Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
Maybe I’ve been watching too much presidential campaign coverage, yet I can’t help but notice the similarities between the worlds of sports and politics. For example, JP Morgan Chase announced last week that they’ve lost $2 billion in bad trading. Meaningful, consequential stories such as this should open up a dialogue on the role of government in implementing regulations and reining in bank abuses, but attempts at those types of discussions either devolve into cries of “SOCIALISM!” or just goes over everyone’s heads, so instead of even delving into these issues, both candidates just try to beat the most generalized caricature of their opponent into the ground without providing any substance. Thus, we turn stories like this into easily digestible nuggets that further paint Obama as someone who is anti-business and Romney as someone who wants to allow Wall Street to run amok. And by avoiding the nitty-gritty, the media then has carte blanche to spend their time debating inane bullshit like who loves stay-at-home moms and dogs more. It’s all about constructing a narrative, and it’s even better if the evidence or rhetoric reinforces what people already believed anyway.
This all brings us to the interesting buildup to what was initially looking like the playoffs’ most soporific series. The narrative surrounding the Miami Heat since the line “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” was uttered revolved around them being the NBA’s preeminent villain, an assemblage of talent that didn’t reflect the arbitrary and quixotic ways we in the sports cliché bubble like to believe athletes are supposed to act, champions are built, and the concept of “team” is defined. No one outside of Miami has rooted for the Heat since then, but Roy Hibbert and Frank Vogel consciously went into this series making sure everyone was reminded of why they’re rooting against them.
The first shot came from the Pacers’ All-Star center. Hibbert issued this quote after his Pacers beat the Magic and learned they’d be playing the Heat in the second round:
“We didn’t do this the easy way,” Hibbert said. “It took time. But Larry Bird and [general manager] David Morway drafted well. We got [David] West. We got George Hill, Leandro [Barbosa] and Lou [Amundson] for almost nothing. We didn’t do this by signing a couple of superstars.”
Despite the debate over Hibbert’s remark, it was pretty much everything everyone said it was, all at once: trash talk, bitter, honest, astute, oversimplified, proud, and most importantly, calculated.
The irony is the Pacers didn’t do it the “easy” way, but rather the right way. I don’t mean “right” in some sort of bullshit moral sense, as if Larry Bird and David Morway would’ve passed on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade if they were interested in coming to Indy because it was more important to develop Paul George’s 3-point shot and accumulate an arsenal of league-average two-guards. They did it “right” in the sense that they built a deeper, more sustainable roster. They found the right pieces that fit—a blend of size and speed—via careful drafting and shrewd free agent signings. The Heat won 46 games this season; the Pacers won 42, minus an identifiable superstar anywhere near the same caliber as James or Wade.
But the other irony is that Miami is far from doing it the “easy” way themselves. Their roster is currently comprised of two superstars, one star, and a bunch of upstarts, retreads, and veteran’s minimum guys masquerading as role players. James, in making his decision, was banking on the idea that he is so preternaturally gifted that he, Wade, and to a much lesser extent Bosh were above and beyond the rest of the talent in the league, and they alone plus an accompanying group of misfits were enough to win multiple championships. So far, he’s failed, and his inability to fulfill the lofty promises and ambitions he set for himself is the reason why all the criticism over his lack of late-game heroics has been valid. Before Game 1—thanks to the postseason futility—he received what is probably the most meaningless third MVP award ever handed out. There’s a lot of time left on this experiment, and it may ultimately fail epically. But considering James and Wade have played every day since opening day 2010 with the spotlight shining on them as the league’s high-profile, marquee team and faced overwhelming, incessant pressure to win every game even as they carried a thin roster, it’s difficult to believe that is the ”easy” route and walking onto the court of Bankers Life Fieldhouse and playing with a deep Pacers roster for a desperate, low-expectations fan base that will view any measure of success as overachieving is the hard way.
After Hibbert’s comments were discussed and dissected, Pacers coach Frank Vogel adopted a similar sentiment in his dismissiveness of the Heat’s success, in this case, attributing much of their dominance to flopping:
“Every drive to the basket, they have guys not making a play on the ball, but sliding in front of drivers,” Vogel said. “Oftentimes, they’re falling down even before contact is even being made. It’ll be interesting to see how the series is officiated.”
