Heading into the 2013 playoffs, everyone was sure of only one thing: the Thunder and Heat were locks for the a Finals rematch in June. The only question was what would happen along the way. After a freak injury to Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, the prophecy fell by the wayside, bringing us instead a Spurs-Heat finals that became a classic series the second it aired. The Miami Heat may have won it all in back to back years, but if anything the 2013 playoffs only crack the foundations of Miami’s dynasty. The very idea that some teams are invulnerable has proven to be very vulnerable itself.
The simple explanation would be to pull up the transitive property of basketball. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost in five games to the Heat last Finals, and this time the San Antonio Spurs lost in seven, including a game six that saw the Heat survive through an incredible combination of otherworldly skill, supreme confidence and astronomical luck. By the transitive property of numbers, if X is greater than Y, and Z is greater than x, then whatever number Z is must be larger than whatever number Y is. Are this year’s Spurs better than last year’s Thunder, then? It would be easy to just say yes and declare the Thunder vulnerable. That’s not really true, though.
NBA teams aren’t simple values that can be stacked against one another Looking at win totals or margin of victory or even efficiency numbers only tells part of the story. It’s less important to look at what happened, than to examine why they happened. And this season, the whys form a latticework of cracks in the idea of two teams dominating the league. It’s easiest to start at the end, with a Finals that showed that absolutely anything can happen in the NBA.
Everyone knows that the Heat nearly lost the series in game six, down by five points with under thirty seconds left in the game. if not for the biggest shot of Ray Allen’s career, two lucky bounces on rebounds, and a pair of missed free throws from usually-steady San Antonio, is would be Texas with another championship parade. That situation was anything but a good sign for Miami, but the factors that led them there bode ill for the Heat. Prime among them is the state of Dwyane Wade’s body. His drive and skill are as high as ever, but years of fearless drives to the rack are finally taking their toll on his legs. As a vital piece of the Miami puzzle, a decline beginning at only 31 years of age would be a brutal blow against a team slotted to own a decade of championships.
If Wade is degrading, San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili seems to be a few steps farther down the road. The Spurs, one of the most dominant teams of the last twenty years, are built around players who are seemingly immortal. Tim Duncan had one of his best seasons ever at 37 years old, nearly earning a fifth championship ring. Manu Ginobili, on the other hand, seems to be on the other end of that spectrum, finally showing signs of wear and tear. Wade and Ginobili may be handing the eurostep crown to James Harden, but the Spurs are anything but done.
The fact that two teams were able to push the Heat to seven games, and do so convincingly, is a grim omen or the light at the end of the tunnel, depending on your team of choice. The Pacers and Spurs showed that no team is immortal with the right game plan and matchup. On the other hand, they themselves are vulnerable as well. Indeed, the not-so-invincible Thunder will be back next year, trying to turn all this on its head.
Despite losing in the second round, the Thunder may be the most unassailable team standing. Unlike the weary Heat and variable Spurs, Oklahoma City was only felled by the loss of their second best player. It’s possible that the Thunder’s team construct makes them vulnerable only to freak injury and the one player better than Kevin Durant. It’s clear, now, that both of those are very real and very possible scenarios.
Mere months ago, the Clippers were seen as a contender, with Los Angeles preparing for a conference finals or even Finals run. That was all whisked away by the retribution of a Memphis Grizzlies team that would go on to fall to the Spurs. The Nuggets seemed to have all the right pieces, but were undone by a hot-shooting Warriors team… that also lost to the Spurs. The Lakers, a title contender on paper, proved to be merely a paper tiger, and were, coincidentally, destroyed by the Spurs.
There are two possible takeaways for the league in general and the Houston Rockets in specific. On is that the Spurs are simply unstoppable, which is less appealing and less likely. The real lesson is that no team is unbeatable. There are cracks of daylight at the top of the heap, and Houston fully intends to slip into them. But, like many realizations, there’s another side to it. If nobody at the top is invincible, doesn’t that mean you’re not invincible either? With a little luck and a little work, the Rockets will try to test that theory firsthand.