It somehow keeps building. All of it. The terror, the interest, the stakes. This seems impossible, given where we started three years ago. It feels like jumping up in the air and never coming down, just continuing to elevate, with your stomach feeling exhilaration/nausea as the Earth keeps getting smaller and smaller below.
The Miami Heat have somehow made three straight interminable NBA regular seasons hypnotizing. You know how hard that it is to do for one regular season? They’ve captivated us by losing big, and winning big, and it was important that it be done in that order the first two years. Because now the upside-down-right-side-up story arc keeps spinning and climbing and hurtling through the clouds . .. to this dizzying place where you can feel the I-can-touch-the-sky joy while also being forced to take inventory of just how far there is to fall.
Miami had to lose the first year to create doubt here and hope for the rest of basketball’s fans . . . and to make last year’s championship somehow feel like a surprise (Oklahoma City was actually favored in The Finals) . . . and to bring us to this uncertain place in the clouds where there is a very thin atmospheric gap between feeling like a dynasty controlling a basketball era and feeling like a failure crushed by these delirious heights.
Six more victories, and it’ll be bliss. Two losses in the next three games, and it’ll be blown.
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We can overreact with emotion from game to game, panic replacing perspective this time of year, but this is not hyperbole: The stakes right now are bigger than even this single championship, hard as that is to fathom.
If LeBron James wins again with one of his best friends in the world, he is more likely to want to keep playing with one of his best friends in the world. But if this is the Dwyane Wade he’s getting in the future, and the recent past includes two punch-to-the-groin punctuations and only one triumph, and what is happening with Wade is viewed as age and foreshadowing instead of injury, James might be more inclined to take his prime and future championships someplace else. Winning doesn’t create introspection and doubt and a desire for change. Only losing does that.
Trust. It is a word Coach Erik Spoelstra uses so very much. He came up with Udonis Haslem, and they both speak with great gratitude about what the organization has done for them, Spoelstra a former video coordinator, Haslem a former fat kid who couldn’t make it in this country until Pat Riley saw him chasing a ball in a tryout after all the other players had stopped.
Trust is not just some wired-for-sound word belched in a huddle on this team. It is Spoelstra staying with Haslem in Game 3, long after the fan base would have been fine with a benching, and then James finding him again and again with trust on a shot that probably ought not be trusted as much as it was. Spoelstra trusted Haslem even as it was exactly the shot Indiana wanted Miami taking, and he trusted him because he has trusted him in the past with results and glory and joy.
But trust is built, over time and overcoming. And if James wins this year, this is how it’ll be:
It’ll be following the advice from on-high and going into the post in Game 3, where he’d prefer not to be, and being rewarded for it with a blowout win at a crucial time. It’ll be because this entire space-creating system has been tailored to his unique gifts, Spoelstra admitting that he failed James that first year, that unusual admission and subsequent changes working to build the bridge to trust. It’ll be because Wade got out of the way, and Bosh played a position that he doesn’t want to play — a position that is getting him trashed in this series by a giant. And it’ll be because the organization has gotten him shooter after shooter after shooter to fit with his unselfish style.
Win again, and he’ll notice all that, and appreciate it, and trust it to be so going forward, Miami getting him the toys Cleveland never did. But lose . . . well, lose and that crushing feeling falls somewhere in the emotional neighborhoods between regret and mistrust.
Miami is more talented than Indiana. This is not up for debate. Indiana actually played well in Game 3, but was blown out because Indiana’s best can’t match Miami’s best. Heck, even that Game 4 loss is a testament to how much more talented Miami is because a team shooting under 40 percent and being outrebounded by 20 shouldn’t be close, never mind leading, late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game on the road.
But Indiana is closing that talent gap with free throws, rebounds and sheer size — and because that size has been the single most consistent thing in this series, correcting bad shooting by giving it another try on the same possession. Roy Hibbert is not a good offensive player. This is what he’s averaged per game the last four seasons: 11.7 points, 12.7 points, 12.8 points, 11.9 points. He has done this while shooting less than 50 percent every single season. But he has scored 19, 29, 20 and 23 in these four games while making more than he misses.
You want to guess how often he’s scored like that over four straight games in his entire five-year career? One other time. Ever. In more than 400 games. And he’s doing it now against one of the best defenses in the league, at the most important time? Indiana is tilting the game’s math in its favor, closing the talent gap, because its big people are playing near the rim successfully and efficiently in a way that Wade is not. Wade might want to correct that, and soon, if he wants his friend to keep helping him as he ages.
Pretty huge game at home tonight, obviously. You don’t want to play a game for your life in Indiana, no matter how good/better you are. This entire journey through the clouds toward tonight has been fun and crazy, more launch than climb, and this particular catapult is such that it defies the standard definition of gravity and sends us hurtling toward the secondary definition — gravitas. Consequences? They are grave. Grave, as in dire; grave, as in where things are buried.
You can see all that clearly while floating all the way up here like an astronaut, enjoying the hell out of the view down there while hoping and praying that isn’t a crack starting to form in your helmet’s mask.