Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
After several since-discarded attempts, I’ve abandoned trying to produce a cogent, well-organized analysis of Game 2 of Heat-Celtics. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that anything I write will be as choppy and disjointed as said game’s style of play, so we’re breaking from the usual structure of these posts tonight and just homing in on the only three indelible images that really matter.
1. LeBron James in the clutch
I’m getting this out of the way first because it will be discussed ad infinitum, but it’s also the least interesting of this game’s focal points. To be blunt: I have no idea why LeBron James settled for an off-balanced jumper when he had an advantageous mismatch in being defended by Rajon Rondo. I know it’ll be second-guessed and Monday morning-quarterbacked and cited as proof positive that James chokes down the stretch and can’t close and the Heat still has no plan when it comes to the final shot in a close game. But I also know this particular play isn’t in any way revealing and any of these discussions pertaining to James’s lack of heroics in the final seconds is entirely based on reputation.
If postseason basketball has shown us anything, it’s how much emphasis is placed on the final shot. Make or miss, it becomes the signature moment for highlight reels and is easy to digest for casual fans clicking over to the final 45 seconds of a game in between Top Chef reruns. Yet it’s wildly overrated in the sense that we view a player’s track record with those shots as being somehow revelatory in determining how “clutch” that player is. James was “clutch” in Game 4 against the Pacers, and that game didn’t require a final shot; it needed him to dominate and carry his team for a full four quarters.
Here’s what I found less clutch about James (and to a lesser extent, Dwyane Wade) in the fourth quarter: They shot a combined 0-for-4. Yes, four shots attempted, total, by the guys whom the entire offense runs through. Yes, I know they got to the line enough times to accumulate points and I know they were double-teamed and I know the rotations off pick-and-rolls left the Haslem/Battier/Miller/Chalmers group ridiculously wide open during numerous plays, but if a completely winded Celtics team with little depth was able to bottle up James and Wade, what the hell will a rested, loaded Spurs team do to them?
But none of that really matters because: A. The Heat won and B. James did nothing to shake the choker stigma attached to him.
The more fascinating wrinkle is the people arguing he made the wrong basketball play, which he did. But the way the game probably ends if James does what 99.9 percent of America claims they wanted him to do is he beats Rondo off the dribble, drives to the rim, lobs a horrendous shot, gets the foul call, and everyone complains the refs didn’t swallow the whistle and handed a win to the team David Stern wants in the Finals. If we believed otherwise, it would mean James did what we wanted him to do, it worked, and he’d get credit for being smart and clutch, which can never happen because it’s more fun to reinforce our preexisting beliefs and allow his implosions to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
It’s a results-based business, obviously. Kevin Durant nails a three-pointer that was just as ill-advised as James’s shot, only it goes in and we like him, so the everlasting image will be that shot going through the net and effectively burying the 2012 Lakers. Meanwhile, in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, James nailed a last-second game-winning three so clutch it caused a Cleveland sports anchor to do this mid-broadcast, but they lost the series and he was goaded into saying he wants to win a lot of championships during an introductory rally in 2010 and the majority of fans decided they didn’t like him, and thus, these moments don’t count until he proves it again, repeatedly, and only in the Finals.
There’s still plenty of time for James to alter the prism through which we view his career, but as of right now it’s coming into focus: We’re awestruck when he’s unleashing a furious onslaught in the third quarter to put the Heat up 15 and never looking back, and we’re confounded by the last-second decision-making when he’s in those frenzied closing moments. To top it off, the combination of firmly-entrenched antipathy toward him and a bad reputation based on a poor track record in ”clutch” moments means he receives no benefit of the doubt, regardless of whether he deserves it in a specific situation.
That’s our narrative and we’re sticking to it.
Probably the most useless statistic which EVERY NBA fan loves to cite whenever they felt their team got hosed is free-throw discrepancy. I hate it. It’s the laziest, shallowest, most trivial and myopic way of trying to make sense of a game. I usually check it immediately after every game in the hope that it’s equal just so it’ll mean one less useless talking point that can be used to discredit the performance of whichever team was the winner.
The desire for free-throw equity parallels the way our fervently polarized political climate has intimidated media outlets into finding two sides of stories that don’t always have two valid equal and opposite viewpoints, thus perpetuating the fallacy that balance is automatically equal to objectivity. If some congressman goes on television saying he or she believes same-sex marriage equality should be legislated at the federal level, it’s deemed “partisan” unless some dipshit family values congressman is allowed on to say how his internal study shows that allowing gays to marry will turn all wholesome, god-fearing Midwestern children into Sodomite heathens absconding to the nearest glory hole during recess.
