So this is the way that I figure it goes, as the NBA's Eastern Conference finals grind on. The Miami Heat are, at the moment, just jerking us around. The Heat play a couple of games in which they look like a group of guys who met each other 15 minutes before tipoff. Maybe they even lose one of the games. Then, when everybody's ginned up and wondering whether or not they can be had this postseason, they produce an ass-ripping so epic that you can hear it on Neptune. Against Chicago, they actually lose the first game in their own building. And they respond in Game 2 by shooting 60 percent from the floor, piling up a lead, and winning by 37, then they further respond two games later by holding the Bulls to a hilarious 25.7 percent shooting in the fourth game, and then closing out the series in Game 5.
Then they come out against the Indiana Pacers and take the first game 103-102 Wednesday only because all five Pacers who were on the floor — one of whom mysteriously was not 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert — stood around like Imperial Stormtroopers waiting to get blasted while LeBron James drove in for the game-winning layup in overtime. Then, on Thursday, they lose, 97-93, squandering home-court advantage while Hibbert, about whom more anon and who was quite definitely on the floor this time, goes off like a low-post highlight reel from the 1960s with 29 points and 10 rebounds. So everything moves to Indianapolis, and the Heat proceed to put up 70 points in a half against the league's best defensive team, winning with ease, 114-96, on Sunday. And, prior to Game 4 tonight, the studio hosts — Hi, boss! — get a couple of days to talk about high drama, and the perils of having too much talent, and the gradual petrification of Dwyane Wade, before the Heat decide to be the best basketball team on the planet again.
"It's all about identity," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this week as his team ran down the Indiana practice court. "We have to be aggressive to our own identity, and this series is all about who can impose their identity on the games. Theirs is to pound it in there in the paint and ours is to do it in different, layered ways."
(In one informal scrimmage that took place while Spoelstra was speaking, Juwan Howard proved he can still hit a jump shot. Howard once memorably appeared on The West Wing, a television show that's been off the air for seven years now. It was like watching the Senior Tour out there.)
Miami's identity is a fluid one. There's the image of the team as a collection of celebrity athletes. There's the South Beach thong-a-thon that attends anything having anything to do with the team; this is not dissimilar to the atmosphere around the Forum back in the 1980s, which was basically an episode of I, Claudius with champagne buckets and Arsenio Hall. Miami's identity is as a championship basketball team and a multimedia extravaganza. Pitch the script — it's Hoosiers matched with Showgirls. Now, the Heat have encouraged this whole thing, so there's no reason to pity them, but it does put most of the players in an interesting place.
"We have a saying down here," said Udonis Haslem. "Perception is not reality. People say D-Wade can't take over a game anymore because he's injured and beat up or whatever, but that's the perception, not the reality. If we need him to get us a bucket, he's still one of the top players in the league and he'll get it. The perception is that our role players can't step up and make plays and that we just wait around for the stars to do what they do. But that's not the reality."
The reality is also that these are two superbly matched teams that are just different enough to send the series into a tangle of lovely, complicated plotlines. There are just as many throwbacks here as there are fast-forwards, a sweet commingling of what the game was and what it now has become. Haslem is right about this. Perception and reality, past and present — a series creates its own identity, too, out of both of these things.
Hubie Brown will be 80 years old this September, and he has me pinned in the low block against a Gatorade bucket, which has somehow snuck up behind me to lay a screen for Hubie, who is demonstrating the proper way to shoot a hook shot. We had been talking — well, Hubie had been talking, which is the way these things go — about Hibbert, and how the plethora of very simple, back-to-the-basket, butt-in-yer-gut low-post moves he has seems to completely baffle any player born after the year 1967. It is like watching Nate Thurmond show up unannounced and kick everybody's ass.
