Different Class

They can make us care about the NBA in March, but why don't we seem to care about them?
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The Bulls are out to a big early lead over the Heat and the United Center is going crazy. They're pounding them. It's physical. Nate Robinson comes in and is his best and craziest self: making shots and yelling; being tiny and insane and magnetic and, however briefly, great. LeBron is getting to the rim and scoring at will, but he's absorbing hard contact. He's getting hugged and taken down by Kirk Hinrich, he's grimacing and wondering where the foul calls are. No one is able to get open and spot up for three. There are no three-on-one breaks in transition. No oops have been thrown and no chests have been pounded.

The first half ends on what the Heat think should have been a foul as Chris Bosh is forcefully denied an easy lay-in under the basket. More grimacing, more pleading. Ray Allen has to gently guide LeBron away from the refs and toward the tunnel. A glistening, manic, near-hyperventilating Nate Robinson is interviewed by Chris Broussard. The Bulls lead by nine, but it feels like 20.

It is only nine, though, and then a few minutes into the second half it's only five. The Heat wriggle loose two fast breaks off turnovers, both of which culminated in emphatic LeBron slams. Afterward the camera cuts to his severe and focused expression as he chews on the end of his mouthguard. The Bulls call a timeout and it seems clear that it's happening again, that in all likelihood the Heat will go on to win their 28th consecutive game. A few minutes later Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers hit open threes and the Heat take their first lead.

The rest of the game almost seems like a formality. Once the Heat start to get easy threes, once they are able to open things up in transition, once they are able to exercise their will on their opponent, it's over—double-digit deficits turn into insurmountable six-, seven, or eight-point advantages which, in turn, turn into wins. It happens, and it keeps happening, and it always make sense.

This is not, it should be noted, a bad thing. The 2013 Heat, when firing on all cylinders and in general, are beautiful to watch. The fluidity and grace of their two- or three-on-one breaks, punctuated emphatically by a single swift act of violence on the rim; the constant motion of their offense in the half court—the cuts, the screens, the decoys, the ball being passed more times than it's dribbled; the deft, subtle carving of alleyways into the paint, the three-point shooters lurking behind the arc. All of that, and the near-total absence of poor shots.

The otherworldly presence and influence and kinesthetic force of LeBron James, a player unlike any the game has ever seen playing better than he ever has. For the past 27 games these stretches of sublime excellence have occurred invariably in every game the Heat have played. Sometimes for the majority of the 48 minutes, sometimes for whatever small amount of time it takes to win, but always for long enough. It's been two months, give or take, since it wasn't enough.

But on Wednesday night it didn't really end up happening—not for long enough, not when they needed it—and the Bulls ended the Heat's streak with a fourth quarter barrage of threes and increasingly physical play down the stretch. But even as they extended their lead back to double digits with only a few minutes to play, it was hard to believe that the Heat were about to lose. Which, context and Chicago's depleted lineup aside, is just a crazy thing to think about a regular season game in which the opponent is one of the conference's best teams playing at home.

When was the last time a regular season game meant so much, to the point where it set hearts pounding even as its conclusion became evident? When was the last time a regular season game was so competitive, so physical, when so much was at stake? You may have an answer to this question. But it doesn't get asked, rhetorically or otherwise, unless the Miami Heat—this team, great and getting greater, and brilliant enough to open new worlds of inquiry and emotion even during the bullshit weeks of March—play the way they have been. There's no reason to love these Heat. But we must give them that.

***

In the grand scheme of the NBA, and maybe in the slightly less grand but still grandiose scheme of the Heat's own narrative, the 27-game winning streak doesn't really matter all that much. This is not to say that it wasn't impressive, or wasn't fun. The game against the Bulls had the intensity of a playoff elimination game; the streak elevated the games that came before to a level of significance that frankly has no place in March. Could anything else have possibly caused ESPN to pick up a late March Orlando Magic home game? Now THAT'S impressive.

And yet, according to a (heroically unscientific) ESPN Sportsnation poll posted shortly after the Bulls won, 72 percent of respondents said that they won't miss the streak. In another, 64 percent said they're happy that it's over. What is that about?

