We’re close to the end. Nearly a full calendar year after the 2019-20 NBA season began, it’s wrapping up with the Lakers set to win it all, which you could have guessed, over the Heat, which you probably wouldn’t have, in a locked down campus in central Florida, games being played against a background of massive video screens populated by beer advertisements, jumbotron razzle-dazzle, and fans staring just south of their webcams. The box scores are legible, as are the presumptive champs, and the rest of the proceedings have a somebody-dosed-the-punch aspect. These pandemic-flavored playoffs, cynical and irresponsible as their very existence is, have been quite fun, but as their ultimate outcome becomes clear, I find myself anxious for them to finish. Let’s give LeBron and AD their title and send everybody home, to their families and, hopefully, to tend to the social justice matters the league regards like a city they’ll send letters to but never visit. Basketball is great, basketball is a blast. It is not terribly important.
These playoffs have given us the taut back and forth of Raptors-Celtics, Donovan Mitchell’s stratospheric scoring, the emergence of the ultra-charismatic Nuggets, but the Finals have been kind of a dud. The Heat have had terrible injury luck at the worst possible moment, and besides that, the Lakers might just be significantly better. Sitting at 3-1, with Bam Adebayo playing hurt and Goran Dragic not playing at all, this doesn’t feel like the start of a historic Heat comeback. Can you remember what you thought when the Cavs were down 3-1 in 2016? At least Kyrie Irving was 100 percent, and Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. And LeBron James was on the squad with the long odds and not the short ones. Crazier things have, strictly speaking, not really happened. Anti-climax is the overwhelmingly likely outcome here.
This is the fourth subdued Finals in a row. After the Cavs upset the Warriors, they reloaded with Kevin Durant and torched Cleveland in the next two season-ending tilts. And last year, as ebullient as the Raptors were and as fatigued as everyone outside of northern California was of the Warriors, the fact is Toronto came out on top because Durant and Klay Thompson got injured. Now we’ve got a relatively unharried Lakers team gliding into championship position, which isn’t a kooky or invalid outcome, but it’s a shame the Heat have not been able to put up their best fight. The hypothesis that, with their entire lineup healthy, they had a real shot, remains untested.
I’ve been watching a lot of talky-talk French movies lately, because I need to spend a few nights per week somewhere other than America circa now, and there’s one in particular, Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love, that has stuck with me. The story itself, in broad strokes, is not all that interesting. A 15-year-old girl falls in love, the boy abandons her, and several years later, they come back together and flow away from each other again. But the ending is really something. The girl, now a young woman in her early to mid-20s, stands on the banks of a river. A hat she was wearing earlier in the movie, when she was deep in adolescent love, blows into the water and starts to travel downstream. She follows it from the rocky shore, then dives in and begins to swim after it. Hard cut to a wide shot of an overwhelmingly pretty river valley: sunlight staining the water silver and yellow, twin forests like sudden green walls. The young woman’s a dot in this landscape, and as the camera pans upward, it forgets her altogether. The river bends right and disappears into the trees. Lots of stories end this way. To me, it’s always seemed the most honest way of ending things, especially if you’re working in a realistic register. You show the character caught up in a particular drama, which resolves itself or doesn’t, then you say to your audience: and now, the rest of her life will happen. Whether this lands or not is a matter of craft. If you’re going to employ a visual metaphor for the immensity of the rest of a twentysomething-year-old woman’s life, the natural beauty of a French river valley is pretty damn good.
Sports narratives transcend individual seasons—what we’re saying about LeBron right now is informed by more than a decade and a half of watching the guy, not just what he’s done this year—but each chapter ends unambiguously. Twenty-nine teams come up short, and one pulls through. Then we reset and go again. Our expectations are never wildly subverted. The year never trails off or concludes with a violent left turn—though actually, this one threatened to. We inevitably get our champ, thrilled or confused or simply bored by the process. And then we argue about what it means.
It’s fitting that this season should end on a pro-forma note—yes, the Lakers, sure—since these playoffs have at bottom been about satisfying sponsors and television partners, trying to keep rich folks off each other’s necks. It’s been a terrific entertainment, but also an obligation fulfilled. Great pains have been taken to make this ending look as much like the other endings as possible so that nobody powerful is given extra encouragement to phone their lawyers. The NBA has done a thoroughly professional job, and they’ve gotten a little extra lucky: it doesn’t get more normal than Finals MVP LeBron James.
The coda to these Finals is where we’ll discover novel territory. When will the league come back? Will there be fans? What will happen to the salary cap? Are there going to be more (and more aggressive) social justice protests from players? Is the schedule permanently going to shift? It’ll all get sorted eventually, and as answers emerge, whatever the league decides to do will begin to feel not all that different from the way things typically go. Sports can only get so strange; corporations as massive as the NBA have a way of smoothing reality no matter how kinky it gets. But at the moment, we have one or two or maybe even three games left, and beyond that: well, what exactly? Many, many years, invisible beyond the bend.