Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Of Closers and Poseurs

"I don't want it to sound like we're getting cocky, but after watching the film...I think we have the better team. It's looking that way. They may have the better closer, but we're starting to have the better team."

-George Karl, head coach of the Denver Nuggets

This quote might be the most apt summation of the NBA Conference Finals, both east and west. A situation has developed where a superior team has imposed its will, to varying degrees, in the first week.

In the west, that team is the Denver Nuggets. This didn't come as a shock to me, or to most fans; it was evident in the lead-up that they'd been building to something special, peaking at the perfect moment, while the Lakers took on the personality of a shadow squad, winning when necessary but lacking the substantial, unwavering core we expect from a champion. L.A. was more like a guerrilla army; striking in bursts, conceding ground, avoiding heavy losses, retreating totally at times, and relying on the heroics of a great leader to pull them through the tight spots. It worked well enough in the first two rounds, but did not seem hearty enough to meet the challenge of a swaggering, powerful force like the Nuggets.

Potential historical parallel: despite superior leadership, the Confederate Army finally fell to the relentless push of a more numerous, more relentless force. Sherman marched to the sea, burning everything in his path, Grant waged a war of attrition, and the south weakened and collapsed. By engaging in a strategy that could not be parried with evasion or deception, the Union demanded a direct response. When their terms became mandatory, the outcome was already decided.

The closer George Karl referred to, of course, is Kobe Bryant. And his quote is factual, if not true. Factual because all elements of the sentence can be verified empirically; Denver has become the better team, Kobe is the better closer. Untrue because he left out a crucial clause, a glaring addendum which hangs a huge asterisk on the entire sentiment: the better closer might be enough.

In games 1 and 3, Denver outplayed the Lakers, but it did not suffice; Kobe's typical pressure-cooker performance won out, replete with off-kilter three-point plays, logic-defying fadeaways, precision jumpers, and the closer's greatest weapon- the uncontested, preordained, automatic free throw. In game 2, Denver outplayed the Lakers, and it was barely enough; Kobe came on like a one-man wrecking crew, but he was stymied at the end. In game 4, Denver outplayed the Lakers, and the result was emphatic. Even the game's greatest player couldn't bridge the gap.

In some ways, it's like watching John Henry against the machine (if everyone was rooting against John Henry). The outcome seems as though it should be inevitable, and the efforts of the resident superhuman, while heroic, should be unsustainable. There's no way Kobe should muster the energy to win this series by himself. The Lakers can't get a rebound, they have nobody else who can score with any reliability, and they're consistently outplayed at most positions. But yet...it's Kobe. Kobe the unlikeable, the arrogant virtuoso, who has sacrificed championships for his ego, who is supposed to represent a selfish, undesirable side of athletics, and who is the closest thing to a villain in the NBA. But who is also a ruthless winner, and a magician with a limitless repertoire.

One digression, two confessions. First, I hate Kobe Bryant. Second, I'm very grateful for him. Yesterday I watched a documentary called "Kobe Doin' Work," which is basically a game film of a Lakers-Spurs match-up, with Kobe mic'ed up. It's directed by Spike Lee, and it's a semi-hilarious, semi-disturbing piece of unredeemed propaganda. For over an hour, I watched footage of an unrecognizable NBA star unleashing a constant stream of fatherly advice to his teammates, joking in an anachronistic, jolly-old-fellow style with his opponents, and painting himself as a guru-cum-player-coach wreathed in wisdom and good will. Anybody who's watched the NBA over the past five years and seen the same human brooding and sulking on court, openly swearing at referees with something approaching impunity, and isolating or haranguing his teammates, by turns, knows what this film is: phony. fucking. garbage.

It's also a window into the soul. Here stands a singular figure, committed to his image as much as he's committed to winning. In a word, the man is unrepentant. Or ruthless. Or implacable. Whatever you want. But he's the reason the Denver-LA series is so damn good, and why it's essential television, and why the outcome of the series is beyond any prediction. The wild card, in this case, is just too effin' wild. So there's the gratitude.

