’s prayer answered and Ray Allen’s we-should-have-expected-that-but-it-was-still-incredible shot.

Poor Kawhi Leonard.

Spoelstra opted to re-insert Dwyane Wade, despite the overwhelming success of the Wade-less lineup that instantly improved the spacing and was critical to the Heat’s comeback. And while Wade’s defense disrupted San Antonio’s offense, heading off cutters and denying passing lanes, his offense disrupted that of his own team. Spoelstra, in all likelihood, is well aware of Dwyane Wade’s on/off numbers. Obsessed with the minutiae and details, Spoelstra knows that, for the series, with LeBron and Wade on the court together, the Heat’s offensive and defensive rating  is 100.8 and 112.7. He likewise knows that with LeBron on the court and Wade off, the offensive rating shoots to 131.7 while the defensive rating plummets to 89.5. Yet that knowledge does not eradicate all emotions. We praised Popovich for having the necessary detachment to leave Duncan on the bench in a crucial moment against the Warriors, but I don’t think we fully understand just how tough it is to do that to not only a star, but a star whom a coach has grown with, just as Spoelstra has grown with Wade. The numbers may have said to leave Wade on the bench, and it was likely the best strategy. But numbers, for better or for worse, don’t always guide decisions.

This was the second game six in which LeBron dazzled and destroyed, each performance defined by a single word. In Boston, it was The Stare, the usually exuberant LeBron seemingly vacant of all emotion. Last night, it was The Headband, and by eschewing his signature accessory, James eschewed any and all final links to the LeBron of the past. No longer un-clutch. No longer unafraid. The headband was a prison, long ago adorned by James, for fear that neither he nor the rest of the world could handle his awesome power. But fear would not rule LeBron, not this day. OK, it probably had more to do with the fact that there was a really important game going on and he couldn’t care less about a piece of fabric.

Still, while the loss of his headband didn’t unlock some heretofore untapped power, that it almost perfectly coincided with the Heat’s miraculous comeback will certainly shape the legacy (sorry, Derek) of this game. This is not something to bemoan. So many of any sport’s iconic games or performances are fondly recalled by a word or a phrase: The Flu Game, The Hand of God, The Catch, The Bloody Sock, and now, The Headband.

This is what we wanted.

This is what we hoped and wished and begged and prayed and pleaded for: seven games of this magnificent match-up. And there could not have been a more perfect set-up to usher us in to Thursday night’s finale than last night’s instant masterpiece.

 

 

 

Legacy: The New “L” Word

Photo courtesy of  JP FRENAY/Flickr

Before game four of these 2013 NBA Finals, the question was posed to me on Twitter if this was a make-or-break game for the legacy of LeBron James. The question struck me as peculiar since basketball is a team game and it’s incredibly difficult-if-not-impossible for one player to carry a team and odd that one game could override a larger body of work. On the surface, LeBron’s 39% shooting percentage in games one through three — a likely result of the Spurs’ defensive effort — was worthy of an eyebrow raise. However, whether it was his 12.3 rebounds per game, 6.3 assists per game or 2.0 turnovers per game in that stretch,  LeBron found other ways to contribute to the team while he tried to find his rhythm.

And this one game was supposed to define LeBron’s career from this point on, overriding four MVP awards in five years, three consecutive Finals appearances (which very well could be four appearances in five years dating back to Cleveland), and a championship? I don’t think so.

The truth is that when the Heat have lost games in these Finals (save for game one) they’ve been careless with the ball, gotten beat on the boards and left shooters open. When they’ve won, they’ve protected the ball, rebounded, and got to the line– all things that help you control the flow of a game. The bigger determinant of the Heat’s success in these Finals has not been whether or not LeBron has been good enough, but whether or not the team as a whole is willing to do the little things like exert the effort to crash the glass, make the proper defensive rotation or focused enough to cut down on careless turnovers.

