You probably have a friend (or a dad – this is a very “dad” thing) who prides himself (or herself – but probably himself) on predicting the plot twists of movies. “Well, I saw that coming,” they’ll say, or maybe just grunt a self-satisfied “Mm-hmm” when it turns out that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.
I’ve never totally understood this mind-set. Unraveling the threads of a whodunit is part of the enjoyment, sure. But what about being caught up in the moment? A story – whether it’s a film, television show, book, or even a playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers – is not strictly a dodge, not purely an attempt to pull the wool over your eyes. The way it moves that wool can be a thing to be enjoyed in and of itself.
So take the aforementioned series. Without Kevin Love (out with a dislocated shoulder for the remainder of the playoffs) and J.R. Smith (serving a suspension for striking Jae Crowder in the first round), the Cavs wilted at home and lost Game 1 to the Bulls. They’d given up home-court advantage, but they evened the series in Game 2 with a definitive 106-91 win behind 33 points from LeBron James, who had been held to 19 in the series opener.
That’s when it got interesting. The next two games were decided by back-to-back buzzer beaters, for apparently the first time in NBA history. Game 3 went to the Bulls on a banked 3-pointer by Derrick Rose; Game 4 went to the Cavs on a mid-range jumper from the corner by James. Given that the Cavs won Tuesday’s Game 5 on the back of another strong performance by James (38 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks and zero turnovers), it would seem they have the momentum headed into Thursday’s Game 6 in Chicago. But that’s only after being written off following Game 1. Oh, and Game 3.
But am I here to preach calm and order? Am I going to tell you that these wild swings in the fortunes of the Cavs and the Bulls are illusions, mere shadows on the wall cast by some greater and more consistent meaning? Well, yes. And no. The illusions, in fact, are all we really have, and it does no harm to embrace them – the experience of them – so long as we don’t become beholden to them. So let’s examine the four major figures whose reputations are being burnished or tarnished by this series.
Look at the last ten NBA championships and the coaches who have won them: Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Pat Riley. You’re basically looking at three all-time greats, two tactical wizards (Spoelstra, Carlisle) and one master motivator of men (Rivers). Trying to add his name to that list is Blatt, a renowned coach abroad who is getting a trial by fire in his first NBA postseason.
He made his share of missteps in the regular season, sure, but this second-round matchup has raised them to a fevered pitch: he tried to defend Kyrie Irving’s inconsistent play by revealing that he’s playing with a right foot strain and tendinitis in his left knee, which Irving didn’t want made public; he tried to call timeout at the end of Game 4 when he didn’t have one – a violation that would have resulted in a technical foul and a free throw for the Bulls had the referees caught it; and he drew up a play where LeBron was inbounding the ball rather than shooting it, only to watch LeBron overrule him, take the ball and win the game with it. Oh, and he also compared being an NBA head coach to being a fighter pilot.
The Cavs are up 3-2 in the series and could close it out tonight, meaning an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against either the Wizards or Hawks in which they’ll likely be the favorites. In short, the Cavaliers have a good shot at ending the season as Eastern Conference champs or even winning the Finals and Blatt still might lose his job.
Blatt’s doom in Cleveland was not preordained, nor is it entirely inevitable, at least not yet. Winning doesn’t count for nothing when it comes to being a head coach, but it might count for considerably less than you’d think when LeBron James is the face of the franchise you’re coaching. Many college coaches have joined the NBA only to find that they’re speaking a slightly different language, their dialect out of tune in a strange land. There’s a real possibility Blatt is out of the league by this time next season, evoking Alec Baldwin’s Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross: “Yeah, I used to be an NBA head coach – it’s a tough racket.” And winning might have nothing to do with it.
Right down the line from Blatt is the man they call Thibs, a guy who could probably chew iron and spit nails. A defensive-minded coach who demands a lot on the court – both in terms of quality and minutes – and who has held the Bulls together during Derrick Rose’s rough string of injuries and setbacks, Thibodeau has earned his players’ respect. Consider: in the two years that Rose was essentially persona non grata following his MVP win, Chicago continued to make the playoffs and developed Jimmy Butler from a defensive bench spark into the league’s Most Improved Player and the perfect foil for Rose.
