Whether you want to look at this year's NBA Finals as the one where Dirk finally got his ring or the one where the Miami Heat failed to reach their goal, the six-game series was one of the best closing chapters to a basketball season in recent memory. The NBA lucked out and got two great Finals match-ups two years running now, with the Mavs and Heat giving us just as much intrigue and drama as the Lakers and Celtics did last year. It didn't go seven games, but nearly every single game was full of big runs and thrilling comebacks, coming down to the final possession and reDirkulous heroics more often than not.
It is obligatory when talking about this year's Finals to give the Mavs their propers before moving on to LeBron and the Heatles, so that's what I'mma do too. The Mavericks played spectacular team basketball and Dirk Nowitzki was transcendent. J.J. Barea and Jason Terry were potent scorers. Shawn Marion returned to form as the Matrix. Jason Kidd held it all together. They played a cohesive, collaborative brand of defense and made every big play when they had to. They beat the Heat in 6, something most folks, including this writer, didn't see coming. I picked the Heat at the beginning of the series, but should have known better considering the thumping the Mavs gave my LA Lakers and the resiliency they showed in their opening round series with the Blazers and the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder.
I'm glad to see Dirk get his ring, sort of glad to see Kidd get one (he is a wife-beater after all), and definitely happy to see an entire team full of players that had never won a championship come together as a unit and beat the big bad Miami Heat. Now that I have that out of the way, let's get down to South Beach and talk about the real story from the Finals: LeBron James, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh coming up short on their short-cut to a championship ring.
If you watch sports long enough, you come to realize that games and series truly have a feel to them. You can stare at stats and match-ups and highlights all you want, but sometimes there is a feel to the game play that lets you know what's really going on. It's that same kind of feeling of impending doom you get when no matter how safe a situation should be, something is amiss. Something doesn't seem right. You have a feeling that something is going to happen. It's exactly how I felt watching the Heat lose this series. There was a vibe, a certain something hanging in the air when they played, that made it clear that they weren't going to get it done.
Even when they went down 3-2 after the three middle games in Dallas, I was still telling anyone that would listen that the Heat were going to prevail. It just made more sense. They were more talented, they were going home for the final two games, they had two of the top five (if not top three) players in the league in Wade and James. But after watching the first half of game six, I realized what my gut had been telling me all along: they weren't ready to win this year. They looked out of sorts in the half-court and confused on defense and their two biggest stars seemed either too reluctant (in the case of James) or too skittish (in the case of Wade) to make plays when they had to. Oh yeah, and Chris Bosh isn't as good as people think he is and not nearly mentally tough enough to play on the size of the stage the Big Three have created for themselves in Miami.
I mean, did you see him after they lost? He was on his knees in the tunnel, crying like a baby. Emotion is what sports is all about, but that kind of stuff you can take home to your girl or your mother if you have to Chris. The guy looked like a whining little kid, not a guy who had poured his heart into this season and was grappling with a gut-wrenching defeat. Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this season that some of his players were crying in the locker room after one of the team's particularly tough losses. One guess as to who he was talking about.
I know, I know, that might be a petty point to make, but it illustrates the larger problem that this team is facing: an emotional and psychological lack of control. I could break down every single thing that the Heat did wrong on the court, but the truth is, I don't think that's the team's problem. They are immensely talented and will only become better as the years roll on, but what needs to be fixed is their attitude and their psychological resiliency, not their mid-range game or post-up moves. While Bosh is the weepy cherry on top, LeBron James is the hot fudge sundae of frayed nerves that is at the root of the Heat's lack of composure.
I wrote a post a while back about the enormous level of expectation this Heat team created for itself with LeBron's "Decision" and their pre-season victory celebration, and the spotlight they drew on themselves is certainly part of their problem. The bigger issue though, is the expectation level for their best player, LeBron James. James, if he is not already, will soon be the greatest basketball player on planet earth. Just think about that simple fact for a second: imagine being the best in the world at what you do, and how people might look at you if you don't succeed at it. That's a lot to handle, but the greatest players that have played any sport have a near sociopathic imperviousness to the weight of the pressure this creates. They ignore that pressure or thrive on it, they don't keep passing the ball off to teammates and have the body language of a girl who just got stood up on prom night.