At any rate, how did our protagonist/antagonist fare in his big legacy game? Oh, 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists with just two turnovers on 60 percent shooting. It’s funny because even though many would have viewed a poor performance in this game as a stain on his legacy, there was no widespread clamoring that his legacy was now given a boost for his performance. Perhaps this meant that it had no effect on it and something that his critics would feel is something he should always do, making his showing something to be expected. Which in some ways is an odd form of roundabout praise masquerading as absurdly high standards of near-perfection because they’re still acknowledging LeBron as a great player.

Alternatively, LeBron’s “legacy” is likely no different than any other great player in the history of the league in that he’s needed help from his team to put them over the top. We’ve seen this happen all throughout history how great teams need their role players to step up from time-to-time, just as Rick Barry told me last week. The Spurs are no exception to this as they called on Boris Diaw in game five to successfully defend the best player in the league or have leaned on Danny Green while Manu Ginobili has slumped, who has emerged as a legitimate front-runner for Finals MVP. That’s right; not Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, but Danny Green! And Green is really the next in the line of role players such as Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, and even Shane Battier last year who stepped up when their team needed them to.

I play the game because I love it. I love the competitive side of it. Once I’m done, you know, you guys will write my legacy and say what I’ve done for this game, but that’s not for me to worry about right now.

LeBron James – FoxSports.com (6/5/13) 

The only way this legacy thing really matters anyway is if it matters to the players, which it doesn’t. LeBron admitted as much before the Finals and he’s not the first player to come out and say so. As fans we like to believe that these things matter as much to the players we attempt to rank, but they don’t. They speak the same things about enjoying playing the game and competing rather than worrying about their place in history. While analyzing the game is a part of the fun, overanalyziation takes away from our ability to appreciate what we see from great teams and players while we’re still able to watch them. Maybe that’s where we should take a cue from them to sit back, relax, and just enjoy the game ourselves. If we’re able to do this tonight, we’ll be able to truly appreciate the Spurs adding another championship to one of the greatest extended runs in NBA history and a great team digging deep to save their season should the Heat claim victory.

The Legion of LeBron James

It seems as if every season, LeBron James emerges with yet another previously unknown talent. From his defense to his post moves to his improved jumpshot, there may well be no end to the vast array of powers James has at his disposal. The problem with an endless arsenal of powers is the herculean effort it takes to master them. One of  the many unjustified demands made of LeBron nearly as soon as he came into the league was to put every skill we somehow knew rested deep within him to use at once. We, in a way, vied for control of LeBron, wanting him to be the next Michael Jordan, the next Magic Johnson, even the next Oscar Robertson, each narrative presenting a different personality. Never taken into account was the time LeBron would need to mature, to control his talents, and to become himself.

I’ve recently surrendered once more to my childhood desires and started reading a few comic book series–among them, X-Men Legacy. Rather than focusing on an entire X-team, Legacy tells the tale of Legion, also known as David Haller, also known as the son of Professor X.  In the past, Legion has been everything from a nemesis to an ally of the X-Men, with the lines between the two being blurred more often than not. In Legacy, he is simply a man trying to calm the chaos in his mind while coming to terms with the (SPOILERS!) death of his father.

An Omega-level, (IE really fucking powerful), mutant with reality warping powers, Legion is the most powerful being on the planet, if not the universe. At least, he would be, if he didn’t suffer from extreme schizophrenia. Each of Legion’s powers, of which there are a myriad, has its own personality. For example, his “reality-folding” power is personified in his head as a sumo wrestler, while his powers of “plasma explodo whooshiness” manifest in the form of an old man named Max Kelvin (do you see why his codename–which he hates–is Legion?). All of these powers/personas are alive in David’s head, fighting for control of his body, thus making his mind as brutal of a battleground as any he faces in reality.

Part of what makes “Legacy” so intriguing, from a storytelling standpoint, is that a good deal of the comic takes place within Legion’s mind. At the start of the series, each of his powers/personas were locked up in individual cells in a jail-like construct inside his mind. When (SPOILERS!) Professor Xavier is killed by a Phoenix Force-infested Cyclops, the psychic earthquake that ensues wreaks havoc on David’s mind, and shatters the stability of his mental prison. Now, Legion is on the run in his own mind from the army of personalities that are looking for both revenge and control.