To a certain extent, it's about the Heat, a dominance machine that has never seemed quite comfortable with its chosen identity and shape. But there's more at work here than that, and the resistance to the Heat is broader than just this one team. The problem, if it's a problem, is bigger than them.

Instead, this is a problem with the idea of cheering for dominance. Obviously there are a great many fans who remain untroubled by that, and who hop from one winner to another; "Bandwagoner" and "frontrunner" are insults, but not pointed enough to dissuade fans who would chase winners from doing so. The issue, for those to whom it's an issue at all, is a narrative one, and more precisely relating to character. It is seen as admirable—and by most lights is admirable—to suffer along with a losing team. Winning teams have it worse: if multiple championships are won, if too much success is achieved, if it's all too predictable or too easy-seeming, then the winner is a villain.

This is not going to be some Rand-ian screed on behalf of the wronged victors. But something is lost in this all the same. The YouTube videos of "The Flu Game" and "The Shrug" and "The Shot" never get old and never fail to induce goosebumps, and their potency derives entirely from Michael Jordan's. His brilliance was bigger than any narrative concern—of course he would win; the getting there was the part we thrilled to.

So why aren't the voters in the Sportsnation poll—and, even more anecdotally, the rest of us—rooting for LeBron and the Heat to reach similar heights, and mint similar I-was-there memories? In 20 years no one outside of their respective markets is going to be talking about the memorable 2013 Pacers team or Bulls team or Knicks team that upended the Heat in the playoffs, should that happen. A Heat championship, won in the forceful, brutally beautiful style of the 27-game winning streak, would be something for everyone to talk about. It would endure. Do we really not want this?

***

I get it not wanting it, to be honest. It still feels weird to root for the LeBron and the Heat, after The Decision, after the sickeningly braggadocious Big Three pep rally. I'm a Dallas native and Mavericks supporter; there aren't many fan bases outside of Cleveland that have a longer list of reasons to despise the Heat (and actually, despise is probably not strong enough of a word for my feelings toward Dwyane Wade after the 2006 Finals). Yes, The Decision was ill-advised and ill-executed and in spectacularly poor taste. "Not one, not two, not three…" was atrocious, bad taste and bad execution again, but the Heat already got that shoved back in their faces via their embarrassment in the 2011 Finals. That closed the circuit. We could have moved on, that ritual humbling completed, and enjoyed our dynasty. But, somehow, we haven't.

This is not because the Heat are more loathsome than other dynasties. They're inevitable, sure; that's their nature. But they don't possess the crass high-handedness and bellowing elitism of the Yankees; they lack the icily smug dismissiveness of Bill Belichick's Patriots. LeBron and Wade, for all their artifice and entitlement, don't even have the coiled, seething a-holishness of Kobe Bryant. None of the above are as morally queasy as Tiger Woods. It is easier to find a reason to reject all of the aforementioned than it is to reject the Heat.

And LeBron, finally: well, it's not his fault that he's LeBron James. And, in the way that growing up improves a person, being LeBron James has become more appealing of late. James has always been charismatic, but he seems increasingly comfortable with his role, and more willing to use its leverage to express what are generally noble positions. He is, as Joe Biden once said of another controversial and not-necessarily-likable genius, clean and articulate. James cares about and respects the game, and is great at it; at his best, he elevates it in a way no player ever has. All that and he runs on the court and playfully tackles randos that sink half-court shots; he's hilarious in parody videos. Jordan's darkness and meanness is not at all in evidence, if it's there at all. James is fun, and he's great.

The streak was in large part his work, and it was fun, and it was great. It breathed a strange and exciting life into what's normally not a very entertaining stretch of the season and so was, for all its insignificance, faintly miraculous. There's no fault in being glad it's over, or in pulling for an upset or an underdog; we're human, and that is, too. But let's not deny ourselves what LeBron and them are offering us, and let's not ignore what it is or what it means.

The streak has come and gone, but the rest of it—whatever's left of the great LeBron experiment in Miami—is not nearly finished. It won't be perfect, and it may not be imperfect enough. But we may not see it again for a long while, and so we might as well watch.


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