Oddly enough, this mind-set calling for balance really only pops up in sports in the NBA. No baseball fan demands the same amount of strikes to be called for both starting pitchers in a game. No football fan demands the same amount of holding penalties to be called for both teams. No hockey fan demands both teams spend the same amount of time in the penalty box. But in basketball, we apparently assume that the officials must be doing a shitty, brain-dead job at all times and the only thing that would constitute fairness is if they get the calls wrong the same amount of times for both teams.
(The whole notion of a make-up call—the existence of which is the biggest open secret in sports—is the living embodiment of the old motherly aphorism “two wrongs don’t make a right,” yet it’s something everyone seems oddly fine with.)
I understand why fans are inclined to use bad officiating as a crutch when their team falls short. The most difficult aspect of sports fandom is investing so much pride in your team and using it as a reflection of your own identity, only to then have to begrudgingly accept their flaws, limitations, and failings and in a way adopt them as part of your own. If we can attribute a loss to human error on the part of a referee or the even more far-fetched “league conspiracy,” we can better accept our team’s fate as a byproduct of something beyond their control and imagine an alternate reality where they triumph under a different set of circumstances.
(This mini-tangent’s going somewhere, trust me.)
So the Heat’s 47-to-29 free-throw advantage (which, to be fair, included a few hack-a-LeBron plays and some necessary intentional fouls) is meaningless to me. But that doesn’t mean the officials didn’t hose the Celtics on numerous occasions. The foul calls (or no-calls) didn’t single-handedly deliver a victory to the Heat and they didn’t signify anything more than garden-variety poor officiating, but on (at least) four instances they irrevocably changed the course of the game.
-The earliest instance came in the first half, rendering it long forgotten after an up-and-down game entered the final minutes with the score all even. The Celtics lost valuable big man Greg Stiemsma when he quickly picked up four fouls in a one-minute, 35-second span early in the first quarter, an event that transpired so quickly that ESPN actually had to bust out the playoff record stat for the fastest someone ever fouled out (Travis Knight in 1999, by the way).
-In the fourth quarter, Paul Pierce fouled out while going straight up defending a Wade drive to the basket. Once again, it’s meaningless to me that Pierce had six fouls while James and Wade had a combined two at that point; I want the officials assessing each play fairly in and of itself and not trying to even out the foul disparity among the stars. But that also gets to the heart of the matter: In this game, Pierce, undeniably a superstar, wasn’t getting the benefit of the doubt on any game-changing, borderline calls whereas James and Wade were getting the superstar treatment both they and Pierce deserved.
I don’t want Pierce to not get that call if it is indeed an unequivocal foul and I also don’t want James or Wade to get an unnecessary foul on the next play just because Pierce had too many. But we’re looking at the trees, not the forest here, and it’s difficult to argue Pierce had to exit on a play that was so critical and so close. The call didn’t single-handedly doom the Celtics, but having to play the entire overtime period without their second-best player essentially left them running on borrowed time, even if Rondo tried his hardest to change their fate.
-Is Wade’s head-shot on Rondo enough to be called Slapgate yet or something? I saw two distinct replays of this: One looked like the biggest officiating brainfart this postseason, while the other was more inconclusive (it looked like Wade’s hand grazed Rondo’s hair and went over his head without ever really making contact), but either way, Rondo has to get that call. Period. It’s close enough where Rondo, a superstar in his own right on a play where he was driving to the rim, deserved the benefit of the doubt. This was the most egregious no-call of the night.
(The one replay I mentioned that’s not nearly as damning begins at the 0:58 second mark of that video, if it hasn’t been taken down altogether.)
-The other foul call that was more iffy but still questionable occurred when Wade penetrated the lane off a James pick-and-roll, sinking a 4-footer with just under a minute to go to put the Heat up four. Yet replays apparently showed him kicking off Kevin Garnett before releasing the shot. As if the Celtics hadn’t been screwed enough, in one quick sequence they had to deal with Rondo not getting two free-throws that would’ve given them the lead and then on the other end, a Wade bucket and foul shot that should’ve been called an offensive foul but instead resulted in the Heat being up five.
