The NBA Finals shifted to a 2-3-2 format after the 1984 Finals, when the Lakers and Celtics battled for seven unforgettable games as NBA employees and media members bounced between coasts like cross-country ping-pong balls. This wasn’t your father’s NBA anymore. Ratings were soaring. More and more people wanted to cover the Finals because more and more fans cared. Thanks to the incomparable brilliance of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and CBS finally showing every Finals game live, you could feel things shifting — the NBA was becoming a powerhouse.
That’s when the new NBA commissioner made a call. If we’re promoting our league and doing everything possible to make it bigger and broader, David Stern wondered, then why make it HARDER for the media to cover us?
In 1984, the now-legendary Game 4 happened on a Wednesday in Los Angeles. Everyone flew back to Boston for Friday night’s Game 5 (Boston jumped to a 3-2 lead), then zoomed back to Los Angeles for Sunday afternoon’s Game 6, not knowing if they were eventually headed home or back to Boston (and because of the costs, they couldn’t make arrangements for both scenarios). When the Lakers staved off elimination, by all accounts, the ensuing scramble to return to Boston for Tuesday night’s Game 7 was insane.
So I understand why they switched to 2-3-2, especially after covering a few of these Finals; it just makes everything easier. Just know that, sometimes, it has worked against the team with home-court advantage. (Warning: Sour Grapes Alert.) For instance, the 1985 Celtics tied the series at 2-2 on Dennis Johnson’s buzzer-beating jumper …
… regaining control of the series and igniting 25 years of demons for the tortured Lakers fans. At that point, Boston had beaten the Lakers in eight straight Finals, and Jerry West was probably thinking about murdering Red Auerbach and drinking his blood in a Satanic ritual. Had they headed back to an inevitably steamy Boston Garden for Friday night’s Game 5, with the Celtics riding three decades of momentum (DJ’s shot being the latest), I can’t imagine them losing. Instead, the Lakers fended them off at the Forum in Game 5 as KC Jones inexplicably ran his best four guys into the ground — 48 minutes for DJ, 46 for McHale, 44 for Bird and Parish1 — with a do-or-die Game 6 looming 36 hours later. So long, series momentum.
According to Magic, the Lakers packed one day of clothes for their Boston trip, feeling like they had to finish that series on Sunday … or else. And they did. (I’m still bitter about McHale shredding the Lakers for that entire game, then fouling out with six minutes to go ON AN ABOMINATION OF A CALL — go to the 5:45 mark of this clip — but that’s another story for another time.) What happens in that series if it’s 2-2-1-1-1? We’ll never know.
Since 1985, we’ve seen seven other 2-3-2 Finals in which the home team hosted Game 6 while trailing 3-2. Here are the relevant data points …
• No home team ever won Game 6, then lost Game 7.2
• Four other home teams were knocked out in Game 6: the 1993 Suns (to Chicago on John Paxson’s game-winning 3); the 1998 Jazz (to Chicago on MJ’s iconic should-have-ended-his-career game winner); the reeling 2006 Mavericks (to Miami in a series co-produced by the WWE); and the similarly reeling 2011 Heat (to a Mavs team that pulled a Jedi mind trick on LeBron and turned him into Tim Thomas). The ’85 Celts and ’06 Mavs have the best “Not having the 2-2-1-1-1 screwed us!” cases; when it comes to Dallas, there was a massive difference between (a) going home for Game 5 tied 2-2, and (b) playing Game 5 in Miami, then losing in the last two seconds because this happened.
• The 1988 Lakers ripped Detroit’s heart out over two agonizing nights, stealing Game 6 by one point despite an E-P-I-C Isiah Thomas performance (43 for the game, 25 in the third quarter), then gritting out Game 7′s victory thanks to Big Game James (36-16-10), Magic Johnson (19 and 14),3 and an incredible final two seconds that included the crowd prematurely surging on the floor and Magic decking Isiah (no call!) when the Pistons only trailed by three. This would have melted Twitter had it happened 25 years later. (Fast-forward to the two-minute mark.)
