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

Author: Editors Desk, Vinson Cunningham
June 21, 2024 at 06:24
Boston presented an ideal of basketball in action—hoops as jazz, or as democracy.Illustration by Sam Bosma
Boston presented an ideal of basketball in action—hoops as jazz, or as democracy.Illustration by Sam Bosma

This year’s series, between the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks, featured many wonderful players but no obvious main character.

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.

Published in the print edition of the July 1, 2024, issue, with the headline “Hero Ball.”

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