I have very few rules in life, but this is one of them: Any time a team chokes away the NBA Finals 11 months after throwing a “Welcome Party” for itself, and it happens on the same night that Matt Stone and Trey Parker win 35 Tony Awards, I have to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning and write a retro diary to figure out what in God’s name happened.
Quick reminder: With Dallas leading Miami by two (53-51) at halftime of Game 6, Vegas favored Miami by 4½ points in the second half.1 You know what that means? To the bitter end, even after evidence mounted that LeBron James wasn’t ready for this level of scrutiny or that Miami was a modern-day version of Mike Tyson (the big, bad bully who morphed into an exceedingly beatable bully as soon as you stood your ground and socked them in the mouth), a majority of people still believed they were going to figure it out. They did not. Let’s pick things up after halftime.
11:48 remaining, third quarter: After a 1-for-12 first half, Dirk swishes a jumper to put Dallas up by 4. You can’t forget the historical stakes for Dirk here: Had he completely gakked this game (something like 6-for-27, only without the crunch-time heroics) and then Dallas blown the title, a sobbing Karl Malone would have been waiting for him after Game 7 with the Historical Heimlich belt. Here, you take it, it’s yours now. Big first shot by him.
10:40: Miami regains the lead on a Chalmers 3 and a Bosh jumper, then J.J. Barea answers with one of his patented herky-jerky pickup basketball moves for a layup. Dallas by 1. No NBA player captured the sensation of playing pickup basketball with a seemingly harmless short guy who ends up being one of the last players picked, then proceeds to torch everybody to their ongoing shock, quite like J.J. Barea.2
10:17: Tyson Chandler misses a layup, grabs the board and puts it back in. He was tougher than any Miami frontcourt guy this series, bringing us to a rarely seen double irony: Oklahoma City nearly traded for him in February 2009, then voided the deal after giving him a physical (and lost to Chandler’s team in the conference finals 28 months later); and Michael Jordan gave him to Dallas last summer for Erick Dampier’s waivable contract, inadvertently giving Dallas the missing piece it needed to beat LeBron James in the Finals … you know, the guy everyone keeps saying is the next Michael Jordan. MJ really is the greatest.
9:36: The last LeBron sequence just reminded me of something: If somebody on YouTube doesn’t put LeBron’s face on one of the Wiggles in this “Hot Potato” video soon, I’m going to be bitterly disappointed. I don’t ask for much. Come on.
9:22: Is this how people felt when they were watching the Giants beat the Patriots in February 2008? Wait, don’t answer that.
9:10: Dirk nails a jumper (Miami by 5), then Wade misses a 3 that bounces over the backboard. Remember, LeBron and Wade were never good long-range shooters, only they cruised to the Finals partly because LeBron was nailing some exceptionally tough 3s. Wade made 29 percent for his career, 28 percent in the first three rounds, and 26 percent in the Finals; he never got going. LeBron made 32.9 percent for his career, but in Miami’s eight Boston/Chicago victories plus Game 1 of the Finals, he made an improbable 20 of 39 3s. It couldn’t last. He missed 18 of his 23 in the last five Finals games.
Digging deeper: LeBron averaged 3.5 3s and 8.4 FT attempts during the regular season. In Rounds 2 and 3, he averaged 4.1 3s and 8.6 FT attempts. In the Finals, that flipped: 4.7 3s, 3.3 FT attempts. He stopped getting to the rim. You could say Dallas figured out how to defend him (to a degree, true), that the zone screwed him up (I guess), that Shawn Marion got into his head (possible), but really, he was afraid to attack the rim for whatever reason. Which, by the way, is his single greatest skill.
Will we ever figure out what happened to this guy in the Finals? Allow me to offer two dopey theories for what happened, and only because I believe everything HAS to be explained and can’t accept a world in which things don’t have an answer …
Remember when Wade tore into LeBron with three-plus minutes remaining in Game 3? When he yelled at him for eight solid seconds? When there was genuine anger in his eyes? When he did it right on the court, right in front of the other players, right in front of 20,000 fans and 10 million TV viewers?
LeBron was never the same after that.
