No matter the winner, NBA Finals worthy of appreciation
We're going to talk about LeBron James' headband for a minute. I know, it's a silly, trivial subject, and it has already been discussed more than it deserves to be, and it will have no bearing on who wins the NBA championship tonight, but really, just for a minute.
The thing that's important about James deciding not to put his familiar headband back on after it was pulled off during the fourth quarter of the Heat's season-saving overtime win in Game 6 on Tuesday is not how he played with his receding hairline out there for all to see. It's that he played that way. On those rare occasions that his headwear had been knocked off or askew in the past, King James has always quickly put it back in place, like a man who's toupee had slipped. But this time he was locked in such an all-encompassing battle with the San Antonio Spurs, with so much on the line, that it seemed he didn't want to devote even a second or two to something so unimportant as his appearance. The competition was too fierce for him to think of anything else.
A great game can do that do you, whether you're a player or a fan. It can make everything around it seem so inconsequential. These Finals, like almost every other sporting event we watch, was threatening to become just a mass of storylines -- is Miami's Big Three a failure? Is Manu Ginobili finished? What about LeBron's legacy? Would another championship make Tim Duncan, not Kobe Bryant, the greatest player of his generation? Did the Heat choke? Did the Spurs? Embrace debate. Have a take, don't suck. The chatter, the slinging of opinion, can overshadow the actual games.
But then along comes a classic like Game 6, and with any luck, something equally memorable in Game 7 Thursday night, that snaps us out of all that, at least temporarily. Sometimes a game is so transcendent that it makes us forget about debating What It All Means and just leaves us to marvel at the purity, the intensity of the competition. Game 6 was played on such a high plane, with two teams full of future Hall of Famers throwing everything they had at each other, forcing each other to pull off great plays or commit crushing mistakes, that after a while, it almost didn't matter who won. It was more like art than sport, not something to evaluate, just appreciate.
These Finals haven't always been pretty, they haven't always been close, but they have been special nonetheless. Even in the one-sided games, it wasn't so much that the loser played poorly as it was that the winner played so well it seemed they had almost perfected the sport. Consider what we saw in Game 6 alone: James, the desperation on his face, trying to do everything in the fourth quarter, including score, rebound and defend the impossibly quick Tony Parker; Duncan, energized by the scent of a fifth championship, somehow finding it within himself to play like he was 27, not 37; Chris Bosh, not only grabbing the crucial offensive rebound that led to Ray Allen's season-saving three-pointer, but making two remarkable blocks, on Parker and Danny Green, that sealed the game.
Games like that are why we watch. We will sit through a million nondescript regular season matchups for the promise of a competition like that, in which the best are measuring themselves against each other, holding nothing back, leaving it, as James said, all on the floor. When we are lucky enough to witness one of those games, it seems so beside the point to prattle on endlessly about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan or to perform yet another armchair psychoanalysis of King James.
So, as Game 7 approaches, here's a thought: When it's over maybe we don't have to eviscerate the loser. We don't have to label someone who misses a key jumper or defensive rotation a choker. We don't have to decide that James will never measure up to Michael, or that he's finally figured it out. Because whatever happens Thursday night, even if it's a blowout, we will know that either of these teams could have won the championship, that a bounce here or a ref's call there could have reversed the result of the series. Maybe we can accept that these were two championship-caliber teams who pushed each other and at times brought greatness out of each other.
But chances are, even if Game 7 is a game for the ages, we'll fall into old habits. We'll lay the burden of blame on someone, player or coach. We'll debate what the loser should have done differently. Blame must be assigned. God help the Heat, especially, if they lose. But maybe, before we do what we always do, we can at least briefly think of this series as the piece of art that it has been. Maybe we can take a moment before we start picking everyone apart, and appreciate what we saw.