My groan was audible as Derrick Rose’s potential go-ahead jumper against the Heat rimmed out on Tuesday night with half a minute to go in regulation. This Miami Heat team has proven time and time again this post-season that they’re not a bunch you can afford to squander opportunities against — if you have a chance to beat them and miss, chances are pretty good you won’t get a second. Incredibly, the Bulls did get a second chance, but they squandered it even worse, as a second Rose iso against LeBron James resulted in a jumper that came nowhere near twine, and in OT, the Heat invariably pulled away.
Then all of a sudden, it dawned on me like it had never dawned on me before: The Miami Heat were going to win the title this year.
Closing out the Bulls will not be a given, and if they’re able to do that, the Mavericks have proven themselves a team cohesive, confident and experienced enough to compete with anyone on any given night. But as the Heat took their 3-1 lead in the Eastern finals, I had to come to grips with the very, very real probability that this team was going to end up the ’10-’11 champs.
In fact, I feel so shaken at having to face the prospect of a Heat-dominated decade of NBA basketball that I feel the only way for me to get through with this is to face it head-on, in full, what it will mean if the Heat do get through the Bulls and whoever comes out of the West to become this year’s champions. So indulge me while I contemplate the somewhat unthinkable consequences of the Heat winning five more games this post-season.
1. We Can’t Make Fun of the Heat Anymore.
Both the most immediate and the most tragic short-term consequence of the Heat’s victory. Because while it’s easy to forget now with Miami looking so dominant, but there was a whole lot of incredible shit to razz the Big Three and beyond for earlier this season. The repeated late-game blow-ups. The “Heatles” comment. Bosh’s 1-18 against the Bulls. The locker-room crying. The reliance on Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire and other walking NBA corpses. The late-season loss to the Cavs. Bosh’s ridiculous comments about diving for loose balls. The entire “Fan up!” campaign. Wade’s proclivity for acting like every time he hit the floor was the result of a career-ending assassination attempt. The miserable bench performances and the general failure of Mike Miller. Bosh’s comments about being intimidated by the playoff atmosphere in Boston. The 9-8 start. The persistent Riley-replaces-Spoelstra rumors. And oh yeah, all that shit about The Decision and the championship celebration that Miami held before the regular-season even tipped off. The Heat were a constant source for hilarious and deserved derision throughout the season, and we all hoped it would continue into the post-season and beyond.
But here’s the thing about championships: They erase everything.
If the Heat win it all, nothing bad that happened with them this year actually happened. Or if it did, it no longer matters at all. If the Heat win it all, everything they went through this year becomes justifiable, excusable. Suddenly, we can’t laugh at LeBron for being a late-game choker, or at Wade for being an overreacting drama queen, or at Bosh for being a self-delusional third wheel, or Joel Anthony for not being able to play offense, or even Jamaal Magloire for being Jamaal Fucking Magloire.
All those insulting titles and criticisms disappear in favor of the all-encompassing descriptor of “champion.” And you can’t make fun of champions, not in any way that avoids feeling petty and hollow. As much as we all always feared the Heat, we at least had all this smug ammunition to fire at them to help us cope with our anxieties, to allow ourselves to believe that perhaps the feeling of superiority was what was real, and not the fear. Without that, it’s just not going to be easy to reconcile this team’s place in the NBA moving forward with what we know to be good and true about basketball and the world.
2. The Lakers-and-Celtics Era is Officially Over.
In all likelihood, this is true anyway. It’s not too common for teams as old and playoff-proven as the Celtics and Lakers to go from being in the Finals to getting bounced in the second round and then return. But if it was the Mavericks that won it all, perhaps the entire post-season could be written off as a fluke, with this team that nobody expected to even get out of the first round somehow going all the way on the back of a Hall of Fame player with one thing in his career left to prove and a team that just got really hot at a really opportune time. And if it was the Bulls or Thunder, maybe you could explain it away as the arrogance of youth allowing a flawed, green team to overachieve for a season, a statistical anomaly that would surely correct itself the next season.
But not with this Heat team. This feels right, as wrong as it feels. This is what we really expected all along, when you strip away all the drama and growing pains and late-game meltdowns and face the fact that this is a team with two of the best players to ever play the game, a third guy who would be a franchise player on about 20 other pro teams, and a coach who got his team to the 5th seed two straight years despite never having more than one-and-a-half good players. There’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be like this every year.
And as much as that hurts the other teams — and they’ll all have to reload, for certain — it absolutely kills the Lakers and Celtics. Because it’s not going to get easier from here, as they continue to age on the wrong side of the fulcrum of the NBA age spectrum and the Heat’s primary contributors continue to ease into that creamy middle. The Heat even summarily dispatched the Celtics themselves, and though Boston certainly had excuses — injuries to Shaq, a gimpy Rondo, a team still reeling from a trade that did more core damage than I would have ever thought possible for such a veteran squad — I don’t buy that it was close enough that Boston can feel like they were in any way truly the better team in that series.
