Tag: 2011 NBA Playoffs

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In Dirk Nowitzki’s moment


Dirk Nowitzki will never hear the end of the question. In the ensuing days, weeks, months, and even years, he’ll be posed the same inquiry over and over, so many times that his answer will grow repetitive but never robotic. The very thought will always invoke the same emotion he felt on this night, this perfect June evening in Miami, when the work and the effort and the torment and the perseverance all manifested itself into something undeniably beautiful.

“Dirk, what does it feel like to finally win an NBA title?

Innumerable media members, friends, family members, former teammates, and strangers alike will pose that question to Nowitzki. Just as many columnists will discuss what this day means for Dirk’s legacy, and to Nowitzki as both a player and concept. But nothing will ever properly capture Nowitzki’s night. Those columns will ring with empty assumptions, even from those who know Dirk best. The water cooler discussions will touch on Nowitzki’s strife without fully understanding its depth or impact. Even Nowitzki’s quotes will come up short, as the one-time league MVP and now-time Finals MVP will undoubtedly struggle to put this moment into words. It’s no slight against Nowitzki, who is as well-spoken and charismatic as professional ballplayers come; these events, placed atop a mountain by context and history, just aren’t accessible within the simplicities of language.

Nothing, save for those sensory images that have been immortalized in Nowitzki’s mind, will ever do this perfect June evening in Miami justice. But we’ll keep asking. We’ll keep asking because we’ll all try desperately to get there — to that place where one of the NBA’s most tortured stars was finally able to find his serenity. We’ll keep asking Nowitzki, over, and over, and over, in the hopes that one day his slight smile will bring us just a bit closer to what he felt the night he reached the pinnacle.

These are the stories that we, as human beings, want to reach out and touch. So few realms offer the dramatic flair of professional sport, and great though our own lives may be, there’s a reason why we tune in to see Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks pull off an improbable run to the NBA title: the emotion of these stolen moments is absolutely intoxicating. It provides a vicarious high unlike most anything else on this planet, even if we are only offered the smallest glimpse into the life, mind, and heart of a jubilant victor. We know in our heart of hearts that there’s no all-access pass into Nowitzki’s experiences, regardless of how many times he answers the same question. But even knowing that fact shouldn’t stop anyone from asking, nor will it. Nowitzki’s journey has been so exceptionally riveting that, frankly, we’d be crazy not to crave its finale. We all want to dig our hands deep into that catharsis and let Nowitzki’s elation wash over us, so much so that even the harsh limitations of reality won’t prevent us from trying.

Once the celebration on the floor had concluded, an endless mass of media members stood in line outside of the Mavericks’ locker room. Some held cameras and others clutched recorders, but even these sacred record-keepers stood waiting for more than transcription fodder. They wanted to cross the threshold into a space that unquestionably belonged to Nowitzki and his teammates; the temporary home of NBA champions. They wanted to see a star with tears in his eyes, to hear the unbridled celebrations of a team victorious, to smell an entire world doused in champagne.

This is why we watch. It’s why we love this game and its players. It’s why we invite basketball into our homes and our families, and invest our hard-earned dollars in a league that will break a player like Nowitzki down for over a decade, only to finally offer him that which he has for so long deserved. The NBA theater is certainly grand, but the draw isn’t to watch absurdity unfold from an auditorium seat. We ache for the ability to understand — to comprehend the magnitude of this perfect June evening in Miami, and what it meant to the distant but familiar protagonist of a career-long narrative.

We’ll gather up the champagne bottles, parse through archives filled with photos, and pose to Dirk the same question that he’s already been asked oh so many times. Yet there is an inescapable truth laced throughout those fragments, beckoning us to savor that which we’ve collected while never being satiated:

The only thing that we truly want is more.

NBA Finals: Dallas tops Miami in Game 5 with an outlier, but what of it?

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Five

The Dallas Mavericks took a 3-2 series lead on Thursday night with a 112-103 win, but their tremendous offense — the propulsive force that allowed them to pull within a single victory of taking the NBA title — was immediately tagged as an outlier, and saddled with all of the negative stigma that statistical improbabilities tend to attract. Dallas won the game, but only because they hit “tough” (NBA speak for low-percentage) shots. Only because the Mavericks converted that which should not have been converted. Only because they defied who they are, and managed to jump outside the curve for a swim in the unsustainable.

There’s no escaping the basis of that very idea; Dallas’ hot shooting was indeed an outlier. Single games are, after all, a playground for the aberrations of small sample size. The Mavericks made 68.4 percent of their three-point attempts and posted a 65.9 effective field goal percentage, numbers far above the expected values for any team in the entire league. Yet there still seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the mean — the statistical average to which we expect all teams to regress — in basketball. The Mavericks’ mean shooting averages aren’t the most common outcomes for their performance, but simply their most central. They won’t hit those marks in every game, and may not hit them in any game at all. Averages give only the illusion of stability, and though much of basketball is dependent on skill, effort, and execution, we perhaps underestimate the role of randomness (and by extension, variance) in deciding makes and misses, wins and losses.

“You get hot, you get on a roll, and you can have a night like that,” Rick Carlisle said. “They don’t happen very often. Last time we had a shooting night like this was Game 4 against the Lakers. That’s why you just keep working your game, and that’s why you stay persistent, you keep defending, you keep systemically stepping into shots that are there and you’re going to have some breakthrough games.”

Teams that consistently and effectively work for open shots within their offense will always have the upper hand, but all players and teams are subject to the will of the odds. They’ll have hot shooting games and cold ones, and these occurrences are so common and prominent in sports culture that we’ve developed a corresponding vocabulary. Maybe Jason Terry was “in the zone.” Maybe J.J. Barea was “on fire.” Both seem possible or even likely, but the idea is hardly outrageous, especially considering how poorly both have shot in these NBA Finals.

The Mavericks’ amazing shooting in Game 5 merely moved the needle in a positive direction, away from Dallas’ off-setting 4-of-19 (.211) shooting from outside in Game 4. Lost in the declarations of the Mavs’ overachievement was the fact that prior to Game 5, Dallas’ effective field goal percentage in the Finals was actually down significantly from their overall playoff average. Plenty of that has to do with Miami’s impressive defense, but this kind of performance was overdue in bringing Dallas closer to reasonable expectation. The Mavs didn’t really surge forward with their shooting in Game 5, but were merely getting back on track.

“This was our highest scoring game of the series,” Shawn Marion said. “We were bound to get one easy [offensive] game sooner or later. It was just a matter of when it was gonna happen. We should be due for another.”

Maybe the Mavs are. Regardless, did we not expect a degree of oscillation? Was there really an honest expectation that Dallas would be right in line with their shooting averages every single night, without room for error in either direction? Outliers are inescapable. They help to define mean levels of performance, even as they inherently rebuke them. They show the level of success or failure that a team is capable of, if only in extreme circumstances. Yet when we reduce the sample to a single game, those extreme circumstances are more likely to occur than ever. There is no mitigating volume; this is a singular performance by a particular team in a particular game, and yet many act bewildered at the sight of anything out of the ordinary.

Underneath the incredible magnitude of this contest was just a team shooting over its head for the better part of 48 minutes. In a series this competitive, that alone is enough to tilt things in the Mavs’ favor, but it doesn’t make this outlier different from any other. This particular occurrence is granted import through context, but the numbers themselves are the same as they’ve always been: up and down in an endless and inexact flow between two extremes.

NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron


The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.