It was supposed to be the sport’s biggest stage. In our bizarre attempt to outlast the novel coronavirus, it was supposed to be grandest athletic event held thus far. The Finals, however, rates as merely good enough.
It’s something to do, about as compelling as watching a daytime talk show host address a virtual audience. It’s better than nothing. But it’s not what we are used to.
The NBA was determined to crown a champion, safely and definitively. The league will do that — and then promptly forget this awkward conclusion.
The Lakers lead the Good Enough Finals, 2-0. They have outscored the Heat by 28 points. Miami played better in Game 2, but it still lost by double figures, 124-114. We’ve seen the Finals start much worse and end up being fantastic. For instance, four years ago, Golden State dominated Cleveland in the first two game, but at the end of Game 7, LeBron James was crying happy tears as he ended his city’s championship drought.
But the Heat doesn’t have a trio as potent as James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Miami lacks eye-popping star power when healthy, and as a battered ballclub, it doesn’t matter how scrappy they are.
“We don’t give a s— what everybody else thinks,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said, turning to defiance on his list of shrinking options. “Whatever … your first question, how did you phrase it? What will it take? Whatever is necessary. It’s simple as that. If you want something badly enough, you’ll figure it out. Our group is extremely stubborn, persistent, and we just need to figure out how to overcome this opponent.”
Under normal circumstances, it would be daunting to figure out a Los Angeles squad following the lead of James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers have too many advantages: size, length, versatility, skill, the championship experience of several veterans. They are the better defensive team, and with all those athletes with great wingspans, they’re neutralizing what looked to be the Heat’s one area of superiority: perimeter shooting. On offense, the Lakers have lived in the paint, and it has opened up the game for the motley crew they have around James and Davis.
“Like I said at the beginning of this thing, we got to play damn near perfect in order to beat those guys over there,” Heat guard Jimmy Butler said. “We have yet to do it, and if we don’t do it soon, it’s not going to be pretty.”
Barring genius adjustment, incredible shooting and the miraculous recoveries of Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, the end of an unforgettably hard season is destined to be a dud. That’s unfortunate. That’s also likely the reality of pandemic sports. Most of these endings are going to be anticlimactic or unfulfilling in some way, indicative of the attrition — physical sometimes, mental all times — that comes with playing during this time.
There could be a lot more abrupt endings. Spectacular finishes aren’t guaranteed in general, but it might be especially difficult to rise to this occasion. It fits the time we’re living in, one of emptiness and satisfaction with mere survival.
The problem isn’t a team dogging it, not at this level, not with these stakes. But when the gas is gone, it’s really gone right now. There are no reserves to tap; those were exhausted over the 12 months it has taken to complete what is usually an eight-month season. The Heat isn’t running on empty. It’s on fumes. With all the uncertainty and stress, with the destruction of norms for athletes whose bodies and minds prefer routine, the concept of exertion is multifaceted under these conditions.
Some have focused on the legitimacy of winning and whether champions of the covid-19 era deserve asterisks. I look at it differently. The difference is this: You understand and compartmentalize the losing, the failure, in a different way. For certain, the Los Angeles Clippers would disagree; they took extreme heat after blowing a 3-1 lead in the playoffs, and it cost Coach Doc Rivers his job. Throughout sports, there have been a good number of coaching changes because of underperformance, but in every case, there was some history of dissatisfaction attached to it. Pure overreaction to disappointment has been limited. And that absence of irrational sports behavior is actually disorienting.
In that sense, there’s not as much to lose right now because, if we have learned anything that we can apply to sports, it’s that these games aren’t life or death. They never have been, but they emphatically aren’t when real-life matters of life and death surround us.
Much of the desperation of sports is missing. It’s odd, just odd. A good chunk of the audience doesn’t know what to do without the obsession.
“We’re never giving up,” Butler vowed. “We’re going to fight, and we’re going to ride with this thing until the wheels fall off. It’s not over.”
The dance floor is emptying, but the Lakers keep grooving, and we’re not sure whether the music is still playing. Surely, it’s not the goodbye party the NBA wanted. At least it will be over soon, though. For this season, that’s going to have to be good enough.