I will have to admit here to pretty much going with the flow of current conventional sentiment. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mavs, for Jason Terry’s sleepy-bear eyes and Jason Kidd’s bodhisattvan calm, for J.J. Barea’s skittering open gym misdirections and Shawn Marion’s neurotic intensity. And the Mavs only became more lovable once they added Brian Cardinal (incorrigible rake!) and handsome Tyson Chandler, and started moving the ball and playing defense like a many-limbed telepathic amoeba.
And then there’s Dirk. The world loves Dirk and I love Dirk too. I love his great, ascetic desire, his awkward grace and his gracious, weary face. I love the way his goofy, unbalanced jumper passes so cleanly and easily through the net. I love that he and his team have (momentarily at least) undermined the Jordan/Kobe model of champion-as-superhuman-psychotic. For all of these reasons and a few less noble ones–like distaste for the Heat’s martyred bully persona, plus just a little bit of schadenfreude–I joined the chorus in rooting for the Mavs and celebrating for their awesome, exhausting accomplishment.
Still, it gives me no pleasure to see great athletes–even ones I root against–come undone as the Lakers did in the conference semifinals and the Heat did here. Many are already describing, with great, satisfied relish, the Heat’s loss as an expression of some moral or spiritual weakness, as if playing marginally less great basketball than another great team means that they are substantially less good at being people. This make me feel sad.
Now I would agree that by the end of the series the Heat, as the Lakers had before them, seemed gripped by a real spiritual malaise. But what I saw was less some latent character flaw playing itself out on the basketball court, than a series of basketball problems that resulted in a howling crisis of confidence.
The Mavs are an incredibly flexible basketball team. They leaned heavily on their superstar but also boasted a bench multifaceted and energetic enough to respond to changing situations and prop the team up when the big guy wasn’t at his best. Peja is a massive defensive liability? Fine: Barea and Marion and Deshawn Stevenson can make it work. Brendan Haywood is hurt and Chandler is in foul trouble? Cool: Cardinal can step in, hit some shots, sow some destruction.
The Heat had no such luxury. With the exception of Udonis Haslem and, occasionally, Mario Chalmers, Miami had nowhere to turn when trouble struck. Mike Miller was old and hurt. Mike Bibby was old and bad. Joel Anthony was in over his head. Juwan Howard was just old.
More damaging for Miami was an unresolved ambiguity at the core of their team structure. LeBron and Wade are both players who do their best work with the ball in their hands, who are used to dominating possessions with their own skill and creativity. Occasionally this year, the Heat would flourish with LeBron running the offense and Wade playing off the ball. But this was only occasional; for the most part, Miami seemed content to allow LeBron and Wade to take turns playing one-on-one, just waiting for that one crushing, turnover-fueled run that would allow them to sail home.
When this didn’t happen, when they encountered a team (like the Mavs) that took care of the ball and disrupted their offensive rhythm, the Heat unraveled. They seemed to lack that deep reservoir of trust and confidence that would allow them to play coherent, connected team basketball through intensely difficult situations.
One of LeBron’s great strengths is his willingness to defer to his teammates, to move the ball out of double teams, to sacrifice his own looks for the sake of his team’s success. This was probably the biggest reason for his move to Miami this year: he wanted to join players who were worthy of this deference. Nevertheless, it seemed that LeBron never quite grasped just how to allow his great teammates to play their game while still remaining woven into the fabric of the offense. Against Dallas, this seemed to blossom into an almost existential crisis. Unsure of how to affect the offense without dominating it, unsure of how to create opportunities for his great teammates without getting in their way, and unsure of how to do any of these things in the face of an elite, determined and holistically integrated opponent–unsure, in short, of how to best be himself, LeBron withdrew. We all saw that hollow, stricken stare. We all saw the tepid defense and the ambivalence with the ball. LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, looked lost.