To be shamelessly goofy for a moment: Game 6 of the NBA Finals was magical. It was a game of magic. Sorcery, witchcraft, wizardry, I don’t know what kind of magic exactly, but that’s what it was. It was pure, holy, divine, sublime, exciting, ridiculous, momentous, incredible, insane, exciting, amusing, and magical.
When I write about basketball I usually write about it with love. Even when my teams lose, there’s usually something beautiful at the margin that is worth mentioning, silver linings worth privately entertaining. But the sad truth is that there are a slew of ugly NBA games, turgid low-scoring brick-fests or lackadaisical defensive stands compounded by body language that college hoops fans assume is proof that the pro’s just don’t care. Most games are a mix of both, the beautiful and the banal, and the beauty is in the space between.
Game 6 between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs delivered objectively gorgeous basketball. It was a love song written to the game, a gateway drug for anyone on the fence. I sat in a crowded bar. The guy on my left was rooting for the Spurs and the guy on my right was rooting for the Heat. That seemed to be a microcosm of the allegiances of the bar in general. Every time Tim Duncan scored effortlessly half the bar erupted into cheers. When the Heat struck back the other half of the bar applauded raucously. Those less initiated with the game sat in awe of the seesaw battle.
With about a minute left, a friend leaned over and asked me, “They’re down five. There’s no way the Heat can win, right?”
It was possible, I admitted, though not likely. “Never say never,” said that weird bird in American Tail and once again the weird bird turned out to be right.
Two missed free throws, a couple of Heat offensive rebounds, a punch in the face three by LeBron James followed by a absolutely back-shattering three by Ray Allen and you could tell the Heat were going to pull it out. It went to overtime but the game seemed decided with that last desperate Heat rally. The defending champs weren’t going quietly. Nor should they.
It’s not a given that the two best teams actually make it to the Finals. Match-ups, streaks, injuries, a slick spot on the court, any number of things conspire to keep the final dance somewhat unpredictable. But this year there can be no question that the two best teams in the league have come together to give us a series to remember for years to come. This series is going the proverbial seven game distance. It’s a stirring combination of Aesop’s Fables and of Hegel’s Dialectic.
Tim Duncan wanted that fifth ring. Here’s a sports cliché: He came to play. And it was spectacular to watch in a sharply divided environment that unified adulation with derision into some kind of boisterous barroom melody. Duncan looked five years younger, corralling rebound with those deceptively long arms (how does a seven foot tall man still impress one with his wingspan?), tossing in shots and contemptuous of his defenders, abusing Chris Bosh and Birdman in the post. If this was Tim Duncan’s last Finals it would have been an exclamation point to a brilliant but muted career. His virtuosity around the hoop was a spectacle as usual, but this time it had an edge. Tim Duncan didn’t look content to be the Big Fundamental or to exhibit that serene self-control that makes the Spurs so deadly and vexing to inferior opponents. No, he broke from the script. Duncan wanted it.
But as I watched the Spurs take the game by the throat, I felt some sadness that LeBron would once again be eviscerated by a feckless media and blowhards like (but not limited to) Skip Bayless whose reason for existence is to bring ugliness to something pretty. I can hear the indignant caterwauling of the talking heads already! LeBron is only 1-3 in the Finals! LeBron can’t single handedly defeat the Spurs, who when all is said and done with stand as one of the best teams in NBA history. LeBron isn’t clutch!
Wait, his headband fell off! He is clutch! He is the G.O.A.T. after all!
LeBron put the team on his back (another sports cliché!), perhaps nostalgic for his Game 5 performance against Detroit all those years ago, the game that served notice to the new Olympian on the block. With Wade in and out of the game, Bosh not delivering offensively (though a deceptively solid job defensively), and the Spurs rolling with with their Hydra-like scoring, LeBron’s 4th quarter heroics led to a 22-9 Heat run that put them within striking distance of surviving on their home floor. And then that final minute, that insane final minute, that final minute that reminds you why it is you even care about super rich people playing a game over and over again.
It’s no surprise that most of the games in this series have been blowouts. These teams are great at playing the sport of basketball. No twelve dollar words could ever accurately convey how great at it they actually are. When great teams get rolling, great teams blow other teams out. And when two great teams get rolling, it’s a back-alley brawl of epic proportions, the Thirty Years War with more corner threes.
And so the beat writers had to find their narratives early: This was the Tim Duncan Came To Play Game. This was the Danny Green Cooled Off Game. The Heat Overpower You Game and then the You Don’t Actually Think You Can Overpower the Spurs Game. This was the Mike Miller Made A Three Pointer Without His Shoe Game. Finally it was The Headband Game. It turns out the magic was in LeBron’s slightly receding hairline the entire time!
I am neither a Miami Heat fan nor a San Antonio Spurs fan. In fact, at different times I have loathed both of those teams.
But that was one of the best games I have ever seen. As I said earlier, in an embarrassing admission: it was magical.
There are way too many things in this world to be skeptical of, or to confront with knee-jerk cynicism, but if you can watch a game like that without feeling something, without being moved, well, you probably never believed in magic in the first place.