To get to the other side, where there is sunlight and cheering and a ticker-tape parade waiting, you have to first go through this long tunnel. You have to go through a place where arenas will be full and loud and yet you can feel so alone, even as all of America is watching. You fight through this tunnel that takes two weeks to traverse, and you understand that everything you have worked for and dreamed of might come down to the capriciousness of whether the arc of a single shot is true or centimeters awry.
If an NBA Finals can be torturous for fans, imagine the mental toll on players.
“It’s not fun,” as the Heat’s Dwyane Wade, preparing for his fifth one, said following Tuesday’s practice before the team flew to San Antonio. “The ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s dark, until you win. It’s a dark, dark time.”
One year ago the Spurs had beaten Miami on its own floor and won the championship — everybody thought it. NBA officials had begun roping off the court for what would be a quiet postgame ceremony. Then, the Hand of God happened in the mortal form of the hand of Ray Allen, whose desperate three-point shot from 25 feet away was true, not centimeters awry.
It happened with 5.2 seconds left in the game, in the season.
That’s about the time it took you to read the preceding sentence.
Into the monsoon of sudden noise Allen screamed something about those ropes not fit for polite conversation.
Everything had changed.
Miami would go on to its second championship in a row.
San Antonio would stagger stunned into the offseason.
Now it is one year later, and we wonder what is bigger? What weighs more?
Is it San Antonio’s anger and pain still close enough to feel and to hurt? The Spurs’ visceral need for revenge?
Or is it Miami’s hunger for the history that would be made with a three-peat? For the broader lure of legacy?
Tug of war, tug of wills.
Heat-Spurs II commences Thursday night in south-central Texas, and if you’re pretty sure what’s going to happen, you’re kidding yourself.
Will San Antonio’s depth of talent and home-court edge prevail? Or will the Kingly might of LeBron James simply prove undeniable?
Nobody knows. The consensus of betting lines probably has the Spurs as a slight favorite, but basically it’s a dead-even series. The Heat winning in six games and the Spurs winning in seven are co-betting favorites at 7-2 odds each, according to the Las Vegas oddsmaker Bovada.
The evenness makes it intriguing. So does the fact this is the NBA’s first Finals rematch since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz did it back to back in 1997-98.
The motivation driving the Spurs this time cannot be duplicated, or contrived.
It is the same motivation that drove the Big 3-era Heat to where it is now after its first Finals appearance was a crushing, humbling loss to Dallas in 2011.
Shane Battier, now down to his last few games before retiring, joined the Heat just after that defeat and absorbed the atmosphere it had created.
“The pain that was inflicted was such a motivating factor,” he recalled this week. “It was a powerful, powerful force.”
Now the Spurs own that force.
But the Heat own something different, yet just as strong. A place in sports history awaits it, but it is not owed it. It must go get it.
The three-peat is a magical thing for its rarity.
Only the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls franchises have accomplished it (a combined five times) in 67 NBA years, most recently by Los Angeles in 2000-02.
It has been done only four times in 111 baseball seasons, the last by the Yankees in 1998-00.
Ninety-six hockey seasons have seen it done only five times, last by the New York Islanders in 1980-83.
And it has been done but twice in 94 NFL years, and not since the Green Bay Packers in 1965-67.
That’s 16 total three-peats in 368 combined seasons in our Big Four professional sports, an average of one every 23 years. That’s once-a-generation stuff, basically.
The one-hit wonder of a single championship does not distinguish you. Two in a row does, but many have hit that double. It is three — or more — in succession that separates and elevates you, and nominates you into the “all-time greatest” argument, and for all time.
“Whenever it is said and done, the legacy of this team — it’s going down in history as an unbelievable team not only in South Florida but in NBA history,” Wade said.
Yes. But a Finals defeat this month might prop a question mark onto that declaration, whereas a victory would fix an exclamation point there.
A three-peat also would separate the Heat from the long shadow of the Dolphins, whose back-to-back Super Bowl wins in distant 1972-73 always have been the benchmark in Miami pro sports.
It’s funny how every playoff series in an NBA postseason takes on its own drama and particular motivation.
Well, we’ll skip the first round against Charlotte, a hopeless underdog. (Did you even remember the first round was against Charlotte?)
The next round brought Brooklyn, with Jay-Z and Beyoncé courtside, and the star-laden Nets featuring mouthy ex-Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. There was some history there. Intensity and atmosphere ramped up palpably. That series filled the marquee pretty well.
Then it was Indiana in the Eastern finals, Little Brother giving it another shot against Big Brother. The whole series felt personal. It simmered on the edge of a boil as pugnacious, punk-nacious Lance Stephenson nominated himself as a new villain to Miami fans.
The buildup to the Finals has been funny in what has passed for controversy.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said, rather benignly, “We’ll do it this time” — hardly a Namath-esque guarantee, but close enough for Your Friend the Media, which treats any hot new story line like a crack addict regards a rock.
Duncan further said, “We wanted Miami,” also more mild than inflammatory. (“We preferred Indiana” — now that would have been noteworthy.)
LeBron bit, though.
“They don’t like us. They don’t,” James said. “I can sense it from Timmy’s statements. They wanted this. They wanted us. We left a sour taste in their mouth. We want them, too. They want us? They got us.”
Chris Bosh added, of Duncan’s remarks, “We love it for the extra motivation.”
Think of the postseason as a two-month climb up a mountain.
If the mountain is smooth, the climb is tougher. You need crevices for a foothold, jutting rock to grab onto. Those might come in the form of Paul Pierce trash-talking, or Lance Stephenson blowing in your ear, or Tim Duncan saying, “We wanted Miami.”
It isn’t much. But it can be enough.
Of course, broad intangibles like motivation are no more important than the matchups and stuff that drive a result, such as how well Kawhi Leonard defends LeBron, which team is better from three-point range, Tony Parker’s health, if Bosh can keep Duncan from the rim, and whether Mario Chalmers deigns to contribute something.
“The story line of a legacy doesn’t win you a game,” as pragmatist Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Besides, how much added outside motivation is needed when you have one team trying to avenge its most bitter defeat and the other trying to fashion a rare three-peat?
“I don’t need any more motivation. I got enough,” as James put it. “I’d explode if I had any more motivation.”
With that, two teams after one prize are about to enter that “dark, dark time,” that long tunnel from which only one will emerge.