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.

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 06: Finals, Game #6

After a game like last night's, there wasn't much chance of Dewey and I putting together any sort of coherent post-game show. So I decided to take a different angle and simply videotape my reaction to the waning moments of the game on my phone, giving our readers a chance to look into the head of a devastated Spurs fan as the seconds ticked away. The tape starts with the Spurs up 99-97. Tony Parker would split two free throws and the Miami Heat would ring off six straight points to take the game. Included is a defeated post-game run-down of the box score and an impromptu tour of my living room. Game #7 is Thursday.

-- Aaron

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 05: Finals, Game #5

It's yet another postgame show. For last night's show, the regulars (Aaron McGuire and Alex Dewey) were joined by Thunderfriend Jacob Harmon for a free flowing conversation that rarely covers mature subjects. Discussion topics include: "Who's Finals MVP?", how excellent the series has been, the former absence of a combined strong effort from the dual big threes, and a few predictions on who wins the series as a whole. Also, Scratchy (Aaron's cat) chilled out for a while and tried to distract Alex Dewey's predictions. Really. As always, comments and suggestions appreciated in the comments below.

-- Aaron

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 04: Finals Game #3

Well, that was a game. Tune in to the replay of last night's Gothic Ginobili postgame show to see two delirious Spurs fans completely and utterly blown away by what they've just witnessed. Topics discussed include: who's the finals MVP on both sides of the coin, what exactly was sustainable from San Antonio's run (in short: not everything, but not nothing), a hefty helping of consumed crow for an avowed Gary Neal disenthusiast, and a spattering of miscellany. As always, leave comments and suggestions for improving this feature in the comments below, and we'll be sure to try and implement them. Happy watching!

-- Aaron

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

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.

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

GG AfterHours Replay, Episode 03: Finals Game #2

 

What is the meaning of life? What do I look like when I haven't shaved in a couple days? The answers to all these puzzling questions will be revealed soon.

Anyway, we did a postgame last night. It was pretty depressing, but we held it together. Heh. In case you weren't aware, the Spurs lost to the Heat last night in a Game 2 blowout to even the series, as the Heat are wont to do. Seven times out of ten we drink our bourbon at night, thus spawning the theme of this program. The word "eviscerate" means "to deprive". In this case, the Heat eviscerated our fragile hearts.

But we're getting better, and by the end of us both of us are weakly reassured just enough by the Spurs' playoff run at large that we're both willing to go with the Spurs on Tuesday, albeit with weak confidence.

And hopefully we're getting better at the postgames. 30 minutes or so of bliss or brilliant entertainment... this is not. But we're getting there day by day. We're pounding the rock, and perhaps that's all that matters. Tonight in our postgame we talked about what we thought of this (all considering) bizarre game full of unlikely heroes and unlikely underperformers (HINT: Everyone more or less fit in one of the two categories, even freaking Ray Allen), and where we think the series as a whole is going. Anyway, have a good day, everyone.

--Alex

P.S. I thought turnovers were an obvious concern for San Antonio, though the actual mechanics of that didn't really come up until an hour after we finished broadcasting. So, on that note, I wrote a piece back in January about how the Spurs played the Grizzlies twice in the span of five days during the regular season, losing the first because of turnovers before making a slight but potent adjustment: They played Duncan and Diaw nearer to the top of the key, a few feet back from Duncan's most comfortable zone, in order to limit turnovers and create a second facilitator. This approach, with interesting strengths and weaknesses, is great for limiting turnovers and their ill effect, but playing your big that far away from the basket is far from ideal in terms of generating offense. But Duncan and Diaw are two of the best passing big men in the game, and I thought it was worth mentioning and linking.

Alex Dewey
The co-founder of the blog, Alex is an unemployed jack of all trades, if you redefine "all trades" to mean "computer science, not owning a car, and mathematics." Writes ace book reviews as well as disturbing Lovecraftian horrors. Has a strange sense of humor that's part Posnanski, part coyote, and part Butta. "See you space cowboy."

2013 NBA Finals Roundtable: Nerves, Tics, and Switches Flipped

2013 finals cover

Hey, Dewey! It's Aaron, talking from omnipresent bold text. How's life? Here's where we'll start -- how nervous are you about this series? I feel like I'm going to get fired by game 2. I'm ridiculously amped up, but at the same time, ridiculously nervous and skittish. Damnit, sports.

