Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
We honestly learned nothing from Game 4.
This was Heat/Knicks at its most rudimentary: If Miami plays shutdown defense on Carmelo Anthony and keeps him in check, they win; if they allow him to light them up for 41, they lose. They were wildly successful at containing him in the first three games, and they were wretched in their efforts to bottle him up in Game 4. In most cases, it would seemingly be inconsequential to drop Game 4 when up 3-0 in a best of seven series, but check out the potential can of worms the Heat just unleashed:
They not only allowed Anthony to catch fire but also coexist with a surprisingly productive Amare Stoudemire—returning from his shattered glass incident—for the first time since Newt Gingrich was still the GOP front-runner. Put it this way: The next highest scorer after the Knicks’ big two was J.R. Brick Smith with 7 points. Not only was this a confidence booster for their two stars but also leaves the door slightly ajar for…
Linsanity 2.0: Playoff edition.
Yes, Lin hasn’t been ruled out for a Game 5 return, and if he were to play, every NBA fan in America will be tuning in to see if this winter’s magic returns or to witness a complete trainwreck from an act of desperation on Mike Woodson’s part. (There’s no middle ground on this.) Picture Lin giving them even a Willis Reed-style morale boosting cameo performance to get the series back to New York…
…And all of the sudden, we’re dealing with a Friday night game at Madison Square Garden; that rollicking, hostile crowd might be electrified enough to derail a neighboring Amtrak train. Imagine Lin going from motivational ploy to full-on contributor, turning in the NBA equivalent of the Curt Schilling bloody sock outing from Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, and sending the emotional roller-coaster and thin-skinned mess that is the Heat locker room back to Miami for a Game 7, with all of the pressure in the known universe weighing down on them. Yeah, it’d be at home. So was Game 7 for the Yankees against the Red Sox in 2004.
<Shivering at thought. Hugging Rony Seikaly bobblehead for support.>
A different standard is applied to the Heat. We know it and they know it. Mind you, it’s a combination of their own doing, the result of the infamous clip of LeBron at the Big Three’s introductory rally—as overrated as I think the backlash to that event was, facts are facts: they did establish an unattainable championship goal—as well as the public just kinda being dicks and making sure they remind LeBron of his glib, heat-of-the-moment pledge from that night every chance they get for the duration of his existence. A dick move for sure, but once again, also Miami’s fault. “You think two superstars, a second-tier complementary star, and an unreliable washed-up supporting cast can be a dynastic juggernaut? We’ll treat you like one. Every. Waking. Moment.”
Of the eight first-round matchups, one was a sweep (Thunder/Mavericks), one appears headed toward a sweep (Spurs/Jazz), one ostensibly appears to be going the distance (Clippers/Grizzlies), and the other five seem likely to be wrapped up in five. So the Heat’s performance is essentially the norm for this postseason, as most of the elite teams briefly stumbled but ultimately separated themselves from the pack pretty early in their respective series. For the record, last year’s Heat team beat the 76ers, Celtics, and Bulls 4-1 before falling to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. There was never a sweep at any point throughout their run.
But Monday will feel like an absolute failure for the Heat, and all the pressure in the world will be solely on them for however long this series lasts. The Thunder is being lauded for the impressive feat of ousting a reeling Mavericks team that stumbled to a 6-7 finish in April, jettisoned their big offseason import (Lamar Odom), and almost collapsed their way out of the playoffs before barely clinging to a 7-seed; to top it off, Oklahoma City let the first two games come down to the final shot—at home. Meanwhile, the Heat has faced a Knicks team that entered the playoffs with a scorching 18-6 record to close out the season. They won the first three games by scores of 33, 10, and 17.
If this sounds like a defense of the Heat, it is. Someone has to. And the Heat themselves can’t do it. The Heat is a championship contender but not a flawless, infallible, unerring force of destruction. I’m judging them for what they are, not what they said they were at some offseason celebration two years ago. It’s basically the same analogy I use whenever anyone says the Yankees should be winning the World Series every year solely because of their payroll: Just because you paid $500,000 for a 1989 Geo doesn’t make it a $500,000 car. And just because LeBron James thought he was joining a 7-championship team doesn’t mean I’m watching a 7-championship team on the floor every night.
But that unyielding need to defend my basketball team is why I selfishly wanted a sweep, a nice respite, and Wednesday night off. Even if your team is the prohibitive favorite, it’s still not fun when anything less than a 16-0 run with a 35-10-8 average from your star will be seen as falling short. As a viewer, this series has been pretty entertaining. As a fan, there’s nothing fun about this. I’m watching them arduously struggle to achieve what every observer has dismissed as inevitable. Then somehow, because they actually won so convincingly in the first three games, all the talk after Game 4 centered around why they were unable to put this “sucky” Knicks team away. And if they did end up sweeping? The main question would have revolved around why they didn’t win Game 4 more convincingly. This is the millstone they’ll forever carry until there are seven championship banners hanging from American Airlines Arena.
As I said, there wasn’t a lot to try to figure out basketballwise in this game, and nothing else can be settled until Wednesday night, so this is one of those big picture view kind of games. And in that respect, I was unfairly dismissive of what the win meant to the Knicks and their fans—taking into account the universal assumption that they’re probably not playing out my scenario and winning four straight and this might be it for them.