When was the last time anyone ever really yelled at LeBron James? You’d have to go back to high school, right? He just spent the past 10 years being coddled by everyone (teammates, coaches, agents, entourage members, yes-men, general managers, owners, media members, etc.). Imagine he was a little kid (which really, he might be to some degree), and imagine you were his father and didn’t believe in yelling at your kids. Now, imagine your kid screwed up in his second-grade play and, for whatever reason, you broke character, snapped, and berated him for eight seconds in front of everyone. How would he handle that? Poorly, right? He’d pretend it didn’t affect him, but the more he thought about it, it would gnaw away at him (especially once his buddies said, “I can’t believe your dad yelled at you like that”).
Could that have been what happened to LeBron? Did those eight seconds shake his confidence beyond repair? Did he resent Wade for embarrassing him? Did he think to himself, “Fine, you want to act like this is your team, then YOU win this title?” I believe every basketball champion needs a pecking order of sorts; that’s just what the history of the league told us. Miami tried to cheat this concept by putting two of the league’s best three players on the same team. It worked for 8½ months; LeBron and Wade ran the team together and deferred to one another depending on the moment. Then the Finals rolled around, Wade kicked it up another gear, LeBron didn’t do the same, Wade called him out … and the team was NEVER the same. These are the facts.
Passed along by a friend of mine in NBA circles: LeBron caved from the never-ending scrutiny (as brutal as any athlete has ever faced in the Internet era) and his shaky inner circle, which consists of one parent (his mother, who battled a ton of problems over the years), his high school friends (who assumed an inordinately crucial role in his life without any real experience), his agents (who never threw their bodies in front of “The Decision”), and Miami’s management (who walked him into another fiasco with the Heat’s Welcome Party). By all accounts, he’s a genuinely nice and happy guy who just wants to be liked — he was never meant to be a villain, and as much as he tried to feed off the heat (no pun intended), once it piled up past a certain point, he broke. Maybe he felt that happening against the 2010 Celtics as well; maybe that’s why he chose to play with Wade in the first place.
And maybe that’s why, right now, he’s in total denial. Even in the postgame presser, when he should have been devastated the same way Magic Johnson was distraught after coming up small in the 1984 Finals, LeBron was doing the Frank Drebin “Nothing to see here, please disperse” routine, bristling at the notion that he choked and taking shots at anyone who rooted against him. That’s what you do when you’re surrounded by enablers — you blame everyone else, and you never look within. He never understood that people only rooted against him because that’s what you do when someone boasts before they’ve ever actually done anything.
Let’s say you’re in college and one of your buddies says, “See that girl over there? I’m taking her home tonight. And I’m doing this because I’m the funniest and best-looking guy in this room.” And let’s say he’s COMPLETELY serious. Guess what you’re doing if it doesn’t happen? You’re making fun of him. Relentlessly. Really, that’s what 50 percent of the Miami-related vitriol was about; the other 50 percent was because LeBron tried to stack the deck by playing with his biggest rival (we didn’t respect it), and because he broke Cleveland’s hearts on national TV (we didn’t like it). To this day, LeBron hasn’t shown any real regret about last summer; that’s the main reason everyone rooted against him. He couldn’t handle it. He caved. And now we’re here.
So it’s Theory A or Theory B, or maybe both, or maybe neither. As I wrote last Wednesday, I don’t know why I care so much. Maybe it’s because I know LeBron might be the most talented player I will ever watch, the Wilt of this generation, and I’m going to end up being pissed off that he never reached his potential and took me to a higher place as a sports fan … which is only the entire reason we watch sports in the first place, right? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and because once in a while, someone shows up who’s so good and so talented that he makes us say, “I know what’s going to happen next?” Like he’s giving us sports fan ESP? The best thing about Jordan’s final shot wasn’t that he made it, but that we knew he would make it. That’s why we revere him all these years later. Usually heroes come through only on command in movies; Jordan did it in real life. We loved him for it.
LeBron? We thought he was next. Then he fell apart against Boston. Then he chose to play with his buddy instead of beating him. Then he fell apart again. Forget about him losing; we’re losing, too. Nobody has ever fully explained that part to LeBron. We rooted against him this season because it’s fun to have villains in sports, and because it’s fun to see an overly confident person gets his or her comeuppance. Not because we hated his guts. There will be a day when we root for LeBron James again. You wait. Either way, thanks for indulging me. Back to the diary.
