Note: a (hopefully) slightly edited version of this piece will appear on Construction Literary Magazine but they’re having some site issues so it’ll be here and on their tumblr. I encourage you to check out their excellent work.
There’s an intimacy to basketball that other sports just don’t have. There’s the touching, the tank-tops, the picking-and-rolling, the boxing out, the huddling. And in the playoffs, there’s the familiarity. The dance of a defender, five or six or seven games into guarding his opponent, moving in perfect step with him. There are the “I thought I knew you better than that” lover’s quarrels that break out after hard fouls. There’s the star player, grabbing the opposing team’s coach at the end of a hard fought series and whispering in his ear that he respects him. Maybe that’s why at the end of a long season us fans feel like we know the players, their intentions, their passions and their motivations, who is good and who is bad. The intimacy of basketball is what makes it so compelling. But don’t be deceived: we don’t know as much as we think. Intimacy is never simple.
A quick synopsis, a basketball detour: both the Heat and Thunder took a punch from an aging Big Three and survived. It’s not hard to envision a future where a quarter of the league’s all-stars come from these two teams (we came damn close this year). There are entire NBA divisions without as much talent. Durant, Bosh, LeBron, Harden, Westbrook and Wade: I’d pay big money to watch those six play three-on-three. Anywhere.
The Heat borderline struggled with the Celtics, outlasting them behind a heroic, clutch effort from LeBron James who had 76 points and 27 rebounds over the course of must-win games six and seven. The Thunder were down 2-0 in a series that did not seem like it could be going any worse, that is until the Thunder got back to their raucous home arena and Kevin Durant remembered he’s the league’s top scorer, an ice-cold finisher who brings his mother on the court after vanquishing his opponents.
Oklahoma City wants to run, Miami showed a puzzling inability to get back on defense against Boston. Oklahoma City wants to run its offense through Kevin Durant, Miami has the best on-ball defender in the game in LeBron James. Rajon Rondo killed Miami, Russell Westbrook is similarly capable. Serge Ibaka is the game’s best help-side shot blocker, Miami can use Bosh’s jumpshooting to draw him away from the rim. The Heat defend better, the Thunder have a rebounding advantage. This is a dream matchup in every way.
This is America, so of course the dominant storyline is that Oklahoma City and Miami are opposites. The glorified country town versus the cosmopolitan hedonism capital, the homegrown talent of the Thunder against the Heat core’s “Decision” to team up. Humble Durant against egomaniacal LeBron James. I’m not buying that. I think these two teams have more in common than meets the eye. Sometimes-petulant Russell Westbrook would fit in just fine with Dwyane Wade in South Beach. KD is a quiet kid but he’s as much of a fashion-absurdist as anyone in the league. James Harden and Chris Bosh are left-handed misfits who don’t seem to fit in with anyone. For every drop of “not four, not five, not six” hanging over the Heat there’s the original sin of SonicsGate hanging all over the Thunder. There are no black hats or white hats. Intimacy, life, basketball, it’s never that simple.
- The Pick: You’re still here so I owe it to you to be honest: I’m rooting for LeBron James to win a championship. It’s time. It’s time for us to appreciate the greatness. It’s time for us to stop arguing about whether he’s a winner and start arguing about where he fits in the pantheon. It’s time for us to let the Decision go. I decided this season I wasn’t going to waste LeBron James’ career hating him. I did that with Jordan. LeBron’s play to close out the series against Boston convinced me that he’s ready. I am too. Miami in seven.