The Playoff Diaries: Game of NBA Thrones

John Atkinson

Prologue vibe note featuring a two-episode-old Game of Thrones semi-spoiler, if you don’t mind: an old friend posted on social media that Spurs = the Red Viper and the Heat are The Mountain, which seriously unsettled me in the runup to this game and series. DO the Spurs have too much at stake emotionally here? Are we in for a heartbreaking and exceptionally gory ending to a season we’ve all invested so much in? Do we live in a bleak, Game of Thrones-esque timeline where any good vibes must ultimately be mercilessly snuffed out in the most brutal way imaginable?

Nah, right? Pop, Duncan & co don’t ‘do’ emotions – as per this still-entertaining NBA/Thrones mashup from last month, Spurs are the fuckin WHITE WALKERS, and WINTER IS COMING:

…I watched Game 1 at the previously-anticipated and legit excellent new Bar Mitzvah sportsbar annex to The Gorbals in DTLA in the company of fantasy league GMs past, present, and prospective. Intimate space, classy retro vibes, many screens, game audio at appropriate volume, and, crucially, largely empty – A+ experience! (I’d be afraid of blowing up the spot but pretty sure the only LA folks that read this column are the aforementioned fantasy league GMs and associated amigos…)

Anyways, we're treated to some truly awe-inspiring basketball for the first three quarters, with both teams shooting over 50% from the field, including highly efficient play from Tim Duncan and D-Wade, Miami’s defense coercing San Antonio to an unusual amount of turnovers, Manu splashing his first three threes and generally doing fun Manu stuff, and Ray Allen bricking threes and throwing down fierce dunks – wait, what??

But from the start, something was definitely up with the arena conditions – the first clue was actually the makeup jobs on the nonplayers. Bill Simmons, Doris Burke, even Erik Spoelstra all looked straight up John Boehner orange, probably due to some extra-heavy-duty makeup troweled on over rivers of sweat. Then, the fans in the arena using programs as, uh, fans. As the game went on it became clear that there was a legit situation happening with the air conditioning and the in-game temperature, which began to rise and be quantified – 88+ degrees, 90+ degrees…

The rest is legend, of course – Lebron suffered maybe the most famous muscle cramps in sports history (NOT fact-checking this at all) in the fourth quarter, and the Spurs went on a ridiculous 31-9 run to end the game in a quasi-blowout. Like many viewers, I was confounded – how is could maybe the single greatest athlete of our era, in any sport, be brought low by cramps in a game environment which, while clearly grueling, was endured without apparent incident by every single other player, including notoriously aged folks like Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, et al?

(Of course, it's not the first time this has happened to Lebron, just the first time it cost the Heat a game…)

It also made me wonder about my own, extremely limited experiences of heat x physical exertion. How hot were some of those classic Todd P-circuit gigs in Brooklyn in the mid-aughts? I feel like those shows at classic venues like “Above the Auto Parts Store” (lol) et al were def in the 90+ range, def enough to leave me wrecked, near-vomming, etc afterwards… And, as you may remember, while only 25 mins or so, those Aa sets didn’t have any breaks between songs, no ‘time outs’! Why, even the old MARKET HOTEL shows

(Forgive the trip down memory lane, but damn that was a fun show!)

Anyway, it was also kind of a weirdly nostalgic throwback to the beginning of these damned playoffs a month and a half ago (!?), with the Nets/Raptors and that bizarre shot-clock outage. We’ve been through a lot these past few weeks.

GAME 2

I’m in New York/New Jersey with a hectic weekend schedule, including quality family time with my folks around my dad’s birthday and Father’s Day (albeit a week early, whatever), recording vocals for the new Aa album (shouts out again to Jeremy Scott’s excellent Civil Defense studio in DUMBO), and reprising my role as Dinowalrus’s bucket-hatted hypeman/percussionist for the record release show of their new album of luxuriously-crafted alternate-universe post-Madchester anthems, Complexion.