James is facing a crossroads in his career that I don't think he was ready for. I think that the move to Miami when he became a free agent should have been the turning point, but if the way he has handled his teammates, his coach, the media, and the general public over the last year is any indication, he needs to do some mental house cleaning before he can start heading in the right direction. The NBA has been waiting for the next Michael Jordan for a while (and I'm one that would tell you that Kobe Bryant is already that guy, but I digress) so there is absolutely no patience or empathy in the heart of most fans for the failings that LeBron has encountered both on and off the court (you can check out Josh Levin's Slate piece about how Michael's shadow is doing bad, bad things to LeBron here).
He has failed twice in the NBA Finals, yes, but more importantly he has failed to grasp a true sense of himself as an athlete and as a celebrity. I think he was truly astounded by how negatively the public reacted to "The Decision" and totally caught off-guard by the fact that he is now a heel in the world of sports. LeBron is a nice guy (maybe too nice). A guy who hosts SNL and the ESPY Awards, a guy that starred in Nike commercials featuring multiple comedic likenesses of himself. He loves being loved, and I think his desire to back that up with success on the court led him to Miami, but did not prepare him for the consequences.
He is now in a place where not only is expectation to be the next Michael Jordan astronomically high, but he doesn't have the fan support to lean on like he did in the past. All he has are his fellow villains in Miami--Wade and Bosh--and a young coach who doesn't seem to have the force of personality to scream him out of his basketball daydream of times gone by--times when he was the GOAT in-waiting and a media darling at the same time. Because of all this, James looks shy when the game is on the line, becoming too willing a passer and timid to shoot the big shot. Joe Posnaski wrote a great piece on James and the Heat's failure in the Finals where he described himself screaming at the television in disbelief that James kept passing the ball in game 6. I was equally appalled, but not as similarly surprised.
LBJ just doesn't feel ready to me. He has every skill a basketball player could desire and is basically an NFL tight-end playing in the NBA. He's fast, he's powerful, he has incredible court vision, he passes effortlessly and accurately, he's developing into a good, soon to be great shooter. His head? That's a whole 'nother story. He should have the mental tenacity of Tiger Woods pre-Thanksgiving-spousal-golf-club-beat-down. Instead he's got the gelatinous gray matter of Tiger post-string-of-banging-gross-skanks-dealing-with-sex-addiction-and-bad-knees-can't-get-his-head-straight. You can ask Eldrich yourself, that's a bad spot to be in.
I've mentioned before that I've always been reluctant to try and get inside an athlete's head, because it's hard to know what someone else is thinking. In LeBron's case, I have an unending desire to sit him down on a reclining leather couch to try and help him through his problems Frasier Crane style. Before this series I never thought I would ever look at LeBron James with sympathy again, but now that it's over I want to simultaneously give the guy a hug and slap him in the face and tell him to act like a man. I don't know which one he needs more, but something has to be done or this guy is going to unravel, mark my words. He needs to talk to someone like MJ or Bird or ideally, Magic, who has that amazing blend of likability and competitive killer instinct that LeBron wants and needs to no end right now.
Because I'm a sports fan, I admire and love watching greatness. It's why I want LeBron to win deep down, and why even after he acts like the epitome of a spoiled athlete, like the way he did during the post-game presser after the Finals loss, I still want him to succeed. I want him to chase Michael's legacy, fill his fists with championship rings, and to be comfortable with where his decisions in life have taken him (perhaps because I have trouble doing this myself...TMI?...sorry). I want him to be the Man, but he needs to get straight between his ears before this can happen. Entitlement is a bitch, and it can catch up to you quick when you've won at life for so long, but now find yourself losing. LeBron James is slowly learning this fact.
To go back to Tiger for a moment, he's always reminded me of a truism that I think also pertains to LeBron: in the world of sports (and the game of life), you doubt greatness at your own peril. I think this is something LeBron needs tattooed on his forehead. He needs to forget the old, fun-loving LeBron and embrace his role as villain the way he claims that he already has. He needs to get his own version of MJ's fist pump or Kobe's underbite. He needs to want the other team dead before he lets them beat him, and needs to be the one leading the charge with a battle axe in his hands. He needs to shut the people who doubt him up quick, and like I've said before, I still think he will. I think...