Dewey: Honestly, I'm so amped up it's hard to feel nervous. It's one of those series where the Spurs would be ridiculously disappointed if they lost, but I can't help but feel like they've already slightly overachieved from this season and in doing so answered all the doubts caused by the Thunder loss. I feel like they're playing with found money, so to speak. And so all I can feel is hyped up. This is slightly ironic, because if I ever actually found myself in this situation, I would resent the "just happy to be here" mentality at its core. I mean, I do. But God, as a fan, I'm happy to be here. I was expecting disappointment after disappointment after the ludicrously poor finish the Spurs made to the regular season. So it's just a dream to me, honestly, the impact of a possible loss hasn't crystallized for me, it's just the thrill of knowing your team is facing the best in the East and hoping you have a shot.

McGuire: See... ever since the Kobe/Pau Lakers, I've had trouble putting a whole lot of faith in late-season schnids. At every step of San Antonio's playoff run, I felt like they had the potential to lose. I felt like the threat was very real, simply because it was possible that late-season team persisted. But there was also a crystallized grain of hope. Early this season, I distinctly recall noting that this Spurs team had the potential to be a uniquely special team. They could synthesize the best offensive runs of the 2012 edition with the throwback defense of the 2008 edition. (No, not quite Bowen's prime, but back when the defense was the calling card.) And as they got deeper, that grain of hope embedded in the clamshell of my heart became a lovely expanding pearl. And now the damn thing is big enough to be a tumor. If the Spurs lose -- whether it's a close series or not -- I'll feel like I've once again let the hope grow too close to the vest, as a fan. And that depresses me on a deeply personal level, even if I agree that to some extent the Spurs are playing with found money. (Also, alright, I'll be clear -- I despise the Miami Heat.)

Dewey: Well, yeah, and I think both of us thought they had at least a punter's chance from the outset. I was extremely and immediately skeptical of Kevin Martin replacing James Harden (and still am, even ignoring Harden's breakout season and Martin's, uh, relative fizzle against Memphis), and only an utterly dominant Thunder team really served to quell this skepticisim. Honestly, the Spurs have completely dominated the regular season the last three years, to the extent where I honestly felt like they could win 66 games if they really wanted to the last few years and had a few breaks... but, obviously, they didn't actively want that Like, the Spurs against the Kings or Bucks is not lopsided in terms of the matchups, but in practice the Spurs at full attention are a total force on both ends, a totally coherent, well-spaced, horizontal-coverage machine. The regular season was genuinely practice for the Spurs whenever Tony and Tim have been healthy. Yes, even with Richard Jefferson. yes, even with Manu injured. Yes, even with no one else stepping up. It didn't mean they'd always win, but they'd always put in a possible win.

• • •

All true, although... well... that late season swoon was a HECK of a swoon. Did you expect this kind of a playoff switch, or did the late season swoon make you think it was out of the question?

Dewey: What concerned me about the late-season swoon is that they stopped winning those games, and they even lost games that were unconscionable for a fully-armed, fully-engaged roster to lose. It struck me that Tony had lost a step, and 2011 was coming back in full force, despite Parker's legitimate case as a top-3 player for the first several months of the season. And when Tony loses a step, and you put a rangy defender on him? Game over. We had every right to think this, and every indication, despite how well he might play someone like Westbrook or Paul, despite how every shot seemed to be going in, despite the video game totals. We had every right to think that the run was over before it had begun. Even in San Antonio, "the switch" can only mean so much, right? Apparently not.

McGuire: One of the underrated things about this run is that -- much like the late dynasty Lakers -- these Spurs are putting up one of the most compelling arguments in recent memory against regular season performance in predicting playoff success. It's been droned into our heads ad infinitum over the past several years: The Spurs are a Regular Season Team. Sure, they'll rack up sixty wins and blow out fluff teams -- but when the elite teams come around, the Spurs can't hash it anymore. Well, about that... The Spurs team we saw in the last few months of the season -- for all intents and purposes -- doesn't exist anymore. It's gone. They did great things the first few months of the season, then just completely stopped playing coherent basketball for about two awful months of toilet-cellar play.