When Legion has need of a certain power, he ambushes the personality and sticks it with one of the needles protruding from his fingers. This is how I imagine LeBron accesses his skills. Inside his mind–likely an endless array of basketball courts rather than a mega-prison–are embodiments of each of his skills: Hakeem Olajuwon represents his post moves, Magic Johnson his passing, Charles Barkley his rebounding, Scottie Pippen his dogged defense, Michael Jordan his overall dominance, and so forth. There could even be multiple LeBron’s running the court, from Cleveland LeBron to high school LeBron. Come game time, and depending on the situation, LeBron, each finger equipped with a basketball air-pump and needle, ensnares these personas and harnesses their power. More likely than not, however, LeBron does not say “mine is the power of earth-shattering blocks” as Legion does whenever he channels a power.

The times when Legion has been able to harness all of his powers at once are instances of supreme self-confidence, or when he is fighting for a purpose. In an early issue of “Legacy,” Legion repeats the mantra “I Rule Me,” and that repetition gives him the inner-strength to wrangle his personalities and access multiple powers. Later on, Legion is once again able to take back control because of a plea of help from two young  mutants he is trying to protect. Being needed, being the very embodiment of hope for those he wants to protect, imbues David with the mental might needed to conquer the aforementioned sumo wrestler and take back his power, thus saving the children.

Facing elimination against the Boston Celtics last year, LeBron turned in a breathtaking performance, equally stunning in both its beauty and viciousness. Previously, we’d only been privy to glimpses of this greatness: a post move here, a three-pointer there. Now, however, the Heat needed LeBron to stave off a bitter end to the season, a need LeBron used to fuel his inner strength.

“I wanted to be there for my teammates, no matter what was going on throughout the course of the game,” said LeBron after game six. The need continued to lend strength to LeBron, and carried over into the NBA finals, where LeBron’s absolute mastery and application of his talents were without question.

Similarly, in game two on Sunday, Chalmers of all people was the one to give LeBron that war cry, which led to the MVP’s second-half domination. And yet, though dominate he did, it wasn’t in the same fashion as he did in game one. LeBron’s impact on the game was first felt on defense, and not just with the block on Splitter. That defense, however, gave him the confidence to re-invoke his other powers, particularly those on the offense end that had previously abandoned him.

An interesting dynamic in “Legacy” is the relationship between Legion and the X-Men. His previous encounters with the team have left the X-Men with concrete preconceived notions of who Legion is, and rarely give him a chance to change their concept. During a run-in with Wolverine and crew, Legion suggests that, while his father’s dream of peaceful cohabitation between mutants and humans was admirable, the approach to obtaining the ideal should be changed. Immediately, Wolverine erupts in Legion’s face, accusing him of dishonoring Xavier’s work, and failing to see that Legion is in fact trying to help. Some herald Legion as the doom of all mutants, others the savior. The expectations placed on him, from both the X-Men, villains that herald him as the end of the world, and the felonious psychic imprint of Xavier lurking in his mind, are unattainable even for the world’s most powerful (and insane) mutant.

Just as familiar with being a victim of misperception and ungodly expectations is LeBron. Nearly every time he has passed up a game-winning shot, the armada of naysayers emerge, decrying James as un-clutch and a choker, failing to note that the pass was the right play. When James does take the last shot, and misses, all of the sudden he is proclaimed selfish, unwilling to sacrifice for the good of the team.

Game to game, even season to season, we see a different LeBron. The one present in game one, with about as quietly brilliant triple-double as possible, was very different from the one that appeared in game two: affecting the game in different ways. From a personality standpoint, we’ve witnessed–and at times created– multiple identities of LeBron James: the chosen one, the villain, the heir-apparent to MJ, the choker, the champion and now…well, I’m not really sure how to describe the LeBron of now. Regardless, these constructs of identity shape and change the way we view LeBron. As the phenom, he was revered. As the villain, jeered. He’ll likely never be everything we want him to be, because while we know perfection is unattainable, that has never stopped us from demanding it of others.

