Humor and Pain -- A Farewell to the 2013 Spurs

If Alex Dewey stepped on an NBA court, Kenyon Martin would say this. (Thanks to Trey Kerby of TBJ for the pic.)

Both in writing and in person, I make a lot of self-deprecating comedy. That's just how I frame my existence. I could give you an example, but I accidentally screwed up my computer by banging my elbow against it. While slipping on a banana peel nearby. This actually just happened. I'm typing on my phone, really slowly. The ambulances will be here shortly. But that's not gonna help anything. Because nothing can help me. Look, I already dropped my phone. Aw, frig. It's broken too. Aaron publish this piece immediat--

Look, I'm just fine. None of the previous paragraph actually happened. Still, while I'm sure someone was disturbed by that last paragraph, I was enjoying it. Because I just never win, and others need to know about it. No matter how close I get, at the moment of truth even my noblest endeavor is stymied. Every time I think of a joke it turns out Rodney Dangerfield beat me to the punch. In 1935. But I can laugh about it. My mom came up to visit and declared my apartment uninhabitable and proceeded to clean for 10 minutes and got it cleaner than it had been since I'd moved in. I was so happy but I couldn't figure out the words to thank her. So I settled for "Happy Mother's Day." [Ed. Note: Now I understand why Dewey tells me "Happy Editor's Day" every time I edit his pieces...]

See, folks, I can laugh about my foibles because I have so many of them. I laugh at my foibles the way others laugh at my hair follicles - because a) there's so many of them, b) they're so unbefitting, and c) I screwed up trying to condition them. Heh. See what I mean? You have to shut me up or I'll go on like that forever. I'm sorry. I'm like one of those old Energizer Bunnies, except I never have any energy and when I'm tired I annoy the crap out of anyone I interact with using my inscrutable stream of consciousness ramblings and an abjectly terrible sense of humor. I'm always tired, so this is my always: this is my basic condition upon the Earth. Started at the bottom now I'm here. Which is not much improved, I'll just say, and the food's just a little better. I write a hundred sprawling essays on every minor indignity that visits me, and I do so with a smile on my face.

 • • •

Look, I'm not going to argue that the Spurs couldn't win solely because I was rooting for them, in some cosmic comedic sense. Yes, that thought flashed across my mind as the Spurs began their inbound to Kawhi with about a minute left. That would be silly and irresponsible. There's no way I was solely cosmically responsible. Surely something called chance intervened and made futile the Spurs' best efforts, and then, when the tide in the affairs of Spurs had receded, the Heat took advantage of the confusion and fled with their trophy. Surely it wasn't entirely my fault, in a cosmic sense. Surely my reverse-jinxes and postgame comments (meant to be classy, but probably just came off as irritating like everything else I do) were innocuous. Surely I wasn't literally affecting events in Miami with my own magic gift to make everything I touch break down or suck. But to be honest, the only reason I don't think I affected the outcome is that I can barely get my phone to work.

I've said it before: As Micky Arison spoke after Game 7 at the podium, I was regurgitating my dinner and dry heaving through tears. I like to think that this was a reflection upon Arison (whose name is making me wretch from conditioning to type). But it's probably a reflection upon sadness. Sadness for the fallen Spurs. I don't think I've been that sad in a pretty long while, because I'm not that emotional, except when I'm trying desperately to rationalize my most recent mistake. Maybe it was just that the curry I'd made was not very good. But I went to sleep, said probably a hundred times on cyberspace and meatspace how it was "Just how the ball bounces. Congratulations to the Miami Heat." and then I went home and watched "The Tree of Life" and played "Simple Twist of Fate" a hundred times, huddled beside a blanket.

Everything happens to me. Poor me. Well, okay, it's closer to "I happen to everyone I come into contact with. Poor them." The Spurs had a perfect chance to seal the deal and even then I couldn't accept it. Like a neurotic I said outright "This game is far from over" on Twitter when the Heat were down 5. When Ray Allen hit that 3 there was a delay emotionally because I kind of expected something like this to happen, to me, again. I couldn't just be crushed, I had to lose hope right when things were most probable, right before there was any reason to lose hope. I said I was really happy with the quality of play this series, and I meant it. But then, I also hid the part where the Spurs losing the best series I'd ever seen would be totally crushing. Put yourselves in their positions: The Spurs had done everything right up to that point, for a freaking decade. They'd rested their starters, developed their shooters, developed a system on both ends and made the best player in the world seem for about 240 minutes like a relative non-factor on the backs of smart acquisitions and brilliant trades and brilliant coaching. Tim Duncan has deferred and asserted, deferred and asserted, done everything he needs to do, and now they just need to close the last few seconds of, again, a decade of hard work.

And then it doesn't materialize and the Spurs are goats. "And then, Ray Allen. And then, LeBron James." The only way to deal with that is as the punchline to a joke. The Spurs were made to feel they already had the trophy. But 25 seconds took what was in sight, and then another 53 finally brought to logical conclusion an existing fact - the Heat were not better, but they were getting bounces, and suddenly, those bounces were starting to chain together into some sort of unstoppable dribble machine, and LeBron simply took the reins, took care of business, and here we are.

 • • •

I've never had a lot of self-confidence. Usually, I don't lack for self-confidence, either. I'm basically average. But I'm pretty introspective, probably to a fault. Take it all together, add a sense of humor, and I'm someone that can accurately see the foibles of everyone I interact with, internalize them, and move on with an innocuous laugh. And I can see my own foibles, and I can look more deeply and see my own failures that underlie them. Just to name a couple: chronic underachievement, prodigal talent constantly wasted in a mire of disorganization and flighty attentions. I see my own unstructured life with comedy and look deeper and see a life littered with the memories of pain that make this structure more difficult. I see the people I love returning to me after an adolescence where they had to leave me because I was sort of pushed aside by the world and relationships that have always been bigger than me. I see a decade in which it's been all development and scrutiny for me, and yet, at the end of it all, I feel (probably falsely) that most people like me but no one really understands me. [Ed. Note: Except for me, his Virginia-bound brain double.]

And my favorite team lost after four years and roughly 260 games watched. And it wasn't just the games I watched - I wrote dozens of articles, along the way learning whatever I could about all of the players, the system, the league in which they were positioned, the subtle stories that a simple trip down the SI Vault might miss. The Spurs lost after four years of my intense attention when they had a 1.5% chance to lose. Lost after they had the sea of probability practically parted for them. The Spurs were a historically elite team this postseason, outplayed and outscored the Heat (at one point for 4 out of 6 games (this is supposed to be a great team itself)), and yet, the Heat saw that sliver of uncertainty, slipped in at the single highest-leverage moment, and attacked, and won. Won like I knew they would, even when it was 98.5%. Won because that's what I'm accustomed to. Won because I don't know how I'd be if I ever won at anything. And so I'm in a dark apartment eating Greek yogurt and watching existential films and listening to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and writing it all down.

And all of this is funny to me, as well it should be. I know it to be the case, because I've never been one for sob stories or wallowing in pain for very long. That's just not my nature. I've got the mindset of a coach, in a lot of ways, and I do remember things for a long time. So I suppose the Duncan bunny will weigh upon me for a long time. But in the end I'm far more neurotic about the immediate past and the immediate future. What everyone else may call the pain of a decade I call a minor setback and frustration. What others call a chip on my shoulder I only call another thing I have to freaking carry. No, whatever pain you want to ascribe to me only weighs upon me in dreams and in bank deposits. And I'm awake right now. So I suppose I'll be alright. I've already written one sprawling essay about this subject, and surely that will be the end of the story for me.

But I sure wish the Spurs had won.

Deconstructing Fandom: Digging Deep and the Damage Done

Miami's message to San Antonio near the end of Game #6.

Sportswriters are a fickle bunch. We hoot and holler about elevating the game in poetry and prose. We laugh off cracker-jack cliches and pooh-pooh fortune cookie analysts. "Take this away, Alfred!" we say, to our pet goldfish named Alfred who isn't nearly as anthromorphic as this phrasing suggests. "We cannot have this! We are men of intellect, poise, and guile! Bring me the Hammer Play! Bring me the Longform! Away with this pablum, away with the cookie-cutter phrasing, begone!" But in moments of utmost confusion and despair, we realize something. Sometimes, there's little more to say. Sometimes, the cliches of the world are all we have left.

And so, my single thought on Tuesday evening's thriller: Sometimes, you have to dig deep.

