Last night, and to a lesser degree in Game 6 on Tuesday, LeBron James and the Heat shook off the questions that have dogged them these playoffs and became back-to-back “champeens” (thanks, Commissioner Stern, for that). During his speech accepting the Finals Most Valuable Player trophy, LeBron made a point to say that he couldn’t worry about what people off the court say about him. He even dropped a Lil’ Wayne reference, saying simply, “I ain’t got no worries.” If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice this is something of a theme for LeBron. He really, really doesn’t care about what the media and others, including fans, say about him. That’s an attitude he shares with Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. Pop does not have time for silly media narratives and when he gets a silly question, he generally will embarrass the media member asking the question.
There’s a good reason these two men, at the top of their respective positions within the NBA, have this attitude. It’s because media narratives are BS. This year’s NBA Finals should make that abundantly clear, once and for all. The grizzled veteran Spurs lost a Game 6 that they had within their usually vice-like grasp. Did they choke? No, they did not choke. They were beaten by a series of events that could have easily swung their way. (Zach Lowe, of Grantland, broke this down in wonderfully great detail over the last couple days). They put themselves in a position to win and didn’t make enough plays down the stretch to complete the job. That sounds like coach-speak cliché, but it is also indisputably true. There’s a reason coaches, who generally know more about the game than any media member, say these things. They are actually being quite insightful, despite it sounding like they are dodging a “tough” question about their team’s mental makeup. It is not a problem of “mental toughness” that Kawhi Leonard missed that foul shot at the end of Game 6, which opened the door for Ray Allen’s amazing corner three pointer. He just missed. He’s an 80% foul shooter for his career, which means that his odds of making both free throws was only 64%. Those are good odds, but simply because he ended up in that other 36% of the time when he DOESN’T make both shots and the Spurs had the misfortune of giving up an open look off of a loose ball scramble doesn’t make the Spurs or Kawhi mentally weak. These are the same Spurs that they’ve always been. Just as tough-minded as ever. Just as dangerous. The fact is someone had to lose this series. If you had these teams play 100 games, they’d probably split them 50-50. It was that close.
Are you going to tell me that Tim Duncan’s legacy suffers or that he’s no longer the best player of his generation, because he missed a 3 foot hook shot over Shane Battier and the subsequent tip-in, by a few measly inches? Some people will say crazy things like somehow Duncan is lesser for having missed that shot. Those people are idiots. Don’t listen to them. Tim Duncan is still the best player of his generation. What he did at 37 years old was nothing short of amazing. What he’s done since he entered the league is quite simply to have the most sustained record of success since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Tim Duncan is still clutch. He’s still amazing, and he’s still one of the greatest big men to ever touch a basketball. He was simply unlucky to miss a shot he’s made so many times before.
That’s not to take any credit away from Miami or LeBron James. The Heat and LeBron took advantage of the opportunities that they were presented with. But don’t think for a second that LeBron is all of a sudden clutch. He already was. He always was. Clutch is such a troubling, nebulous concept that it warrants its own separate conversation, but basically, it’s like this: the best players are the best players all of the time and what they do in a limited sample of “clutch” time makes no difference in that calculus. LeBron is showing you why, now. He has always had these flashes of dominance in important games or “clutch moments” (ask the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Boston Celtics about it) from very early in his career. And why is that? It’s because he’s the best damned player on the planet and has been for 5 years running (Derrick Rose’s MVP, notwithstanding). LeBron has had moments where he hasn’t played his best in so-called “big” moments, but so has every player who has ever laced up sneakers. More often than not, he has been freaking great in those moments, though. He did it again last night and that should finally put to bed the notion that LeBron isn’t “clutch” or he’s “mentally soft” or whatever other garbage people have wanted to say about him over the years.
The point of all this is: the supposedly infallible, unflappable Spurs lost twice with great opportunities to win their 5th NBA title, and the supposedly mentally weak LeBron-led Heat pulled out two hard-fought close games to win their second title in as many years, proving that all of that noise about both teams was always lowest-common denominator #analysis by cranks and blowhards. The truth is these were two great, great teams, either team could have taken this thing, and the outcome doesn’t change that essential truth at all. What a great season, capped by an incredible playoffs and finals. Man, I love this game. Now, on to the Draft!