These playoffs, and the Finals match up they produced, have unveiled for me a truth I did not previously understand about myself regarding how I align my allegiances. When I do not have a particular affection for either team in a match up, be it geographical (Boston) or roster-based (the Warriors), I find myself cheering for the underdog.
This is not new information. What is, though, is my reasoning. It became clear to me, especially as the Pacers outplayed my highest expectations of them, that what I am cheering for when I cheer for the underdog is for that team to tap into a well of potential I could not possibly have noticed. I want to see a team not only play at their peak (or my idea of what their peak is), but to break through the ceiling of my expectations into some sort of mythic attic. I want to be able to say later that I was watching when it happened, when that team we all thought was pretty good but overmatched transformed all its potential into kinetic energy. I want to re-engage with that fluttering in my stomach whenever I think back on that game when I saw the underdogs finally put it all together and become the substance of legend.
It almost never happens that way. Usually, not only does a team not draw from a deep, unseen well, they don’t even perform up to the expectations we have assigned them based on previous performances. As I’ve written about before, this is the danger of getting sucked in by potential; it is a deceptive and addictive draw.
Which is all to say that in the Finals that is unfolding in front of us, one in which I do not have predetermined allegiance, I cannot fall back on my usual means of deciding my rooting interest. The wells have been tapped. This is something other — two teams not just executing near flawless basketball, but near flawless ideologies as well.
The Spurs are a utopian offense whose results make heroes of role players such as Danny Green and Gary Neal. As Rafe Bartholomew writes about here, the Spurs are striving towards an ideal that strips away the expectations history, statistics and logic force upon basketball to reveal the perfect anatomical structure of the game. James Naismith would weep.
The Heat are a team that can mutate based on what position the best player on the planet plays. And he can play all of them. In fact, Lebron has played in the frontcourt so effectively, with such impressive results, that it looked like, despite always being a big man’s league, the NBA was trending toward small ball. It was in fact an aberration created by the singular talent that is Lebron James. No other team can get away with not having a true center.
In these playoffs, I have not been cheering for either of these teams. Because they are not my hometown, yes, and because my favorite players are not on these teams, yes. But more importantly, these teams are not underdogs. There is no potential left here, it’s all on the floor, and on the floor what there is to see is truly exquisite basketball, and this is what makes it as hard to cheer against them as it is to cheer for them.
Their exertions have created a kind of parity. It feels like any team could win at any time and for almost any reason. The blowouts, and there have been many, are part of that parity. These are offensively brilliant teams. Watching them attack each other feels like watching two alpha male elk locking horns. It is a complete deadlock until the moment one gains traction.
The Finals might end tonight. It will definitely be over by the weekend. I, for one, will be sad to see it go. This has been special. For the first NBA Finals in longer than I can remember, I’m not cheering for a narrative. I’m cheering for basketball.