Over on the country's other side, the Cleveland-Orlando series is finished. The Magic are advancing, and there's no avoiding it. Contrary to their western brethren, this pecking order came out of the blue. We the people were ready to succumb to a near-decade of hype. Give him the title, already.

But that's not how it played out. Instead, on paper, it shaped up somewhat similarly to LA-Denver. Orlando has emerged as the better squad, with match-up advantages across the board that trump the individual brilliance of Lebron. Here's the difference: King James ain't a closer, and he won't be until he develops a reliable jumpshot. Is that heresy? Maybe. I'm trying to pinpoint the exact moment when I came to the epiphany. Paradoxically, it might have been after his buzzer-beater in game 2.

In all aspects, Lebron is the epitome of cool. He's the sui generis purveyor of the non-reaction, the who-dares-doubt-me stare-down after spectacular achievement. Tensed muscles and an emblematic glare bespeak his greatness, which is never in question. So when he launched that arcing, destined three in Cleveland, it gave us an aesthetic delight. We expected it to fall. We did, but the shooter didn't. The shooter turned around, put his hands on his head, crouched, and had a completely unexpected reaction: surprise. Sure, there was triumph, but it wasn't the cocksure triumph of Kobe or Jordan. It was triumph tinged by miraculous witness, augmented (and diminished) by long odds. You understood the meaning of the uncharacteristic feedback in a split second: Lebron got lucky.

Another age-old maxim is proving itself in this series: One man can't win a championship on his own. Orlando is exposing Cleveland's supporting cast, and the process is harsh. They're playing with unbelievable focus, and treating Lebron James like a matador treats a bull. The animal rushes, and rushes, and rushes, but each time a little of his quintessence is stolen. Some of the energy dissipates, some of the verve is drained, and some of the ability wanes. The end of game 1 found Lebron cramping up on center court, inhaling great gulps of air into deprived lungs. Game 2 found him in desperate times, bailed out by the generous Gods. Game 3 found him fatigued, throwing up fadeaway airballs from beyond the arc, making bad passes, missing jumpers, forced into the one strategy that was simultaneously effective and self-defeating- that ceaseless charge to the basket. Without any support, the bull had just one trick, and one trick isn't enough.

Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard are an absolute nightmare match-up for Cleveland, and the disparity seems obvious in hindsight. Thus, the result isn't entirely unpredictable. Orlando is a tough team, and they deserve endless praise. Their concentration and commitment, which we already saw, is second-to-none, and by this process they've contained Lebron. So why didn't anybody give them credit? Why did I pick Cleveland to win in five games? Why didn't we extrapolate from the gritty wins against Boston?

The lack of respect afforded them falls squarely on our gullible souls. Unlike Kobe, Lebron is very likeable. He's fun, he's a wunderkind, and his personality seems legitimate. We crowned him too soon. Without the Kobe-esque jumper, he's not a closer. Instead, he's young, and he's a work in progress. I'm not even sure he can be lumped in with the greats; any top guard or shooting forward who can be left open from deep at the end of games has a serious vulnerability.

Is that a disappointing conclusion? Yes. The fact that we call him "King James" says a lot. We crave legends, and instead of waiting for one to emerge, we created our own before he won anything. We crowned him before the conquest.

In a strange, contradictory way, Lebron's impending fall is reassuring. It's nice to know that despite the cumulative force of hype, advertising, and image, there exists a deeper truth in sports. This year, it's personified by the Magic. When an elite team plays with consistency, class, extreme focus, and grit, it will take real greatness to defeat them.

Orlando refused to cave to the ravings of Lebron's extensive and intimidating coterie, and their inspiring play has demanded a profound response. Ultimately, that response is not forthcoming in the Eastern Conference Finals. We wanted to believe in a child genius, but at the end of game 3, when the Magic began to feel that unmistakable surge of momentum that signifies the payoff of unyielding effort, you could see the ebullient spike, the momentous infusion of spirit as they realized the bull was staggering and ready to collapse. It's the vision of a team that raised its eyes to the enemy, after a long battle, and saw only weakness. Facts are facts- against our wishes, Lebron isn't ready.

But I heard there's a man out west...

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