• The 1994 Rockets gutted out consecutive nail-biters over the Knicks, with Hakeem Olajuwon (30-10 and 25-10-7) outplaying Patrick Ewing (17-15 and 17-10) and blocking John Starks’s game-winning 3 in Game 6.
We also learned a valuable lesson: When John Starks is your go-to guy, that means John Starks is your go-to guy.
• The 2010 Lakers beat Boston handily in Game 6, aided by Kendrick Perkins’s first-half knee injury (back when Perk was actually a valuable role player). In Game 7 (warning: SOUR GRAPES ALERT!), Kobe Bryant nearly shot the Lakers out of a title before they regrouped in the fourth quarter, pounded the Celtics inside, got enough officiating help to inspire a YouTube montage called “The NBA FIXED Game 7 of the 2010 Finals,”4 and made “6-for-24″ a running joke for every bitter Celtics fan who hasn’t gotten over that game yet. (Like me.)
Here’s the point: It’s really, really, really, really difficult to win those last two home games when you’re down 3-2. Pistons fans still can’t believe they blew the ’88 title. Knicks fans spent the last two decades trying to unsee that Hakeem block. Celtics fans will never stop being bitter about Perkins’s injury, or our boys squandering a 13-point lead in the second half of Game 7 and letting Kobe off the hook. You never get over this stuff. Never. It never goes away.
And when you blow the Finals at home and have to watch the other guys celebrating, you never get over that, either. I don’t know if I like the 2-3-2 format, but when you have the home team trailing in Game 6, you sure can’t argue with the results. Every time, it has been memorable. And history says that, if you’re the road team, you HAVE to win Game 6.
So those are the stakes for San Antonio. Just for the hell of it, here’s everything else at stake tonight:
Tony Parker: A second Finals MVP (maybe), a guaranteed Hall of Fame spot, and the Best Point Guard Alive championship belt. That’s a fun list, by the way …
1946-52: Who The Hell Knows?
1952-60: Bob Cousy
1960-69: Oscar Robertson
1969-72: Walt Frazier
1972-73: Tiny Archibald
1973-74: Walt Frazier
1974-76: Tiny Archibald
1976-77: Pete Maravich5
1977-79: Gus Williams
1979-80: Micheal Ray Richardson6
1980-81: Tiny Archibald
1982-91: Magic Johnson
1991-92: Tim Hardaway
1992-94: John Stockton
1994-96: Penny Hardaway
1996-98: Gary Payton
1998-2004: Jason Kidd
2004-07: Steve Nash
2007-09: Chris Paul
2009-10: Steve Nash
2010-11: Derrick Rose
2011-12: Chris Paul
2012-13: Tony Parker
Last note on Parker: You’re not stumbling into an NBA championship on the road. It just doesn’t happen. You’re not getting crazy shooting barrages from role players like San Antonio got in Games 3 and 5; on the road, you need one of your best guys to be THE best player on the floor. The ’85 Lakers had Kareem and Magic. The ’93 and ’98 Bulls had MJ. The ’06 Heat had Wade. The ’11 Mavs had Dirk. For San Antonio to win the title, Parker has to come through like he did in Game 1 … or Tim Duncan needs to have one of those Flashback Duncan Closeout Games (more on this in a second). There’s no other way.
Boris Diaw: The chance to be mentioned first in any “Who’s the fattest guy to play important minutes for a title team?” conversation. That reminds me — after spending a week in San Antonio, I can’t believe Boris doesn’t weigh 400 pounds. I gained five pounds in just seven days. If you sliced my veins right now, barbecue sauce would come out. They don’t serve veggies in San Antonio unless you count pickles or lettuce. I actually Googled the words “Best salads San Antonio” last weekend because I thought I was dying. So congrats to the real Big 3 — Boris and his boobs.7 I can’t believe you guys are still here.
Mike Miller: The amnesty clause … unless he rallies in these last two games.
Gary Neal: A starting spot on the 2013 Irrational Confidence All-Stars. Right now he’s coming off the bench. One Vinnie Johnson–like performance in Game 6 or 7 could change that.