Which is a fun time and all, but the timing is rough – Game 2 is the night of the show, forcing me to spend the evening at Mercury Lounge nervously avoiding my phone for any hint of a spoiler. (Watching Nets/Raptors on my phone at Glasslands last time I was Dinowalrusing was not super functional nor satisfying, if we recall correctly…)

Good for focusing on the jams at hand, anyway! And thanks to the magic of technology and a disciplined avoidance of social media, I’m able to watch the game, unspoilt and blessedly commercial-free, at my folks’ house in New Jersey the next eve. We grew up in a primarily baseball-oriented household during the halcyon days of the 1990s Yankees, so sharing this prime hoops action is a welcome new annual bonding tradition. Needless to say, like most Americans, we’re on #teamspurs – (English) Dad enjoys their passing-oriented, unselfishly soccer-like style of play, and (Italian-American) Mom particularly enjoys watching Manu and Marco do their thing. Not that you need any excuses – pretty much everyone outside of Florida is #teamspurs:

Which makes this game a loss not only for San Antonio, but for positive family times and non-MIAMI AMERICA. Ugh. The Spurs and the Timmay-Tony-Manu Big Three look spry early on, and Lebron gets off to a slow start, potentially still suffering the aftereffects of Game 1’s epic crampage. San Antonio’s up 11 early in the second quarter, but things start going awry with sloppy turnovers, and Lebron starts converting on a few drives to the paint…

And then starts the third quarter with a couple of jumpers… and then OHMYGODOHMYGODMAKEITSTOP

It’s clearly becoming A Lebron Game, as Popovich acknowledges with gallows humor during his third quarter interview.

But the Spurs keep it close, fighting hard and keeping their cool, like they do. I’m sure we’ve still got a chance, until the bizarre sequence in the fourth where Mario Chalmers cheap-shot elbows Tony Parker in the ribs, resulting in a flagrant… And two missed free throws… And then possession and a foul on Duncan in the paint… which results in two MORE missed free throws.

A deeply unsettling series of events that is clearly NOT Spurs basketball, and it’s clear even to my casual-fan fam that that’s a Very Bad Sign. And indeed, those four free throws could’ve swung the game, ultimately decided by a two-point margin. Bad memories of Game 6 and Game 7 emotions come flooding back, and I’ve officially got The Fear.

NOTEWORTHY: D-Wade’s egregious flop to draw a foul on Manu in the third, which drew an extremely justified $5,000 fine from the league afterwards and helpfully reminded everyone that Dwyane is the worst, the true villain in this saga. If Lebron is Darth Vader – feared but redeemable – Wade is the fucking Emperor, gross and truly hateable.

ALSO NOTEWORTHY: Michael Beasley’s camo blazer! I’m a fan of Beasley on general, uh, principle, and even if he isn’t playing due to some affliction or other (DNP – BLUNTED), I’m glad to see him there on the sidelines, subtly poisoning Miami’s vibe. Is it too late to get Andrew Bynum courtside seats for Game 3??

GAME 3

After a heated debate about climate change with Dad over dinner, we settle in nervously for Game 3. It’s maybe an exaggeration to call this a ‘must-win’ for the Spurs, but only slightly – the Heat have been undefeated in Miami in these playoffs, and after the bummer of Game 2 the Spurs need to at least split these games to avoid going back to San Antonio buried in a hopeless 3-1 abyss.

And godDAMN did Kawhi Leonard get the memo! After an even-quieter-than-usual first couple of games, Kawhi is in verrry kawaii form right out of the gate, racking up 10 points in the first 4 minutes, including a pair of smooth treys, and generally looking every bit like the next generation leader of this beautiful basketball machine-franchise. He’s already got the expressionless Tim Duncan Spock-face down pat – do they teach this with some weird Buddhist shit, do they only sign dudes incapable of experiencing or at least displaying normal human emotions, do they have some special surgical procedure they do to remove all those potentially-debilitating ‘feelings’ on the first day of camp, or…?