Is it possible that one or both teams could contend next year? Sure, it’s possible. But if you go into next year still predicting another Celtics-Lakers finals, then I can’t believe that you’ve been paying all that much attention this post-season.
3. The Heat become the most rapped-about team in NBA history.
We’re seeing this already, with rap superstars Lil Wayne and Drake both attending the Heat’s Game 4 victory two nights ago, and Drake even supposedly texting LeBron before the game that “this is your night.” (35 points, 6 assists, 6 boards — thanks a whole fucking lot, Miss Cleo.) There’s no quality that the hip-hop world finds easier to embrace than unqualified success, and given that the Heat already have a rap-ready locale in Miami, a couple celebrity superstars in LeBron and D-Wade (though it’s still a little tough to believe the rap world ever embracing Bosh whole-heartedly), and some famous friends to help get them off the ground floor, it’s easy to see the Heat absolutely blowing up in the world of popular music once they have a championship under their belt.
“I bring the heat / you can call me LeBron James.”
“Going hard in the paint / U-D on them haters.”
“Feet square behind the arc / Bitch, I’m James Jones.”
Get used to it now, because if you ever plan on listening to a hip-hop and R&B station again, it’s going to be worse than you could have possibly imagined.
4. Dirk Nowitzki Instantly Becomes the Patron Saint of Ringless NBA Players.
Elgin Baylor. Patrick Ewing. John Stockton and Karl Malone. Charles Barkley. Forget about it. If Dirk doesn’t win this year, any time the list of great NBA players who never won a title is read, it will be the German Moses’s name that leads it off.
For Dirk to get his team so far this year — a team without a single other 2011 All-Star, with only two other relevant rotation players that aren’t a good four or five years past their prime, a team that went 2-7 when he spent nine games on the shelf in the regular season — and still come up short of the title would be one of the great tragedies of the modern NBA. This is especially true when one considers that if Dirk doesn’t win his first championship this year, it would either be because he failed once more to vanquish the Heat in the finals, the team that denied him his first chance half a decade ago, despite the entire NBA-watching world pulling desperately for him to win.
Which is not to say that Dirk needs to win it all this year for his Herculean post-season run this year to have any meaning. What he has done the last month-plus has been nothing less of extraordinary. From a historical perspective, it’s almost without peer for a player so late in his career, so relatively lacking in elite help, so previously doubted for his lack of clutchness in playoff performances past, to make it as far as Dirk already has. He’s added another chapter to his career regardless, and proven that much of his book is still unwritten.
But now more than ever, should he come up short of his ultimate goal this year, the heading on his story will still read: “Great player, no rings.” It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s definitely not cool, but it is. And for whatever part they may play in that, it will be yet another unforgivable sin to lay at the Heat’s feet to doom such a leading light of the sport to such an ignominious fate.
5. Every “Is LeBron James Better Than ____?” Discussion Has to Be Re-Opened.
It’s been rather sporting of LeBron to falter as he has the last few post-seasons, thus allowing us haters out there to perennially discount his place in NBA history with the simple “Well, then why hasn’t he won a ring yet?” argument. Hell, you’re even seeing it in that random-ass part of the “Bad Teacher” trailer where Jason Segel argues with some kid about Jordan being better than LeBron, simply because of that 6-0 disparity.
Until he wins that first ring, nobody has to take him seriously from an all-time perspective, because hey, all the true all-time greats won one. Hell, Kobe won five and we’re still not even positive that he’d be cool with winning the championship if there was a 40 percent chance that Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum would be named the Finals MVP. It’s a total cop-out for sure, but that’s just the way it works in the NBA, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s a fallacy that works both ways. As much as we were able to write him off without him winning one, we would then have to include him in the discussion once he does. Oh sure, there are still qualifiers: he couldn’t win one without Dwyane Wade, he never had to face Kobe in his prime, he had to stab his home city (or at least the one next to it) in the back to finally get there, all that bullshit. But a ring is a ring, and once LeBron has that on his resume, we have to consider all the other eye-popping line items: the two MVPs, the seven all-star appearances, the four straight years leading the league in PER, the over 17,000 career points, all before the age of 27.
If you think that this guy’s potential for all-time greatness isn’t as limitless as it ever was, I don’t know what to tell you. Except to remind you that minus all “The Decision” business, there’s barely a single criticism that could be levied against James that couldn’t have also been held against MJ at the same age. It’s just the titles. And those might be coming sooner than you think.
So what do you think? Is this an NBA you can live with? Personally, I don’t think I’ll know until I get there. And I still really, really, really don’t wanna have to get there. Go Mavericks.