 

Schizophrenia by RomanZou via Flickr 

The Inevitable LeBron-Slaught

LeBron James is different.

In a league long defined by the singular and defining characteristic of its trademark superstars, James is an anomaly.  His game isn’t marked by an unblockable jumper like Kevin Durant’s.  Or a patient, deft handle like that of Chris Paul’s.  And not the egomaniacal on-court fire of a Kobe Bryant, either.

James has a combination of it all, rather, the once paralyzing trait of his game that’s in the past left him aimlessly searching for answers in what should have been his biggest moments.  But he’s grown exponentially since that mind-twisting performance against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, such that James’ jack-of-all-trades basketball fabric no longer comes with the caveat that used to tear at its thread.

LeBron’s mastered it all now, which speaks even more to his mental evolution than it does his much-improved jumper or consistent defensive focus.

So as he’s supposedly struggling on the biggest stage as he did for the majority of the Heat’s game 2 Finals win, he needs not panic and neither do we.  James has always held true to his core basketball beliefs, that the whole of a team is greater than the sum of its top two or three parts.  But he’s won and lost enough now to know that it works, and that sustained process is a safer bet to success than immediate results.

James met a hard-charging Tiago Splitter at the rim without hesitation.  He fired a no-look bullet to Ray Allen in the corner seconds later with utmost confidence.  And he sprinted after Mike Miller’s pass just after and lept to finish with authority knowing it was all hardly coincidence.

He plays without the burden of public expectation weighing him down now, even if it’s barely lessened despite adding a championship to his resume last summer.  And the fruits of that realized disposition allows for that sudden dominance pulled from nowhere as it looked  on the surface like he was folding again.

That’s the scary thing for the league let alone the Spurs.  Only James is physically capable of sequences like this, and now he has the mental fortitude to summon them seemingly at will.  It’s not actually that simple, of course, but that James is free from the emotional shackles of shooting struggles or 50/50 calls certainly makes it seem that way.

You can’t quell a LeBron-slaught anymore.  It’s coming eventually now; the question is when, why and by what means.

San Antonio learned the hard way last night, and by no fault of its own allowed James to exhibit his game’s trademark after all.  That block, that pass, that dunk, and all in succession – few are the players able to make one of those plays, lesser still a pair of them and just one all three.  That defines James more than any singular skill; he lacks a specialty because he has them all.

It can be easy to miss because they mostly don’t come in droves.  LeBron won’t hit four threes in a row, protect the rim all game long or attack it with equal consistency.  He’ll convert a lefty hook from the post, jump a passing lane for a steal, make a contested jumper and draw-kick to Allen or Miller for a three, mixing and matching as the game’s tenor dictates.

But it can all come in an unstoppable firestorm, too, and a competitive game can be over in a minute or less.

And that’s what what the Spurs are helpless to stop.  They can bully James inside, blur his passing and driving lanes and run him roughshod through screens, but they can’t prevent his wealth of skills from coming together for a few could-be game-defining possessions.  There’s no way to tell what could stoke it and thus prevent it, a block like game 2’s just as likely as a jumper, pass or even ill-timed trash talk going forward.

Now that James’ attitude is as complete as his toolshed, a stretch like last night’s seems inevitable each time he takes the floor.  How the Spurs respond to it from this point forward could well decide a champion.  What it won’t, though, is how James plays the game.

 

 

 

 

 

RTOE: Game 1 reactions!

Game 1 happened! It was awesome! Amin, Ian, Jack, Jared, and Jordan wanted to talk about it! RTOE ahoy!

1. In 10 words, what’d you think of the game last night?

Amin: It made watching bad teams for 82 games worth it.

Ian: Everything I wanted and more, filler, filler, filler, filler, ten!

Jack: These teams are fantastic and this series will be, too.

Jared: Tony Parker: good at basketball. The series is not over.

