My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!
-Smaug the Dragon
I had a sort of sympathy for the dragon in the Hobbit, despite his being the primary villain of the book. He never chose to be the most incomparably powerful creature in middle-earth, and who, in all likelihood, probably couldn’t have helped his mad thirst for gold and land and a mountain to call his own. What else was a dragon to do?
But then of course I kept reading it and re-reading it and thinking about the hobbit and the dwarves and the wizard, and I could no longer distinguish between my love for the heroes and their hatred for the enemy. Before long, my admiration for the dragon and his ungodly dominion was replaced by an irrepressible desire to see him defeated.
At least in the context of this comparison and at least for the last month, the 2013 Miami Heat were the dragon.
It felt weird to hear the pundits laud the Spurs for a “culture of winning” and “doing it again and again,” when I found it impossible to mentally associate the 2013 iteration of San Antonio basketball with any of the previous title teams. With their enthusiastic embrace of the three-pointer, their willingness to go small, their mechanical spacing, and their commitment to a threat-level pace, this Spurs team resembled the others only in the presence of their Big 3, one of whom had, at least for these playoffs, begun to play an increasingly insignificant role in their success. But I considered it a high compliment that the previously title-winning teams of the 2000’s were dead and gone, and that the organization, like an indomitable species refusing to die off, had evolved and adapted, in a way no other organization could have.
The Spurs were a white knight of sorts, shining on behalf of pretty basketball. They had achieved a unique balance between system and creativity. They were a machine, running on artificial intelligence, that had finally begun to feel. Frequent sequences of pass-pass-pass-three brought me to near-giggling moments of basketball ecstasy, in a way no team had since the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. But unlike those Suns, these Spurs were a team you could trust in a seven game playoff series. A team whose defense wouldn’t betray it against a championship-caliber offense, and whose system was resilient and adaptable.
The Danny Green story was a welcome aesthetic addition, and the Tim Duncan legacy was a noteworthy subplot, but the team worked best when you thought of them as a basketball company, whose various employees faded into the fabric of the magnificent product. Or as netw3rk wrote after Game 5, the Spurs were a factory, an assembly line of open shots, and the scorer was no more an important step than the countless passers.
In short, the Spurs were a beautiful basketball team, and one not without its own share of sympathetic humanity–most evident in the virtuous way they handled themselves in the wake of their loss. They were a team to be adored, and at the beginning of these Finals, I found myself reading into the narrative of the season that these were the protagonists, the heroes. Or more appropriately, the singular: the Hero Team.
There will never be enough ways to describe the overpowering ability of LeBron James. He’s inevitable, a force so strong, he’s like basketball weather. In fact, watching him play defense on Tony Parker in games six and seven felt more than a little like watching a dragon lock down a hobbit in the halfcourt. His talent is breathtaking, and his game, at least in these last two seasons, has become as polished and complete as any player I’ve ever watched. Even considering his occasionally irksome on-court antics, he’s an athlete who is both easy to appreciate on the court and, in postgame interviews and on social media, extremely difficult to hate. He is great.
Much of that is true of the Heat as a whole. They were also great, and they played their own brand of entertaining smallball–less so in the playoffs, but certainly during the streak. There was even some sympathy to be had for them, given all of the vitriol that’s been expended against them as well as the general apathy of their city’s fan base.
But then they had to play the Spurs, and though they brought the best out of the Spurs in a way no other team could, they were still out there, games 1 through 7, trying to beat one of God’s gifts to basketball, and that was not a forgivable offense. I could never stop respecting the Heat, even as they were pounding my adopted team, but I could also never stop hating them for it. They were powerful, and they were brilliant, but they were the enemy, and you don’t ever root for the enemy, no matter how impressively they antagonize.
All series long this was problem for me, a source of inward discomfort. I knew I should be appreciating what was one of the most evenly played playoff series I’ve ever witnessed in a detached, reasonable way. The way you might appreciate the conflict and resolution of a well-performed Shakespearean history. But I couldn’t help but engage with it emotionally, watching it like I would King Lear instead of Henry V. I couldn’t stop rooting for my hero.
And then, almost dismissively, the Heat beat the Spurs in a game seven that felt paradoxically predetermined and improvised. The Heat beat the white knight, brutally, with a late LeBron dagger I could feel from three time zones away, and I again felt the unbridled hatred of the enemy I had felt after game six, but with an added sense of vindication. If things were going to end like this, with my basketball spirit-team crumpled in a Tim Duncan-sized heap on the floor, and the Heat parading through the near-deserted streets of Miami, celebrating their undeniable claim to greatness, I had to hate them, and I was right to hate them. Because they beat the hero, and you don’t beat the hero without becoming the villain.