When something mundane is done well, over and over again, it begins to approach the sublime. This is a fancy way of saying that something ordinary can become—like a work of art—capable of inspiring awe. The last 48 hours of basketball have been awe-full.
The San Antonio Spurs evisceration of the Oklahoma City Thunder was simply a joy to watch. They should burn DVDs of the third quarter of that game and make every AAU coach (and half the coaches in the NBA for that matter) watch it until they have every second memorized. There are already coaches out there dissecting this game to explain what the Spurs are doing correctly. But such analysis strips the action of much of its beauty.
If you have the time, click on this video and watch it with the sound turned off. Without the sound it’s easy to see how the Spurs offense is designed to punish indecision. If, as a defensive unit, you are not totally locked in and moving as one, the Spurs will pick you apart. They don’t seek out mismatches with the intention of getting a given player a shot, they seek out mismatches in the hopes of compromising the cohesion of the team. Other teams have offenses designed to break down the defense. The Spurs offense—at its highest level—seems designed to break down your will. Time and again three or four of the Thunder do the correct thing, but the Spurs are able to find the fifth Thunder, the one who is a step out of position, and exploit his uncertainty. This seems incredibly simple in theory but like most simple acts is difficult to enact consistently. Watch the play that begins at 2:49 in the video to get a sense of this. The play ends with Parker driving the lane between four incredibly athletic defenders, but the action the precedes his drive has left ALL of them flat footed. Incredible. Even worse is the final play of the video, which begins at 4:40. Look at the body language of the Thunder when Parker takes his shot. There is no joie de verve or determination, instead they are simply hoping that the shot will miss. And hope, as we all know, is not a plan.[i]
The difference between the Spurs—with their offense designed around a certain collective harmony of spirit—and the Miami Heat—their inevitable opponent in the NBA finals—could not be starker. The Heat embody a different sort of beauty, and almost militaristic and relentless plan of attack that infuriates and enrages those hoping to stop it. Everyone in the building knows that the Heat’s two stars want to get to the rim, their attack is predicated on those stars using their ability to accomplish this even though you know it’s coming. Executing such an offense requires an almost masochistic willingness to accept punishment. Using your body as a battering ram is not for the faint of heart. Dwyane Wade has always relished this element of the game. It took LeBron James until game three of the Indiana series to accept this as his lot, as the best way to win an NBA title this season.
LeBron, you see, wants to play the beautiful game. He possesses the court vision and the generosity of spirit to want to win in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible. This is what frustrates his legion of critics. If, they think, LeBron would attack as relentlessly as D.Wade he would achieve greater success. That’s debatable, but, after Chris Bosh went out to injury, LeBron has finally decided to play it Wade’s way. He shot 24 free throws in game two against Boston and has been throwing his 6’9” 270lb frame around with abandon throughout the playoffs. Along the way LeBron has begun to silence his critics. Despite Wade’s brilliance it’s easy to see that LeBron is carrying a flawed Miami team to the NBA finals. I wonder what LeBron does if (when?) he loses to a team that plays the game the way, in his heart of hearts, he really wants to play.
[i] This is not to excuse Russell Westbrook’s terrible decision making, but even if you replace him with Steve Nash or Chris Paul, Oklahoma City is not winning this series. They simply don’t have the habits of mind and their talent is not quite enough to overwhelm the Spurs. That said, they are clearly the second best team in the league.