The Last Game and the Next Game

It will be a long time before we see a basketball game to top Game Six of the NBA Finals. Luckily, we won't have to wait that long to see Game Seven.
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There is only so much that can fit into a game of basketball, and Game 6 of the NBA Finals included about all of it. That, actually, could just describe the fourth quarter. It needs the silly/amazing part with LeBron and his headband, and it needs the context of Tim Duncan’s backburner brilliance and the San Antonio Spurs responding to every rally with the workmanlike hum-drummery of a bank teller cashing a check. It needs Kawhi Leonard’s dunk on Mike Miller and it needs Boris Diaw because come on. The rest of the game was great. The fourth quarter is something fans will be mystifyingly reliving for years, dreaming of and waking up in a sweat, cheering.

Good lord what a twisting, overwhelmingly anxious push and pull of a period. LeBron James transforming into exactly what his team needed him to be, barreling around San Antonio’s interior defense, which vexed James before his run and afterwards again; launching from the missile silos in his shoes to stuff Duncan’s attempt in the lane; drilling a three that kept the Miami Heat from falling off the ledge into an offseason of screaming nausea, and missing some chances too. It was before Ray Allen’s game-tying die-cast model of a life’s work at its peak moment in magnitude and beauty. It was that three against the backdrop of a series that could have seen Danny Green—the perpetually-unconscious shooter who took Allen’s Finals three-point record, and formerly LeBron's end-of-the-bench comic foil in Cleveland

—named its Most Valuable Player, no less. It was a lot more than those things too, like Chris Bosh’s gangly brilliance down the stretch. It's a loud, complicated memory. And now they have to play another game.

***

A wormhole of sorts opens in the basketball universe after a game like Tuesday night's. There is too much to read about and think about; spend all morning at it and you'll find five more open tabs and a creeping dread of the end, when there's nothing left. It’s games like that that make the NBA’s unparalleled, grandiose character studies and storylines—the sheer volume (both in bulk and noise) of jokes and riffs and appreciations—worth sifting through. What happens in these sorts of games is its own thing, something that grows and lives in the league’s loud historical undercurrent. And these are the best because they almost,almost can’t be cast aside for a maybe-relatable Hot Take, or easily warped into an uglier version of the real thing. It's big, and it is, like the players say when they don't know what to say, what it is; it can be appreciated simply for that.

But yes, they have to play another one. And in a way, after Game Six, this last game of the NBA season is something like a fresh start, or at least a reset on everything that has come so far in this year’s NBA Finals. In a basic sense, Game Six was two great teams settling up after four games of trading lopsided victories. Neither had enough to get away in Game Six. The only thing “owed,” I guess, in terms of what the series had been missing before Tuesday, was a narrow Heat win. We got that. It’s an easy structure to impose after the fact—as if a series is supposed to have a certain shape—but the way this series has sort of symmetrically played out over six contests leaves a certain void in terms of looking for what to expect from Game Seven. The pattern has run its course, just in time for the championship-deciding game.

Demanding a specific thing from sports is foolish and probably best left to barrooms and message boards; predicting anything from a series that has flip-flopped as wildly as <EMBED POLITICAL COMMERCIAL AND/OR INSERT JOKE HERE> seems even more so. Game Six may have felt like, and could very well be, this series’ dramatic apex. Whether or not that turns out to be true, the penultimate game only brought this series to its current rolling boil. Beyond that, it's tough to know what to expect. This is a good thing, of course.

***

Imagine for a second Game 5’s dynamic, Manu-rific 10-point Spurs win being the table-setter to a Game 6 come-from-behind San Antonio win in the final seconds. If Tony Parker’s five-point death punch with around a minute left in regulation would have ended Miami. That and Duncan’s abandon-all-hope dominance would be the lasting memories of San Antonio putting their foot down, keeping the headband of defensive containment firmly wrapped around James and the Heat, and adding another title to the terse, dynastic ledger of the Duncan/Gregg Popovich era.

It wouldn’t have been bad at all. Game Six would still belong in a museum. There would be many corny conclusions being reached about LeBron's heart and such , as Slate's Josh Levin wrote Wednesday, but the Spurs would have earned maybe their most memorable championship. It wouldn’t have the pretty symmetry, though, of what we have now. It wouldn’t have an essentially clean slate (again, pattern-wise) and one game for a championship. It wouldn't be this big, and it wouldn't have been this finite. Of course LeBron James, as the mortal-lock first pick if this world has to enter into an Earth-versus-the-Aliens basketball draft, is involved and his presence in something of this magnitude promises pretty riveting stuff no matter what. The larger point is that another game brings with it another shot at transcendence, from James or whomever else.

But what I find myself anticipating most, while waiting for the tip, is the chance to stop thinking. It’s hard to stop going over what happened on Tuesday; everything it meant in the moment, all that went down and how it happened and the significance it leaves on Thursday for people, legends, teams and a league in general. It will be pretty tough for the Heat and Spurs to perfectly combine and combust together for another Game Six, most likely—we get a couple of those NBA Finals games a decade, not two in a week. But of course we don't know.

This doesn't mean it's easy to stop turning over in our minds, but there's no amount of thought that's going to make this any clearer. The significance of Tuesday was the game itself, but also the promise of one more. We can wonder and ponder and project all we want, but that's not all we've got left. We don’t have to deal in theoretical contests: we've got Game Seven coming. It’s one game, that’s all, but it's a lot.


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