And now with Rose rounding into form just in time, the Bulls have been hanging tough against LeBron’s handmade squad. Joakim Noah has struggled in the series, but Pau Gasol looked deadly in Game 1 and with Butler, rookie Nikola Mirotic, a revitalized Rose and some solid support players, the Bulls are in a good position going forward whether they win this series or not.
And yet the rift between Thibodeau and Bulls management has been a fairly public secret for some time now. Whether the Bulls advance past the Cavs or end their season here, Thibs could be just as gone as Blatt, and for reasons having equally little to do with his on-the-court job performance. Relationships – whether personal or professional – often have shelf lives. When they come to their end, it’s not about what you did right or wrong, or how you do better in the future. If Chicago lets him go, Thibodeau will find no shortage of suitors in the NBA. Like the song says, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re seeing a ghost. Three years ago – before the knee surgeries, before the abortive comebacks – he was a player you absolutely had to see in person, much like Russell Westbrook. Television has a way of flattening out sheer speed on the court, but seeing Rose knifing through a crowd of bodies live would take your breath away. Some of that blinding speed is gone, but other things remain, including the crazy confidence with which he launches himself into the vicinity of the hoop, knowing he’ll find a way to snap his body around to deliver the layup.
Frankly, it’s more than a little stunning that he’s only 26 – a month younger than Kevin Love, just about a year older than Jimmy Butler. Even if those lost years robbed him of a straight trajectory to the very top of the league, his flashes of offensive dominance and improved defense – plus his insistence that he’s playing smarter now – offer tantalizing glimpses of the player we thought we might have lost as recently as this fall. Belief in Rose is still fragile, circumspect, as it should be, but Bulls fans and basketball fans in general can be forgiven for fanning the flames of it whether or not the Bulls advance.
“I hate not being efficient,” James said after he took 30 shots en route to 25 points – including the winning bucket – in Game 4 of the series. “It’s the postseason: whatever it takes.”
It’s an odd cognitive dissonance for anyone who’s followed James with a measure of understanding for the unique way he approaches the game as a superstar. He’s never had the near-sociopathic drive of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to individual excellence; the majority of his major career decisions have been made with one eye toward success on the court and the other toward squishier things, like playing with friends in Miami or coming home to Cleveland. Some may find this lumpiness fake, weak or ineffectual, but it’s always felt endearing to me.
But here’s LeBron, going glutton on shot attempts – with or without a headband – and it doesn’t feel like a betrayal at all. In Cleveland’s two losses to Chicago, James averaged 23.5 field goal attempts per game; in their three wins, he’s averaging 27.7. We’re not, though, seeing James unburdened from some personal code that held him back. He’s simply doing what needs to be done because the circumstances demand it. He is John Wick, and the Chicago Bulls have killed his dog.
I doubt anyone’s saying they want the old LeBron, even if this isn’t how he envisions playing basketball. Maybe James really was ready to put in the grunt work to building this Cavs team, as he said when he made his return. Maybe the Cavs outperformed his own expectations because of his own talent, and maybe with the loss of Love and the injuries to Irving he’s ready to drive the car until the tank hits “E” this season.
TNT’s slightly weird “Hero Ball” branding for these playoffs is leaden and off-key. “It’s not just the little things – it’s the right things.” What does that even mean? Is this Outback Steakhouse? But it’s oddly fitting for LeBron’s postseason so far: this is the best player in the series gathering the game into his embrace and carrying it lovingly forward. Maybe when it comes to LeBron, there’s no rules, just right.
I don’t know if I can fully believe any of the previous four perspectives on this series’ major players. But at times I’ve believed all of them and none of them, and that’s OK. Lewis Carroll’s Queen believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. It’s easy to be drawn into trying to parse or understand the game better, and there’s certainly joy in that. But there’s also joy in rooting for whomever’s behind, for getting seduced by one player and then another.
Fred Katz got a great quote from Kent Bazemore while working on an Atlanta Hawks feature recently, and it seems just as applicable to us watching the game as the players playing it. “Why not jump up and down when a teammate posterizes someone, or scream on the top of your lungs after a crazy move?” the animated Bazemore said. “You can’t take this for granted. You could be gone tomorrow.”