Dewey: Dude... what the hell's a toilet-cellar?

McGuire:Now, out of nowhere, they flipped a switch the second the L.A. series flipped to Los Angeles and they've been virtually unstoppable since, bested only by a few completely incredible performances by a humming-beyond-logic Warriors team. Ethan Sherwood Strauss (among others) said before the playoffs that it would be hilarious if the Lakers made a title run from the eight seed, proving once and for all that the regular season means next to nothing. It's in a bit of a lower key, but the Spurs are proving that barroom hypothesis out nearly as emphatically.

Dewey: No, really, I know you have a fancy new house or something, but what the hell's a toilet-cellar?

McGuire: ... I don't know. In my defense, you've written WAY more confusing constructions than that and asked me to edit them.

Dewey: MOVING ON.

• • •

A lot has been written about what's similar between the Heat and the Spurs, this year's cream-of-the-crop. All that stands on its own. But what, to you, is the most inherently different aspect about these two teams that you can't seem to wrench from your craw?

Dewey: Okay, so the obvious difference to me (besides the related point that the Spurs have far more balanced production) is that the Spurs' role players play multiple roles for the most part and the Heat's role players tend to play only a couple . Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Birdman? Shane Battier (who can't buy a shot) is quite a versatile player, but he can't create offense. He's a fundamentally limited player whose limitations he wears on his sleeve, and on the Heat he looks like Prime Gerald Wallace by comparison. Even Bosh has never been exactly transcendent in the Big Three Era. Even Wade's seemed to have a pretty simplistic game when he's not 100% or getting a lot of fouls drawn. I like the Heat's players, but they tend to do one thing exceptionally well and little else, and it helps if they can space the floor or play smart, solid defense.

McGuire: That's a hilarious answer to me.

Dewey: Now, don't get me wrong, as a whole they tend to be quite versatile because of LeBron's ethereal fluidity and Wade's crafty style. But as individual players they aren't, and this limits and structures their game. When LeBron was playing in the Olympics you couldn't help but notice how perfectly he fit into a team of All-Stars, especially all-star wings. And again, don't get me wrong, it's not like Danny Green is uh... Prime Gerald Wallace (again). I mean, these are players that know their roles and stick to them. It's just that... I mean, reducing what Danny Green does to defense and corner threes is actually really misleading. He is so crafty on both ends, does so much, and understands the game and how to use lateral motion incredibly well. He's quite a versatile player. Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan.... all these guys can pass it well, can set screens, can be in the right place on defense and make the extra rotations. It's not like Pop is doing anything magic - these are incredibly savvy, aware, intuitive players that can grasp what they need to do immediately, and they're versatile enough to capitalize on it. Granted, they're nothing without Tony's offense and Tim's defense, and the role players tend towards inconsistency (no, Kawhi doesn't count). But, aside from little used.Gary Neal, Aron Baynes, and Matt Bonner, the Spurs have a lot of players that grasp how to run a situation on offense, not just knowing where to be. This absolutely could be bias speaking, and the fact that I've seen far more of the Spurs than the Heat, but I just see the Heat 's role playersas being a full tier or two below the Spurs here in individual versatility. Danny Green is doing much of what Shane Battier is doing, but it's relatively common on the Spurs and relatively rare on the Heat.

McGuire: That's one of the funniest answers I've ever really seen in one of our roundtables, because I really didn't expect that at all. My answer is the same, but in the exact opposite direction. While their roles may be semi-predefined, my main point is that when you get down to the general rotation structure and the core pillars of their schemes, the Spurs are much more traditional in the way their players operate than the Miami Heat. LeBron is a phantasm that can occupy any of the five size-varied Russian dolls that make up positions. Wade is a scoring guard that can distribute as a point guard and defend players larger than he is with relative success. Bosh acts as a stretch wing in some capacities, but other times he acts as the central big man in Miami's offense and defense. And around them? Battier guards three to four positions depending on his knees, Chalmers constantly gets matched on random players and guards them with relative aplomb, and offensively Miami's transition game requires each of their players to have some versatile command of transition offense and movement principles. Spolestra uses such a ridiculous variety of utilization frameworks around his players that the Heat's offense and defense strike me more as a Rubiks cube whose shape is constantly changing than a set framework of defined roleplayers.