8:55: Offensive rebound/putback by Shawn Marion right over Wade. Dallas by 7. Timeout, Miami. “I don’t like the body language right now of the Miami Heat,” Mark Jackson says.3 After the timeout, Chandler gets whistled for a fourth foul, Miami cuts it to three, and Mike Breen is forced to say the words “Ian Mahinmi” … and then, Barea quells another potential crisis with a little stop-and-fade in the paint. He’s turning into his generation’s Calvin Murphy. If there are 14 Barea kids running around in 2028, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
6:42: Just wanted to commemorate this moment: Miami down three, gets a rebound and gets the ball to LeBron on the right side of the key, with J.J. Barea defending him one-on-one … and LeBron turns and throws a pass 20 feet backwards to Wade at midcourt. A few seconds later, Miami gives it back to LeBron, who reluctantly backs Barea down to the low post … and bowls him over. Offensive foul. All hail the King!
(Note that’s too important to be a footnote: If that sequence alone isn’t enough to inspire LeBron to lock himself in a gym all summer until he emerges with a spin move, a jump hook, and a Jordan-eseque fallaway, then he’s the biggest waste of talent in NBA history. You know at the car wash when they offer the “everything” package? That’s what God gave LeBron. He’s threatening to waste it. In a nutshell, this is what makes us so angry about him. It’s not The Decision, or his lack of self-awareness, or the fact that he’s a front-runner … it’s that he’s blowing the “everything” car-wash package. You see an athlete get handed the “everything” package maybe only five times in your life.)
6:12: History will show that Jason Kidd made 37.4 percent of his 3s in the 2011 playoffs (two a game), just not how many of them were momentum 3s. There were a bunch. He just hit another to double Dallas’ lead. I can’t wait until we’re at the same “I can’t believe he’s making these!” point with Rajon Rondo in 10 years. (Crossing my fingers.)
5:27: How great were those hard fouls by Brian Cardinal? He just doled out a two-handed chop on Bosh. Old-school playoff basketball, baby! If I were running the ESPN ticker late last night, I would have snuck a “The 1989 Pistons have agreed to a one-year deal with free agent forward Brian Cardinal” joke on there.
5:20: Breen mentions the 20-7 free throw disparity for Miami, then gets electroshocked by ABC producers.
5:07: Give-and-go with Nowitzki and Cardinal for a Dirk 3. (Dallas by 6.) Exactly 72 seconds later, Cardinal correctly reads Wade’s patented transition move (when he pretends to go right, then takes a hop step left) and takes a charge. That’s the great thing about the Finals: Role players matter. You can’t win with three guys. You need seven, at least, then you need a couple of random Brian Cardinal-type moments every game. That’s why Rick Carlisle so pointedly kept mentioning “team basketball” in the postgame presser last night. You need eight or nine guys to come through to win a title. We learn this every spring. And then, we forget it every summer, fall, and winter. The 2010-11 Heat tried to buck the system. Didn’t work.
3:35: Breen just yelled the words “Alley-oop to Mahinmi!” Take a guess how that one turned out.
3:06: Another hard foul by Cardinal! (On Udonis Haslem this time.) Miami’s fans are flipping out! Oh wait, no they aren’t. Ninety minutes later, in an NBA TV postgame interview, Mark Cuban called out Miami’s Game 6 fans and said that Mavericks fans (who filled 25 to 30 percent of the stadium by all accounts) “punked them out.” Warrants mentioning.4
3:06: Thanks to Hollywood for giving me a movie with Jim Carrey and penguins as my Father’s Day gift. How can I return it? Any ideas?
3:06: Coming out of timeout, ABC reruns the semi-altercation from the first half for the 980th time,5 probably to make up for the fact that it inexplicably cut to commercial as it was happening. It’s too bad ABC’s production crew didn’t film the raid of bin Laden’s house in Pakistan; we could have watched a commercial right as Seal Team Six was charging up the stairs.
2:28: Miami cuts it to three as Jackson and Van Gundy wonder if Dirk should reenter the game. (Totally disagreed with them on that one — Dallas’ supporting cast had proven it could hold the fort for a few minutes, and besides, Rick Carlisle had earned “don’t you dare question anything I’m doing” status two games before. He was the second-biggest winner of this series other than Dirk. There’s no better coach right now.) Terry quickly answers with a running banker. So there.
