NBA Finals Shootaround: The Gospel of King James

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images LeBron James

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

Not-So-Simple Math

netw3rk: The confetti has only just settled to the court. The players are posing with the trophy, celebrating in a champagne-splattered locker room. And already, there is a graphic showing LeBron and Jordan and Russell and the ages each won their respective titles. Already, the announcers are wondering where this puts LeBron in the pantheon. Where do we rank him? What would it have meant if he lost?

We imagine that meaning, tangible truth, emerges from these athletes and their performances. A player plays well (or doesn’t) in a deciding Finals game, and from this, a player’s quantifiable worth — measured and ranked against every other player who has ever played — is revealed to us. We understand better now how LeBron fits into the roll call of greats. We imagine these things because the way we assign worth to athletes is a construct, a reflection of our own generational biases and beliefs and the nature of entertainment — SPORTS — as a manufactured experience. Jordan was the greatest, because he won six titles; LeBron only has two. No, no, no, Russell is greatest because he won 11, and you don’t know because you never even saw him play.

The arguments about rankings, legacy, all of it, are really just one argument, framed a million different ways: Whose criteria are better?

Every facet of the many-faced monster that is sports discourse is in some way related to the Rashomonic quest to assign responsibility for wins and losses. But, again, who is responsible is just a question of whose criteria we use. Points per game is too simplistic, incomplete. So we add field goal percentage to our calculation. But that’s not enough, so let’s think about assists, rebounds, blocks. OK, but that’s not enough to tell us who REALLY is responsible for the win, so let’s add all the positive stuff together and try to figure it out that way. OK, but let’s break it down by minute instead of per game. But, the 3-pointer is worth more, but what about lineups, but plus/minus, but, wait, win shares, but player efficiency, but, but, but, but, then inevitably someone says, “But did you even watch the game?”

A legacy is not a player’s résumé; it’s what we say a player’s résumé means. It’s rarely fair, because we are rarely rational. We have allegiances to players and teams. We even have our favorite stats. LeBron just won his second title in a row. He is a four-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP, nine-time All Star. Where does that put him in NBA history? You tell me.

The Decision, Revisited

Bill Simmons: Let’s talk about the Decisio —

Gone Too Soon

Danny Chau: Basketball is a game; in my eyes, the best game. A game is defined by the rules and parameters that give it structure. That structure gives a game its purpose, its end, its meaning. Basketball isn’t perfect, but it’s usually a hell of a lot better than real life, where iniquity affects more than just the win-loss column. So when the institution of basketball is attacked by abhorrent flopping or poor officiating, it feels like those who circumvent the systems in place are letting the game down by allowing and embracing injustice. But while the rules give basketball its form, it’s also an inhibitor. The game wasn’t ready for guys like George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, who literally forced a change in the way the game operated by taking basketball to a higher plane. This series did that for me. After Games 6 and 7 of this championship series, the idea that a winner had to be crowned so soon felt unfair. The best NBA Finals in my years as a conscious fan has been taken away. For once, the complaint wasn’t that the players and refs were desecrating the sanctity of the game; quite the opposite. It felt like the game itself was letting us down. The clock expired and the members of both teams embraced one another in admiration and respect. You’re supposed to do that. It’s all part of sportsmanship. A look at Gregg Popovich’s joyous face (truly the rarest occurrence), and the exchange between Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan said it all: This was as pure a basketball experience as I could ever hope to witness. And it’s already over.

Un. Fazed.

Drunk and Happy and Horrible

Andrew Sharp: To review:

He dresses like Lucille Bluth.
• When he’s struggled, he’s generally refused to take responsibility.
• He remains king of the cheap shots.
• He nicknamed himself “WOW” earlier this season, and even LeBron said it was corny.
• He’s been a liability for the majority of the Heat’s playoff run, and before Thursday, there was plenty of evidence the Heat are better without him.
• Even when he plays well, he still dominates the ball, complains to the refs constantly, and hijacks the Miami offense for possessions at a time.

This is an incomplete list of Dwyane Wade transgressions, but you get the idea.

And he’s not getting traded. No matter what anyone says about the Heat maybe possibly parting ways with D-Wade, no matter how badly he falls off, it’ll never happen. Because he played a crucial role in the shady process of recruiting LeBron, because he is a certified deity in South Florida, because nobody would ever trade for him at this point. In other words, we’re stuck with Wade front and center on the best team in the NBA for at least the next year or two. After Game 7 he told reporters to call him “three,” and then corrected a reporter who called him “Dwyane.” It’s horrible. He is horrible.

