To all my adoring fan(s), I apologize for the downtime. I’ve been away. But, like a 31 year old Michael Jordan, rusty and missing shots with blistered hands from playing the wrong sport for two years, I’m back!
I watched quite a bit of basketball since last I wrote. I’ve talked to some serious experts. I now understand the venom that educated basketball fans have been spewing at LeBron and his little pal Handy.
The spite and vitriol has come in the form of personal attacks, derision of ability, and general nastiness, and Paul and I have found ourselves defending players and a team who have never been our favorites out of a moral obligation to try to bring some evenness to the coverage. That was then. Now I’ve discussed the situation more deeply with a pair of long-time Celtics fans, and I see the problem.
It’s not that these players got together and abandoned their sense of competition. It’s not that they stole the spotlight. It’s that they came in making promises of a dynasty and so many experts jumped on the bandwagon and flooded the media with the certainty of the Heat’s dominance. From the perspective a Celtics fan who knows what it takes to win, that nothing it promised, that titles aren’t won in the offseason, and that a team is more than an accumulation of All-Stars, it wasn’t just over-the-top pomp, it was heresy.
The best examples I can think of are the last Heat game I saw against the Magic compared to the last Celtics game I saw against the Cavaliers.
In the Florida State Mega Bowl, the Heat fell behind but fought back and actually took the lead about halfway through the fourth off some nice play by James and Bosh (who had a dominant matchup against Bass). What happened next? Jameer Nelson got into the paint off the pick and roll about 287 times in a row. Miami ran a series of isolations for Wade and James against concerted defensive efforts. Backline defenders failed to step up for Miami. What was a close contest with Miami in front turned into a solid victory for Orlando. Worst of all was the way the Heat seemed to concede the game once Jameer built up the lead. There was no fire, nobody chasing down loose balls or tightening the screws on defense. It seemed as though the moment that they realized they wouldn’t win it just by being more talented than the other team, the whole squad decided it wasn’t worth fighting it out.
Boston in Cleveland was the exact opposite. Boston actually fell behind to the less-talented Cavs in the first quarter, and who did they ask to bail them out with a dominant offensive performance? Nobody. They buckled down on defense, attacked the glass, ran their offense, and went from nine down to utterly dominant. Rondo wound up racking up his highest point total of the year, but he did so by turning defense into offense pushing the ball up court and by taking what the defense gave him in the half court. It was a total team effort from the starting lineup to the 9th man. Kevin McHale, commenting for NBAtv, described the Celtics as a “meat-grinder” because of the way they revel in doing the dirty work and out-fighting their opponents even when, on paper, they could coast to victory.
That’s the fly in the ointment that truly irks old school fans. Dynasties aren’t about having the most individual talent (see Lakers 1998). Titles need to be earned by committed teams who get better throughout their time together by giving consistent efforts against the good teams and the bad teams over the course of many games. The 1986 Celtics were spectacularly stacked with talent, but they were also known as a blue collar team that came to beat their opponents with defense, rebounding, and teamwork. The Bulls dynasty in the 1990s had the best player in NBA history on their team, but they won it all by giving a total team effort in a coherent offensive and defensive system, and they stumbled and struggled to reach that team unity losing year after year to the hated Pistons. No matter how great the players are, the team needs be forged under the pressure of practice, games played, and playoffs and victory is earned with repetitions that the units put in together on the court.
With their flashy introduction and boasting press releases and all the assumed success that the media presupposed for them, the Heat seemed to want to skip the process of coming together, putting in the reps, and making themselves a good team instead of a bunch of good players. It’s hitting Miami right now, as they lack the backbone that a team who has come through adversity shares, and they haven’t been able to pull out tough victories. LeBron’s character is being slammed by sportswriters, and Dwyane Wade is being called out for his poor play early in the season, but the truth is that there’s more to it than two players getting with the program. The Heat needs to stop focusing on its parts and start working on becoming something more. Divided they’ll fall. It’s time for them to batten down and do the dirty work, Wade and Bron need to dump their egos and hustle it out, set an example for everyone else that they won’t take off plays, and turn the talent in South Beach into a real team.
Not that its all their fault. Wade missed all of the preseason. Mike Miller got hurt prior to game 1 in the regular season. Udonis Haslem got hurt as the team began to get a rhythm. Projected starting point guard Chalmers is just starting to get minutes after dealing with a prolonged wrist injury. It’s tough to create chemistry without continuity in the lineup. So coherent Celtic-like teamwork may be too much to ask at this stage, but consistent Celtic-like effort certainly isn’t. That’s where it needs to start if Miami has any chance of living up to the hype and proving themselves a real, contending unit to old school fans who know better than to hand over trophies before the season tips off.