Erik Spoelstra: Either “you’re a borderline genius” or “you got waaaaaaaaaaaaay too cute,” with no in-between. Look, I voted for him for “Coach of the Year.” But by trying to make history (and maybe revolutionize basketball a little) with Miami’s relentless small-ball routine, he didn’t leave himself many outs these last two rounds. It’s also possible that he wore down LeBron, Wade and Bosh (all of them looked exhausted at various times this month), and he definitely ruined Shane Battier (who banged bodies one too many times with the David Wests and Carlos Boozers of the league). I never thought we’d see San Antonio win Game 5 by going small against Miami — not after a regular season in which Miami effectively mastered that style of play — but that’s exactly what happened. They couldn’t stop San Antonio’s slash-and-kick guys from getting into the paint.
Again, we just spent a season watching Miami master small ball. I thought what San Antonio did to them was stunning. Can you ride a gimmick all the way to a title? Nash’s Suns certainly couldn’t do it. Neither could any of Don Nelson’s or Doug Moe’s teams. Do you need to be more malleable in the Finals? We’re about to find out.
Tracy McGrady: A Spurs title automatically vaults T-Mac past Mitch Richmond into pole position on the “Most Embarrassing Ring Ever Chased And Won By A Washed-Up Former All-Star” list. They should have just signed Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
David Stern: The chance for one last remarkable Finals. He has to be beaming about the possibilities right now. After all, his best player and his favorite small-market team are involved. Two of his favorite owners are involved. He’s probably getting a seven-gamer, the ideal scenario for any Finals (except for 2007, which should have been called after 10 minutes). He avoided any officiating catastrophes (at least so far). And Game 5′s glorious slash-and-kick basketball orgy was the culmination of some thoughtful rule changes after the hideous 2004 Finals, when the defenses had just gotten TOO good. They worked. Now we’re here. The Commish has to feel good about retiring right after the — whoops, he still has eight months to go because it’s the longest retirement in sports history. My bad.
Pat Riley: Potentially a shitty summer. Because if the Heat blow the Finals for the second time in three years, they can’t just run it back again. If they win these last two? That’s Ring No. 8. Either way, don’t sleep on Riley retiring to Malibu after the season to avoid another year of “What’s happening with LeBron?” drama. This might be his last hurrah.
Cleveland: Miami blowing the Finals means that (a) former Cav Danny Green helped shoot them out of the Finals (KARMA!!!!); (b) LeBron’s Finals record would fall to a Wilt-like 1-3 (KARMA!!!!!!!!); and (c) the odds would improve that LeBron will re-sign with the Cavs 13 months from now. Just remember — the best player on a defending NBA champ has NEVER switched teams. It’s never happened.
(Of course, here’s your God Hates Cleveland scenario: Miami wins these next two, gets the three-peat next year, then LeBron re-signs with the Heat. The lesson, as always … )
Kawhi Leonard: “Unsung hero” status as well as Manu’s unofficial Big 3 spot next year. For the record, I think we should retire the “Big 3″ moniker for those guys when Manu leaves. We learned our lesson in 1988, when the Four Horsemen didn’t fold after Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard jumped to the WWE in 1988. Well, at least I did.
Ray Allen: A little more distance between him and Reggie Miller in the “If you could have one long-range shooter for their entire career, who would you pick?” game. Did you notice Ray quietly going into Ray Allen Mode during the second half of Game 5? Either the combination of Manu’s throwback game and Danny Green’s ongoing heat check inspired a vintage Ray performance, or the extra minutes (33 in Game 4, 30 in Game 5) got him going.
But after watching him for five years in Boston (and loving every minute of it), I learned to tell when Ray is getting locked in — as soon as he’s darting around purposely during dead-ball stops like he’s in a hurry, that’s the telltale sign. He’s so locked in, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. I’m gonna stomp over here and grab a towel. I’m gonna stomp over to the scorer’s table for no reason whatsoever. I’m gonna stomp to the other side of the court and see if anyone follows me. There’s more than a little OCD going on. When Ray Allen feels like that, he just wants to curl off screens and jack 3s; nothing else matters. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Looking big-picture: Ray fled the Celtics Titanic one year before Doc and KG tried to hop in their Clippers rowboat; at the time, Boston fans (and even Ray’s teammates) resented him for it, even if it was a savvy career move from a guy who didn’t feel much loyalty to a team that had tried to deal him twice. Ray Allen looked out for himself, just like Doc Rivers did last weekend. That’s life. But he picked Miami because he wanted to play in the Finals, put more distance between him and Miller, and maybe even have a vintage moment on the biggest stage possible. It almost happened in Game 5. I think it’s going to happen in one of these next two games. Maybe even tonight.