Jordan: Basketball gods, please give us six more games of that

2. Please describe, in as vivid detail as possible, your reaction to Tony Parker’s game-winning shot.

Amin: “HOLY [EXPLETIVE] HE MADE THAT????”

Ian: Dulled by red wine and the Eastern Standard Time Zone, it still merited a pretty significant snort of surprise.

Jack: I snorted.  Or chuckled.  Perhaps it’s best described as some combination of a scoff and laugh, actually.  What great defense when Miami absolutely needed it, and what an even greater shot when San Antonio had the chance to put the game away.  Still, I wasn’t surprised.  That’s the brilliance of Parker in a nutshell.

Jared:

Jordan: No. Instead, I shall give you my father’s reaction: *Dad jumps out of his chair* “WHOOOOOOOOOA”

3. LeBron had 18/18/10. Holy crap.

Amin: I don’t understand how someone can so understatedly dominate the way he did. Eighteen rebounds and ten assists? Great googily moogily.

Ian: It’s an impressive line, but watching him accumulate it wasn’t nearly as impressive as it would seem. The curse of being the best is the accompanying absurd expectations.

Jack: Ridiculous.  No disrespect to Parker or Duncan, but LeBron was far and away the best player on the floor last night.  And he shot 1-8 from outside the basket area! That’s as true a testament to his dominance as anything else, and one of the main reasons why this series is still a 50/50 bet.  Simply, he can be better going forward – it’s a make or miss league, remember? – and he will.

Jared: It’s ridiculous that we’re probably going to spend the better part of the next few days listening to garbage about whether or not he was too passive rather than talking about how he became one of only 7 players to put up those numbers in a playoff game, and the first since Tim Duncan in 2003 to do it in the Finals.

Jordan: BUT HE DIDN’T WIN TEH GAME BECUZ HE’S A CHOKER. Seriously, though, that’s just ridiculous

4. Dwyane Wade was alive last night. That was fun.

Amin: I especially appreciated Doris Burke asking him right before the half something along the lines of “so how much of your play so far has been shots falling vs. your body cooperating?” We’re at a weird place in our NBA-watching lives when reporters are rightfully allowed to ask players about their waning health and the players don’t even bat an eye because it’s true. But as has been the case throughout these playoffs, coulda used a bit more Wade.

Ian: I prefer the hobbled, limping version serving metaphorical penance for the tracks that were laid for him straight to the free throw line in the 2006 Finals. Ball Don’t Lie.

Jack: Wade was active and energetic offensively, but I’m not sure his solid individual numbers paint an accurate portrayal of his impact.  All too often he pounded the ball after receiving a high screen, getting the Heat out of rhythm and rendering LeBron spot-up bystander.  That won’t be good enough against the Spurs, as Wade’s team-worst plus/minus (-11) properly indicates.

Jared: Was he? 17 points on 15 shots, 2 rebounds, 2 assists. I didn’t really “feel” like he had a huge impact on the game, either.

Jordan: That was fun! And I’m sure LeBron appreciated the help. Now, Miami hopes Wade can keep that production up.

5. Duncan’s halftime buzzer-beater or Manu’s curveball bouncepass to Bonner: which made you feel more like you wanted to be a basketball player when you grow up?

Amin: While Ginobili’s pass was something I still can’t comprehend, Duncan’s shot was so nuts to me. There were 0.8 seconds left in the half, and he got the ball off the inbounds pass, created space, took the jumper, nailed it, never broke a sweat. It was the moment when I knew, for a fact, he was an automaton.

Ian: Curveball. Even Pedro Martinez thought it was ridiculous.

Jack: Curveball, but I was just as impressed by several seemingly more routine passes Manu made last night.  Miami’s aggressive pick-and-roll defensively strategy will give Ginobili ample opportunities to show off his passing flair.  What a joy to watch.

Jared: Manu’s bounce pass. That thing was inhuman.

Jordan: curveball curveball curveball curveball. Oh my god I needed a cigarette and a change of pan–too much? Too much.

6. After last night, the Big 3-era Heat have now lost four Game 1s in the playoffs. They have gone on to sweep the following 4 games. Do you see that happening in this series?