You know the drill. You wake up in the morning and you just don't have it. Whatever it is, you simply don't have it. Me, I'm a professional statistician. If I have one of those dead days, and I can't dig deep? It's alright. It's OK. I'll struggle through the day and work twice as hard the next. Deadlines are deadlines, and I'm not stupid enough to pretend I've never missed one. But I've yet to miss one simply because I didn't try hard enough. I may not be able to dig deep every one of those days, but I sure as hell try my best.

I don't envy the task of the world's best -- firefighters, doctors, lifeguards, soldiers, pilots. If they don't dig deep, on the wrong day? If they have one of those days where they just can't hack it? People could die. In that context, it's often hard to feel much in the way of sympathy for the sports team that couldn't hack it. After all. Nobody dies if their favorite team loses the finals. One fanbase rejoices, the other laments. What's at stake? One loss. One win. History and infamy. The lore of the sport and the hearts of fans. In a refreshing twist to the miasma of everyday life, when it comes to sports, the winner and the loser is always brutally clear. There is no tie, in the highest reaches of sport. There is a winner and there is a loser. And there is never doubt.

On Tuesday, Miami dug deep.

• • •

For many devotees of sport, their favorite team's true legacy isn't measured solely in the beck-and-call of the team's accomplishment. The public accomplishments are one thing. The personal accomplishments are quite another. To many, there's a complex interplay between the fan and the team, a strange symbiotic relationship that lends sport meaning and lends sport feeling. What's a title to you if the you didn't have to sweat it to get there? What games did you see? How did the team impact you? Did you ever take a sick day just to watch your team? Did you ever feel the sweat glaze your brow as you collapsed into nervousness and succumbed to sport's whimsy? Did your favorite sport make you feel? Scream, gasp, cringe, shiver? Have you ever? Do you even lift, bro?

Ahem. Sorry. The main point is thus. Sports is a beautiful, all-encompassing distraction. That's what it is. A distraction. It's a distraction that gobbles the fan up and turns madmen out of empiricists. It turns statisticians to superstitions. It makes the strong tremble and the weak holler. It lends a screeching barroom baritone to otherwise mild-mannered folk.

We can talk all we want about what a fan "should" be -- but that's bunk. At their core, a sports fan is an individual who contracts out a bit of room in their heart with the hope for comparative greatness. Some fans put in little, switching from teams for a short smiling burst in between an accomplished life. They wave their fandom's flag one or two days a year, letting it fade to the back of their mind. If the team wins, they get to smile and call them "their guys." If their team loses, they feel little pain. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In many ways, I envy the individual who can separate themselves from the proceedings. That's their way of enjoying things, and more power to them for it. It's just one of the many ways to be a fan.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have those who toil in their love for their team behind struggling institutions and hope that someday their luckless warriors will pay their loyalty back with a miracle season and a promise upheld. You have the ones who sweat every game and tear out their hair and stress about minutiae for hours and hours each and every week. You have, in short, the diehards. And that's me, too. What is sports, to this fan, if it isn't the hope for resplendent victory couched in overreaction and despair? We cannot allow visceral emotion to control us in our everyday lives. We can't go sobbing when a politician screws up their promises, we can't go screaming fecklessly at coworkers who aren't up to par. We must modulate.

But when it comes to sports and the distractions we know full well are meaningless, we can assign as much meaning and import as we'd like. We can drum ourselves into righteous fury and not a soul can stop us. We can watch our pet sport's title game and pin glory and greatness to those who win the game. We assign immortality. Because at the end of the day, sports are meaningless distractions whose meaning is derived entirely from the soul of the fan and the love of the crowd. It is our molding clay, and diehards see fit to mold it.

• • •

sad zoos

When I embarked on last year's Player Capsule project, I was well aware the thing wasn't going to be easy. In every sense of the cliche, I knew I'd have to dig deep to finish the project up and put a product on the table I could be proud of. I knew that. But I didn't really expect things were going to be quite as hard as they were. I didn't grasp going in how much of my time would be consumed by a project that few people I knew even realized I was doing. Although I'm still young, I didn't realize that my ability to pull out a degree and a thesis in three years of school wasn't an easily replicable process. I didn't realize that spending months on end with three to four hours of sleep a night, a 10-hour-a-day job, and seemingly impossible self-expectations was going to be so painful.

In a weird way, the project has loomed over the entire season for me. I don't know if I'll ever take on a writing project as enormous or all-encompassing again. I'm a pretty crazy guy, so maybe I will. But probably not. And ever since its completion, writing about basketball has gotten -- strangely enough -- more and more difficult for me. I worked so hard to come up with 370 distinct essays with feeling and love that I lost sight of the fact that the grind would continue for the entire remainder of the season. Gothic Ginobili's writers sort of vanished. The traffic we got from the project waned quickly. And before I knew it, the glow of accomplishment wore off and I was right back to where I was before it started -- tik-typing away, just a fan at a computer. And the work got harder. The narratives didn't present themselves as readily.

But that isn't to say my love for my favorite sport was heavily impacted. When you spend that much time on a project, you draw the project's subject closer and closer to your heart. I mentioned the "contract" a fan signs with a team -- give the team a certain-sized piece of your heart, and reap the accordingly-sized heartbreak or triumph. In doing the player capsules, I didn't really realize it at the time, but I was putting more of my heart on the line than I'd ever expected. I poured myself into this game, this silly game, and I now feel the consequences. Sports -- this meaningless exercise -- has become all I can think about in the run-up to this Game #7. This lingering dread, this shaky excitement. It is thrilling. And it is a terror.

And it is hard, now, to write about such things without drowning in the moment and intensity and love.

• • •

On Sunday afternoon, I was asked by everyone's dear friend Alex Arnon what it was like to visit San Antonio for Game #4 of the NBA Finals. I described it thusly, not yet aware that the description would fit just as well for the torturous proceedings in Game #6.

"Okay. Here's the situation. Have you ever had a friend who's really, really, REALLY into this thing they think you'd love? They're just SUPER into it. And they hype it up and get you pumped and get you raring to go. You may not have wanted it earlier, but you definitely want it now. They make you want it. Build it up. You gotta do it. Then, one day, they're like 'oh, hey, dogg... I got you tickets to that thing. You know, that thing you'll LOVE?' And you're all 'HELL AND DAMN YES' and you guys are running and running and you get to the car and you drive to the thing and you get a speeding ticket because it's so close but you don't even care. Man, it is right at your fingertips. You're just like 'AW HELL YEAH LET'S GET IT' and you look to your friend for tickets. And they reach into their jacket but instead of tickets they take out a glock and shoot your kneecaps and kick you in the face and shoot you in the chest, leaving you to die on the grass outside the gate, bleeding and broken. ... Well, OK. That hasn't happened to me either. But I imagine it was like that, you know?"

Someday, I'll write the book on Game #4 and Game #6. Someday I'll reach into the well of discontent and extract only the best fish from my sea of thoughts and impressions. But now? I can't. Because, at the end of the day, there's no avoiding the truth of the matter. I'm burned out. I never thought -- after so much effort and energy -- I'd find myself here. But them's the breaks. I worked and I rose and I fell and I hurt. And at the end of the day, I am here. Nervous, twitchy, proud. The Spurs are phenomenal. They are great. Are they the greatest? I do not know. Nobody does. Not yet.

There is a creep of expectations that occurs when your favorite team overachieves. Most know the type. When the Spurs overachieved in 2011, I expected little and received little. When the Spurs overachieved once more and looked invincible in 2012, I began to expect history. I did not get it, and that was crushing. And now, this year? I expected a flawed, old, and broken down Spurs team that would be lucky to get to the Western Conference Finals. What I got was perhaps the finest Spurs team that's ever stepped foot on the court, a beautiful symposium of offensive quintessence and defensive grind. As the playoffs began, I wanted little more than the second round. Then I wanted the Western Conference Finals. Then I wanted a competitive NBA Finals. Then I wanted the title.

Some people have asked me why I get so consumed by sports. I have a simple reason for you, beyond the burnout and the contract. The way most people's expectations creep for their sports team is also an apt description of the way I expect things of myself. Early in high school, it was enough for me to graduate with decent grades. Then it needed to be all-As. Then I needed to take more AP tests than everyone else. Then I needed to get more fives than everyone else. Then I needed to get into a good school. Then I needed to graduate in three years. Then I needed to get a great job. The tyranny of high expectations can consume a sports fan in unexpected grief -- imagine that, but applied to one's own life. A constantly rising bar, floating higher and higher as though the previous accomplishment meant nothing. In life, there is no end to this creep. There will always be a higher level. There will always be a step beyond.

