But do you know what this feels like? To see one of your idols succeed at the expense of another? To see a team that deserved it so much lose to another that deserved it just as much? To see both teams go from miles ahead to inches ahead to, ultimately, just enough to cross the finish line? Somebody has to lose. And, somehow, that is why we all win.
- Patricia Lee, Grantland
And that pretty much says it all. There is nothing more exciting than watching two elite teams play at the top of their respective games for a championship trophy. And even though each individual game was not a classic, the series definitely was. It's probably too early to opine on where the 2013 NBA Finals stands in the pantheon of great NBA series (the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and Lakers is tough to top for sheer drama), but there's no question it was one of the best of my lifetime. Off the top of my head, the only one that comes to mind as a competitor for the crown is the 1984 classic between the Lakers and the Celtics.
What the 1984 and 2013 series have in common is that they both felt like a classic heavyweight fight - two great champions beating the living daylights out of each other in the center of the ring, with neither being able to sustain momentum for very long. I've watched the Thrilla in Manila (the third Ali-Frazier fight, for those not steeped in sports history) many times on YouTube, and there is a classic moment early in that fight that tells the entire story. Ali has come out blazing, clearly thinking that he needs to get this thing over with and get the hell out of Dodge before the oppressive heat and Mr. Frazier expose the fact that most of his skills have eroded to the point where he is barely recognizable from the unbeatable legend sent into exile 8 years earlier. And he is absolutely pummeling Frazier, and Frazier is doing nothing in return. Until a moment at the end of the third round, when Frazier uncorks one of his patented left hooks right onto Ali's chin, making Ali step back with the pain, and suddenly you see a look on Ali's face that says "oh my God, this guy isn't going away." And thus ensued what remains to this day perhaps the most savage beating that two boxers have ever inflicted on each other - in all likelihood, changing the trajectories of both lives.
The players on Miami and San Antonio probably feel the same way this morning. After that fight in Manila, Ali was heard to say that the experience was "the closest thing to dying that I can think of." One can only imagine what must be going through the heads of Tim Duncan - who has made that little hook shot a million times, except last night it wouldn't go down in the desperate closing moments - and Manu Ginobli, whose flashes of typical brilliance were, in the end, washed away by horrible shots and horrible lapses in judgment that led to turnovers. And yet, there was Ginobli near the end, still shooting when others like Danny Green appeared to be scared to even touch the ball, dropping a rainbow three that was like a spear through the hearts of the Miami fans.
One thing I can say with certainty is that those last two games were absolute classics. In past years, I've rooted against the Spurs in the Finals, for no particular reason except that they were the prohibitive favorite. I've never rooted for this version of the Heat, although I've come to terms with what Lebron did and have the utmost respect for him, as well as guys like Shane Battier, Eric Spoelstra, and Pat Riley. So it's not as if I had any real stake in the outcome. But watching those two games was excruciating in the same way that watching the Giants in the World Series and the 49ers in the Super Bowl was excruciating. There was never time to even take a breath - those two games were never over, not until the final buzzer sounded. Body blow followed by body blow - two of the greatest players of my lifetime, along with at least four other future Hall of Famers, spiced up with a dash of young studs like Kawhi Leonard (talk about poise) and old geezers like Battier, somehow pulling a performance for the ages out of his hat when, unless I missed something, he hadn't contributed a single thing to the Heat effort in Games 1 through 6.
The two best teams. The two best coaches. Two of the greatest players. Wonderful competition. It really doesn't get much better than that. And if you asked them today, they'd probably be open to making it a Best of 11...or 13. The only thing that would stop them in the end would be their bodies.