The Lesson of This Year's Incredible NBA Finals: It's Basketball That Matters

Forget the hype, the legacies, the rivalries. The games themselves dwarfed all of that.
NBA finals lebron reuters 650.jpg
Reuters/Mike Segar

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss this year's NBA finals, which ended last night with the Miami Heat beating the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 in Game Seven.

Stevens: Now that's a show.

There were blowouts and comebacks, and anonymous heroes that outshone superstars.

There was the bone-dry deadpan wit of Greg Popovioch growing more monosyllabic as the series progressed. There was Ray Allen's shot in Game Six. No, really. It happened. There was Ginobili and Parker held together with duct tape and prayer, and the legendarily unemotional Tim Duncan furiously slapping the floor after missing a fourth-quarter layup. Oh, yeah. There was some guy from Akron, Ohio, who is very, very good at basketball. In the end, there was the Miami defense; swarming, pounding, banging, contesting every Spurs pass.

There is an authentic, if seemingly perverse joy in being a fan who doesn't care. Rather than dining on cuticles and anxiety while living and dying with every dribble, the uninterested fan gets to float loftily above the action, dispassionately observing the athletic prowess. That's me in this series.

Kansas City hasn't had an NBA franchise since Sacramento stole the Kings. We do have a professional basketball team, though. They are called the Jayhawks, and some in the bar where I saw last night's game were pro-Miami for the fairly tenuous reason that Mario Chalmers went to KU. The rest of the crowd, like most of the country, were pro-Spurs. Or, really, anti-Heat. As my friend Tim Finn wrote, San Antonio is a band. Miami is a supergroup.

Maybe. There something innately unlovable about any team with so much going for them. That's why the rest of the world resents the USA. We're the Heat of global politics. But that "high-priced collection of stars" narrative for Miami didn't feel true for the last seven games. They played like a team, smart and hard, and they played it clean, too. I'm won over. At least until next season starts.

That "high-priced collection of stars" narrative for Miami didn't feel true for the last seven games. They played like a team, smart and hard.

Other than Jesus Shuttlesworth hitting a three-pointer, the most memorable moment of this year's Finals was the last one. After the buzzer when both teams and all the coaches met and congratulated each other--including midcourt hugs--it didn't look like a phony display of sportsmanship for the camera. That felt like the real thing. We saw genuine expressions of the respect, affection, and shared gratitude that can only come between athletes who have given each other the great and rare gift of a truly worthy opponent.

I'll bitch about the NBA from now until the Kings come home. The extra steps, the endless season, the infuriating inconsistency of officials. Don't get me started on flopping. But these last two weeks are enough to make you forgive it all. Basketball is over for a while--unless you care about the guys in suits who play with ping-pong balls. But before we let the 2013 season go, give me your thoughts on this dynamite finals.

Hruby: After it was over--after American Airlines arena had mostly emptied out and LeBron James and company were gearing up for celebratory early morning pizza--ESPN talking head Bill Simmons announced that he had something to say. About "The Decision," James' infamous live TV breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a sports-celebrity-snake-eating-its-tail hypefest that launched a thousand furious columns and radio segments. That was three years ago. Even Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has moved on. But whatever. This was LeBron, and with LeBron it's always something, and airtime abhors a vacuum, and so here was Simmons to tell us what it all means, because that's the conversation--and then, gloriously, the screen went dark. Silent, too. Like the end of The Sopranos.

I can't think of a better coda.

Here's what I'll remember most about these Finals: The games themselves were the thing. The signal drowned out the noise. The basketball--you know, the athletic exhibition taking place between the Tweeting and scribbling and kvetching about James's psyche and his place in history and who would win an arm-wrestling contest on the moon, James or Michael Jordan or Mini-Ditka?--was terrific. It was glorious. The series was exciting, unpredictable, intense, expertly played, a delight for hardcore and casual fans alike. Even the blowout games were intriguing.

Here's what I'll remember most about these Finals: The games themselves were the thing. The signal drowned out the noise.

Like you, Hampton, I didn't have a rooting interest. And like you, I found so much to relish and appreciate regardless: Dwyane Wade's sore knee-defying eruption; Manu Ginobili's swashbuckling throwback game; Danny Green's metamorphosis into Ray Allen 2.0; Allen 1.0's clutch shot-making; Chris Bosh's defense and hustle plays; Tony Parker's one-legged cleverness and perseverance; James's vastly improved jumper and overall two-way excellence; the tactical back-and-forth between Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra; the quiet ferocity of Kahwi Leonard; Tim Duncan's inexplicable Game Seven steal-and-breakaway-slam.

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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