Look, every coach, player, fan, and media member seems to think every call ever is wrong. Our natural instincts on this haven’t changed pre- or post-Donaghy. I believe the refs can be swayed, but it’s not because of some deep-seated bias toward a particular player or a league conspiracy that aims to put two ratings magnets in the Finals or some gambling fix. Instead, they’re swayed by less nefarious and therefore less juicy factors: star power, a convincing acting job by the player involved, the gravity of the moment, the reputation of a player.
For the Celtics’ sake, it would’ve been nice if they weren’t swayed when it mattered most.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, I felt lousy. I switched over to The Colbert Report and grabbed a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s, but my reaction wasn’t the usual celebratory, exultant postgame cooldown but rather a feeling of disappointment. Yes, the Heat is now up 2-0, likely heading back to the NBA Finals to get disemboweled by the Spurs, but thinking as an objective NBA fan, I felt like the wrong team won. Now, the end result will overshadow what this game should be remembered for.
There were really three things that need to be remembered when describing Game 2, with the third being the most important:
1. Boston outplayed Miami.
2. This was not a great game, but two great teams that had intermittent, non-consecutive stretches of brilliance.
3. Only one player did have a great game with sustained brilliance. And the shame is that he was on the losing team. This needed to be immortalized as “The Rondo Game” and unfortunately it won’t be.
That’s what hurt most of all. I respect when I’m watching a transcendent performance that’s already entrenching itself into NBA lore in real time, even if it’s not coming from my team. The phony, contrived drama of reality TV never interested me, which is why I’ve always gravitated to sports. It’s the only form of entertainment that, despite our best efforts to approach each game with built-in storylines, is totally unpredictable; we never know when we’re tuning in if we’re about to watch something timeless. I can tune in to a run-of-the-mill hockey game that ends up going to three overtimes. I can check out a mid-May Yankees game and see a perfect game slowly unfold. And I can tune in to Game 2 of a conference final and see something like this Rondo performance.
It’s hard to even quantify in stats his brilliance in this game. They look great on paper, but several moments stood out that could only be seen watching it unfold live:
1. The general consensus—including something pointed out by Jeff Van Gundy in the telecast—was that Rondo was reverting back to his old tentative, unaggressive self in the 4th quarter, passing up a couple of easy looks and going back to the maddening style of play that caused the Heat to play 10-feet off him in the first place. But it was also fair to ask if he was understandably gassed after logging heavy minutes, and it soon became apparent that not only was he slowing down to start the fourth because of fatigue, but he somehow miraculously re-charged for the remainder of the fourth quarter and overtime.
2. Rajon Rondo made 10 three-pointers the ENTIRE SEASON. Which is why it was truly a testament that something special was going on when he sunk two in the final minute of overtime when it seemed like the game was already out of reach. Wade still had to hit a free throw to insure the Celtics wouldn’t gain possession with a timeout remaining and the ability to advance the ball and potentially set up a game-tying three.
3. Take a look at Rondo’s shot chart.
On top of being a facilitator as usual with 10 assists, on top of being an agitator and picking up 3 steals, on top of driving to the rim—which resulted in him getting to the free-throw line 12 times; he only reached double-digit free throws attempts five times during the rest of the regular season and playoffs combined—he started piling on jumpers, going 11-of-14 from outside the painted area.
4. Rajon Rondo not only dropped 44 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists, he not only put on a defensive clinic, being involved in every play on both ends, he not only guarded James and Wade at pivotal points of the game, but he played EVERY SINGLE MINUTE. Repeat (and yes, the caps are necessary): EVERY. SINGLE. MINUTE. Even if the Heat were unfairly awarded several gifts from the officials, this was still shaping up to be a tight game, thus necessitating Rondo being on the floor for each and every one of those minutes.
Sadly, despite their valiant effort and their icy demeanor in never wilting against the two hottest players in the league, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Celtics didn’t just blow their best chance. They already were unable to get rest after seven brutal games against the 76ers and now have to travel back to Boston with their best player battling inevitable fatigue. Even at 1-1, the Celtics would’ve been underdogs, but leaving everything on the floor with everything on the line at least deserved the meager consolation prize of the right to play a fifth game.
Rajon Rondo had the biggest game of his career when his team needed it from him the most. I hope history will appreciate it in hindsight as much as I did watching it.