Let’s not make a big deal of this: I was texting with my friend and fellow Cleveland Cavaliers fan Clay during the fourth quarter of last night’s Spurs-Heat game. He felt a strange pang when Lebron James was sitting on the bench — yeah, headbandless — staring into the middle distance. “Can’t both teams win?” Clay thought. Then Ray Allen stepped behind the three-point line, tied the game with five seconds to play, and his empathy evaporated.
I’m not going to get into what Cavs fans feel about the Heat’s success because their stances vary wildly — some care, some don’t, some still hurt — and at any rate these Finals have been so fascinating on pure basketball terms that it doesn’t need the added, bummer-ish input of what people in Cleveland think about it. But here’s something relevant: Cavs fans watched LeBron play 619 games for their favorite team. When you watch any player that often, you become attuned to the rhythms of his game. There’s an intimacy between player and fan, where the fan is able to anticipate what the player will do in a given situation, having watched him navigate the same scenario hundreds of times before.
Athletes are often such unknowable, cliché-spouting brand-protectors, and these moments of feeling close to them are rare and special. When I watch LeBron catch the ball on the wing with one defender in front of him — as he did on multiple occasions in the fourth quarter of last night’s game — and he jab steps twice, three times, then explodes to the basket, I feel like I’m performing the action along with him. I get split-second access to whatever sublime sensation LeBron must feel with great frequency on a basketball court. It validates whatever embarrassing amount of hours I’ve spent watching and caring about grown men playing children’s games.
LeBron said he felt like he was back in Cleveland during the Heat’s scrape with the Pacers. This was preposterous on myriad levels, but his sentiment rang especially hollow to me: I know what he did in Cleveland, or at least what it looked like. What was transpiring against the Pacers didn’t feel at all uncanny. It’s hard for LeBron to resemble his Cleveland self because he’s flanked by Dwyane Wade and a big man unlike any LeBron-Era Cavalier in Chris Bosh. His greatness — and by extension, the Heat’s greatness — is alien to me. (This instinct might be self-preservational. I’ve watched Solaris. Believing South Beach LeBron is real will lead only to my demise.) LeBron’s current supporting cast is so dissimilar (and better, sure, but dissimilarity is the salient trait here) to the Cavs teams constructed around him in the late aughts that the only way LeBron can truly resemble his Cleveland self is to play in isolation.
This rarely happens. If you have eyeballs and a brain the size of a peach pit, you realize you’d do well to shade your entire defense towards LeBron James. But for a stretch during the fourth quarter, the Spurs decided they weren’t going to help off of Miami’s three-point shooters, so LeBron was allowed to run isolations from the wing — ones where the ball stopped and he held it for about four seconds while his teammates got the hell out of his way. Everything paused until LeBron reanimated it with his first step. This was, to use charitable terms, a frequently employed strategy when he was in Cleveland. No screens, no passing, no movement. Spread the floor out, let LeBron operate, and hopefully that’s good enough. So when he jab-stepped twice, three times, the background went white and some familiar machinations took place. Hello LeBron, my old friend. What is the sunrise like on Mars?
The feeling went away because Miami is not like the Cleveland teams of the late aughts. They can deemphasize LeBron and still win basketball games. Dwyane Wade hit a couple free throws; LeBron made some bad passes, and Ray Allen bailed him out. Miami’s exhausted-but-still-sweltering defense was the MVP of the overtime period. I only care that the Heat won insofar as I’m pleased to watch this series for another game. I texted Clay some ellipses-heavy sentences about things I thought during LeBron’s spell of isolations. “It’s all strong feelings,” he said. This isn’t for me, however removed I try to be, a series between two great teams. Sometimes, it’s still strong feelings.