Of the two fundamental motivations to indulge in entertainment—those being the motivation to escape reality (e.g., getting high and renting The Fifth Element) and the motivation to reinforce reality (e.g., watching Garden State or Lost in Translation to confirm your beliefs that white people are oh so emotionally subtle, dryly witty, and full of existential dread)—the latter is more often applied when watching the NBA playoffs. We watch these games to reaffirm our (often contradictory) theories that Kobe Bryant is clutch, Kobe is selfish, Kobe is learning how to become unselfish, LeBron James is not clutch, LeBron is learning to be clutch, LeBron can take over a game by himself, Gilbert Arenas is crazy, the Heat are spoiled, Jason Kidd is a winner, Jason Williams is a loser, the Pistons and Spurs are fundamentally sound, Tim Duncan is a bad free-throw shooter, Ron Artest is a great defender, the Mavericks’ defense has improved, the Kings are “tougher” now, the Bulls are gritty, Vince Carter has cleaned up his act, and so forth. Confirming any of these theories allows us to feel that we are in tune with the world as it really is.
Furthermore, the NBA playoffs provide the perfect venue for satiating this motivation. The entire enterprise offers systematic and serial exhibitions, allowing us to believe we are seeing virtually the same truths emerge every night. This repetitive reinforcement of our implicit theories is, however, dangerous, as NBA basketball (and sport more generally) obviously differs from other means of entertainment in providing an exhibition, rather than a representation, of reality. That is to say, DeSagana Diop is as real a person as you or I. Andres Nocioni bleeds blue. Reality conveyed on the court cannot fool reality itself. I come to therefore refute the aphorism that basketball is a metaphor for life; rather, NBA basketball is merely one of life’s appendages, complicated in its cytoarchitectural structure and driven by a convoluted array of symbiotic mechanisms.
I can turn to any single recent playoff game to exemplify this point further, and will attempt to captivate you by examining one of the most mundane games of this primarily breathtaking postseason, namely last Sunday’s Cavaliers-Wizards contest. Focusing on the Cavs’ LeBron James, this particular game proved that he wasn’t clutch, unclutch, or capable of dominating a game by himself. James fulfilled all and none of these theories simultaneously, coming up with key 3-point baskets in the fourth quarter, yet also committing key turnovers; dominating the game offensively, yet failing to play solid enough help defense to fend off Gilbert Arenas’s late blitzkrieg; and being the best player on the court, but not truly mattering enough to win the game. Point being, LeBron is a complex human whose actions are variable from moment to moment.
The same can be said for his foil on the Wizards, the aforementioned Arenas. Yes, Arenas did once again prove himself to be “crazy,” changing his entire outfit—shoes, jersey, and padded underwear included—during halftime and proceeding to erratically and single-handedly win the game for the Wizards in the second half. Yet his first-half play, constrained by coach Eddie Jordan’s strict adherence to the “Princeton” offense (which Jordan abandoned in the second half), showed Arenas to be a man engaged in intense reasoning, striving toward sanity. Arenas was overthinking his normally involuntary moves so much that he made only one of eight shots, committed a few costly turnovers, and even missed a couple free throws. Before halftime, Arenas looked rational almost to a fault.
Similarly, none of the two teams’ other players conformed to any of our preconceived theories for them. On Cleveland’s side, Larry Hughes did not provide the defensive pressure we anticipated, failing consistently to stop Washington’s offense. Drew Gooden did not bang. Eric Snow and his zero-for-five shooting did not provide an experienced playoff presence. The “wily” Anderson Varejao did not “cause havoc,” and was not “the guy other teams hate to play against.” Rather, Varejao committed key fouls and turnovers late in the game subbing for the foul-plagued Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the ineffective Gooden.
For Washington, Jared Jeffries did not in fact play the “LeBron-stopper,” despite what the TNT analysts wanted us to believe, and despite drawing two key offensive fouls on LeBron. (Let’s not kid ourselves: LeBron was a man, and played as dominant on offense as any player in this entire playoffs.) Antawn Jamison did not prove himself to be a poor defender, as he was often matched with taller, and hence equally foot-sluggish, players. Brendan Haywood did not play garbageman on the boards, failing to collect crucial rebounds and getting out-hustled by even Donyell Marshall in this respect. In fact, completely out of character, the entire Wizards team played solid, with few mental lapses in the third and fourth quarters.
Our lay notions of what the Association is and how that organism behaves are often undeniably wrong. The honeycomb shape of the 16-team playoff bracket lends a false air of organization to a geometrically flawed game within a larger geometrically flawed reality. We should therefore not watch these playoffs to confirm what we think we know. What we should be getting out of an NBA-playoff-viewing experience is a chance to observe humanity at its most complex. Engaging in such an experience is not an easy task: To conceive of moodily troubled Bonzi Wells as a leader, to see the painfully irrelevant Anthony Johnson as a savior, or to view the gargantuan Shaquille O’Neal as physically overmatched requires strenuous mental operations. Yet, if one puts such effort forth, an entire new Eden springs to life, in which the human condition becomes more intricate, and life itself becomes infinitely more real than any previous reality we have ever known.