Learn And Progress
The Miami Heat need to press rewind and study history.
by Rodger Citron
As a pro basketball fan, I am – like nearly everyone outside of South Beach, Florida – delighted by the downfall of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. This sentiment is about as original as cheering when the Death Star blew up in “Star Wars.” I don’t mean to minimize my euphoria; being a sports fan is a democratic experience and I appreciate the very basic joy that comes with being part of the crowd.
Amid the extensive commentary celebrating the triumph of the Mavericks team (emphasis intended) and psychoanalyzing LeBron James for his disappearance from the last three games, let me try to say something distinctive by asking “Which NBA Finals was this?”
Sports writing is a form of history, after all, and the past is never just the past in sports. It is with us constantly, in the endless replays of – to give just one example – Julius Erving’s improbable baseline drive against the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1980 Finals and in the exhaustive comparisons of James to Michael Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki to Larry Bird and so on. We understand today’s games by comparing them to those that came before.
As someone rooting against the Heat, I began the series with the hope – however unlikely – that we would see something like the Detroit Pistons dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. That Lakers team, with two of the NBA’s biggest stars in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, was heavily favored, and included two carpet-bagging veterans, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, along for the ride in their quest for championship rings.
The Pistons restored order to the universe by shutting down the Lakers and winning the series in five games. L.A. feuded on the court and afterwards, leading to le Divorce of Shaq and Kobe. It didn’t make for a pretty Finals, but Phil Jackson made it all worth revisiting in The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul.
Of course, the Pistons-Lakers series marked the end of a dynasty, and James and Dwyane Wade (and Chris Bosh, but only in parentheses) are at the beginning of their run to glory. Furthermore, whatever difficulties the Heat had during the first half of the season seemed to dissipate as they cruised through the playoffs.
The Mavericks-Heat series began with Miami still in Blitzkrieg mode. The more relevant comparison to a past series seemed to be the NBA Finals from 1984, when the high-flying Lakers gave away two of the first four games to the Boston Celtics. Just to win games two and four, it seemed like the Mavericks were playing not only at their best, but with a sense – a fear – that anything less would guarantee defeat. Nevertheless, for Mavericks fans, the comparison to the1984 Finals augured well for the rest of the series; the Celtics went on to win the championship in seven games.
In Game 5, the paradigm for the Mavericks-Heat series shifted. Dallas solved Miami’s relentless defense, quickly rotating the ball to move one step ahead of the Heat’s extraordinarily athletic defenders. Also, the fact that Dallas sneaked past Miami for its first two victories seemed to bolster its confidence.
The series seemed to morph into the 1970 Finals between the New York Knicks – the consummate championship team – and the Lakers, who featured three of the greatest players of that era (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor). The sum of the Lakers, by contrast, was less than their individual parts.
The Knicks won Game 5 of the 1970 series despite an injury to Willis Reed that put him out of the game. New York won by imposing its will on the Lakers and forcing the Lakers to play at their speed. The same thing occurred during Game 5 this year, as Dallas accelerated the pace and won by scoring more than 100 points for the first time in the series. This year, as in 1970, the more cohesive team triumphed in the critical Game 5.
As Game 6 approached, the anticipatory chatter was louder and more excitable than ever. Would some alpha version of LeBron James show up? Could Dallas continue to play with the swagger it showed during the second half of Game 5? The question I asked myself was, “What year would it be during this game?”
The answer turned out to be Game 6 of a different Finals series than those discussed earlier. When the final horn sounded on Sunday night, we had just finished watching something akin to the last game of the 1980 Finals, when the Lakers stunned the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia to capture the championship. True, no one played as well as Magic Johnson did that night, when he replaced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center and went on to play probably the greatest single game in the history of the NBA Finals.
What makes the comparison compelling is the way Miami surrendered in the second half – the same way the 76ers were steamrolled by the Lakers during the second half of Game 6 in 1980. (Miami trailed Dallas by only two points at the half; the Lakers and the 76ers were tied after the first half of their game.) We have the summer to try to understand why the Heat gave up in the second half. Such mysteries are part of why we find the drama of sports so compelling: at times, character is elusive but nevertheless defining.
Which brings me to the adage that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. After the Lakers lost in the NBA Finals in 1984, Magic Johnson was disconsolate. I recall hearing him say during an interview that after that game, he and his teammate Michael Cooper vowed to never lose as they had just lost to the Celtics. And, in fact, the Lakers never did, beating the Celtics in 1985 and 1987 to win the championship both years. Certainly one enduring question for LeBron James is whether he will summon the will to dominate the next time his team is in the NBA Finals.
For Doctor J and the Philadelphia 76ers, who lost in the 1980 Finals (and again to the Lakers in the 1982 Finals), there would be no championship ring until the team acquired Moses Malone in the fall of 1982. With an all-pro center, the 76ers stormed to the NBA championship in 1983, demolishing every team in their path. Perhaps the more important lesson for James and the Miami Heat is that they need a true center to win the championship they promised their fans last summer.
Dwight Howard, we know you want to leave Orlando; how does Miami sound?
Rodger Citron is a law professor and a writer who lives in New York City.