Professional basketball fools us at times like this. All over the sports world, hoops fans are celebrating the coming of this year’s NBA Finals as some sort of joyful coronation — a thrilling prime-time duel to determine whether LeBron James or Kevin Durant should be hailed as the greatest basketball player on the planet.
And while we will surely resolve that pressing issue during the course of this best-of-seven Miami Heat versus Oklahoma Thunder showdown, the finals are about so much more than just LeBron vs. KD. Their duel is a delicious subplot to a deeper and more compelling tale, like floodlights swirling in the night sky beckoning the hordes to an even larger and more fabulous attraction.
The bigger picture of these finals is about the making of champions and a recipe for dynasties. It’s about youth vs. experience. It’s about the arrogant presumption of how easy it will be to win multiple titles (Miami) and the wide-eyed surprise that it could happen so early in the process (OKC). It’s about free-agent spending (Heat) vs. patience through the draft (Thunder). It’s about the team everybody loves to hate and the team everybody wants to love. It’s small-market humble vs. big-market flash.
But above all else, it’s about the value of instant gratification (Durant and the Thunder) vs. long-term pain and suffering (LeBron, not LeBron and the Heat. Just LeBron, who has failed in eight previous trips to the playoffs and is the only one walking around with the audacious “Decision” hanging around his neck), because unlike the journey to most sports championships, success in the NBA Finals is often rooted deeply in the pain of repeated, wretched playoff failure.
The pages of the NBA history books are full of bitter disappointment for some of the game’s greatest players and most memorable teams before they won their titles. The greatest of them all, Michael Jordan, was 28 years old and in his seventh year in the pros before he won his first NBA title. In his first three trips to the postseason, His Airness won one lousy game. The Celtics swept him twice. Over the next three seasons, the Detroit Pistons treated him and his baby Bulls like chumps for three consecutive playoffs. MJ knew what suffering was like, and all that losing turned him into a ruthless playoff killer.
The Bad Boy Pistons didn’t win their back-to-back titles until after they endured the humiliation of beatdowns by the Celtics and Lakers. Remember that pass Isiah Thomas threw in Boston Garden (“Bird stole the ball ... off to DJ!!!”)? That was supposed to have killed him, but instead it made him stronger, fiercer, more hellbent on winning than ever.
Durant is 23 years old and is in only his fifth NBA season. Until this year, he had played in a total of only 23 NBA playoff games. He plays for the youngest team in the league, and they are on the verge of winning it all. He also doesn’t sound like a man who cares much about the importance of experience. “We were too young to beat the Spurs, a great team, and we came out and accomplished that,” he told reporters Monday. “We were too young to beat the Lakers, and we accomplished that, as well. We just want to keep thinking that we can do it and also knowing that it’s going to be a tough road, and we’ve got to be focused.”
He thinks he has suffered because last year he lost to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals and the year before that, to the Lakers in round one. But history says Durant hasn’t suffered enough, even while the oddsmakers say the Thunder are favored to win the title.
He smiles and plays before adoring crowds at home and away and hugs his mom after every game. His championship pursuit is naïve and lighthearted. He is a basketball star living in a college football empire and looks like a willow branch blowing in the wind. He is the baby-faced shooter and finals neophyte, and if he loses this trip to the championship will not be crushed by the weight of failure because he is is the guy that everyone loves. Durant has time on his side.
LeBron should be so lucky. His championship pursuit is cold-blooded and full of a million tons of expectations. If he loses in his third trip to the finals, the weight of failure will feel like someone just dropped the entire Continental Divide on his back. He is 27 years old with the bearded face of a middle-aged man. He has been at this championship chase for nine years and come up empty every time, each one hurting worse than the last. He doesn’t smile any more. He plays with the steely glare of a man on a mission. But he also plays with the comfort that only all those years of playoff experience can bring.
“I just feel more at ease now,” James says. “(It’s) my third appearance. Last year, so much had gone on with that series and the whole season. And like I said, I played too much to prove people wrong last year, instead of just playing my game and doing what needs to be done. ... At the end of the day in this series, I’m going to play my game, try to do whatever it takes on both ends to make plays and help us win. And at the end of the day, whatever the results happen, I’m going to be satisfied with that. I’m going to be happy with it because I know I’m going to give it my all, and I won’t leave nothing behind.”
A year ago, the self-induced pressure of his arrogant promise of multiple championships was a lead weight. This year, experience has taught James that pressure and criticism should never be a motivating force. The drive to greatness should always be more than enough to fuel your championship passion.
I’m rooting for a memorable series, and I expect that in the end, LeBron will have his first title. But I suspect it will be a hard road to glory, with the King and KD embracing the challenge the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird used to do back in the day. I’ll take the Heat in seven.
Bryan Burwell is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or (314) 340-8185.