Miami Welcome Party: We’re one more Heat loss away from this being funny again.
Gregg Popovich: It’s already been a full-fledged breakout spring for Pop, thanks to San Antonio’s return to the Finals and Pop finally getting his just due as one of America’s most lovable curmudgeons. Not since Clint Eastwood’s heyday has someone found a better balance between abrupt answers, intimidating stares, surly frowns and nothing else. And like Clint, you always feel like — deep down — there’s a good guy lurking behind that sarcastic façade.8 I had a chance to meet Off-the-Record Pop in Memphis and loved talking to him. On-the-Record Pop does everything but yell at you to get off his lawn. Like Bill Belichick, he’s figured this whole thing out. The media is a nuisance. The media can only get in his team’s way. So he treats them accordingly.
He has been brilliant in the playoffs, save for a rare hiccup in Game 4 when he needlessly angered Dwyane Wade by sticking Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw on him. The implication was clear: We WANT Miami to go to Wade. It backfired. And then some. Pop made up for his rare mistake in Game 5 by smartly starting Manu Ginobili — foiling Miami’s small-ball move, allowing Manu to play with better teammates and jump-starting Game 5′s victory. Now he’s one victory away from ascending to the NBA Coaching Mount Rushmore. Right now it’s Auerbach, Jackson and Riley. That’s it. We’ve been waiting for the fourth and final guy for years. Pretty big stakes, I’d say.
Joey Crawford: Two nights ago, Mount Horeb reader John Calderone e-mailed me, “Can I place a bet somewhere that Joey Crawford will ref game 6? Is there any other professional league in the world that fans know who will ref future games before current games end? Does this change when we get a new commissioner?” I’m going the other way: Joey is like Rowdy Roddy Piper. Just when you think you know the answers, JOEY CHANGES THE QUESTIONS.9 Joey being pro-Miami tonight is too easy. Either way, just remember — we’re all here to see Joey Crawford.
Dwyane Wade: Came out of hibernation in Game 4 (32 points, 5 steals) and Game 5 (25 points, 10 rebounds) … and just in time, because jokes like “It’s too bad Dwyane Wade missed the Finals” and “Albert Pujols thinks Dwyane Wade looks great” were piling up. In Game 5, I thought they used him too much (to LeBron’s detriment), which was ironic because he looked like luggage in those first three games. But how do you explain that? Was he really that hurt? Did he make a top-secret trip to Germany?10 Was Wade on something between “cruise control” and “putting a 46-cent stamp on it” during those first three Finals games? Did Pop wake him up with the infamous Splitter/Diaw move? Is Wade still injured but riding adrenaline and anger and that’s it? Was he sulking because Miami had become LeBron’s team, then snapped out of it in time? Does he have an evil twin brother who swaps bodies with him and mails in basketball games?
I can’t say this strongly enough: I have no idea. None. I’m totally and completely confused by everything we’ve seen from Dwyane Wade. Regardless, you know the stakes: He is always going to have that first decade, the 2006 Finals MVP and those two rings. He could go 2-for-20 tonight in a 20-point loss and he’d still be the fourth-best shooting guard ever. But if Miami pulls off these last two victories with Wade playing well? We’d have to rewrite the legend of Wade yet again. Either way, I’m predicting a big bounce-back season from him in 2014 — partly because it’s a contract year, partly because he realizes that he can’t coast every summer anymore. Maybe he doesn’t have to be a workout maniac like Kobe, but he needs a better summer workout routine than this:11
ABC/ESPN: During the Mavs-Heat series two years ago, I joked that Disney would make “an extra $110 billion (all numbers approximate)” from a Game 7. (The series ended in six, followed by ESPN president John Skipper probably driving around downtown Miami looking like this.) Same joke applies this year. We’ve only had five seven-game Finals since 1979, by the way.