"You see," Hubie says, as I stumble a bit against the Gatorade bucket and look pleadingly around for the call, which never comes, and as he sweeps his arm only a few degrees above shoulder height, "if you shoot it from here, like most young players do, the shot-blocker can come across and get it. Now, though," he says, again adeptly using the Gatorade bucket as a pick, and sweeping his arm in a perfect parenthetical motion over his head, "if you're Roy Hibbert, and you're 7-foot-2 and 275 pounds, and you get the ball up here — left hand and right hand, and that's important, too, because he can do both — and there's nobody who can stop it."
Nobody teaches low-post play anymore. The kids hate it, so the AAU coaches don't teach it because the kids run AAU ball and everybody knows it. College coaches all run that motion stuff, which means that all the high school coaches run it, too, because high school basketball coaches are like a flock of birds on a wire, to borrow Eugene McCarthy's famous description of the political press corps. One flies off and they all fly off. So every big man in America wants to be a pick-and-roll center, or a pick-and-pop guy. "It's like nobody coaches it anymore because nobody wants to play that way anymore," said Paul George. "They all want to be out there, facing the basket, slashing and driving, or popping out for a J."
There is nothing more depressing than seeing a 7-foot guy playing himself into being a forward or, worse, a really big guard. (We geezers like to refer to this as the Ralph Sampson Effect. When Shaquille O'Neal came into the league and parked his not-inconsiderable hindquarters in the low block for better than a decade, many of us were tempted to throw a parade.) There is nothing of that in Roy Hibbert, who very much enjoys being 7-foot-2 and bigger than everyone else on the court. In Game 2, he simply bullied every Heat player who tried to guard him. Haslem was too short, and Chris Bosh, in addition to being much too Chris Bosh, was too slender. Hibbert was 10-for-15 from the floor, and he was 9-for-10 from the line, something that also set Hubie Brown's lights to shining. "The free throws," Hubie said. "Don't forget the free throws. Go back through history. Look at Wilt. Couldn't hit free throws. Shaq, same thing. They could hit them in practice, but not in the games. This guy can."
"I took a lot of shots and I learned a lot of lessons," Hibbert said after Game 2. "Every time I'd get a rebound, I'd go right back up, and LeBron or somebody would get me from behind. So, I learned a pump fake. I had four years at Georgetown, so I had to know how to learn something."
Hibbert is in every way self-made, fashioning his game out of a very old mold. When he came into the league, Hibbert literally couldn't get out of his own way, getting tangled up between his footwork and the coordination necessary to get off a shot. Now he has a $58 million contract, and he's the best option the Pacers have inside, having lost Danny Granger for the season, and he can recite the work he's done like a monk chanting a litany, like a student rattling off his lessons, one at a time, like a magician running through a book of forgotten spells.
"Every day, before every game," he said, "45 degrees with the left hand, and then 45 degrees with the right hand. Then 45 degrees off the glass, right hand. Then 45 degrees off the glass, left hand. Then footwork, learning the angles in my mind, learning the angles I haven't learned yet."
"I think it's the Georgetown thing, man," said Haslem. "They all have that. Look back. Seriously. Patrick had it. 'Zo [Alonzo Mourning] had it. Mutombo had it, and now Hibbert's got that same thing. The skyhook, man. Look at what Kareem did with the skyhook. I don't know why big kids don't learn that skyhook. If I'd've learned that skyhook, man, I'd be rich by now."
But, he was told, if you had the skyhook, you might not be on the Miami Heat. You might be the highest-paid Minnesota Timberwolf.
"That's right, man," he said. "That might be the way it was."
The Spare Part
Hibbert and Haslem had a little chat at the beginning of Game 3. It was Haslem who got the snowball rolling down the hill on Sunday, stepping into jump shots and eventually hitting eight of his nine shots, including his first five. This had the effect of drawing Hibbert out from underneath the basket. This also prompted some unscripted (and unfounded) conversation between the two men that may or may not have included the occasional 12-letter speculation as to the basic parent-child relationship.
"He was making the shots," Hibbert said. "He was very confident tonight and he was the X factor for them."