But although I can critique my own performances into the infinite abyss, sports end.

The consequence is stark. One team will win, the other will lose. No matter which is which, there will be tears and sweat and the rejoice of millions. There is always a loser. That's the beauty. It's what assigns sports meaning, and it's what makes it hurt. There is hurt, today, for San Antonio's devoted fans. There isn't much else, after game six. There's frustration and hurt and the rap of fate's hammer against one's skull. But the game is not yet over. There is one more night, one more chance for the Spurs to make history. They may fail, as many have before them. Or perhaps they've got one last sports miracle left.

And in the end? This is why we watch the game. This is why we cheer.

Game seven is tonight.

Head vs Heart II: Taking Account of a Series Split

2013 NBA Finals - Practice and Media Availability

Hey, all. Aaron here. As most know, I am a San Antonio Spurs fan. Thus, I have a certain vested interest in these Finals, and a certain degree of faith in my heart that the Spurs can win it all. On the other hand, I am an NBA fan who watches untold hours of tape and tends to clinically divorce my heart from predictions, and I know how ridiculously good the Miami Heat are. I'm a statistician, after all -- Bayesian or not, I pride myself in my ability to separate my deeply-felt emotions from my handicapping and expectation-setting. Except, you know. Now. Spurs in the NBA finals? Against the dude that rocked Cleveland and infuriated an entire side of my family? Okay. Come on. There's no way I can keep that emotion out of my handicap. But I can keep it controlled. And thus, the series you see before you was born: Head vs Heart, a knock-down drag-out brawl between Aaron McGuire's better judgment and his undying faith in his favorite team. Game, set, match. Today? Let's take account of where we're at.

HEAD: Alright, so I think we can agree with where we're at after two games in Miami. The Heat won game two by about twenty billion points and the Spurs were a single errant possession from giving Miami the lead in Game #1 and being down 2-0. The series is tied, but it isn't exactly the kind of tie San Antonio wanted. Fair?

HEART: No, that's not fair at all!

HEAD: Oh, come on.

HEART: No, really, it's not. Sure, the margin was close in Game #1, but that underrates the extent to which San Antonio controlled that game. They won by four points and missed -- by my count -- seven or eight WIDE open threes. Although the shots weren't falling, the Spurs got just about everything they wanted on offense in Game #1 and completely set the tone defensively. Yeah, Miami had a bad night from their big three, but that was by design. Kawhi Leonard did a great job at forcing LeBron to defer, Duncan bottled up Miami's at-rim game as expertly as Hibbert did, and Danny Green was a revelation. It was a phenomenal game from the Spurs and it took about a million missed open shots for that game to stay close.

HEAD: I think you're totally off-base. First off, although the Spurs missed some open shots, the Heat did the same -- you can hardly say the first game was a blowout victory gone wrong for the Spurs without acknowledging that the Heat didn't get the same kind of calls they're usually accustomed to. Nor did they make all their open shots. And that second game in large part re-contextualizes San Antonio's offensive struggles in Game #1 -- they really DIDN'T have a great offensive game despite the scant four turnovers, in large part because they shot like crap and couldn't get to the line. And the same thing happened in game two. If that continues all series, it's curtains for the good guys.

HEART: Well, I suppose we can agree on this much -- if one of these two teams continues to be utterly unable to convert open shots and 100% unable to get to the free throw line, that particular team isn't going to win the series. Fair?

HEAD: Alright, you have me there.

• • •

IS LEBRON'S POOR-FOR-HIM PLAY SUSTAINABLE?

HEART: Honestly, he's not playing THAT badly -- he played very well in game one and so-so in game two, but he hasn't had anything remotely approaching the kind of stinker he had in 2011 or 2007 yet. No, classic LeBron, but... the Spurs aren't letting him get open and he's contributing as well as he can outside of that. I can see him having a game or two where he just absolutely blows the world up, but I can also see this maintaining over the rest of the series. People tend to assume LeBron's 2011 disappointment was solely due to LeBron's own failings. This is incorrect -- Shawn Marion and the broader Dallas defense did an amazing job sticking to him and keeping him out of his comfort zone, and Kawhi Leonard is copying that playbook to a T. The soft traps, the shading, the elimination of his pet passing lanes -- the Spurs are playing like a team that scouted him perfectly, and it shows.

HEAD: By LeBron's standards, he's playing like crap. Hate to say it, but it's true. And there's no reason to think it sustains over the course of the series. This is a player who shot 56% from the floor this season. Heck, he shot 50% from the floor on a 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers team that was obscenely offensively dependent on LeBron's offense. There is no real basis to expect a series where LeBron shoots 42% from the floor and can't get to the line to save his life. LeBron will play better. And for that reason, I'm not feeling all that poorly about my "Heat in six" prediction. Might revise it up to Heat in seven, but I'm not sure.

HEART: Come now -- there's ample reason to think it sustains. Mostly just 2011, but that's a thing! The Mavericks turned the wheels and fed off LeBron's fatigue with a system specifically tailored to exhaust and muffle him. Popovich is using Carlisle's playbook, and the Spurs -- for all the "haha they're so old" talk -- are uniquely set to run a next-level version of that beautiful Mavericks team defense. They have the dominant at-rim Tyson Chandler type defensive talent in Duncan, the Shawn Marion wing defender with long arms and great instincts, a Kidd-type recovery guard defender and a coach in Gregg Popovich who excels in putting his pieces together. I'm not saying LeBron averages 42% for the series. But I don't think it's a stretch to think that he keeps having some trouble.

HEAD: It's not sustainable. Stop convincing yourself of that. In Game #1, LeBron played a phenomenal game -- he wasn't scoring incredibly well, but he commanded the floor and he missed some shots he normally hits. Over the rest of the series, smart money says he hits those shots and keeps muscling San Antonio on the boards.

HEART: Agree to disagree, I suppose.

• • •

WHY IS GARY NEAL PLAYING?!?!?!?!?!?

HEART: I don't know, but I do know that he's giving me palpitations on defense.

HEAD: OK, I don't always have to be an enormous pessimist. There's a reason Neal's been playing. He can space the floor quite a bit better than Cory Joseph, and he has at least vestiges of ballhandling ability. In theory, Neal being on the court gives the Spurs added heft to their offensive sets by allowing Tony and Manu to cede ballhandling for short stretches to act as an off-ball threat and complicate the Heat's defensive schemes. Also: he's a good shooter.

HEART: That's nice and all, but he can't handle the ball. Or... okay, well, he CAN handle the ball, but seven times out of ten he shoots a jumper in the night. Seriously. It's so predictable. He just dribbles and isolates and takes a bad shot. He gets tunnel vision. All of these offensive sets are great in theory -- in practice, they're a waste of time if he isn't actually running them. And that defense...

HEAD: Okay, yeah, Neal isn't very good at defense.

HEART: You know how J.J. Barea knifed through the Heat's defense in 2011? Yeah. Gary Neal isn't that. At all. Except for the whole "oh, wait, he can't guard anyone" thing. People talk about how poorly Matt Bonner does on defense, and how teams can "take advantage" of Bonner off the dribble. Fair, but it totally overlooks the fact that Gary Neal is about 20x easier to take advantage of on defense. Pump fake. That's it. Or, alternatively, change directions. Not even sneakily -- at any point in your drive, just move in a different direction. He will spontaneously freeze up like a malfunctioning robot and throw up his hands. Also, if you drive past him, he ALWAYS seems to bring his arm up and weakly foul. You know how the Heat started their huge run in Game #2? They drove the ball at Neal every single time they got up the court. They got points on something like five straight possessions, because Neal can't play defense. And he's shooting 37% from the floor. That's not from three -- that's overall.

HEAD: Okay, yeah, I got nothing.

HEART: Pop, stop giving me palpatations. Thanks.

• • •

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COCKTAIL?

HEAD: What?

HEART: Huh?

ANSWER THE QUESTION THO.

HEAD: Uh... on a dime? Without time to consider? A gin and tonic, I guess. Fundamentally sound, somewhat classy, sorta boring. But it's dependable, light, and tasty.

HEART: Bourbon.

HEAD: That... that isn't a cocktail.

HEART: I don't care.

HEAD: Fair.

• • •

THANKS, APPRECIATE IT. SO... GAME THREE PREDICTION?