To be fair, facts are facts: ESPN.com reported a statistic from Hoopdata.com which showed the Heat drew the fourth-most charges in the NBA this season. Yet this comment, like Hibbert’s, was also calculated. The Pacers went out of their way—even to the point of having to pay fines—just to remind America that small-market, blue-collar teams like them are the victims in this whole “super-team” charade as the Heat, should they win it all, will do so in as cheap and undignified a manner as possible. Had the Pacers waited until after the series to say these things, they’d have been labeled as whiny, petulant sore losers. Now, they either can pull a monumental upset or lose via a self-fulfilling prophecy they themselves have sowed into everyone’s minds. The narrative is set: The Heat is the big bullies that colluded their way to a quick-fix championship makeover in one of the world’s cosmopolitan glamour towns and are trying to flop their way to a title.
The two compelling storylines from the first game of the Heat/Pacers series seemed to be intertwined, even if we couldn’t realize it until after the game was complete: Chris Bosh’s injury and LeBron James’s second-half resurgence.
After a frighteningly quiet first half, James shifted gears and went into full-on MVP mode. He scored 26 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in the second half, putting his freakish versatility on display when he played all 24 minutes and spent most of his time at power forward filling in for Bosh, who suffered a lower abdominal strain late in the second quarter and did not return. Wade and James together outscored the entire Pacers team in the second half by a margin of 42 to 38. The Heat’s remarkable second-half turnaround was fully evident in other statistical areas: they outscored the Pacers in the paint 26 to 12 and shot 45 percent to Indiana’s J.R. Smithesque 29.7 percent.
As great as Wade and James looked stepping up in crunch-time, it shouldn’t minimize the absence of Miami’s All-Star power forward and the Khloe Kardashian of their Big 3. If the Heat is without Bosh for a significant period, it would certainly fit into the recurring theme of this postseason regarding injury-depleted rosters—something the Heat was immune to until this point. The Heat may have two players far more valuable than anyone else that suits up, but no one is expendable. Bosh was the least integral member of a Big 3 that could ill afford to lose anyone.
As for the Pacers, their most crucial offensive scorer was a complete no-show; forward Danny Granger shot just 1 of 10 for 7 points. With Granger, the Heat’s traps, rotations, and close-outs on defense neutralized any of the scoring prolificacy he normally provides. But that defensive assignment is also something that might change should James spend more time at the four if Bosh is unable to play in Game 2 and beyond.
Despite Granger’s dud performance, the Pacers were somewhat prepared for it. They knew the Heat held Carmelo Anthony in check—arguably the league’s best scorer—so they’d need to find another go-to weapon outside of their leading scorer for both Game 1 and possibly the series. Hence, there’s a reason why Roy Hibbert utilized his tremendous 7-foot 2-inch size advantage to join power forward David West in leading the team in points and rebounds. The Pacers only choice of a M.O. for advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals is size and depth, and even that might not be enough.
It wasn’t until the sequence that featured James slamming home a fast-break and Wade turning around and blocking a Paul George layup that it looked like the Heat was going for the kill. Mind you, this game was far more of a nail-biter than the final score indicates; it was still only a one-point game with just under five minutes left to play.
Between the Bosh injury and the Pacers successfully exploiting their mismatches, you couldn’t help but feel this was the equivalent of Thunder/Mavericks Game 1, a game in which Dallas had numerous breaks go their way and still blew their best chance to send a message in a road game against a contender and make it a series. The Pacers can still make this a long, drawn-out series and have already proven to be anything but an easy out for the Heat. Yet for a team that spent the entire week trying to change the series’ narrative off the court, they blew their best chance to do so on it.
Scattered thoughts and observations:
-I’m well aware of the criticisms that have been and will continue to be levied against the Heat’s home crowd. Just for the record: You’re not offending me or getting under my skin by pointing out how bandwagony and lethargic they can be. I agree with you. I agree with all of it. I should defend them, but I can’t. And won’t.
FYI: It’s all part of a broader pattern I’ve noticed in which I often find myself not identifying with the audiences or fan bases of many of the things I support. For example: One of my ten favorite bands from childhood through the present is Dave Matthews Band, and yet I can’t go to their shows anymore because every time I do I leave wishing I’d strangled at least one of their ecstasy-tripping, sing-along, glowstick-waving fans with Boyd Tinsley’s violin string.
-ABC cut to Gloria James in the crowd numerous times in the second half and all I wanted to do was make the requisite “I wonder if she, LeBron, and Delonte are going to Mother’s Day brunch afterwards” jokes. God damn you Internet and your baseless, unfounded, yet hilarious rumors!
-In keeping with my policy of ignoring anything but highly controversial officiating blunders, I didn’t address the Pacers’ alleged complaints about a free-throw discrepancy swinging the game. Although it is pretty cool that today was the 1,943,324,649th consecutive game in which the losing team thought they were treated unfairly by the officials. That streak is Globetrotteresque!
-A Ronny Turiaf sighting! We’re one more big man injury away from a Dexter Pittman cameo.