When the Boston Celtics take the floor for Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Miami Heat, the penultimate battle of good versus evil will also tip off. It’ll be the culmination of a week-plus long debate about the strength of skill versus the virtues of humility and teamwork. It’ll be the old world versus the new world for one last time, with one last chance for the dying breed of basketball player to claim a mantle against a more formidable, stronger, younger foe.
For a league desperate for good publicity after its prolonged lockout, this series reclaimed everything that can be good about the hardwoods. It featured the league’s most marketable players, the ones who lead jersey sales and are household names. It featured the ones who led the United States Olympic team at the national level, the ones who every casual fan knows by one name. It featured those players against the old, wily veterans, unwilling to go quietly into the night, making their final stand against a team they have no business competing with. It’s a bunch of crotchety old guys nobody believes in, and it’s a bunch of young guys who are blessed with immense talent.
In that sense, good versus evil is merely one team trying to take what the other team wants. To the players on one team, they are clearly the good while the opponent is the evil. It’s a smash-mouth series teaching the young guys a hard lesson in earning wins, almost as if they’re getting on-the-job training at the league’s highest stage. Regardless of what happens, everybody will walk away from this series having learned something about what it will take in order to achieve greatness in the National Basketball Association.
But to the court of public opinion, Game 7 represents so much more in the spectrum of “good” and “evil.” It’s the perception that one team is made up of hard-working veterans who gladly put aside the concept of an “ego” in order to get a run to the championship. It’s a team that’s going up against all the odds, including an additional perception involving game-fixing and favoritism. It’s the old guys with no respect looking to go out there and take it with the intensity that comes from its glowering, 7-foot leader.
It’s happening against the league’s ultimate symbol of the villain. Despite being the most marketable and arguably the most talented, one team in Game 7 is the ultimate evil. From their flashy bravado, to their tough talk, to their sense of entitlement, this is a throwback series where the people who respect the game of basketball, respect its history, are trying to hold onto their last gasp of what basketball was and what they feel it could be.
If the NBA is listening to the public, they’ll hear every voice from every angle. The Boston-Miami series has been completely epic in every sense of the word. The Heat grabbed a 2-0 series lead by eating the Celtics up, running them off the floor in Florida, with a little help from some “biased” officiating. Their duo of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade were simply better, playing above the rim and essentially putting the team on their backs against a team playing with the pride of the champion.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have captured everyone’s imagination by simply playing the game the way it was meant to be played. There’s no way to pinpoint who the hero could be on any given night, constructed as a team that feeds off each other. They play together, and there’s no perception that the players are bigger than the team. Yes, there are superstars, but those superstars are intense, ready to go at a moment’s notice, ready to teach everyone how to play the game. That attitude is infecting fans who were supremely jaded by the NBA’s offseason, by its lackluster regular season, by its boring opening slate of playoff games.
This is a clash of the older thought about basketball, the grainy film relegated to Youtube, as it tries to survive against the flashy, star-driven league. The previous years’ championships were built around a team concept, both by the Celtics and by the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs. The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t win the title without the right system and right players for that system. The last decade, even if the product on the court hasn’t been great, was built simply by the thought that the right system and the right implementation of said system would win championships.
The new world of the NBA is vastly different. The new generation is built around the thought that two players can win a title on their own. If the right superstars team up, it doesn’t matter who’s around them. They can crown themselves champions before ever playing a game, just by looking in the mirror and putting on a jersey. It’s an arrogant league, led by arrogant players trying to orchestrate deals to different teams.
The new NBA is built around the concept employed by Miami. They have a flashy arena, flashy cliches to get fans into the games, flashy players to entertain. They don’t just play to win because that isn’t good enough. For the old generation, that’s simply unacceptable. It’s on par with Dwight Howard trying to force his way to New Jersey/Brooklyn or Carmelo Anthony forcing his way to the Knicks. It’s the nixed trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, but it’s the orchestrated deal to send Paul to the Clippers in the same city. It’s the fact that no superstar is willing to stay in a low-market place if it doesn’t offer him the right publicity. Nobody wants to play in Minnesota or Milwaukee anymore. It’s all about being able to find that flashy market where a media darling and thunderous dunk can win over the media and get the next sneaker contract.
Miami, New York, Los Angeles… they’re all media flash. Boston, Dallas, San Antonio… they’re all working-class. Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Phoenix… they’re nothing in comparison. This is the new world the NBA has become.
Some people like that, and with good reason. If someone can conquer those media markets, they can be what Magic Johnson was. They can transcend the game of basketball and create a legacy that swoops into television, media, film. They can become a brand, make more money than they ever dreamed of outside of basketball, and they can become the next Michael Jordan. Jordan is a brand because of his deals with Gatorade, Nike, and others. By going to a large media market, it maximizes exposure on the individual, and that’s something that the new world is. It’s doesn’t make it bad or good.
To the old world, though, that’s insanely bad. The old world, the world of the Jordans, David Robinsons, Tim Duncans, isn’t built on becoming a brand; it’s built on winning basketball games. The Boston Celtics are the pinnacle of that mentality; when they were built around two superstars and no role players, they failed to win. When the Celtics rebuilt the team around a team mentality, asking superstars to sacrifice to improve everyone around them, they became champions again. And as the sun sets into the twilight of that mentality, so, too, will the old, grizzled veterans try to fight for one last show as a team.
For the old world, it’s about playing basketball, dedicating to the practice. Ray Allen, showing up hours before game time to shoot 500 free throws, is what they believe in. They don’t believe a championship is a means to an end; they believe a championship is the end. To Kevin Garnett, the emotion after the 2008 NBA title, embracing Bill Russell while saying, “I got my own” means everything. It’s not about the flashy introduction, the Nike sponsorship, or the Gatorade commercial. The KG brand is basketball. The Lebron brand is The Decision and a line of shoe.
Yes, it is beneficial to the NBA’s ability to reach other industries if Miami wins. In that regard, it’s possible the NBA’s referees will favor Miami, especially since the game is in South Beach. That’s the way the game’s been played for years. But this game isn’t about the league’s desire to have one team win a title. It’s about the old world fighting for that last chance to show the younger guys what it takes to win a title. If Lebron and Wade want that title, if they want the accolades that go with it, they’re going to have to kill themselves to get it. And they’re going to have to kill Boston in order to get it.
Lebron showed flashes of that in Game 6, when he eviscerated everyone en route to showing us what potential he really has in the moment. He showed what happens when he truly lives the game. And even if Miami wins, it’s going to take another effort like the one on Thursday, when the superstars gave everything to the game as if it were the end of their lives. And if that happens, then, even in defeat, the old world of basketball will still win.
Game 7 tips off after 8 PM on Saturday. The final battle of good and evil is on tap.