Dewey: Okay, yeah, that'd be hard to solve.

McGuire: Conversely, San Antonio is a lot more traditional. Sure, their players have a touch more skill-depth than you see in Miami's roleplayers, but Pop doesn't engage in massive feats of lineup versatility -- he tries a few interesting tweaks, but Pop's sophistication is in the general offense design, not the configurations in which he uses it. On a broad scale, the Spurs are: an unfairly talented center, a semi-traditional scoring point guard, shooters, and a versatile defensive stalwart at the large wing. That's a tried-and-true configuration, and with the exception of Pop's occasional sojourns with small-ball, he sticks to it. Pop's nontraditional elements are added in the form of plays, not the form of broader position-bending. That's my basic take -- both teams are unerringly creative, but the Heat bend the natural positions on the court and roles while the Spurs bend plays and broader system design in order to achieve their respective levels of elite play.

Dewey: Interesting. Huh.

McGuire: That said, your argument strikes me as a bit strange, because you're looking at the barren ends of miami's rotation while totally brushing aside "little used" players in San Antonio's scheme. For instance... Joel Anthony played six minutes in last year's finals. The entire finals. Miami has MORE depth this year. Who cares if he doesn't have a massive depth of skills? He's far less important to Miami than, say, Neal or Bonner... both of whom have barely any skill depth.

Dewey: Other than Joel Anthony, I listed four of the top nine in Miami's playoff minutes played this season. They are as follows:

  1. LeBron James; 659 (Jeeeeeeeeeeeez)
  2. Dwyane Wade; 527
  3. Chris Bosh; 511
  4. Mario Chalmers; 428
  5. Ray Allen; 381
  6. Norris Cole; 336
  7. Shane Battier; 305
  8. Udonis Haslem; 294
  9. Chris Andersen; 232

McGuire: While fair, I don't think you're totally familiar with San Antonio's playoff rotation if you're convinced Neal and Bonner are tertiary players compared to those folks. San Antonio's top nine minutes distribution to date is:

  1. Kawhi Leonard; 520
  2. Tony Parker; 518
  3. Tim Duncan; 481
  4. Danny Green; 421
  5. Manu Ginobili; 361
  6. Tiago Splitter; 280
  7. Matt Bonner; 231
  8. Gary Neal; 220
  9. Boris Diaw; 178

Dewey: HOLD THE PHONE HOW IS MATT BONNER 7TH IN ANY UNIVERSE LIKE OUR OWN? I WATCHED EVERY GAME HOW DID THAT HAPPEN. WAIT DID HE START ON MOTHER'S DAY, I BELIEVE THAT IS THE ONE GAME I MISSED. DID HE PLAY 58 MINUTES ON MOTHER'S DAY. HELP ME.

McGuire: No, but that would've been a good Mother's Day present for Momma Bonner. Anyway. How about LeBron, huh? He's averaging 41 MPG and doing virtually everything for Miami. Cripes. I hope Pop has been coaching Kawhi on the Marion/Kidd style exhaustion defense Carlisle used to great result in the 2011 finals, because there's an outside chance LeBron starts experiencing at least some degree of fatigue in this series.

Dewey: Probably not, but... I mean, it isn't out of the question. That Indiana series was PHYSICAL. Heh... Pop should just get the entire Western Conference together for a symposium. Just to teach Kawhi. Get the gang all together. Marion, Carlisle, Sefolosha... everybody. Get... oh my gosh, get George Hill and Roy Hibbert to consult. Oh my gosh. Aaron. This has to be real.

McGuire: Awesome. You know what'd be great? If Hibbert didn't leave Miami, and just bought courtside seats for the finals. Just was dapping Tim all game long and yelling out confusing heckling while Miami's on the court.

Dewey: Oh man, Bosh would be jealous. I see it playing out kind of like...

"Sorry, Bosh, too slow."
"Damn it, Roy."
"Too slow, once again. You get no daps."
"Haha, you're such a joker Roy."
"Too slow, again."

Then, by game 4:

bird tho

McGuire: Awesome. Holy crap.

Dewey: I'm picturing George Hill running a consultancy right now and it's really hard to shake this image. "Hey George. Heard you're running a consultancy George. Nice suit George. Gonna teach us the way to defend him george. For a reasonable fee, of course, George. Hey George. Missing u george."