HEAD: I'm going Miami. I don't like it, but... I'm going Miami. They figured a lot of things out in Game #2. And the Spurs are reeling a bit. They'll play a lot better at home than they did on Sunday, but they'll also have to contend with a better LeBron and a better Wade. It'll be close, and I won't be shocked if San Antonio wins it. But I'm going Miami.

HEART: I'm going San Antonio. Because, well... if they don't win, the whole complexion of the series changes. I have this weird feeling that the Spurs can't get behind in this series. Quietly, over much of the Spurs run, they've actually been pretty bad once they fall behind in a series. They need to maintain control of a series to stay on their top level. That loss in game two wasn't exactly akin to them losing control -- losing tonight would be. So if I expect them to win the series, and I think they've got a strong shot, I have to feel that they'll win tonight. So... I will. Go Spurs go, folks.

HEAD: Amen.

"Water" -- An Improvisational Essay on MIA/SAS

the big threes

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend”

Martial artist Bruce Lee

Ten years ago we had no LeBron, Tony, or Timothy in the Finals.

Now, we have Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and LeBron James in the Finals. Bienvenidos a Miami -- 2013 estilo.

It's more likely that the Heat sweep the Spurs than that the Spurs sweep the Heat. In such a sense, the Heat are favored. But we've all heard by now a hundred factors arguing for one or the other team, and our collective predictions as writers have been woeful. Let's do something different. Without copping out of making a prediction (which I'll make tomorrow), I'd like to talk about why this series is actually interesting to me -- both as an observer and student of the game, and as a passionate fan that has seen 250 Spurs games or so in the last 4 years and written essays about how Tim Duncan is Prince Andrei and RJ is Pierre.

LeBron James is a chameleon, a physical and mental prodigy that combines in the psychophysical to form the perfect athlete, one with the psychology of a true team player that learns better every day how to assert himself and how to defer to teammates... and how to do both simultaneously. Behold the actualized man, behold the man who can do everything on a basketball court at will with the exception of literally ending the game for a win condition, and, even then, he's not far off. Behold LeBron. And finally, at length, he is a champion trawling the present for a validation. LeBron is as liquid as a great player can be without also disappearing into the container of the game, and yet he's as potent a pick-your-poison as any great apothecary's ever dreamt up. Then you have one of the most athletic and savvy players to ever play the game in Wade, and theoretically a giant cast of players that can step up, of which exactly one or two seem to at any given time.

And who will he be facing but the San Antonio Spurs? Themselves a talented outfit, San Antonio's calling card is consistency, organizational stability, execution, and maximizing skillsets of often limited players. San Antonio's individual players step up, take the light they receive, and shine it instantly on their teammates. Tony Parker is their best player right now, but Tim Duncan is yet still a wise, physical presence at the rim. He's one of the half-dozen best defenders in the league without hesitation, and if you get me really drunk, I'll tell you he's the best. And that liquored up Dewey could make a pretty good case for it, I venture. Kawhi still has this odd orbit around Duncan on offense, and he and Danny Green have this confusing chemistry on both ends that's odd to behold. As the playoffs have shown, the Spurs are not quite so deep anymore; there's not a lead on this Earth vast enough that the Spurs could not lose, if Duncan's out of the picture. Manu Ginobili is a gigantic blaring unknown. What we know fits on a USB-thimble -- what we don't could span the milky way.

The common thread is fluidity. Both teams have played radically different styles over their principals' last six years -- even the Spurs and their vaunted consistency have seen six completely different teams the last six years. Their common thread being "A little fallen off defensively, but dynamite offensively" and, if you weren't watching too hard, you'd assume it was a bunch of boring drives and kicks to the corner, more or less based on injuries. But that's only against the Bobcats and Kings; against teams with competent interior D and solid rotations (such as Memphis, since those are the first two things to say about the Grizz), the Spurs have shown they can make the next-level pass in response to the best rotation in the world... and then another... and then another... and then another. Their players are not just unselfish ideals but are individually creatives, only the Big Three aspiring to creative genius but Kawhi showing flashes and Danny Green and Tiago and Diaw showing their next-level vision and awareness despite sometimes inconsistent execution.

The Spurs and Heat cover more ground on both ends than most teams can aspire to on their best end. And when pressed, both teams are explosive, maximize their transitions, and can go to the rim seemingly at will against the best defenses on the slightest mistake. Some of their defense has ground life out of the eternal, wearing out tiny Stephen Curry's brittle ankles or big Zach Randolph's brutalizing post play. Joakim Noah's brilliance and George Hill's waterbug talents. On the whole, these are two teams possessed of fluidity and the mental and physical dispositions to take advantage of that fluidity. These teams are the Man for All Seasons, unafraid of the executioner behind the door.  These teams are like water, and that water can flow, or it can crash.

Tomorrow, and over the course of things, we're going to find out the equilibrium and just who will fit and just what the ice-sculpture container will look like when this series crystallizes. This series will -- in its essence -- be awesome, and all I can do to prepare is drink large amounts of water and eat a frightening quantity of tiny cubed ice in placid-but-anxious, fluid anticipation.

Head vs Heart I: 2013 NBA Finals Preview

Hey, all. Aaron here. As most know, I am a San Antonio Spurs fan. Thus, I have a certain vested interest in these Finals, and a certain degree of faith in my heart that the Spurs can win it all. On the other hand, I am an NBA fan who watches untold hours of tape and tends to clinically divorce my heart from predictions, and I know how ridiculously good the Miami Heat are. I'm a statistician, after all -- Bayesian or not, I pride myself in my ability to separate my deeply-felt emotions from my handicapping and expectation-setting. Except, you know. Now. Spurs in the NBA finals? Against the dude that rocked Cleveland and infuriated an entire side of my family? Okay. Come on. There's no way I can keep that emotion out of my handicap. But I can keep it controlled. And thus, the series you see before you was born: Head vs Heart, a knock-down drag-out brawl between Aaron McGuire's better judgment and his undying faith in his favorite team. Game, set, match. Today? A Finals Preview. There will be a new head vs heart piece after every game of the NBA Finals, so those of you who just love split personality ramblings won't have to wait too long for more. Enjoy.

HEAD: Miami is going to win this series.

HEART: Starting off with the declarative prescriptions, huh? I wouldn't say that. There's no definitive statement of fact you can make about the winner of the series, and you know that. You know the Spurs have a chance. They wouldn't be here if they didn't.

HEAD: Fair. But that doesn't change the general outlook of the series -- the Heat are going to win it, and there's not a whole hell of a lot the Spurs can do to stop them. Barring a lot of luck and a few unexpected happenings, of course. The Heat are a historically great team whose choppy Eastern Conference Finals fooled many into thinking they were vulnerable. But we're often guilty in the media of overweighting our most recent evidence, whether that's "the last game" or "the last few games." And in the case of the Heat, we're letting the last few games completely outweigh what we've seen over the course of the season -- a historically elite team with a stellar supporting cast and the best player in the world.

HEART: It's not just the last few games. Come on. The Heat haven't had a particularly great postseason -- even though they dispatched Chicago in five, they submitted three positively awful efforts in the span of those five games, and they never deigned to break a sweat against the Milwaukee Bucks. They didn't look good in that first round series, even with it being a lopsided sweep. Conversely, the Spurs have had an excellent postseason -- they took care of business virtually instantaneously against a depleted Laker team and fought a phenomenal series against a phenomenal Warriors team. And then they swept a better team than Indiana. You can't just say "oh, wow, the Heat are historically elite" without acknowledging that the Spurs have played an extremely elite postseason  as well. Or without acknowledging that the Spurs over the last three years have shown long, sustained flashes of being just as historically elite as this Heat team.

HEAD: I can. And I will, too.

• • •

HAVE THE HEAT HAD A GOOD POSTSEASON?

HEAD: Alright. So we'll start with the assertion that the Heat haven't had a good postseason. Can't completely argue the point -- they haven't felt as incredibly dominant as they did during the regular season, and there's been a strange 2009 Cavaliers deja vu that's loomed over the proceedings. But I can't help but point out that they've completely obliterated the competition every time they've had a high leverage game or situation to contend with. Look at game two versus Chicago, with their backs against the wall and the possibility of going down 0-2 at home in the series. What did they do? Oh, nothing much -- just completely blow Chicago out of the water and destroy their hopes entirely.