But despite Kawhi’s dogged defense – and excellent support from Danny Green, generating steals on seemingly every third possession – LeBron matches him with his own strong start, including repeated, blood-curdling 3s, and Rashard Lewis continues his eerily predictable Finals resurrection. After Game 2 – after last year’s Game 6 – no lead feels safe, and for awhile the Heat nearly keep pace the Spurs with their own brand of high-octane, hyper-efficient play. But then:

Two thirds of the way through the first, though, it’s becoming rapidly apparent that the Spurs have hit some other, unholy gear of efficiency, with telepathic ball-movement uncovering open, unmissable shots every possession. San Antonio hits a godmode-like 13 of 15 shots in the first to go up 41-25 – and an apocalyptic 25-33 to go up 71-50 at the end of the first half. It’s the largest halftime lead in a Finals game by a road team ever, it's the best first half field goal % ever (75.8%), and it's… it's just so beautiful:

I’m glad, as usual, to see Bill Simmons wrong (“I’m worried about the Spurs”), as usual – couldn’t there be some way to actually see him eat his words? – but, actually… I AM worried about the Spurs. There are too many possessions in a basketball game for any team, no matter how good, to keep up this kind of statistically-unsustainable play for four entire quarters, and regression to the mean can be a bitch. I remember Prince Oberyn dancing, gloating, and then POW – finger-banged in the eye sockets with his face looking like a pile of rotting strawberries.

Sure enough though, the Heat come out predictably, terrifyingly strong to start the third, narrowing the lead to 15 in the first 30 seconds of the quarter and forcing a very quick timeout by Coach Pop to try and settle things down. Alas, Miami’s Big Three of Lebron, D-Wade, and, uh, Rashard Lewis are fired up, and the Spurs seem to have lost the plot, turning the ball over, over-dribbling, not moving the ball, generally doing un-Spursy things.

(I’m up and pacing around the room at this point, and as the lead narrows to 10, then to single digits, I’m extremely agitated – I have a thoughtlessly-scheduled 5 AM flight out of Newark in the morning, and would really, really like to endure this hellish itinerary unburdened by the bummer of a historic and surely series-altering collapse by San Antonio.)

But my anxiety clearly reveals (spoiler alert) that I am Not Spurs Material – despite all my frantic hopping around, the emotionless basketbots of San Antonio never panic. The defense stiffens, the Spurs start winning hustle plays (shouts out to Patty Mills), and halfway through the fourth quarter the lead is back up to 15. Miami never gets back within single digits, and the fans, who had legit been an energizing force during the Heat’s third quarter surge, help the cause by shamefully abandoning ship with 4 minutes left, white t-shirts streaming out of the arena like white flags.

(BTW: How much a difference do you think it makes for Timmay's mindset this Finals that, instead of going through a bitter divorce, he's dating Vanessa Macias? Good vibes Timmay!)

Kawhi steady stays playing the game of his damned life, ultimately leading all scorers with a career-high 29 and a pair each of assists, steals, and blocks – and 7 turnovers by LeBron, many of which the direct or indirect result of Kawhi’s ridiculously long-armed-and-handed defense. It’s also particularly karmically satisfying to see Mario Chalmers completely shit the bed after his role swinging Game 2 with his cheap shot flagrant on Tony Parker, and Wario/Coletrain are so ineffective Miami plays a lot of the second half with no point guards on the floor.

NOTEWORTHY: a Greg Oden sighting in the last minute or so of garbage time!

Anyway, the black-and-silver-and-white walkers are alive (or, uh, undead) and well, and although Miami hasn’t lost consecutive playoff games in a couple of years (!!), I’m letting myself feel a lil Angeleno-ish positivity and hope that we can get the Mountain off his feet and in position for a death blow. I’ll probably regret it.

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