Manu Ginobili: One last title, obviously. You know what’s weird, though? I feel like he already played his Super Bowl. Manu looked somewhere between “old” and “washed-up” for the entire season (especially in the playoffs), and with his 36th birthday looming, the thought of him becoming “GINOBILI!!!!!!!!!!!!” again just seemed impossible. He wasn’t even one of the six best players on his own team. Or so we thought.
Here’s the thing: When you spend your whole career rooting for a memorable player on a series of memorable teams, they usually end up having that One Last Great Game — almost always at home, always when you least expect it — and it’s almost like they climbed into a time machine or something. I vividly remember being there for that One Last Great Game for Kevin McHale (against Charlotte, in 1993) …
And Larry Bird (against Cleveland, in 1992) …
… just like I guarantee Lakers fans remember being there when it happened for Kareem, Worthy or Magic (whatever those games were). It’s glorious. It really is. We were supposed to be objective sitting up on ABC’s TV set for Game 5, but it was impossible NOT to get caught up in what Manu was doing (or in the fans chanting his name). I had goose bumps on my goose bumps. You’ll always remember that One Last Great Game. Believe me.
Chris Bosh: Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the odds-on favorite for Miami’s fall guy if they don’t win the title! ESPN.com might have to spin off the Trade Machine and make a Chris Bosh Special Edition Trade Machine. My biggest fear if I’m a Miami fan tonight: Tim Duncan reaching back into the wayback machine and kicking Chris Bosh’s ass. That reminds me …
Tim Duncan: The easy stuff: A fifth title, an undefeated Finals record and official “Best Player of His Generation” status … with an outside shot at Finals MVP No. 4.
But it goes deeper than that. Game 1 belonged to Tony Parker. Game 2 belonged to Miami’s prodigious ceiling (the incredible 33-5 run, when they blew San Antonio out of the gym), symbolized by LeBron’s iconic block on Splitter. Game 3 belonged to Green and Neal (13-for-19 combined from 3). Game 4 belonged to Wade (his Verbal Kint game). Game 5 belonged to Manu. So if you’re playing the “Who’s up next?” game, the choices are either LeBron just eviscerating the Spurs in Game 6 (à la Game 6 in Boston last June), or Duncan going all-out and having one of those sneaky-great Duncan closeout games.12
What would be a better storybook ending than a 37-year-old Duncan throwing up one of those old-school “32 and 15s” on Miami (shades of 38-year-old Kareem dropping 29 on Boston in 1985′s clincher) than having one of those 30-second-long sobby hugs with Pop when everything hits him and he starts thinking about their 16 years together, his divorce, everyone thinking he was yesterday’s news, how good winning feels … I mean, if I’m a Heat fan, I am patently TERRIFIED of this scenario. I don’t know who’s winning this series, but I’d bet anything on Duncan having a throwback game either tonight or in Game 7. It’s coming.
The Miami Heat: It’s an either/or situation: Either two titles in three years, or two Finals losses in three years (both at home). We’ll remember them either way. But one ship already sailed: They blew their chance to go down as one of the best NBA playoff teams ever. Too many losses, too vulnerable, too many defensive lapses, too many desperate lineup changes too late in the season. Everything crested in Game 5, when the Spurs absolutely shredded a once-elite Miami defense for 114 points and 60 percent shooting. The Heat lost their invincible identity these last two rounds. I thought 66 wins and the 27-game streak guaranteed them immortality if they won the title, but for any “greatest teams ever” list, you have to start nitpicking, right?
The ’86 Celtics, ’96 Bulls and ’87 Lakers (the three greatest teams ever) lost just three playoff games each. The ’01 Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs. The ’83 Sixers went 12-1. The ’71 Bucks went 12-2. The ’89 Pistons went 15-2. The 2013 Heat? They just went 6-6 in their last 12 playoff games. You know what that means? They’re out of the club. I want my Greatest Teams Ever to rip through the playoffs. They’re out of the club for the same reasons that the ’08 Celtics (16-10) and ’00 Lakers (15-8) are out of the club.