But he played well last night. And came up huge in a must-win Game 4. And in the two biggest games of the Pacers series. And in the closeout game against the Bulls.

I wrote about this a few weeks ago: You can hate Dwyane Wade, you can curse his name during every Heat game, and you can make jokes about how objectively horrible he’s become, but he always finds a way to show up and silence everyone. He did it again in Game 7 — 23 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks — because of course he did.

And when he was giving drunk interviews and doing confetti snow angels and giving himself nicknames last night, I was even a little happy for him. Just for a second. He deserves it, because he sold his soul to the devil and/or Pat Riley, got baptized in Moët and/or ate Rony Seikaly’s heart, and because he probably played through an ungodly amount of pain the past few months. He’s incredible whether we like it or not.

See you next year, D-Wade. Hate you. Love you. Will never escape you.

Zero-Sum Game

Patricia Lee: With the clock winding down and the Heat amassing what seemed like an insurmountable lead, I found myself negotiating with the basketball gods, or the devil, whichever would work. I promise I won’t curse at Tony Parker again if you just let the Spurs take this one. I promise I won’t make fun of Manu’s bald spot again if you just gift him with another 3. I promise I’ll stop questioning Pop’s coaching decisions and clock management if you just make this last possession count. I promise, I promise …

In the end, it was no use, of course.

There’s no way to avoid destiny, no way to make Danny Green score, no way to help Tim Duncan make that hook shot that he must’ve made a billion times. There’s no way to stop a hot-handed Shane Battier, no way to combat a ready King James, no way to turn the tide just because you feel like the team you’re rooting for deserves to lift the trophy.

When the confetti came down before the last of the Spurs had left the court, I was an absolute mess. Battier, a fellow Duke alum and an upright player, had helped will his team to the trophy. It might’ve been a fluke, and it might’ve been a once-in-seven-games performance, but in the end, it was what it was.

It’s a strange feeling when the player you love most from your alma mater is playing against the player you’ve watched and loved your whole life. When one makes a 3, the other gets a dagger to the heart. When one misses a hook shot, the other is one step closer to the ultimate goal. It’s not winning or losing, not happiness or sadness. It’s a mélange of all of these things. It makes for an easily combustible bubble of emotion, one that is difficult to comprehend, to marry, one difficult to come to terms with. But I should’ve known that going into the series.

Chill, bro, it’s just sports. You’ll live. They’re not even your team, right?

But do you know what this feels like? To see one of your idols succeed at the expense of another? To see a team that deserved it so much lose to another that deserved it just as much? To see both teams go from miles ahead to inches ahead to, ultimately, just enough to cross the finish line? Somebody has to lose. And, somehow, that is why we all win.

Like a Bosh

I Mean … Really?

Amos Barshad: Here is the pain of a nation rooting for good to triumph over evil, and actually believing it could be so, distilled down into the saddest vacant misplaced singular-confetti-particle in all the world. Manu’s waking up in sweats from eternal-turnover night terrors. Kawhi’s practicing free throws. Timmy’s sitting in his breakfast nook, alone, and staring dead-eyed at a plate of untouched poached eggs quickly going cold. And the rest of the world (minus Idi Amin and Barry Bonds, of course) has to force a grin and pretend like the summer isn’t ruined. I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ.

Text Messages From Pop to a Spurs Fan

Shea Serrano: I sent text messages to Gregg Popovich last night during the game.

Me: Pop!
Pop: yes
Me: I am soooooooo nervous for this game. It feels like if a bunch of dudes are break dancing in my stomach.
Pop: dude
Pop: do you know how to break-dance?
Me: Not really. I mean, i used to do it in high school, but mostly just as a way to get girls
Pop: did that work?
Me: … no
[No response.]

Me: did you guys trade manu?
Pop: huh?
Me: well, I mean, because he keeps throwing it to the other team. Are you even watching?
Pop: oh. Actually, that’s part of this game strategy I’m developing. It’s in my new book.
Me: You have a book coming out?!?!
Pop: Yes.
Me: doooooooooope. That’s great! What’s it called?
Pop: It’s called, “Take a Hike, Hoe. I Got Eyes.”
Me: … dick

Me: t-mac looks sad
Pop: he always looks like that. It’s his eyes.
Me: they look like a married couple that got into an argument with each other and so now they’re sleeping as far apart on the bed as possible
Pop: bravo
Me: thank you. you should let him play for, like, at least a minute or two
Pop: no
Me: why’d you pick him up if you didn’t plan on playing him?
Pop: I don’t know. I’d had a lot of wine. I think his agent sent me a text. I thought it was my wife. I made some comment like “you want big daddy? You want big daddy to bring you home?” next thing I know, fuckin tmac is at the practice facility
Me: I mean, that’s pretty dope

Me: dawg, I think danny green remembered he was danny green
[No response.]