I honestly find Knicks fans to be the most passionate and engaged of any of the New York sports teams. They can be a little delusional and irrational at times, sure, but when a cable company legacy kid and a Hall of Fame point guard who ran everything he ever touched into the ground were in charge of building a contending basketball team for the better part of the last decade, I can understand why they latch onto whatever glimmers of hope seep through. (That’s the only explanation I can find for a knowledgeable and levelheaded NBA fan talking themselves into J.R. Smith.) It’s why Linsanity resonated so well not just with the people who identified with Lin’s backstory—an underdog, undrafted Asian-American Harvard graduate overcoming the stereotypes levied against him to take the NBA world by storm—but also as a symbol for Knicks fans themselves: It allowed them to essentially argue, “Success has to come to us eventually, and maybe this is the crazy and inexplicable form its being delivered in.”
Their genuine passion is also why the MSG crowd doesn’t resort to gimmicks like nearly every other team (I’m especially looking at you, Miami and Oklahoma City). They don’t feel the need to follow along with obvious chants or taunts; they just possess that unmistakable intimidation factor that rattles many opponents and serves as the motivational fuel for the Michael Jordans and Reggie Millers of the world that allows them to rise to the occasion and shut the crowd up. What does it say about two Hall of Fame stars that their defining moments came in conference semifinals at the Garden? MSG just brings out that extra something. And I won’t hear any argument that makes the case home-court didn’t play an advantage Sunday.
In the end, in a series that (bite my tongue) is still probably decided, this was just a battle for the narrative. The Knicks won, and they can relax. They don’t have to face “Knicks flame out in playoffs…again” headlines. They don’t have to discuss their ignominious losing streak and their failure to win a postseason game since 2001. Reading the back pages is a little easier; listening to Francesa is a little more palatable; watching PTI is a little less depressing. The only difference between a win and a loss is that it will most likely read “4-1” or “4-2” instead of “4-0” in the first column of the 2012 playoff bracket future generations will glance at for a nanosecond, but if this isn’t the year they’ll be raising a banner at the Garden for the first time since 1973, “4-1” is the kind of trivial yet meaningful consolation prize the Knicks were happy to fight for Sunday.
And of course, the irony is it’s the reverse for the Heat. They need to win one of four possible games to advance past a round that no one will praise or credit them for winning to get to another round no one will praise or credit them for winning. But a loss means oh so much: Why wasn’t LeBron even given a look on the final play? If Melo can eat them alive with no supporting cast, what happens against Kevin Durant with James Harden and Russell Westbrook by his side should they advance that far? The media just needed that opening to start digging up the Miami Heat column fodder greatest hits.
There were no basketball revelations Sunday at MSG. There were only a few ways that game could’ve played out and it went entirely in the Knicks’ favor. So all we’re left with is three days to see if Game 5 gives us a new wrinkle to this series. But for now, it’s three days of Internet bloviating (present company included), emphatic TV pronouncements, and talk radio bluster.
It’s 3-1. The Heat is still the overwhelming favorite.
But oh what an excruciating three days this loss has wrought.
Scattered thoughts and observations:
-Keeping with the theme of this column, LeBron was actually asked about the idea of a metaphorical asterisk being placed next to this year’s champion:
“I don’t think that’s right to say,” James said. “I’m not going to get involved in it. Every team works hard no matter if it’s a lockout year or not. There’s not much of a difference between 82 games and 66 games.”
I have two things to say:
1. I agree with every word he said.
2. The public’s perception—not his—will be what decides how this title is remembered. And he doesn’t have a lick of control over that.
- I’m not giving in to the “Who should’ve taken the last shot?” debate. I know everyone else will—and they can fruitlessly have at it for all I care—but I watched the play ten times and gleaned nothing definitive. LeBron was defended by Carmelo, who, if you hadn’t noticed, was having his way with the Heat on both ends of the floor. Wade undoubtedly had the more favorable matchup against Stoudemire, and putting aside any notions of “closer mentality” or “hero complex,” I understand the rationale for putting the ball in his hands. (If they were just deciding to ride whoever had the “hot hand,” neither Wade nor LeBron was downright awful in the 4th quarter but neither guy was worth riding to the finish line either.) Yes, Wade heaved up a low-percentage shot with a bad look after nearly botching the play altogether, but there’s no guarantee LeBron would’ve gotten a better shot. So I’ll just admit I don’t know. Maybe they got it right, maybe they didn’t. But here’s a heads up: Get ready for three days of thousands of blowhards in the media and in your daily life telling you with the utmost confidence that whatever they would’ve had the Heat do would’ve worked.
-I cringed at Baron Davis’s injury, which turned out to be a dislocated right patella. That being said, he waited until a playoff elimination game to take contact for the first time in five years. It needed to be said.
-“The Doritos Locos Taco. It’s everything you dreamed it could be.” That’s actually the commercial’s slogan. And it’s probably true: If you hand me a taco with the shell made out of a Dorito, I can’t envision any scenario in which that doesn’t play out exactly as anticipated. Seems pretty cut-and-dry.
-When this game wins the ESPY for “Best 3-Point Shooting Apocalypse,” J.R. Smith and Mario Chalmers have to be sent to accept on their team’s behalf. Can we all agree on this?