"We watched some film and we saw some adjustments we could make," Haslem said. "We made some adjustments from the first two games. In Miami, I was cutting to the basket and I was getting swallowed up by their size at the rim. So tonight, I just spotted up at the corner and I knew I would get some shots."
He is an oddity on this club, a genuine character actor in a cast of superstars — David Strathairn, for his entire career — and he's someone whom no less a personage than LeBron has called the "heartbeat" of the Heat. "I haven't been in a shooting slump," Haslem said. "I just do what I'm called upon to do. Sometimes, it's not about shots for me. It's about defense and rebounding. I took seven shots in the first two games, and that's three and a half shots a game. It's not really fair to judge off of that."
(Haslem also has a puckish sense of humor that pops up from time to time. Wade noted that, after Haslem had drained another jumper, he ran back on defense with a definite strut in his walk as though he were saying, What, y'all are surprised I can do that?)
He is also the bridge between the perception of the Miami Heat and the reality of them, as he himself defined the distinction. There is nothing that LeBron James or Wade can do about being who they are, or how they wound up playing together. There were no smoke bombs greeting Udonis Haslem's arrival in Miami. He wasn't even drafted in 2002, winding up in the basketball hotbed of Chalon-sur-Saône in France, but he has been here through the entire construction of what are now the defending NBA champions. (He and Wade are the only two members of the 2006 champions who are still on the roster.) He has seen, and he has measured with a jeweler's eye, the development of the distance between perception and reality, and he is the fiercest advocate for the latter in the battle against the former. He is where the reality of the Miami Heat can be found. The perception, oddly, is located elsewhere, and it has morphed into something quite strange and unpleasant.
The Weaselization of Dwyane Wade
I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but Dwyane Wade has become one of the least-liked players around the NBA, jersey sales notwithstanding. In 2006, when he and Haslem and the rest of the Heat won the title, putting him one ring ahead of his immediate contemporaries, James and Carmelo Anthony, he was the charming kid from Marquette who played himself off of Proposition 48 and into the Final Four, and then to an NBA title. Now, people in Indiana are convinced they can make him cry, and some of the stuff he does on the court can have the same effect on the shade of James Naismith in the Beyond.
In the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Friday, Wade came up behind Lance Stephenson of the Pacers and delivered — God knoweth why — a flying elbow that would have done Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka proud. (The TNT crew proceeded to disgrace itself by trying to argue that the blow was "inadvertent." The only inadvertent thing about it was that Stephenson's head got in the way.) The Pacers, and especially coach Frank Vogel, kept remarkably cool about it, but the NBA took an ungainly dive. And speaking of ungainly dives, in Game 3 on Sunday, Wade found himself stymied under the basket by Indiana's Ian Mahinmi, and Wade responded as though he'd been shot by a sniper somewhere in the third balcony. I mean, there are dives taken in Serie A that look more realistic than this one did. The crowd in Indiana went absolutely hysterical.
In December, Wade was suspended for kicking Charlotte Bobcats guard Ramon Sessions with a blow in that southern part of the body that usually draws the attention of the Nevada Boxing Commission. Prior to that, he'd gotten himself involved in incidents with Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant. He insists he's not a dirty player, but suddenly there's an awful lot of weasel in the man's game. That dive he took Sunday because he had no other options available is not something that would have occurred to him six years ago. Reality makes you go out of the game young. Perception makes you go out of the game unpopular.
If Erik Spoelstra's right, and there's no indication at the moment that he's not, Miami has a 2-1 advantage not only in games, but in identities as well. The Pacers are big and powerful, and they have a star in the process of going supernova in Paul George. They are the perfect foil for the Heat just as Indianapolis is the perfect foil for Miami. Sometimes, it almost seems as though there ought to be a new way to televise this series. When Miami has the ball, the broadcast should be in high definition and in color. When Indianapolis has it, everyone should sit at home and watch it on black-and-white with a dodgy vertical hold, with scoreboards on each corner of the floor and the rafters all wreathed in smoke. Men should wear fedoras. Hubie Brown should be young again. Perception and reality always should wrestle to a draw.