Heroes step up in the finals, or some nonsense like that. All year every year, the Campbellian hero's journey is trepanned into the collective consciousness by a furrow-browed horde of screeching First Takers -- even as the game of basketball itself leaves behind its own mythology and embraces a new ideal. There is no coincidence in the Spurs and Heat entrenching themselves as both the best teams in the league and the teams that most adhere to the simplest lesson of basketball's ongoing statistical revolution: Nothing is more poisonous to winning than our society's love affair with the male ego.
It's not that complex. The reams of advanced data out there prove that marginal advantages are waiting to be taken advantage of by coaches and players capable of recognizing and seizing on them. The NBA remains a superstar league and, over a full season, the sample size means the superstars will win out. However, the margins shrink in the playoffs, considerably so. Tactics informed by advanced data, not individual players, are far more reliable a tool for exploiting those margins. Hero Ball, for all its possibilities and pleasures, is a sample size gamble that superior tactics can easily mitigate. Great players remain a necessity, but relative differences in ability pale in their scope in comparison to how a whole team of players can be honed into statistical gestalt.
That's how an aging Spurs squad managed to best the combined brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka's injured calf played its role in that outcome, but the team with the two best players on the court isn't supposed to lose a best-of-seven series; the Spurs made it happen in six games anyway and no one was terribly surprised. Reason being that, as a unit, the Spurs are magisterial, with their peak form in Game 3 against the Heat coming off less as a basketball game and more as a statement on how to play basketball. The Heat are not at all different in that regard.
However, a team defined by the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will always appear to be much more of an all-star squad than it actually is. The truth of it is that Wade is waxing and waning into his twilight, Bosh is a radically different sort of player than he was with the Raptors and James, carrying the strain of 11 NBA seasons, is now at the point where his primacy depends as much on his intellect as his ability.
In their first season together, well before any of them embraced what they are now, the Big 3 fell to a Mavericks team that used superior tactics to get the best out of what is remembered as Dirk Nowitzki and Some Other Dudes Maybe. The statistical revolution back-handed an iconic collection of talent and the Heat responded not by overcoming what defeated them, but embracing it. That much became apparent when they put an end to the ongoing meme known as the Pacers. A team built for and obsessed with beating the Heat, the Pacers fell apart as their volatile collection of egos turned on one another and imploded into a mess of hurt feelings expressed as raw anger -- think an especially bro-ish frat struggling with a difficult group therapy session. The Heat, meanwhile, remain unbothered by such matters despite having three players who once thrived on being the first and last option.
While a healthy measure of ego remains necessary in sports, in basketball at least, to what ends that ego is best applied has been unexpectedly answered by math. A team capable of executing advanced game plans wins an inch at a time and those inches usually add up to more than any individual performance. There isn't much point in arguing with math when the two best teams depend on it so much.
This would be fairly obvious stuff if not for how sports media and fan alike often glorify the male ego and the traits falsely aligned with masculinity. Athletes are supposed to abide by a (male) hero's ethos, which in turn feeds the easy narrative of individual transcendence over collective adversity that largely defines so much sports writing then and now. The best athletes, LeBron James for one, are held hostage by that standard so that their every perceived failing can become a sweeping revelation. If the golden age of sports writing was about valorizing athletes, the modern era is about judging athletes against that made-up standard and tearing them down when they fail to achieve the impossible. It's how Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and every TV charlatan there is manage to make bank despite coming off as unhinged bar flies -- they know the history of sports media and the tropes that always get lots of folk very paid.
Yet, even as the screeches reach their shrillest pitch, there is the reality of the game itself, and how cleanly it now strikes at the heart of a socialized obsession with male ego. Basic teamwork concepts like valuing individuals and enabling their success may not be traits of the classic hero, but heroes only exist in stupid stories that are usually about some guy killing some other guy over some thing, or something. Sports have long been the place where such familiar narratives find a fresh home, but what's actually happening is so much more interesting than any story you already know.