Amin: I have zero clue how to factor last night’s game as some sort of projection point. Certainly, the Spurs outplayed the Heat down the stretch. Part of that was due to Duncan checking in right as LeBron checked out. They made up for some lost ground there, and the Spurs never ceded it. Assuming Wade plays with the same level of energy through the whole series, and assuming that Kawhi Leonard will eventually make another corner three sometime before the world ends, the Spurs are not getting run over in 4 consecutive games.

Ian: No, and also no.

Jack: No way.  This series is going six games at least, and we should all hope for longer.  It might be a classic.

Jared: No. This is going 7.

Jordan: Absolutely not. This is going to be a long, terrific series.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 6/7/13: THIS SERIES, YOU GUYS

When the Spurs made their last appearance in the NBA Finals against LeBron James in 2007, it drew the lowest TV ratings in Finals history. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if we continue to get games like we saw last night consistently throughout this series, the executives at ABC won’t be upset with the numbers that come in from the folks at Nielsen. What. A. Game. Usually it isn’t difficult to identify an equal amount of Lion Faces and Lemon Faces over the course of the night, but last night’s contest was so well played that the Lemon Faces were more challenging than usual. Let’s hit the highlights.

Lion Face: Tony Parker

To quote John Starks, “Did this dude just did this?”

The Heat played excellent defense for approximately 23.9999 seconds on the most critical possession of the game, but Tony Parker somehow, some way found the smallest crack of daylight possible in order to make Game 1 a two possession game in the waning moments. Parker finished the game with 21 points and 6 assists, but it’s that shot that will be remembered for years to come.

Lemon Face: The Heat’s 4th Quarter

Although they entered the final period with a three point lead, the Heat went away from everything that allowed them to build that lead in the fourth quarter. Both teams did an excellent job taking care of the ball throughout the game as they combined for 12 turnovers total, but four of Miami’s eight turnovers in the game occurred in the fourth which ultimately proved to be costly. Miami also missed 13 of the 18 shots that they took in the quarter including all five three-point attempts. The Big Three contributed heavily to that as James, Wade, and Bosh combined to go 3-11 from the floor over the course of those 12 minutes. After holding the lead for the majority of a game, Miami finally surrendered the lead at the 7:00 mark of the fourth, and San Antonio never relinquished it from there.

Lion Face: LeBron James

Was that the quietest triple double we’ve seen this season? Last night from far from a game where LeBron simply imposes his will on everybody else on the floor, yet his stat line of 18 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists still jumps off the page at you. LeBron may not be 50 times better than he was when he faced San Antonio in 2007, as he claims, but he is certainly improved on the last Game 1 he turned in against the Spurs where he went for a 14-7-4 on 25% shooting (4-16).

Lemon Face: Chris Bosh

When Chris Bosh is hitting his threes, the Miami Heat are as unguardable as any team in the NBA. When he goes 0-4 from long range like he did last night, they are very beatable. Bosh took a contested 3 with a man in his face and 7 seconds left on the shot clock early in the first quarter, missed a wide open triple a few minutes later, missed another wide open 3 halfway through the fourth which would have given Miami the lead, and then missed yet another long range shot that would have cut the Spurs lead to one with 1:00 remaining in the game. Tack on another disappointing rebounding effort from Bosh, and it’s clear that he earned the Lemon Face. At least he scored in double digits for the first time in six games!

Lion Face: This Manu pass

GIF via @SBNationGIF

I watched this GIF over and over again, and I still for the life of me cannot comprehend the physics of this pass. I’m still not fully convinced that ABC didn’t hire a special effects crew to doctor that footage on televisions across the world. You shouldn’t be able to throw a screwball with a basketball. You just shouldn’t.

Limon Face: NBA Fans

Good news everyone! After one game, it appears that we are about to be treated to an absolutely thrilling series which is all we can ask for when it comes to The Finals. Bad news everyone! We’re only getting somewhere between three and six more games this NBA season. Enjoy it while it lasts because as a great philosopher once said, “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

A Vast Sea of Helplessness

bogenfreund | Flickr

Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s been covering the Celtics for nearly four years, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after the Pacers came up short in Monday night’s Game 7 against the Heat.

