Game Analysis

Dirk, LeBron, the absurd

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.

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0 thoughts on “Dirk, LeBron, the absurd

  1. Nicely put. As a fan of “team” basketball I appreciate what the Dallas Mavericks did, especially when compared to the superstar dominated Miami Heat. And yes, Corey Brewer and Brian Cardinal, NBA CHAMPIONS!

  2. Dear Lebron James,

    I have heard the comments that you made on ESPN and it’s rather disheartening that you feel as you do. For one to have the temerity to make comments so arrogant, especially after LOSING the finals, is both unbecoming and unprofessional of you as an athlete and “role model”. It must take a lot out of a man to dribble a ball and shoot it inside of a basket. Have you ever stopped to think that the very people you made those cavalier remarks about are the very people contributing to the very quality of life you so pompously exclaimed about? Lebron, you are entertainment and your job is to entertain the people. Selfishly, you have forgotten that. It’s not about the promise you made to the millions of people in NE Ohio who have followed and worshipped you through your career, that is not why Cleveland hates you. Cleveland hates you because you strung them along, inhibiting our chance at a decent team. Your decision was just the cherry on top. I have served my country valiantly and love not only the United States of America, but the great state of Ohio. Although we may not offer the appeal of South Beach, Clevelanders have been loyal to you. We have integrity, which is something you so obviously lack, LeBum. In closing, I have a place I call home. Do you?

  3. Every now and then, I realize the extent to which we project virtues and vices onto the players of sporting events dictated more or less by chance. It makes me feel like I belong to a much more primitive time: like our modern day love of sport is essentially no different than that of the Ancient Mayans or Romans (granted, with fewer ritual sacrifices).

    That being said, I will certainly enjoy getting to be an “honorary Ohioan” for the day, bestowed upon me by virtue of having rooted for the winning team.
    I wonder what, exactly, are the “priveleges and honors therein”.

  4. I wouldn’t say that I’m a LeBron apologist by nature, but I think that EVERYTHING he says or does these days is viewed in such a poor light that I’ve found myself in that position with increasing frequency recently. I’m a firm believer that LeBron’s “shrinking” in the Finals was the result of a team-wide inability to figure out how to deal with rapidly changing defensive gameplans from Dallas (WE MISS YOU IN MINNESOTA, DWAYNE CASEY!) due to the fact that the Heat still aren’t incredibly comfortable playing together and (maybe more importantly) the fact that they don’t yet have a diverse enough offensive playbook to deal with the multiple looks that Dallas gave them. LeBron just doesn’t deal well with not knowing what he should be doing, which is not a horrible trait to have and which can be fixed by a lot of team practice (which the Heat didn’t have with the squad they had in the Finals). I think people who say this Heat team should be blown up are insane (unless the new CBA screws them over).

    I also don’t think LeBron’s comments after the game should be read as an impromptu “screw you guys, I’m rich” declaration of disgust. He was answering a question specifically about the universally high level of hatred he’s faced, and I think he sounded bemused and tired more than anything. As he should be. You read the things written on twitter or facebook or wherever and it’s shocking. His comments were more meant as an expression of his surprise rather than his condescension.

    It’s particularly fascinating to me that LeBron has been skewered for those comments, while Charles Barkley said more or less the same thing in much stronger and more arrogant terms to great acclaim just a couple weeks ago.

    1. Agreed on all counts Lowell. It’s obvious that LeBron has a tin ear when it comes to how his comments are interpreted publicly but the eagerness and glee with which people are condemning his character based on how he performed in a basketball game is pretty unsettling. I’ll repeat (as Lowell did): the Heat’s failings are entirely basketball related (although I would include trusting one another and their system as a basketball issue). We as fans have very, very little knowledge of these players’ inner spiritual lives.

      But if you are concerned with the fact that many star athletes, LBJ included, do not seem to live and behave like normal people, think hard about the implications of statements like “LeBron, you are entertainment.”

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