(But again, we’re nitpicking. The goal is to win the title … right?)
Danny Green: If the Spurs win, he’ll be mentioned for the rest of eternity whenever another playoff role player bursts into flames. Remember when Trevor Ariza made 48 percent of his 3s in the 2009 playoffs and we were saying, “My God, what’s gotten into Trevor Ariza?” That Ariza barrage looks like child’s play compared to this Green thing. He’s made 49 of 91 3-pointers in the last three rounds. He’s already broken the Finals record for 3s and made nearly 70 percent of them. He is out of his mind. He has turned into Glen Rice crossed with one of those Disney sports-movie hero characters (like the Invincible guy crossed with The Rookie). He’s out–Ray Allening Ray Allen, for God’s sake. I have readers wondering if he’s Jimmy Chitwood or Jesus Shuttlesworth’s illegitimate son in He Got Game 2; another reader seriously wondered if Green had sold his soul; another asked if we should just change the name “heat check” to “Danny Green.”
Oh, and he’s one more game-winning barrage away from being the most improbable Finals MVP ever (and it’s not even close). And if all of this isn’t weird enough, HE PLAYED ON THE 2010 CAVALIERS WITH LEBRON.
Question for the “Spurs are boring” people (if there are any left): How is any of this boring? I can’t remember anything even remotely approaching this Danny Green thing. Even Linsanity happened during the regular season; Greensanity is happening during the playoffs and peaking during the Finals. I can’t wait to find out how I’m going to remember this 15 years from now.
LeBron James: Yup, it’s another “Lebron’s legacy is at stake!” game. We’re up to like 12 for his career, and really, Game 6 against Boston should have ended the legacy stuff once and for all. But now we’re here. Again.
As always with LeBron, it’s a little unfair. He has played an unfathomable amount of minutes since Christmas of 2011 — 138 of 148 regular-season games, 44 playoff games (and counting), plus everything in the 2012 Olympics to boot — and it’s hard to remember another NBA team asking more from its best player. He’s the Heat’s leading scorer, rebounder and assist guy, their main creator, their best playmaker and their best defender. He plays four positions for them. He’s averaged a whopping 42 minutes per game these last two postseasons — just an unconscionable workload considering everything they ask from him, and if you don’t think we’re seeing the side effects lately, you’re crazy. The 2013 Heat have an on-off switch because they’re defending a title (you’re never as hungry a second time), because Wade and Bosh coast too much, and because of LeBron’s historic workload. Those are the three reasons.
At the same time …
When you have a chance to be the best player ever, or one of them, we start grading you on a humongous curve. We just do. Disappear for the first two and a half quarters of Game 2 of the Finals, we’re gonna notice. No-show Game 3 of the Finals, we’re gonna notice. We’re like overbearing Little League parents when it comes to LeBron, and only because we care about what we’re watching right now. We want to say someday that we saw LEBRON JAMES play basketball in the same way we talk about MICHAEL JORDAN, in the most reverential terms. Whenever he screws that up, we resent him for it.
One of my readers (N. Massey in Ohio) compared LeBron to Peyton Manning, adding, “Each guy has one ring, multiple MVPs and a bunch of disappointing playoff exits.” Another (Jay in Sunnyvale) thought Wade and LeBron were like two pickup basketball players who were “just way better than everyone else on the court, and they know it, so they just cruise on games when it’s not important, but if you piss them off or if they need to win a game when the wait is getting long, they just take over and blow the other team off the court.” These are the e-mails I get about LeBron. They come every day, in all shapes and forms, people just trying to figure out a wholly unique basketball player that we’re never seeing again.
Two years ago, I wrote before Game 5 of the Finals, “Who are you, LeBron James? What’s inside you? And why do I care so much?”
The truth is … we still don’t know. Or we do. Or we don’t and we do. I am ready for anything tonight, and maybe that’s the best thing you could ever say about LeBron James. As always, the sky is the limit.