Quite possibly the most prevalent bit of NBA conventional wisdom, right up there with such nuggets of genius as “You can’t teach height” and “Defense wins championships,” is the idea that there’s nothing worse than being a middling team and falling into an endless loop of first-round playoff exits. Everyone knows the peril of basketball purgatory — if you’re too good to fall into the lottery and too bad to be a serious championship threat, there’s no way out, and you’re doomed to mediocrity forever.

The Indiana Pacers worked for years to disprove this theory. After the Malice at the Palace fomented the downfall of a legitimate contender in 2004, the franchise proceeded to endure eight straight seasons in the middle, never winning fewer than 32 games or more than 44. During that time, not once did they win multiple playoff rounds, and not once did they make a draft pick higher than 10th

It was really, really hard for Indy to break out of that funk. The aforementioned No. 10 draft pick was Paul George in 2010; they traded the No. 15 a year later for George Hill. Add those pieces to a foundation of Danny Granger (remember him?) and Roy Hibbert, then throw in a timely free-agent signing in David West, and you’ve got yourself a finally-better-than-mediocre basketball team.

After nearly a decade, the Pacers had finally built something they could be proud of.

At least it appeared that way. But what happened last night makes you rethink things a little bit.

To the Pacers’ credit, they pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in these Eastern Conference finals, which is something virtually no one expected any team to do this spring. The mighty Heat, winners of 27 consecutive games just a couple months ago, were pushed to the brink of elimination, and that’s something George and Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers can tell their grandchildren someday.

But how depressing is it to think that a seven-game exit was probably the Pacers’ ceiling? That no matter how “interesting” things began to look at certain points over these last two weeks, the chances of Indy actually winning this series in the end were precisely 0.00000 percent all along? That no matter how shrewdly constructed this Pacer team was, no matter how well coached they were, no matter how hard they fought to unseat the Heat as East champs, there was simply no out-talenting the unbelievable talent that is LeBron James?

That’s pretty damn depressing if you ask me. The Pacers worked for years and years to build themselves into something other than a first-round exit team. But ultimately, what’s the difference between a first-round exit and a third-round exit? In a league where rings are everything, a conference finals berth is nothing.

This is where we’re at. This is what LeBron’s relentless LeBronniness has done to the NBA. It’s left the other 29 teams in the league, some of them very good teams relative to the other squads comprised by mere mortals, wondering… what’s the point?

I suppose there’s some pride to be had in playing seven competitive, highly watchable games against the best team in the universe. The Pacers were one fluky 3-point shooting performance away from stealing Miami’s perch atop the East, and that’s saying something. Only it’s kinda not. Watching this series, you had this tingling sense that a Heat victory was a foregone conclusion, even when the Pacers tied it 1-1, then 2-2, then 3-3. LeBron was never really going to lose this one.

Basketball purists trumpeted this series as a potentially legendary one, a picture-perfect matchup of hoops yin and yang. You had the stylistic clash of an athletic, running, gunning supersquad and an old-school defensive team led by an old-school defensive big man. It was a beautiful sentiment. Beautiful, but baloney. This wasn’t a Taoist equilibrium — this was a food chain. The Heat were built to devour the Pacers, and devour them they did.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Pacers. They’re a likable group of guys, an unassuming team from an unassuming town, they worked hard to reach this point, and they never had a chance.

The irony is that largely, this team was built by Larry Bird, the quintessential competitor, the guy who famously walked into the building for a 3-point shootout and asked the rest of the field, “Which one of you’s coming in second place?”

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pacers coming in second. Not only now, but it wouldn’t surprise a soul if they wound up right back here again next year, and the year after, and the year after that.

Indiana spent nine years building a team that was better than mediocre. But in the end, all they reached was a different kind of purgatory.

Thanks, LeBron. Thanks, Miami. As long as you’re around, everyone is mediocre.