Wednesday, June 11, 2014

NBA Finals: What Ails You?

By Jonathan Lowe

As the 2014 NBA Finals approached, things seemed to be falling in place for a classic series. It was the first rematch since the Bulls and Jazz accomplished that feat in 1998. It had the added intrigue of a "5 vs. 3" encounter (San Antonio's fifth against a Miami three-peat). Plus, all of the major participants seemed to be healthier this go-round. However, the first installment of this particular series will be known more for its bizarre finish than anything else.

Lost in the fact that the San Antonio Spurs turned into the NBA Jam version of themselves (they were "On Fire!") late in the fourth quarter was the situation that resulted from the AC system going out. Now, I understand that across the country, folks take to makeshift hoops courts and brave the heat/humidity of July and August for pick-up games all day long. However, when you factor in mid-80s temperatures (outside the arena) and the body heat of nearly 19,000 people, it can get pretty uncomfortable when you're continuously running up and down the court. (That's probably why we haven't seen many incidents of this since the "Heat Game" in 1984.)

The scenario led up to LeBron James' now famed muscle cramps, which left him on the sidelines for the vast majority of the game's final eight minutes. In the few days since, the Internet basically had a conniption fit, the AC at the AT&T Center got fixed, the Heat got the chance to right themselves (and took advantage of it), and "LeBroning" was born. But left in all that aftermath was a scene that will go down among the most unorthodox outcomes due to an injury or illness. Sure, sports is full of those "heroic" moments where someone barely limps around the bases, resets a shoulder between snaps, or skates after getting stitches. I'm pointing out that the NBA Finals' list of incidents just strike me as confounding. How so?

5) 2014 NBA Finals, Game 1 ("The Cramps," for its utter weirdness)

If the Spurs end up winning this series, you may have to point all the way back to the fourth quarter of this contest. Like I said before, the Spurs went bananas from beyond the arc to push away from the Heat. However, not having one of the Association's best defenders on the floor is at least a bit helpful for the opposition.

4) 1997 NBA Finals, Game 5 ("The Flu Game," for its utter brilliance)

Whether Michael Jordan had the flu, food poisoning, or an alien baby growing in his stomach, we may never know. The fact was that His Airness was physically a shell of himself headed into a critical pivot game against Utah. Jordan proved too much for his own anatomic betrayal, finishing the game with 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and a game-high 3 steals. And to top it off, he hit the go-ahead bucket with under 30 seconds to play. The Bulls held on to take a 3-2 lead and, eventually finish off the Jazz in Game 6.

Despite Jordan having better highlights and more grandiose box scores, this is probably the effort that places him as the best the sport has ever seen.

3) 2008 NBA Finals, Game 1 ("The Wheelchair Game," for its sheer over-the-top drama)

What happened to LeBron James last Thursday was weird. But there's no way that beats the Oscar-worthy performance of Paul Pierce six years ago. In the long and historic rivalry of these two franchises, there have been some memorable Finals moments (including the "Heat Game" reference above). However, nothing could have prepared either fanbase or set of alumni for what happened with 6:49 to go in the third quarter.

I remember watching Pierce writhing on the court in pain. I remember him being helped off the floor by his team. I remember the shot of him being wheeled down the hallway toward the locker room. That whole time, I thought it looked bad for him. Then, not two minutes of game time later, here he comes. Not limping, not walking, but skipping back out onto the parquet floor. I assume that the collective jaw of America was at the knees by this point. Pierce would score seven points to close out the third (including the three-pointer that put the Celtics up for good) and total 22 points for the game. But despite getting that elusive title, "The Truth" will forever be linked to that bizarre moment on "The Wheelchair."

2) 1988 NBA Finals, Game 6 ("The Ankle," for its utter fortitude)

Anyone who watched the NBA throughout the 1980s (and I came into that era on the tail end) knows how tough Isiah Thomas was. But his effort against the Lakers in this particular game went above and beyond. Thomas was in a zone through the first two and a-half quarters of the contest. But when he severely rolled his ankle late in the third, the 26 points he had garnered seemed like a small drop in the bucket.

Now, unlike Jordan's brilliance, the ankle injury was much more immediate and unprepared for. And Thomas also didn't leave the game with near the amount of dramatic flair that Pierce did. The Pistons guard returned only 35 seconds (of game time) after heading to the bench. All he did was pour in 11 more points during the third quarter, finish the game with 17 points post-injury, and total 43 points for the contest. This performance might have been the best one to occur under such a painful circumstance (which included a few other physical issues for Thomas) if it weren't for...

1) 1970 NBA Finals, Game 7 ("The Comeback," for its utter inspiration)

This is the gold standard, for basically anything you have to say combining guts and North American professional athletics. The situation, the uncertainty, and the impact of Willis Reed returning to the Knicks' lineup after missing nearly two games made his appearance at the beginning of the ultimate contest all the more captivating.

The Hall-of-Famer made his first two shots, which were the first two buckets of the game. We all know that he didn't make another point after giving his team a 4-0 lead, and he was done playing by late in the second quarter. However, that didn't effect the outcome of the contest, with the Knicks cruising to a 113-99 victory. In the end, it was the lift in his teammate's spirits (and essentially, their play) that made Reed's appearance so legendary.

But then again, that's just the odd side of the NBA Finals, where "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" happens.

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