HEART: Hey, cool! If you're going to use that awful, injured mess of a Bulls team as evidence, that means I can use San Antonio's sweep of a similarly beleaguered Lakers team to demonstrate that the Spurs can do the exact same thing if you put a horribly injured mess in front of them. Sure, they showed up in a high leverage situation. Good for them. And I'll give you this, too -- they showed up big in game three, game five, and game seven against the Pacers. I suppose we can overlook the fact that they didn't show up at all in games one, two, four, and six of that series, then, right? If you're going to pick and choose random games to selectively pick out evidence, I can do the same thing. And one could also point out that in order to get to the high leverage situations, they had to lose in the first place.

HEAD: Oh, come on. Calm your grits. My point has nothing to do with Chicago -- it has to do with Miami's postseason play. Sure, it's been lethargic and downright poor at times, but they've shown up big every single time they've had any element of danger. Or any high leverage situation. In the Finals, every moment is dangerous. Every situation is high leverage. Maybe if it was 2011 and the Heat hadn't yet collectively experienced a Finals series, I'd be more inclined to take your "every game means the same amount" pablum at face value. But I can't -- the Heat know how quickly a big-time series can turn when you drop a game you shouldn't or leave a lot on the table. And in this postseason, perhaps even more than last year, they've squelched every opponent's high leverage moment even as they take games off and show laziness in the aggregate. It may not be the greatest sign in the world, but if form holds going forward, the Heat are going to be locked in every night of the Finals. And that's big trouble for San Antonio.

HEART: Alright, I think I get you. Not a bad point. By that same token, though, this year's Spurs team has been totally obliterating the few high-leverage moments they've been faced with. Last year's Spurs did a similar thing to the 2011 Heat -- they dropped a winnable series that could've given them their first even-year finals in franchise history. The Thunder were great, but the Spurs COULD'VE won that series if they'd made fewer idiotic mistakes and focused more on executing their broader gameplan. This year, they haven't let any team get into the same sort of advantage that the Thunder had -- they stepped on the Grizzlies' throats in overtime, ripped control of the Golden State series out of Curry's hands as soon as they got to the Bay Area, and annihilated the Lakers as surgically and quickly as they could. If last year's Spurs team was locked in and crisp, they probably make the Finals. And then this is a Finals rematch. These are two ridiculously good teams with a decent amount of continuity from last year. Both have been shockingly good at high leverage situations in the postseason. I don't see how that's a huge advantage in Miami's favor without ignoring San Antonio's quality there as well.

• • •

WHO'S THE BETTER DEFENSE?

HEART: Okay, this one's easy. The Spurs are the better defense.

HEAD: Nah. Heat.

HEART: What? How can you possibly say that?

HEAD: Leverage, talent, and two-year results. The Spurs had a reasonably excellent defense this year, on the edge of second in the league for most of the year. But they fell apart near the end of the season and fell to a deep third in the rankings. The Heat's defensive ability wasn't quite as evident this year, as they ranked out as ninth overall. But they retain virtually every piece from last year's defense, a defense that was rated fourth overall with a bullet. And it was a defense that -- you must remember -- shut down one of the best offensive runs of any team in league history from last year's Thunder. They've uncorked it a few times this postseason, and it's always been there for them to use. A tool in their toolbox, if you will. It's a defense that shuts down San Antonio's best play, too! The Heat have the best pick-and-roll defense in the league. It may not be the "better" defense in a vacuum, but last year's results would stand to reason that it's a bit better than they showed this year. And the fact that they match up perfectly against San Antonio's pet play would stand to reason that it'll be even better than it has been otherwise, which I think puts it over the top against a shakier-than-you-think Spurs defense.

HEART: Alright, look. Earlier I pointed out that they were similar units -- that's true, but they weren't equivalent! Last year's Heat isn't this year's Heat, and last year's Spurs aren't this year's Spurs. This year's Miami rotation is a far more offensive-minded unit -- Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen have made sure of that, bringing their late-career nonchalance on the defensive end and torpedoing their team schemes when they're on the court. As for the other side, the Spurs have enjoyed large defensive leaps from their younger players and throwback defensive seasons from their old dogs. Popovich has put together a brilliant scheme that grinds the life out of their opponents. These Spurs make a living grinding away at your bones. They were the third best team in overall defensive rating in the league for a reason, and that was despite playing a more offensive-minded spate of teams than the Miami Heat. Also: do you REALLY think the Spurs are just a pick and roll team? Miami is great at defending San Antonio's best play? Sweet. Good thing Gregg Popovich coaches the team, because the Spurs don't just do one thing well. They do a lot of things well, and the gradation between San Antonio's best play and San Antonio's worst play is hardly vast.

HEAD: Sure. But I think the fact that Miami's defense is specifically tuned to San Antonio's favorite action will have a larger impact than you think. And I can't get over the fact that San Antonio's defense looked so astonishingly worse in 2012 when confronted with an athletic team. The Heat are hyper-athletic. If their "weak" 2012 defense turned into a bloodbath when confronted with their first marginally athletic team, what's to say their "strong" 2013 defense won't turn weak when faced against a team like Miami? I think Miami has the defensive advantage, even if the statistics would seem to say otherwise.

• • •

HEAD: WHAT'S SAN ANTONIO'S BIGGEST FEAR? (HEART: MIAMI'S?)

HEAD: Foul trouble. It killed Indiana and it could ruin the Spurs as well -- San Antonio's depth has been overrated for years now, and this team exemplifies that. After their big four (Duncan, Parker, Splitter, Leonard) the Spurs have a lot of glorified roleplayers that function in very specific situations and skills. That's significantly easier to guard, and the more minutes their big players lose out to the roleplayers, the more Miami's defensive advantage is going to come into play and limit the roleplayers. Manu has fallen off, as has Diaw. If the Spurs can't play their big four 36-40 minutes a night apiece, I don't see how their offense retains enough unpredictability to put points on the board when Miami goes on their runs of stinginess.

HEART: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh performing like they did against the Pacers. Credit to Indiana -- their defensive gameplan was ridiculous, and their ability to keep Bosh and Wade tamped down did a lot to keep Miami at bay. That said? The Spurs have the personnel to throw a similarly strong defensive effort at Wade and Bosh -- as a defender, Danny Green's skillset was positively made to guard a player like Wade. Wade needs to step it up if he intends to redeem his as-of-late tepid postseason play. And Bosh should by all accounts kick San Antonio's butt on offense -- he'll stretch Duncan and Splitter to their limits and get Diaw off of LeBron at various points of the game. He needs to drain the open midrange jumpers he's going to get. Because if he doesn't, the Spurs are in a pretty great position -- LeBron can score 30 points a game, but if Bosh and Wade are combining for 15-20, the Heat are going to have a lot of trouble getting anything going offensively. And that would not bode well for them.

• • •

My predictions? Head says Heat in six. Heart says Spurs in six. On the other hand, nerves say "STOP CARING ABOUT BASKETBALL, THIS IS SO STRESSFUL, AAAAAAA." So there's that. Later today or tomorrow we'll have two or three more posts in our preview salvo; one will be a two-person "roundtable" between Dewey and myself, one will be an outline of the most intriguing matchups (and my projection of their efficacy), and one -- if we can put it together -- will be a weird freeform piece. ... Not that this split personality piece wasn't weird. It was pretty weird. Anyway. See you later, folks.

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 02: ECF Game #5

Well, that was a game that happened. In today's replay of last night's postgame show, Alex Dewey and Aaron McGuire try to rationalize what they've just seen. This includes Alex Dewey's confusing attempt to explain a "complex algorithm" of color signals he made in our final attempts to do live game coverage, McGuire describing what it's like to edit a Dewey piece, and a stark examination of MOTOWN. Did I mention Motown? Motown. Motown. Mooooooootooooowwwwwnnnn. The postgame show begins at the 1:20 mark of this video. Please start there, unless you want to go through long periods of silent red screens. Thanks.

Perhaps even moreso than usual, please leave comments and thoughts. We don't like doing features in a vacuum, and we'd like to make this a fun little feature to tune into during the game when one of our readers needs a break from the usual drollery of the play-by-play and the  studio team. Thanks in advance, and thanks for watching!

-- Aaron

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 01: WCF Game #4

Hey, all! We're experimenting with a new feature here at Gothic Ginobili. In it, Alex Dewey and Aaron McGuire will comment on a game as-it-happens, answering audience questions and keeping the world level. Seeing as how neither of us have done live broadcasts in quite some time (in Dewey's case, ever -- in McGuire's case, high school), we aren't expecting beauty out of this feature yet. We're just trying to pound that rock until it becomes something good. In today's maiden voyage, the duo discusses Game #4 of the WCF, in what turned out to be the capping sweep to the San Antonio Spurs' romp through the Western Conference. Topics discussed include conference finals inexperience on the Memphis beat, a treatise on why exactly babies are so dang offensive, and some observations about how the top three defensive teams stayed alive for the conference finals this year. Fun times abound.

Perhaps even moreso than usual, please leave comments and thoughts. We don't like doing features in a vacuum, and we'd like to make this a fun little feature to tune into during the game when one of our readers needs a break from the usual drollery of the play-by-play and the  studio team. Thanks in advance, and thanks for watching!

-- Aaron

Blowouts Happen -- The Grizzlies Bite Back

conley g1

Blowouts happen. It's a mathematical fact that if you have a normal distribution with a long ta--... Look, I'm too lazy to finish this sentence. Everyone blows teams out and everyone gets blown out. Maybe it's 15 points because of garbage time, or maybe it's just a really convincing 15 point defeat that genuinely has you asking questions. Sometimes it's because of an amusing match-up advantage that never gets addressed; sometimes it's bad coaching; sometimes they're the Spurs and you're the Bobcats. Whatever the case, it's hard to put too much stock into blowouts if they don't repeat several times.  It's the left side of the convolution of two normal distributions with similar variances. Improbable, but possible. Don't panic, guys.

In this context I'd like to talk about Game 1 of Spurs-Grizzlies, and what it bodes for the series.

There's an old, tested coaching technique with blowouts: Throw everything out. Forget whatever you wanted to learn; just throw every record of that game out. Why? Well, because the amount you'll gain by having your team see the systematic flaws that may have caused it and the amount your team will gain in motivation is dwarfed what your team will lose by by dwelling on the game. Suddenly Tony Parker isn't just a good match-up for Mike Conley; he's the guy that went past Conley and 4 other Grizzlies consistently, that whirling dervish who sliced up your defense and found open players virtually everywhere on the floor. Suddenly Boris Diaw isn't just a nebulous blob of passing and angles with lacking focus; now he's a force to be reckoned with and the big that arguably outplayed Z-Bo as a defender in the battle of the round and rooted.

There's another reason to throw the film out: It's mostly noise. Systematic errors suddenly look defining, and they're not in actuality. An error on over-helping and letting guys open on 3s might cost you 20 points in a game (more attempts and higher efficiency on those attempts quickly adds up). Now, 20 points is the difference between the Heat and Bobcats if it's every game. But it's not. I mean, obviously not. There's a reason the Grizzlies are in the Western Conference Finals, more than anything on the strength of their defense. It's because they don't do this every game. They might be fatigued, or banged up (they obviously play a very physical style, and are prone to heavy starters' minutes), or unmotivated. But everything about this game suggests to me that this is just the Spurs having a clearer game-plan and more energy, and using every drop of their advantage (as is their wont).

Coaches throw film out, or, better yet, throw it out and reduce the learning process to a simple maxim, a single thing to focus on as a limiting factor. It's pretty clear that Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins is going to stress not over-helping, and letting Marc Gasol and the bigs handle Tony Parker at the rim with a much more reasonable (that is, a not-collapsing) defense that does its work early and has faith in the work it does. Marc Gasol is a heck of a defender, and so are Mike Conley and Tony Allen. Add Tayshaun Prince in for good measure, and you have a heck of a defensive squad. But they basically spent their last 5 games watching Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin have middling-at-best series. The Grizzlies came out of a series in which they needed to be mediocre to win, and needed to be effortful and thrive. I'm guessing that played a role.

What's more, I tend to think defensive adjustments tend to take a couple games to take root, and it's defensive adjustments (especially by Memphis) that will have the most leverage in this series. The Thunder famously put Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker last year, to great effect (though ultimately it was the Thunder's blitzing offense exposing the Spurs' middling defense that won the series). The Grizzlies shut Tony down a couple years ago, though it was a bit obscured by Tim Duncan's apparent (and shocking) physical decline in Games 3 and 4. I'm sure the Grizzlies, when they're putting in a real (and clearly-followed) gameplan for Tony Parker, will have a much more coherent and effective series. This is a Grizzlies team that has found an answer for Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. The Spurs are better than the Clippers or Thunder right now, but there are better and worse ways for the Spurs offense to beat you. And the Grizzlies, of all team, know this.

So throw it out. It's one bad game.

If it keeps up, we'll see the Spurs reach the first Finals in six years. And, if it doesn't... we're going to get a heck of a series. Given what we've seen from Memphis the last few years, I'm hoping for the former, and betting on the latter. Grind never stops.

Stephen Curry and the Balance of Energy

I do not remember who made this.

"They are in their peak in the flow."

-Legendary Hubie Brown on the Warriors, in a recent Spurs-Warriors broadcast

Early in Gothic Ginobili's run, Aaron and I had grand plans for a week of Tennis-related posts -- a Gothic Ginobili Tennis Week. It never materialized. Part of it was my sprawling impossible-to-edit 4000-word rants about Federer vs. Nadal that used sprawling 2000-word segues about the rivalry between Tim Duncan and Steve Nash. [Ed. Note: That was most of it, yes.] But part of Tennis Week's demise was attributed simply to the fact that the connection runs too deeply, is too multifaceted, and it led us to make over-eager connections between every aspect of tennis and every aspect of basketball. It kind of fell flat.

Every direction we tried to take a piece about tennis led to yet another direction about basketball, and vice versa, until the only way to get a proper reckoning for what we were writing is basically to write a book about tennis and another about basketball, and then to be reincarnated in 1989 (when I was born) or 1997 (when Aaron was probably born, because he is a freakishly young person, although he owns a house. He is 12. He is BJ Lawson.)  So... we had some issues with the audience we wanted to reach, put it that way. Fun stuff, but hard to really get a hold of the whole picture and distill it down into something. But obviously there is tennis and there is basketball, and we enjoy both, and given that we are relentlessly, neurotically teasing out reasons for things, we found a lot of overlapping reasons for liking each sport. And so, every once in awhile, I'll get a hold of a connection between the sports that is accessible, simple, well-reasoned, and easy to tell someone over a glass of beers, or a bowl of milkshake. [Ed. Note: Did Alex Dewey just revolutionize milkshake science?]

And I do, and I write a blog about it. So here it is.

 • • •

Ed. Note: The following section was written prior to game six.

As the Spurs and Warriors dually enter a closeout and an elimination game tonight, it wouldn't make me smart to note that Stephen Curry probably has to step up at this point, or that otherwise another Warriors player(s) have to disguise themselves as Stephen Curry. Right now the teams are pretty evenly matched, but the Spurs have a clear advantage - they're a deeper team and have more of a vocabulary with which to gameplan, and after one round of articulate gameplanning by Pop, the tide has turned towards the Spurs.  This isn't to say Pop's outcoaching Mark Jackson. But with his resources, Pop has been able to construct a killer gameplan.

In its simplest form, that gameplan is thus: Make Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson run for their Earthly lives on both ends whenever they're on the court. Yes, yes, they're the Spurs, so they're doing it with "the system": loop plays to free up Tony Parker's jumper, Danny Green flaring out to the wing with elaborate, effective screeners to help him out, kick outs & backdoor cuts. Chip Engellend getting them to hit those wing and corner 3s, Tim Duncan working in the offseason to sprint with Danny Green in triple-digit weather (truth), Pop bein' a good dude and coach overall. Manu and Tony and Boris Diaw finding him consistently. Every writerly cliche about the Spurs except "boring". Yes, yes, it's all true.

But they're making him run. And it's working. The Spurs have done more or less what is at all possible for a team to do defensively against Curry (at least in games 3-5 [Ed. Note: And Game 6 too.]) while still respecting most of their other options. Steph Curry has a bum ankle and the Spurs want to run him out of the gym. Klay Thompson, too, to a lesser extent: The gameplan of forcing Curry into constant motion also works to keep Klay moving, and while he's quite a smart, decent defender for his age, he's not laterally quick enough to be the guy you want slowing down Tony or Kawhi Leonard in the open court. And Klay and Curry have both had periodic foul troubles in their careers, and the Warriors can't afford to work around that impediment.

Pop's found a solid game-plan, and it works for two reasons: a) Damned if they do, and b) damned if they don't. [Ed. Note: Yes indeed, that does encapsulate all present options. Good work Dewey.] If the Warriors decide to completely buy out of this strategy, switch on screens to save energy... the Spurs will exploit them with the matchups (just as effectively as Harrison Barnes has exploited Tony Parker in the strategy of playing Green and Leonard on Curry). If the Warriors simply don't run as fast to conserve energy? Well, that's all the Spurs need to get a completely dominant run in, even if the Warriors are hitting good shots. What's more, the Warriors may conserve energy by not running as hard, but the Spurs really work on offense, and the Spurs conserve energy themselves through the Warriors' decision to conserve. And... if the Warriors do decide to have Stephen Curry chase Tony Parker or Danny Green through every screen? He just gets tuckered out, poor guy. His ankle, already a problem, returns in force, a terror for Warriors fans to behold on every possession. Heck, I just like the game of basketball. Heck: I'm rooting for the other team, and I still worry  about the ankle going out because he steps on Danny Green's foot after the whistle or something.

But, through all my terror about Curry's ankle, through all the paranoia and outbursts of fandom (did you know that seven times out of ten we listen to our music at night guys [Ed. Note: STOP. CEASE. DESIST.]), through all the admiration at Pop's gameplan and at Curry's shooting and at Duncan and Bogut's defense, and Kawhi and Duncan's two-man game... through it all, I still end up coming back to tennis.

 • • •

federer

This is because tennis is one of the most strangely unnatural sports for a human being to play, at least in terms of the motion required. Hands up if you cringed at the weird, long-striding motions of Rose and Westbrook off the dribble even before they got injured. Tennis is like that first-step-then-finish sequence repeated hundreds of times per match (potentially upwards of a thousand, depending on the match-up) and dozens of times per game. And here's the thing: Everyone in tennis understands all of this. Everyone in tennis understands that sometimes your ankle swells up or your toe looks like it's dead tissue or you get a pimple right on the center of your back that never stops itching. Okay, scratch that last one. Anyway, everyone in tennis understands what a grind it is. You'll get concussions in football, you'll get tendinitis in basketball. And you'll get giant-ankle syndrome in tennis. It's not "if", it's "when". And also it's "disgusting".

In this series, going into Game 4, Steph Curry had run about 9.74 miles. It's not at all implausible to suggest he's picked up that rate in the ensuing two games. Call it 18 miles (after Game 5) that the Spurs have forced him to run thus far. You see comparable stats with tennis (which, like basketball, is also played on a ridiculous, grind-it-out schedule that can see a player play two key, high-career-leverage-point matches in about 40 hours, each match lasting about 4-5 hours apiece). Players running several miles per game, and in a period of hours. Players running not in the sense of "Gee, thank you for running that fun little 5k for our charity on soft quarter-mile tracks" types of runs but "every step is the apocalypse and I'm lucky if I get to run back on defense and get five seconds to stop and think". Michael Chang in the 1989 French Open famously shot a bunch of moonshot lobs to give himself rest while he was playing, because he was cramping up. Tennis doesn't stop for you, put it that way. And neither does basketball. Especially if the other team knows you need to rest.

Given that everyone knows about the foundational question of needing rest (and everyone knows that everyone knows that, etc.), energy forms a crucial part of strategy -- both in basketball and in tennis. In tennis you run players ragged in almost the same way the Spurs are running the Warriors' guards. The Warriors "are in their peak in the flow" as Hubie put it (God, what a sentence, right?) and sometimes I think that's because the other team isn't forcing Curry into a nightmare situation of having to run four awkward, bumpy, knee-knocked miles just to keep his team in the game. Defense is easier when you're jogging back in a straight line, and offense is easier (and for Curry, more efficient) when you don't have to run off a defender to get an open look. Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic are three of the world's top four players, and each of them, for all their grace and proprioception? They are not in their peak in the flow. They are more like the Spurs or Grizzlies: Yes, they make wonderful returns, but their essence is to make reasonably brilliant plays and to wear the other player out with matchless energy. They send their player left and right and left and right, a bit faster now, come on now, like a gym class from hell. [Ed. Note: It's part of why my ill-fated love for John Isner is doomed from the start -- the man is simply never going to be able to grind it out against those elite players enough times in a single season to win a slam. Still love you, John Isner.]

Roger Federer is the only glaring exception, because he doesn't strictly have the grindhouse in his wheelhouse. He doesn't grind out 5-hour victories against the other three; he's too old for that. No; he conserves his energy with his literally-the-greatest-of-all-time vision and athletic grace, and when he picks his spots, he runs like a deer and takes what he needs. And as his energy wanes, Federer will probably be able to carry it out still longer. But if his opponents can force him to run, he's vulnerable. He still routinely utterly dominates sets against the best in the world, and even pulled out an unthinkable 4-set domination against Andy Murray. But if you're one of the other top players and you test his energy enough, and he's had to play two five-setters in 48 hours, he'll even start to make mistakes. Well, okay, it will still be the second-best tennis ever played, but still, it's a huge and glaring dropoff. There's just about nothing stranger than Fed making an unforced error that isn't a next-level athletic vision unfulfilled or a set he's resting on; no, an unforced error that's just a sheer, dumb mistake that any of us could have made. And suddenly Nadal or Murray or Djokovic looks like the smart one, because now he's right at Federer's level skill-wise - or even above Federer - and Roger's foe also has all the energy on his side. Even Federer plays with energy, in the sense that if he can get his opponent running without doing much running himself, that's a good sign that he's winning. And some of the most shocking plays are when a player like Andy Murray (noted for his conditioning and endurance) takes the bait, goes left and right for two straight minutes on a volley while his opponent just stands there... and then he wins the rally, and his opponent looks almost more exhausted, realizing that he's going to have to run all day just to have a hope of penetrating that first line.

I can't bring this to a literary close. All I can say is that's what it evokes in me when I see what the Spurs are doing to Stephen Curry, trying to frustrate him and run him out of the gym. And as Game 6 (and the possibility of elimination) approaches, this young, next-level athlete has more than a little bit of a spark in him, a coach that recognizes and cultivates him, and a team around him that can support this... And if he ever wants to take the bait, run out of the gym, and still succeed, well, that's somewhere that next-level athletes can get to, and as far as next-level athletes go, it's hard to bet against Stephen Curry. It might not happen this year, though.

 • • •

Yeah, the Warriors lost, but in this series and the previous one they've established themselves in the "if healthy, then contenders" tail of the NBA. And Steph Curry has established himself as a Nash-like player with his both his shooting and his passing. Aaron and I were talking about it, and you know, Steph and Klay's limiting factor right now as players is their mediocre rates of conversion at the rim. If they can do that; that is to say, if they can learn to score and draw a bit more contact in the lane with their existing skillsets? They will be excellent and the Warriors' team will follow. Harrison Barnes, gruesome fall aside, has looked great in this series. Ezeli's a nice piece. The health issues of Bogut and Lee should make for an interesting story to watch for. Overall, with such a brilliant coaching job by Mark Jackson (some quibbles aside), it has to be disappointing for such a talented, coherent team to go down like this. But it's worth noting that a few factors went the Spurs way in the way of injury and foul trouble that allowed the Spurs to make these gameplans work. The Warriors can't be disheartened by such an impressive season, and as time goes on they will only inch closer to their terrifying primes. It's never happy to lose a series, but the Warriors have done well for themselves and hopefully gained the respect of a large contingent of fans over the course of their special season. They'll be back.

Playoff Questions: A Close Examination of the Heartbreaker

heartbreaker

Heart breaker, heart breaker
You stole the love right out of my heart
Heart breaker, heart breaker
I wanna tear your world apart

-- The Rolling Stones, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)

The NBA playoffs can be a harsh mistress -- you get a lot of intense games, but you also get a lot of heartbreakers. You know the type. Those deflating games where a team is, retrospectively, on the absolute verge of victory. A high-leverage game that could've gone either way. The winning team gets to experience the rushing elation of a minor theft -- the losing team takes a bitter pill. This year's playoffs have an air of inevitability around them, and that's cast a minor pall on the proceedings. And that's a bit of a shame, because we're having a remarkably close and snippy season. Heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss -- gutty win after gutty win. All over the place! Gut punches abound.

All that said, there's a tendency for analysts and bloggers to take on vacuous airs when the subject of a heartbreaker loss comes to play. "This team has no chance of winning the series," they say -- "how could they, after a gut punch like that?" Smart analysts galore cast aspersions to the mental toughness of the team and conflate heightened probabilities with statistical certainty. So, on the inadvertent request of Dr. Jeremy Abramson, I decided to take a bit of time to clear a few things up. For today's playoff question, I'm examining a subject near and dear to the hearts of NBA fans everywhere -- how does a heartbreaker loss affect a series, really?

• • •

DEFINING A HEARTBREAKER, and THE THREE BIG QUESTIONS

This was a bit tough, but I think I finally came to a reasonable conclusion. For my definition of a heartbreaker loss, I'm going with a road game lost by 1-2 points in regulation or any game lost in overtime. The logic here is simple. If the game was lost by 1-2 points in regulation, one single shot -- a three pointer -- could've won them the game. A single additional shot. They were on the road, which means they were a single shot from silencing a hostile crowd. If the game went into overtime, the same is true -- one more shot, one more free throw, one more anything and the game was theirs.

The logic behind excluding three point contests is simple. In a three point game, the best you could reasonably do with a single shot is force overtime. And if you played regulation evenly, overtime is more than likely going to be a 50-50 coin flip either way -- hard to really call that a heartbreaker so much as a bad break. So there you have it. It's a 1-2 point margin or an overtime game. For my data, I used information from Basketball Reference (where else?) and compiled a score of information by hand for all heartbreaker losses from 1993 to 2013. It was something of a massive slog, but I'll share my final dataset with anyone who asks -- let me know if you'd like to look at it.

Now that we've defined our "heartbreaker" losses, let's examine some big-picture questions.

  • HOW COMMON ARE THEY?

Not as common as you might think, actually. They've been exceedingly prevalent over the past two years, but that's something of a statistical outlier -- this is the first two year period with more than 20 playoff heartbreakers in the last 20 years. Here's a graph to illustrate the point.

heartbreakers per year

The red bar indicates this year, when we (clearly) have a strong chance at accruing a few more of these types of games before the playoffs conclude. In general, heartbreakers are relatively rare events. They don't happen particularly often, and when they do happen, they tend to have a few games clumped together into a relatively small group of hard-fought series -- for instance, this year's 10 heartbreakers are clumped into seven of the series we've played out so far. In 2006, five of the 14 heartbreakers were concentrated in two of that year's most contested series -- DAL/MIA and DAL/SAS. Et cetera, et cetera.

  • DOES THE HEARTBROKEN TEAM ALWAYS LOSE?

No! Not at all, actually. There's a relatively persistent trope that's been running around for a while that a team can't possibly come back from a road heartbreaker. Especially if they're the road team in the series -- if they lack home court advantage, they couldn't possibly win a series where they let a game get away on the road, right? Sort of, but not quite. Here are the raw series win/loss numbers when a team suffers a playoff heartbreaker.

TEAMS THAT HAVE HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: If the team with home court advantage suffers a road heartbreaker, it's hardly much of an ill omen for their chances at all. In the 20 year period surveyed, homecourt teams that suffered road heartbreakers went 37-22 in the series they suffered the heartbreaker in. That's a reasonably good winning percentage (63%), but it's not 100% robust -- for instance, in five cases, the heartbreaker actually ended up being the deciding lever in a series where the homecourt-blessed team outscored the visitors handily over every other game of the series.

TEAMS THAT DON'T HAVE HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: If the team without home court advantage suffers a road heartbreaker, their chances are certainly slimmer... but they definitely aren't extinguished. It's not a death knell, even if things look rough. Teams that start the series on the road are 18-53 in series where they suffer a road heartbreaker, a 25% winning percentage. There's certainly some truth to the idea that a HCA-lacking team that loses a road heartbreaker has missed their best chance at winning the series. But there's also truth to the idea that the road heartbreaker tells more about how evenly matched the series is than it does about the team's chances to win the series. In four of those series losses, the heartbroken team actually managed to outscore the homecourt team over the other non-heartbreak games of the series.

Overall, teams that suffer heartbreakers are 55-75 in their heartbreaker series over the 20 year span examined.

  • HOW OFTEN ARE HEARTBREAKERS THE DECIDING GAME?

This was an interesting sub-question I had when I finally got my data together. Out of all these series, how often did the heartbreak loss represent the deciding game of the series? That is to say -- how often would a flip in the heartbreaker have flipped the results of the series? The number was a bit surprising, at least to me. In 24 out of the 130 cases in this dataset, the heartbreaker game represented a game that could've flipped the series. That is to say that the entire series could've been flipped with just a single additional shot or -- in many cases -- a single free throw. Of course, once you looked at the point differential, one starts to wonder why the number wasn't higher. Even though teams that suffer heartbreaker losses were 55-75 in the heartbreaker series, they posted a positive point differential (0.35 PPG) among their series when taken as a whole. That's extremely, extremely close. Closer than I'd expect, especially looking at the numbers regarding road team series losses and the scant number of teams who lost the series but won the point differential outside of that game. To summarize the contents of the last few paragraphs, a short table:

table heartbreaker

Series Win and Series Loss are pretty self-explanatory. "Flip" implies that the series would've flipped if they'd won their heartbreaker. DIFF/GM gives the point differential for the team, and CHAMP indicates whether the team with the heartbreaker loss won that year's championship. That's right -- 10 of the games in this dataset involved teams that would-be champions losing a road heartbreaker during their run. That's eight of the last twenty champions, listed below:

  • 2012: MIA @ BOS, G4 -- Miami loses 93-91 -- in OT -- to give Boston a 2-2 series tie.
  • 2011: DAL @ POR, G4 -- Dallas loses 84-82 to give Portland a 2-2 series tie. (The "Brandon Roy" game.)
  • 2009: LAL @ UTA, G3 -- Los Angeles loses 88-86. They ended up winning the series 4-1.
  • 2005: SAS @ SEA, G3 -- San Antonio loses 92-91, missing one free throw in the final minute that could've tied it and shanking four separate shots -- many wide open. They'd close the series in 6.
  • 2003: SAS @ NJN, G4 -- San Antonio loses 77-76, in the finals. The Spurs dominated the Nets for most of the series, but they gave Game 4 away -- they went cold for 2:37 to end the game, scoring nothing from Manu Ginobili's two free throws to Duncan's flush with 6 to play. In the meanwhile, the Spurs missed a bunch of wide-open shots and nearly won the game anyway. They'd win the series in 6 for their second championship.
  • 2003: SAS @ PHO, G4 -- San Antonio loses 86-84 to tie the series at two apiece. The Suns actually upset the Spurs in Game one, but the Spurs nearly won the next four games to take the series. Instead, it took six games, with a successful razor-thin road win in game 6 to close it out.
  • 2002: LAL @ SAC, G5 -- Los Angeles loses 92-91. It would be their last loss of the season. Welp.
  • 1998: CHI @ IND, G4 -- Chicago lost 96-94 to the Reggie Pacers. This series was kind of funny -- Indiana won their three games by a combined total of 7 points, while the Bulls won their four by a total of 36. And, obviously, they won the title.
  • 1998: CHI @ IND, G3 -- Chicago lost 107-105. Same series as above.
  • 1995: HOU @ UTA, G1 -- Houston lost 100-102, in the opening game of their postseason. They'd win 3 of their next 4 against Utah (including a 140-126 annihilation in game 2) to take the series, and would eventually sweep the finals.

• • •

Overall, the presiding narrative -- the idea that a road heartbreaker is an omen of utter doom -- isn't exactly right. Close, but not quite there. Road teams posting a 25% winning percentage in the aftermath of a road heartbreaker is hardly as bad as it looks on its face, given that you're talking about lesser teams who are essentially giving their opponents a one game handicap. The fact that it's that high is more a testament to what the heartbreaker means to the road-starting team on a macro level -- it means that the gap between the two is hardly insurmountable, and whether the series is long or not, they have a chance to push them. As you can see with this year's mercurial Warriors squad.

And the heartbreaker isn't just suffered by the downtrodden -- eight of the last twenty champions suffered one such heartbreaker loss on their march to the title. Will that continue this year? Certainly possible -- five of the remaining eight playoff teams (Golden State, San Antonio, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and New York) have already suffered heartbreakers, and there are still ample games remaining for the final three holdouts (Miami, Chicago, and Indiana) to join the party. We'll see. If you have any questions regarding this analysis, feel free to comment on this post -- I'll be responding to comments for most of the day.

Stay frosty, folks.

1 2