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Not every Heat game is a referendum on LeBron's soul

Larry Busacca

Look, I would love it if LeBron James' life were a full-on Greek tragedy.

I study Greek tragedies for my livelihood. In the actual Greek, even. He'd be the superhero, the basketball Heracles, but while Heracles' fatal flaw is rage, LeBron's is the need to win easily.

It's behind the original, unparalleled, collusion level effort to team up with some of the best players in the game to win not one, not two, but.... It's behind his struggles in the Finals. That would be great for me

I could write you a thesis on LeBron James and Sophocles' Trachiniae (the Women of Trachis) , or Oedipus at Colonus. Just a human weakness, but giant in a giant figure, under a giant microscope. The way we like our drama.

It's crazy though.

At least, it seems crazy to have to prove that the Heat aren't so much better than the entire NBA that the question of whether or not they beat the team that emerged from the vastly superior Western Conference is apparently only a question of their will, or rather his will.

Right? Le'ts atke a little breath, have a little perspective. Is there something universe-fabric-altering about the idea that the Heat, rather than being the unquestioned class of the NBA, are one of the top three or so teams in the league, with a healthy Thunder and this Spurs team? And that rather than a game with, say, the Clips or Grizzlies, being a contest between immortals and mortals it might be one between a great team and a really, really good team?

Is there some problem with that?

Yes, the Heat steamrolled an East so bad famously dark comedian Louis C.K. talks of nothing else these days. But "steamrolled", incidentally, means one less win than the Mavericks had in the tragic 2006-2007 season. And yes, they won a zillion games in a row at one point and that's crazy, but hot streaks do happen, and here's the full list of the teams they beat in that streak:

Toronto, Charlotte, Houston, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta, Chicago, Philly, Cleveland, Sacramento, Memphis, Knicks, Minnesota, Orlando, Philly, Indiana, Atlanta, Philly, Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando.

You know the teams in that list that don't suck? Houston, Clips, Lakers, Thunder, Chicago, Knicks, Indiana. The truly horrible teams include Toronto, Charlotte, Philly, Cleveland, Sacramento, Minnesota, Orlando, Philly again, Philly again, Toronto again Cleveland again, Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando-all of whom managed to lose more than 60% of their games to everyone else, too.

LeBron is the best player in the game and he can do more things than anyone else. But he's not that good at jumpshooting and so in a packed paint, when they're not calling many fouls, it's possible to limit his personal offensive production. That's really all that's going on.

You want proof? Sure. The two best teams in the East also have two of the best centers in the league, big, mobile, athletic, and guess how the Heat have done against them this year? 2-5. Magic, right? And who beat them in the Finals two years ago? And who's manning the paint for the Spurs today?


The trick here is that LeBron is the best player in the NBA, but he's not SO MUCH BETTER than all the other players in the NBA, or maybe he doesn't play the right position to be all things to all people, or maybe the collectivity of the Heat's talents are not themselves necessarily better than all the other teams---like, maybe, if Wade weren't averaging 15 points and Bosh 13, may ‘Bron's soul would suddenly find itself pretty expansive after all, huh?

And so maybe it's not a trick after all.

Teenagers and 20 year olds run the NBA's marketing world from the outside, and for the people who grew up on the legend of Michael Jordan dominance is what sells. It seems like a binary, dominance is either happening or waiting to happen, the storyline is either its presence or absence. And its absence seems like an oversight by the basketball gods, rather than more mundane factors: the fact that dominance is, in the first place, the exception not the rule, a new salary cap and new rules leveling the playing field such that a lot of teams are a lot better than other teams but no team is a lot better than all teams and so forth.

And so, the playoffs too come to seem a binary. The teams don't matter, LeBron wins or LeBron loses. The Heat prove their worth or damage their legacy. And everything else is invisible.

The statement that the Spurs are no slouches is not one that needs a lot of defense. The idea that the Finals are more than a proving ground for LeBron's soul, but rather a close contest between two very good teams that could go either way because both teams are...very good...seems obvious, for all its nonprevalence. That amazing Tony Parker shot which put game one out of reach turns out not to have been divinely ordained, just as Danny Green and Gary Neals' night from three two games later could not have been turned back by the True LeBron, If Only.

At the beginning of Trachiniae, we are told that Heracles, this day, will either die or become a god. But that is literature, and this is real life. Whatever happens this year, LeBron will remain a ferocious force on the basketball scene and the Heat, very likely, will remain one of the top teams in the league. It's the most obvious thing in the world, but the NBA is always a contest of giants and the gods are long gone and maybe they never were.