[No response.]

Me: close game
Pop: oh. Cool. Thanks, stuart scott
Me: do you think we’re going to pull it out?
Pop: we?
[No response.]
Me: hello?
[No response.]
Me: dude
[No response.]
Me: I don’t even know why I talk to you sometimes

End of an Era

Brett Koremenos: As a huge admirer of the San Antonio Spurs organization, it was tough to see them walk off the floor defeated, knowing this very well might be the end of an unparalleled era of excellence. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have been terrors in black and silver for what seems like forever, but after so often saying “this is their last year,” this time, it seems like the threesome may have actually seen its last days as a contender. Ginobili, the proud competitor that he is, may look at this Finals performance — and entire season, really — and decide that this is the time to call it quits on a brilliant career. Parker will come back strong, perhaps with another brilliant season, but he will be 32 by the time the next playoffs come around. And the ringleader, Duncan, will likely be another half-step slower, and although his run of consistent greatness may continue, it will be in a much smaller role as the future Hall of Famer inches closer and closer to 40.

With Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili finally facing mortality, a new Spur needed to emerge, to take the reins and embody the quiet, unassuming success the franchise has become known for during its nearly two-decade run atop the NBA’s elite. After watching Kawhi Leonard go through subtly brilliant stretches during these Finals, averaging a double-double despite locking horns with the best player on the planet nearly every minute he was on the floor, it seems like the young forward, just shy of his 22nd birthday, is ready and waiting to be the new face of Spurs basketball. Like the team that drafted him, there is very little flashy or graceful about the way Leonard operates. He doesn’t showcase flashy dribble moves, excel at making high-degree-of-difficulty (read, “bad”) shots, or celebrate with a showman’s flair. The SportsCenter highlights are replaced by high-effort plays, corner 3s, and strange-looking half-floaters. Leonard embodies the brutal efficiency that Duncan (along with head coach Gregg Popovich, of course) brought to the club more than 15 years ago. When next season rolls around, roles may change, and there may be one less recognizable face on the San Antonio roster, but with Leonard around, its identity seems set to remain the same.




Robert Mays: Over the course of this season, a problem arose with writing about the NBA. As the Heat rattled off 27 in a row, and as LeBron James so decidedly earned himself another MVP award, it felt like we were running out of things to say. There are only so many ways to describe greatness, and with James, the only conversation to be had is one that starts in April. LeBron is no longer playing against the Blazers or the Raptors. His competition is history. His opponents are the basketball ghosts.

What we were reminded of last night is that even if last year had robbed us of our LeBron James criticisms, they hadn’t robbed him of them. By the time Game 5 of last year’s Finals ended, it felt like James was the near-perfect basketball force, but rather than see that as enough, James spent this offseason eliminating the “near.” LeBron James isn’t only playing against the gods; he’s also playing against himself.

San Antonio spent the first six games of this series daring LeBron to shoot, and for the most part, it worked. There’s one major flaw with that strategy, though — LeBron can shoot. James’s 40.6 percent 3-point shooting mark in the regular season was the best of his career by more than four percentage points. On jump shots from 16 to 24 feet, James went from 38.4 percent last season to 44.7, which puts him among the elite.

Forcing James into jump shots was still preferable, but it was no longer reliable, which is why it was strange to see him look so hesitant for so much of this series. If a 40-percent 3-point shooter is afforded the room James was so often given in these Finals, it’s a shot worth taking, but only last night did we see LeBron finally trust the process, trust the effort he’d made to complete himself as a player. In the tunnel before tip-off, James told his teammates that tonight was what they’d worked so hard for, that this is where they would see hard work pay off. And it was clear that he believed it.

The criticism will never stop, especially not as the ghosts get even closer, become realer with every trophy, but one that no longer exists is that James hasn’t added to his game. Like Michael before him, LeBron has found the inadequate pieces and, in most cases, turned them into strengths. Last season, James shot that last midrange dagger at about 42 percent. This season, it was 59 percent. James was asked last night if he’s unstoppable when that jump shot is falling. “Yeah, I am,” he replied, and I’m not sure who could say otherwise.

Filed Under: Andrew Sharp, Brett Koremenos, Chris Bosh, Danny Chau, Dwyane Wade, Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, NBA Finals, NBA Playoffs, Patricia Lee, Robert Mays, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker