"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.

• • •


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.

• • •


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: 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.

The Long Con -- David Stern Strikes Last

stern and 2chainz

The Long Con -- David Stern Strikes Last

The contents of this post are entirely fictional. Any resemblance between the persons and events of this post and those of reality is an absolute miracle.

David Stern reclines in his cavernous underground office. Bats fly from wall to wall. He is waiting.

STERN: Any minute now...

His comically oversized old-timey phone vibrates loudly. And rings. <RING RING RING>

STERN: [picks up phone] Hello? ... Yes, yes. Thank you. ... Yes, I'm sure. I do want Mauer and Foster on the call. ... Yes, they have their orders. Yes, I know what this means. ... Oh, really now? [Stern pauses, unfurling a Grinch-like grin] You can send him down, if you'd like. Perhaps he'd like to hear it directly from me. Appreciate it, Maurice.

Stern hangs up his work phone. He leans back in his chair and plays Candy Crush Saga on his iPad. He has bought every power-up. It was a business expense. About half an hour later, Adam Silver walks into the room. He stands over Stern's desk, hands on his hips, seething. Stern makes no indication of noticing his presence.

SILVER: [coughing] Ahem.

STERN: [unmoved] Beverly! My old friend.


STERN: Sit down, Adam. What took you so long?

SILVER: It takes twenty minutes at a minimum to get down here from the deputy commissioner's office. You know that, David. Nobody knows why you built this. ... Or how you built it, actually.

STERN: Oh, don't be a spoilsport. It'll be your office soon enough. What do you want?

SILVER: I want to know why you're f***ing me, David. I want to know why you're pounding this.

STERN: Explain.

SILVER: Look, David. Stop playing games with me! WHY AREN'T YOU GIVING ME MIAMI?!

Stern grins a cheshire grin.

SILVER: And if you don't stop that friggin' grin I will end you I swear to God.

STERN: Adam, let's take a walk.

SILVER: B--...


• • •

The two wizened men saunter across the expanse of Stern's ludicrously huge underground cavern. There are various trophies in glass cases to their side. They pass by the game ball from LeBron's last game in Cleveland. A framed copy of the stat sheet from DAL/MIA, 2006, G5. A signed photograph of Yao Ming shaking Stern's hand on draft night. A life sized Muggsy Bogues wax figurine. An enormous mound of Michael Jordan's gambling chips. A newspaper commemorating Boston's 16 titles. An orange.

SILVER: Okay, what?

STERN: Shush. ... OK, here. Stop. Look at this.

Silver looked up and down. It was a newspaper commemorating the 1983 sweep, Sixers over Lakers.

SILVER: ... yeah? What about it?

STERN: This is what I inherited, Adam. This is what I came in with.

SILVER: I fail to see the problem. You had the Lakers. You had Magic. You had Moses. HUGE ratings. Second best ever to that point, right?

STERN: Adversity comes in many shapes, Adam. In 1984 we put together a new CBA. We added a salary cap. We added drug testing. We added all sorts of things to bring the league back to par. We needed to bring our viewers home. We needed to expand. And me? I added a little something else. Something on the backend. A small note in the margins. Do you see it, Adam? Look closely.

Silver squints.

SILVER: ... "no more sweeps"?

STERN: Yes, Adam. No more sweeps.

SILVER: Explain.

STERN: Look. The NBA had a lot of problems when I took the reins. Our players were using, their effort level was pathetic, and our marketing was bunk. But the 1983 finals typified one of our biggest problems. We didn't manage the games. Sure, we don't flip games. But we need to at least massage them a bit. In 1983? Nothing. NOTHING. The Sixers shot a billion more free throws and the Lakers never had a shot at taking any of the game. At least in 2007's sweep the ratings blew. In 1983, the ratings were great. They were phenomenal. We NEEDED those extra games. We NEEDED that extra leverage in our TV deals. Where was O'Brien? He was asleep at the wheel. And I took over.

SILVER: So what did you do?

STERN: I pushed it. Have you been following the Obama administration? Have you been keeping track of his Department of Justice, and the slow drip as the public realizes he's approved more extrajudicial power than Bush did for his DOJ? Have you watched as he's leveraged every little power his predecessor left behind, and strengthened them at every turn?

SILVER: Yeah. So?

STERN: That's what you've got. After the 1983 finals, we greased the wheel. We guaranteed the TV folks that we'd keep our finals competitive. No more sweeps. Six game minimum, except in extraordinary cases. We figured out ways we could shift the odds towards the underdogs when we needed to. I don't care who wins. Nobody cares who wins. They just care about two things. Who's playing, and how close is it? How many games do we get? How many ads can we show? In the 80s, we had the who. We had the how. We developed that. We fixed it. And the league took off like a freakin' ROCKETSHIP, Adam. The league took off. It exploded. The NBA always had the tools it needed, O'Brien just wasn't man enough to use them. He believed in the integrity of the game. I believe in it too, mind you, but the almighty dollar has to have some consideration. Has to be some wiggle-waggle room. You know the score. You've been here before.

SILVER: Alright, cool. So why in God's name are you using that to keep me from getting Miami?

STERN: Because Larry O'Brien wasn't an idiot, and neither am I. The board of governors don't know if you're their man yet. They don't know if you've got those teeth, Mack. O'Brien could've extended the 1984 finals a bit, given me some extra wiggle room. He didn't. He wanted to see how I responded. For better or for worse, I went the other way and I increased the league's profits while casting doubt into the machinations that ran it. I could've said "it's a sport, it happens." I made promises instead, and I manufactured the power I needed to keep them. I'll give you a great Finals. Maybe Peter's team takes it. Maybe Herb's team takes it. Should be fun basketball. For people who like defense.

SILVER: So, like, ten people in the United States.

STERN: Hah! Funny man. But that's your job. I made my decision regarding series length -- I skewed to the game to draw out our final salvo. Get us more ad time. Keep our T.V. deals humming. Now, though? I've left you in a bind, Adam, regarding the markets that play in our finals. And you, like me, need to figure out how the hell you're going to get through it. I'm sentimental to the small markets, personally. And I think the NBA gains more than people think when teams like San Antonio make the finals and contend for years on end.

SILVER: What? How?

STERN: There are two ways you make money. You can either draw a lot of people all over the United States... or you dominate individual markets and completely bleed them dry. Both can work, if you do it right. In small markets with only one professional sports team, like San Antonio, you destroy the ratings. Even as the national ratings were so-so for Memphis vs San Antonio, that series completely destroyed everything else in the San Antonio market. Virtually everyone who had a screen was watching. The city was tuned to every layup, every free throw, every defensive switch. In a larger market, you don't get that kind of bleed-through. You get a good concentration. But you don't obliterate the market. You still get your Dodger fans, your Red Sox fans, your Yankee fans who can't bear to turn off the baseball. You get your football guys who are so tuned in to their football team they don't give a damn about any other sport. Your pressure to watch is less localized.

SILVER: So you get larger ad revenue when you can dominate a market?

STERN: Hah! No. Not larger. But you can still make a lot of money that way, and the difference between a small-market team and a large-market team becomes marginal. You just need to be able to negotiate it right and advertise it correctly. That was O'Brien's lesson, when he left me with that annoying sweep. He wasn't trying to tell me that he was a moron -- he was giving me a difficult argument but giving me the tools to make it. Yes, sweeps aren't great for advertising revenue. But they aren't the end of the world for the broader league. You just need to advertise your historically dominant teams. You need to manufacture publicity around the long win streaks, the incredible intensity, et cetera. You need to ham up the "seventeen titles" angle with the Boston Celtics, even if ten of the titles were skeevy as all get out. You need to learn how to advertise your product.

SILVER: But you didn't.

STERN: No, I didn't. You can take the easy way out and manipulate it. Which I did. It's difficult to give back the power once you've taken hold of it, Adam. Look at the DoJ. Look at Soviet Russia. Look at me. But, that's your choice. O'Brien gave me a choice, and that idiot was smarter than he looked. So, yeah, Adam. I'll leave you Indiana. Pacers vs Spurs! Only on ABC! All the glitz and glamour of a melting glacier. And you'll spend the summer sweating these T.V. negotiations, trying to make the honest argument. Or you'll go into those meetings with your head held high, and four little words that'll grease the wheel and guarantee that NBA money.

SILVER: "It won't happen again."

STERN: Yep. You'll have the power, Adam. You'll have the phone book. You'll have the calls. But me? I won't sweat it. I'll call in Foster and Mauer for one last merry-go-round, and watch one last finals as the man in charge. You mentioned those ten fans who like gritty defensive back-and-forths, didn't you?

SILVER: Yes, sir.

STERN: I'm one of them. Now get back to work, baldie. I've got money to count.

• • •

stern and silver


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