The Miami Heat were doing what every basketball coach wants a team to do: get to the basket. It was the second quarter of Sunday night’s Game 3, and there was LeBron James, steamrolling in for a layup. There was Dwyane Wade, gliding to the basket and drawing a foul. There was Chris Bosh, cutting for a dunk. Again and again the Heat went to the basket, and again and again they got easy shots or free throws.
And then they stopped.
From the third quarter play by play: James misses 21-foot jumper. Bosh misses 16-foot jumper. Bosh misses 20-footer. James misses 17-footer. Wade misses 19-footer.
Before long Oklahoma City was up nine. Miami pulled back ahead by the end of the quarter, but it was still settling for long jumpers — OKC fouled a Heat three-point shooter twice along the way.
Going to the basket had worked all game, all series, all season for the Heat. So why did they quit doing it? OKC’s defense tightened some, sure. But that’s not the main reason.
Driving to the basket, again and again, is HARD.
Think about the effort involved in sprinting to the rim, leaping, twisting to get the right angle, taking the blow from some concrete-chested power forward, crashing into the nest of Nikons behind the basket.
Now think about doing that 20 times a game.
James might be the greatest package of athletic skills on the planet — a 6-foot-8 Bo Jackson. But even he doesn’t have the stamina to go to the basket for 48 minutes. Intellectually, the best players know what they should do. Physically and emotionally, they don’t always have it in them.
Sports are hard.
Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Open course at Olympic made Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson look like two accountants hacking it around the local nine-hole. Tiger hit a chip that was going about 30 miles an hour as it passed the flagstick on the way to the far side of the green. Phil chunked one that traveled about two feet, like a toddler’s Fisher-Price shot.
Jim Furyk*, who led most or all of the last two days, needed one birdie in the last three holes to win. Even three pars would have put him in a playoff with Webb Simpson. But he couldn’t keep his drives in the fairways, and he couldn’t land his approaches on the greens, and he bogeyed two out of three and tied for fourth. (Not that Furyk needs the money, but … the difference between first and fourth was $1,163,159. As the engineers say, that’s nontrivial.)
*Furyk, a fine golfer but not exactly a lightning bolt of excitement on the course, is sponsored by 5-Hour Energy. As Chris Tardio (@tardiochris) tweeted: “I love the guy at the 5-Hour Energy executive meeting who stood up and said, ‘We’ve GOT to get Jim Furyk on board!'”
It’s hard not to distill the sports we love to their greatest moments, and then expect them all to be like that. Yes, elite athletes can sometimes win on nothing more than will: Michael Jordan scoring 38 in the Flu Game, Brett Favre throwing four touchdowns the day after his father died, Pete Sampras winning the fifth-set tiebreaker after throwing up on the court.
But competition at the highest levels is a constant struggle with weakness and failure and loss. As my friend Joe Posnanski wrote recently, maybe LeBron has to go to a dark place to be truly great — a place he doesn’t always want to go. My favorite Jordan commercial is the one where he talks about all the game-winning shots he missed. Jordan’s desire was unmatched in NBA history. But you can bet, in a lot of those failed game-winners, he settled for jumpers.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a very good driver, and he’s part of Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s top team. He has access to the best cars and crews. But he went four years between wins — 143 races — before breaking through at Michigan on Sunday. He had a few tough losses during the streak (last year in Charlotte, he was leading on the last lap when he ran out of gas). But he was also competing every week against drivers and teams that wanted to win just as much as he did. Sometimes preparation isn’t enough. Sometimes talent isn’t enough. Sports are hard. It took Dale Jr. four years to win again.
“In a day or two,” he said after the race, “I’ll be thirsty for the next one.”