These NBA Finals have affirmed what I have suspected for a while: People who criticize the NBA don't actually watch the NBA.
Basketball has never been better than this. It's never been more compelling theater, and it has never been played at a higher level. Big sporting events don't usually live up to their hype, because they are unscripted, but the Mavericks and Heat are improvising a new Shakespeare play. It's mesmerizing stuff.
Games 2, 3 and 4 were decided by two, two and three points -- and Game 5 was probably the best one of all. In the last seven minutes, the Mavs went from up by five to down by four to up by nine. It was one of those games that make the NBA, NHL and baseball playoffs so special -- so riveting that as soon as it ends, you are excited about the next game. I wouldn't miss Game 6 of this series if my foot was on fire and the only available fire extinguisher was in a room without a TV.
These games have almost all been decided in the last two minutes, but the old whine that you don't have to watch an NBA game until the final two minutes is laughable. You would miss Dirk Nowitzki's array of unguardable moves, including his funky but deadly three-point shot. (Nowitzki does not have a pure shot, but he is a pure shooter, if that makes any sense. He makes the unconventional seem smooth.) You would miss Dwyane Wade's combination of strength and athleticism, and J.J. Barea's maddeningly effective game, and Jason Kidd's second career as an outside shooter, and of course LeBron James' all-around game, which is so breathtaking that it makes his late-game disappearing acts absolutely baffling.
If you miss this, you'll miss theater that rivals anything any other sport offers. The only shame is that the NBA stubbornly sticks to its 2-3-2 home-court format for the Finals, even though every other series goes 2-2-1-1-1 as the Lord intended. There is no good reason for this; travel was the original reason, back in the 1980s, but now teams charter all their flights. The 2-2-1-1-1 format is just better. It means that when a series is tied 2-2, both teams know they have to win Game 5 to avoid a win-or-die road game. It means that in a close series, each team gets to host one of the most crucial games.
That's my only quibble, though. Mostly, this series has featured exactly the kind of competition the Heat are supposedly trying to avoid. When James, Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up last year, in a concerted effort to win a championship while getting the entire world to hate them, it felt like they were cheating. It felt like one of those playground games when the three best athletes insist on playing together so they can beat up little kids. And the Heat's Two And A Half Stars seemed to be thinking the same thing -- LeBron famously said he thought the Heat would win eight championships.
Everybody wondered, worried or even hoped they would dominate the league. Well, whatever happens in these next two games, you can forget that. It hasn't happened. The Mavericks, playing without their third-leading scorer (Caron Butler), have pushed Miami to the brink.
The Heat managed to win its previous three series in five games each, but the Boston and Chicago series were far more competitive than the final 4-1 result. Love them or hate them, the Heat have not destroyed the NBA. They have enriched it.
Oddly, and a bit poetically, the one guy who was trying to profit at everybody else's expense -- LeBron, of course -- is the one paying the stiffest price. He might get his championship, but he looks worse now, in every way, than he did before the season. (This actually depresses me, because I think of LeBron as a transcendent talent, the most gifted player I've ever seen. But that's another column.)
It's not that the Heat have been a disappointment -- after all, they can still win the title. It's that the rest of the league is too good to be dominated. For all the talk about whether Dirk is as good as Larry Bird, or LeBron is as good as Michael Jordan, the real story is that these guys are excelling in a superior league.
Like a lot of people, I have a tendency to romanticize the past. I have been doing it since I sold milkshakes at my pop's drugstore during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. But I am also blessed with the six senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and the ability to access YouTube. And let me tell you: Today's NBA is better than ever.
I watched some Jordan highlights the other day, and ... well, I will not desecrate the glory of His Holy Airness in this column. Really, I won't. But my first reaction, as I watched the highlights, was that compared to LeBron James, Jordan looked ... small.
This shouldn't be surprising. Jordan was listed at 6-6, 195 pounds, and James is 6-8, 240. In weight, this is the difference between an NFL middle linebacker and a cornerback. I understand this is not the only way to judge players, and that Jordan's mental toughness, ability to concentrate and sheer desire don't show up on YouTube - just as James' tendency to defer and his lack of authority in key moments don't show up on YouTube.
So I won't argue that James is a better player than Jordan. I'll leave that to Scottie Pippen. (Pippen is still searching for his share of credit for those six Bulls championships, which is surely why he said James could be better than Jordan. It makes Scottie seem more important. And that's fine. He never did get enough credit, anyway.)
But if you think Jordan would destroy James, you're kidding yourself. Larry Bird was one of the seminal athletes of my youth, but if you think he would dominate Nowitzki, you haven't been paying attention. Dirk is taller, more athletic and his shot is just as unblockable. I don't think I ever enjoyed watching an athlete as much as I enjoyed watching Magic Johnson. But if you think he could keep Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in front of him consistently, you never watched Magic play defense.
Again, I'm not saying these guys are BETTER players than their predecessors. I winced as much as you did when I included Russell Westbrook in the same sentence as Magic Johnson, even though I'm not comparing their achievements or overall games. I'm just saying that today's best players could absolutely hold their own against the best players from any previous era. If you think Magic, Jordan and Bird would be the three best players in today's NBA, then hey, good for you. Maybe they would be. But if you're absolutely sure, then you're kidding yourself.
I don't know what will happen in Game 6. I just know that I'm dying to find out. That's the best thing you can say about any sporting event. Today, tomorrow or next June, if somebody tells me the NBA is not fun to watch, I will just assume that person does not own a TV.