Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Searching for the Star of the N.B.A. Finals

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The N.B.A. makes for good television because basketball’s a sport that bends around stars. The players wear no face-obstructing gear—no helmets, no long-brimmed hats casting shadows—and the presence of a single great performer can guarantee a degree of success for his team. Satisfaction after a made shot, befuddlement after a miss, irritation at a teammate who keeps rushing to the wrong spot: it’s all clear as day, written on the body as much as on the face. Few things are more thrilling than the sudden onrush of protagonism that clings to a player who’s hit a few shots in a row and is about to make the story of the game about himself. The Finals, especially, are a factory for new stars.

Television cameras—in the most immediate case, the ABC cameras that captured the recently concluded Finals confrontation, between the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks—participate in this effect. They find the right figures and follow them around the court, tracking their moods. Back in the nineties, NBC helped to usher in the era of Michael Jordan; when he wasn’t on camera, making magic, broadcasters such as Bob Costas were busy eloquently showering him with stardust. Jordan became not just a player in a game but a character in a story.

The narrative and its chief protagonist were harder to find in the series between the Celtics and the Mavs. Boston won in just five games, and the anticlimactic occasion was notable for its lack of true star assertion. Not that there was a lack of wonderful players. The Mavericks had made it this far in the playoffs because of the heroics of Luka Dončić, a Slovenian prodigy with the feet of a dancer and a torso like a bag of wet cement—a one-man visual anomaly whose entire life seems aimed at scoring buckets. He shoots offhanded step-back three-pointers and, after driving to the rim, throws off-kilter sidearm passes to his teammates on the perimeter. He never appears to be moving quickly and yet he always finds, or creates, an opening for a decent shot. He is usually deadly in the clutch, and one of the great shames of his first Finals performance was that his team was almost never close enough to victory to give him the chance to show off this flair for late-game dramatics. In the tightest contest, Game Three, Dončić’s penchant for sloppy defense got him booted, after a sixth foul, with more than four minutes still to play.

Dončić’s second-in-command is Kyrie Irving, famous outside of basketball circles for his resolute aversion, two seasons ago, to getting the COVID vaccine—and for sharing on social media, not long afterward, an antisemitic documentary. (Irving later apologized and said that he was not antisemitic.) He dribbles like a wizard and makes layups that twist him into yogic positions, but the past few years of his career have been a tutorial in self-sabotage. For a brief and initially bright period he played for the Celtics, a stint that ended badly; in his first game back in Boston after leaving the team, he burned a small bundle of sage and ostentatiously walked the perimeter of the court, to “cleanse the energy,” as he put it. (Irving, who is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said it was “not anything that I don’t do at home.”) Now, perhaps grounded and recentered by the Southern hospitality in Dallas, he has cast himself as a fount of good-hearted wisdom, smiling at press conferences and still killing on the court. As the Mavericks marched through the Western Conference playoffs, he frequently looked all but unstoppable, filling in when Dončić’s conditioning flagged, raining down jumpers and finishing from both sides of the hoop.

But against the stout defense of the Celtics, both Texas stars dimmed. One of the devilish features of Boston’s roster is how many strong, agile players the team can put in front of offensive geniuses like Dončić and Irving. Dončić still managed to fill the stat sheet, but the effort it took to evade the endless tide of defenders rendered him even more feckless than usual when it was his turn to play D. To watch him during the Finals was to observe a man getting red-faced and petulant, paying more attention to the refs than to the action on the court—and to notice how many times, on defense, he let his man whiz by him and find a cozy home in the paint.

Irving was even more thwarted. His game, all style and dexterity, is as telegenic as it gets. But when there’s a bigger defender on him—in this case, it was often the incessantly present Jaylen Brown—his dazzle can get swallowed up. He had a brief unburdening in Games Three and Four, dropping thirty-five and twenty-one points, respectively, and helping Dallas to its one win, in the latter game. But otherwise he fizzled, unable to show much flash against his former team.

You’d think, with the Mavs muted, that the Celtics would have filled the starry gap. They won, after all, and became deserving champions; shouldn’t we have some new hero to laurel as the true cause of victory? That’s how N.B.A. history-making works, for better or worse. We clock a lead character within seconds of his team’s triumph, and parse legacy-creating criteria, none more important than the determination of whose team it really was—and who it is that we will see on our screens more often from here on. First, during the summer, a spray of product-endorsing commercials; then, next season, in-game cameras closely attending to the freshly anointed star.

But the answer, when it comes to the Celtics and traditional star power, is still, confoundingly: We’ll see. Their most obvious candidate for canonization is Jayson Tatum, a wide-shouldered forward who is typically considered to be among the five or ten best players in the league, thanks to his generally sturdy jumper, his strong forays to the hoop and, perhaps especially, his enthusiasm for defense. But there’s something retiring about Tatum, both on the court and off. He speaks in bromides that are the birthright of the former Duke star that he is. He is never objectionable or ill-tempered or funny. He does not play with particularly obvious emotion: sometimes he grins, gamely, and sometimes he rolls his eyes at himself, genially irritated, like a guy in accounting who put a crucial number into the wrong cell of a spreadsheet. He is hardworking and hard to seriously dislike. He rarely lets his team down. He also rarely explodes.

Since 2017, when he was drafted, Tatum has been paired with Brown, an athletic marvel. Perhaps the most purely beautiful play of the series was in Game Three, when Brown slipped into the paint and launched himself not too far from the free-throw line, assuming the pose of a heron just sprung from the water, and then dunking with a mixture of force and grace that spelled the end—spiritual if not formal—of the game under way. He shone in these Finals. Tatum shot poorly, at times seeming stiffened by nerves; Brown, consistently effortful, sporadically dynamic, came to the rescue. He received the Finals M.V.P. award, which usually serves as a stamp for the records kept by fans and pundits of the game’s great legends. Here, though, the individual honor seemed almost inconvenient: the team had won, but it had to credit somebody.

The Celtics were the best team in the league all season. In addition to Tatum and Brown, they employ two starting guards, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, who are amazingly astute defenders, and who approach their trade with scientific accuracy and a cage fighter’s cruelty. All four of those players—plus Boston’s two principal centers, Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford—shoot threes competently and take turns bringing the ball to the rack. Nobody’s too precious to end up on the floor. In some ways, they present an ideal of basketball in action—hoops as jazz, or as democracy. Everybody gets his turn.

Maybe this is the new N.B.A. There are more talented players than ever, and this fact could blunt, just slightly, the power of the overweening stars. Instead of looking for a hero, then, we should be looking for the right ensemble. The cameras may have to widen the frame just a bit—at least until someone comes along demanding a closeup. ♦



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