1:46: Gorgeous low-post spin move by LeBron on Marion for a layup. “Look to be aggressive LeBron James,” Mark Jackson pleads for the umpteenth time. “You gotta show up and make plays.” Two Marion free throws later, LeBron gets into the paint and finds an open Juwan Howard (who gets fouled and misses the freebies). That’s when ABC treats us to the following graphic:
LEBRON JAMES, FOURTH QUARTER, 2011 PLAYOFFS
1ST 3 RDS … FINALS
Pts: 7.6 … 2.2
FG: 45% … 25%
3FG: 8-18 … 0-7
0:47: Kidd chucks up an off-balance 3 at the end of the shot clock. Does it go in? Of course it does. (Mavs by eight. They’re 10-of-20 on 3s.) ABC forgets to cut to Kidd’s shooting coach, Bishop Fred Pickering.
0:00: Did Ian Mahinmi grab a huge rebound, then swish a jumper off a high screen to end the quarter as the Dallas fans in the building cheered wildly? Of course he did. Our score heading into the fourth: Dallas 81, Miami 72. This would have killed me if I were a Knicks fan being haunted by the summer of 2010; there’s just no way thousands of Mavericks fans would have infiltrated Madison Square Garden during a must-win Finals game. None.
12:00 remaining, fourth quarter: Doris Burke interviews Erik Spoelstra, who says that Miami Lohan needs to show “mental stability.” Good luck, Erik — we’re about three timeouts away from ABC cutting to LeBron trying to eat a big red candle like Brick Tamland.
10:32: With Dallas up 6, Nowitzki picks up his fourth foul on a Chalmers drive, then Chalmers hits both free throws. (Miami was 18-of-31 from the line to this point. Any Mavs fans who say they weren’t having Nam-like flashbacks to the 2006 Finals officials are lying.) That’s followed by Wade nearly picking off a pass, Jackson saying, “Right now Dwyane Wade has a look like he’s ready to take over this basketball game,” and then … DAGGER! Barea from 3! Dallas back up by 7. Remember that one.
9:57: Eddie House misses a wide-open 3. For the record, House played three minutes in Round 2; two minutes in Round 3; zero minutes in the first four Finals games; three minutes in Game 5; and 21 minutes in Game 6.6 That’s all you need to know about the 2010-11 Miami Heat.
9:30: Terry hits a midrange jumper, giving him 24 points in 25 minutes. (Dallas by 10.) And yes, when you combine Dallas’ title with Terry’s play the past three games, plus the 28-footer he nailed to win Game 5, plus the fact that he tattooed the NBA trophy on his right arm before the season, it’s clear that we have to rename our Irrational Confidence All-Star Team after him. Sorry, Vernon Maxwell. You had a great run. The torch has been passed.
8:45: Dallas goes zone; Wade immediately dribbles the ball off his foot. If my beloved Celtics go into next season without a zone defense in their arsenal, I’m killing everybody.
8:25: LeBron takes Terry off the dribble, spins to the left, and shoots a turnaround off the backboard right to Nowitzki. Barea answers with a twisting layup … good! Dallas by 12. Timeout, Miami. ABC comes out of commercial by showing the “taking my talents to South Beach” clip and some “Heat Welcome Party” footage. Couldn’t they have capped it off with Wade’s Eff-You 3 in Game 2 that started the Finals spiral? I wanted the Blowing Up In Your Face trifecta!
7:38: Chalmers draws a three-point play for bowling over Barea on a drive,7 followed by the obligatory shot of Mark Cuban bitching in the stands. We forget this now, but there was a point in this game where it was conceivable that Miami could eke out a close win with something like a 50-15 free throw disparity, followed by Cuban drawing the first ever $10 million fine in league history.8
5:16: Dirk (4-for-21 to this point) and LeBron score two baskets apiece; Bosh gets a three-point play; then Dirk throws it away, but Chalmers botches the fast break. Quietly a big moment. After a timeout, Kidd draws a foul and makes one of two. Then, LeBron drives on Kidd, gets stripped, ends up with the ball under the basket, and steps out of bounds. Uh-oh, the Emperor is naked again. Dallas by 8.
5:15-4:00: This was an exciting stretch: Dirk was 6-for-23 from the field, leaving the door open for one more miss and our second straight Finals MVP going 6-for-24 in the deciding game … followed by me spending the rest of the summer trying to figure out what to do with my Kobe/”6-for-24″ jokes. So what happened?