McGuire: Imagine George Hill in a suit. A Pacers colored suit... with a small bolo tie.

Dewey: WELP. I was going to say "welcome to the last twenty minutes of my mind", but then you said "Pacers colored suit" and I was like "I guess you could say the same to me."

• • •

So, Aaron. Miami... you obviously have an odd relationship with them and their principal LeBron. Recently people have made reference to Cleveland LeBron making a return with the swoons of his supporting cast. But he's also gone through innumerable challenges and accomplishments since them. So, I'll ask you, finally: Does LeBron still evoke the scars and highs of Cleveland, almost 3 years removed from the Decision?

McGuire: I wrote in the player capsule series that I'd generally gotten over my LeBron dislike, and I wasn't being untruthful. The raw fury of my post-decision hate has faded. I can watch regular season LeBron without getting pissed off at him, at least. But every bit of ill will you eradicate leaves a mark or two, and in the case of LeBron, every feeling has its echos. In this case, the way this season has ended is especially evocative for me. The MIA/IND series reminded me so clearly of CLE/ORL, to the point of ever-disturbing deja vu. LeBron's "Cleveland mode" comments only helped to reinforce that. The fact that Miami actually won the series, primarily due to a few missteps by Indiana that Orlando didn't make in 2009? That's brutal. If the Heat win the title, the pain of 2009 will persist even longer -- the idea that the 2009 Cavaliers could have been this Miami team, overcoming a brutal ECF matchup to make the final step into history, will haunt me. Perhaps that's part of why I'm so nervous and itchy about this series. If the Heat win, the screams of those demons evolve from a murmuring titter to a belching roar. And I thought I'd figured it out, too!

Dewey: Haha, yeah. Honestly if the Spurs lose convincingly in this series, conversely, it will eradicate plenty of ghosts itself... namely, that the Spurs had a ghost of a chance in 2012. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Ha. [bites a light bulb, continues to laugh maniacally] Which is kind of just as bad, but at least is more palatable in its certainty, to know that they genuinely would not have won in all likelihood.

McGuire: Sounds like you're wavering a bit. And stop biting light bulbs.

Dewey: ... You know, yeah. I started out thinking I didn't have much emotional baggage here, but that's a good point you're making. I have all the emotional baggage of the last four years stored in this game. I doubt it's accumulating except as photos in a picture book, but it is important -- I've watched (as a raw estimate) probably 250 games over the last 4 years that featured these San Antonio Spurs. These San Antonio Spurs with all of Duncan's brilliance (a term that he's starting to fade simply by being inadequate in description) and Manu's craft and Tony's elevation to a Hall of Fame guard. These San Antonio Spurs that have basically taught me the game of basketball, not as it was meant to be played (that's too normative; who doesn't like a great scorer taking over?) but a couple of ways, and ways they saw through to their furthest ability as individuals and an organization.

McGuire: What?

Dewey: So... I suppose LeBron has our vulnerable hearts in those giant pincer claws of his, once again. But, we don't know what to expect, once again, and sometimes we see that photo of Kawhi's hands and wonder if he can... uh... do the same thing to Miami that I was just semi-incoherently describing?

McGuire: Word.

• • •

Final predictions?

Dewey: Heat in seven. Sorry, heart. (I'm not sorry. Except that I am.)

McGuire: Head agrees. Heart says Spurs in six. I'll go heart, for once. Spurs in six. Let's get it, folks.

• WATCH GAME #1 TONIGHT AT 8:30 PM EST ON ABC. •

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Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

"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.

Alex Dewey
The co-founder of the blog, Alex is an unemployed jack of all trades, if you redefine "all trades" to mean "computer science, not owning a car, and mathematics." Writes ace book reviews as well as disturbing Lovecraftian horrors. Has a strange sense of humor that's part Posnanski, part coyote, and part Butta. "See you space cowboy."

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.

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

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.

SILVER: What?

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--...

STERN: Now.

• • •

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

Fin.

Aaron McGuire on EmailAaron McGuire on FacebookAaron McGuire on GithubAaron McGuire on LinkedinAaron McGuire on TumblrAaron McGuire on Twitter
Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.
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