3:59: LeBron orders a double hot potato, followed by a Miami turnover and Nowitzki nailing a jumper. Dallas by 10 … with Nowitzki now 7-for-24! Crisis averted! We’ll remember this sequence for two things: (a) LeBron wanted no part of that possession (he couldn’t get rid of the ball fast enough),9 and (b) Wade finally gave up on the other end, jogging back on D, halfheartedly standing next to Marion and not even helping on a drive. This was the same guy who patrolled the court in Games 3 and 4 with his chest sticking out like Tim Olyphant in “Justified.” It’s like LeBron briefly broke him. You could have stuck a fork in Miami right here.
2:27: Wade goes one-on-one and makes a banker. (We’re in “every man for himself mode” now.)10 That’s followed by Dallas missing twice, getting offensive rebounds both times, then Dirk hitting an impossible double-clutch stepback right in front of Miami’s bench, then casually pumping his fist like Larry Bird circa 1988. Dallas by 10, timeout, Miami. Every Finals has a moment when you know it’s over. This was the moment.
2:27: Classic replay of Cuban reacting to Dirk’s dagger — it was Brendan Fraser’s famous Golden Globes clap, only if Fraser was winning the Golden Globe. Unrelated: I didn’t realize how happy I’d be for Cuban when the Mavericks finally won it all. Would you want him as your owner? Of course you would.
2:27: Van Gundy coming off a timeout as ABC shows a montage of Miami turnovers: “Just casual, careless turnovers, where your best players are just not playing their best when their best is needed … ” On cue, Miami runs their season-ending play for a guy who’s played nearly three times as many minutes in Game 6 as he did in the previous 15 playoff games … and you’re not gonna believe this, but Eddie House missed the wide-open 3. The lesson, as always: Three players can get you to the Finals, but eight players have to win it.
Highlights from the last two minutes: Miami fans flooding to the exits; Miami forgetting to foul; Dirk making a running layup in the final minute (then running back up the court with his right arm raised); Dallas reacting like the Hickory High bench; LeBron wandering around in a daze; Jackson proclaiming “Dirk Nowitzki is one of the top 20 players to ever play this game”; and Mark Jackson being right.
0:00: Our final: Dallas 105, Miami 95. So what did we learn?
- a. The “Nobody Believed in Us” Factor continues to beat the crap out of the “Everybody Believed In Us” Factor.
- b. I hope Chris Bosh is renting. Somebody has to be a scapegoat. It won’t be LeBron or Wade. Like always in the Finals, the team that controlled the paint won. Dallas controlled the paint. They won. That’s never what Chris Bosh was meant to do on a basketball court — either they need to get him help, or trade him for help, but it can’t stay the same.
- c. Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley Pat Riley.
- d. I wouldn’t bite on 50-to-1 odds of LeBron asking for a trade this summer. But 100-to-1? Maybe.
- e. I can’t remember feeling as good for a non-Boston athlete as I did for Dirk Nowitzki last night. As Ric Bucher tweeted a few days ago, Dirk had experienced so much career-related pain that he had morphed into one of those emotionless action heroes who just cleaned house — like Liam Neeson trying to get his daughter back in Taken or something, when the bullets and knives were pretty much bouncing off him.11 When Dirk briefly disappeared under the arena after the final buzzer, presumably to cry and collect himself, it was the most genuine sports moment of the year. He barely made it, you could see him choking up. LeBron would have done it at midcourt in front of everyone, partly for effect, and maybe that’s one of the biggest differences between them right now. You play basketball for you and your teammates, not for everyone else.
- f. On my podcast last month, Charles Barkley talked about what he called a “shit list,” how he grew to dread the names on it every time they mentioned who hadn’t won a title: Barkley, Karl Malone, Dan Marino, Ernie Banks, and others. He thought it was woefully unfair, saying that he learned to take the list as something of a compliment because everyone on it was great … but at the same time, seeing it always hurt, and he hated seeing other players face the end of their careers with that “shit list” guillotine looming. Dirk avoided the guillotine. We’ll remember him as one of the 20 best basketball players of all time, the best European player ever, one of the best shooters ever, someone who came through when it mattered … and someone who wouldn’t allow his name to end up on that list. You could even say he made a decision.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33 and check out his new home on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/billsimmons.