After Steve Nash edged out Shaquille O’Neal, also known as the Big Aristotle, for this season’s MVP award, the media briefly engaged the typically hush-hush question of race, as several columnists and even an on-air TV analyst (Rex Chapman) wondered aloud whether Nash’s whiteness might not have had something to do with his defeat of Shaq. The broad contours of this argument certainly have merit—it’s hard to imagine Nash’s color not exerting a subtle pull over some voters—but the particulars were less than persuasive. It was only a kind of rampant pro-Shaq-ism, after all, that allowed O’Neal even to finish second, far ahead of his younger, temporarily less famous teammate, Dwyane Wade.
Wade, a second-year guard out of Marquette, entered the league quietly amidst the hubbub over Lebron James, Darko Milicic, and Carmelo Anthony, but this year he broke from the pack, averaging 24 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds as he led the Heat to the conference’s best record. During the playoffs, Wade has become better still, scoring 30 or more points seven times, Heat victories each. Two of those wins were accomplished on the road at Washington, while the Big Aristotle was practicing a bit of moderation by resting his injured thigh. To anyone familiar with the lazy ebb and flow of NBA playoff series, it seemed plain that the Heat would drop at least one of those Shaqless games, then go back to Miami and finish off the Wizards at their leisure. Wade preferred a sharper course, scoring 31 and 42 to finish the sweep.
This killer instinct has caused the holy name of Michael Jordan to be invoked in whispers, and indeed it is a slightly less aerial Jordan whom Wade most resembles, at least in his implacableness and his penchant for hitting outlandish turnaround fallaway jumpers from eighteen to twenty feet out. At twenty-three, Wade plays with singular self-possession, so heedful of his own limits that he has attempted only nine three-pointers (making one) in sixteen playoff games. He’s revived the Jordanesque ideal of the star guard who passes, rebounds, and shoots fifty percent from the floor. But where Jordan was icy and guarded, always hard to like, Wade acts perpetually humble and plays it straight.
Now, though, Wade has been struck by a freak injury, a strained ribcage muscle that kept him out of Game 6, a Pistons rout. No one has said for sure whether Wade will play tonight, except Dwyane Sr., who gives an emphatic yes: “That’s my son. Shouldn’t I know?”
Manu Ginobili, meanwhile, has been the best player of the postseason, at least according to one rather persuasive measure: the plus/minus rating, a statistic borrowed from hockey, which tallies a team’s performance while that player is on the floor. With Ginobili playing, the Spurs have outscored their opponents by 138 points. With Ginobili on the bench (where he spends about a third of each game), the Spurs, the league’s best team, have been outscored by 25. Nobody else’s stats—O’Neal, Wade, Duncan—come close.
Ginobili, the star of Argentina’s 2004 Olympic gold-medal team, also leads the league in visibly frustrated opponents, just ahead of his fellow Spur, elbowy defensive specialist Bruce Bowen. Early in San Antonio’s first-round series against the Nuggets, Denver coach George Karl began complaining loudly that Ginobili seemed to be playing a new and uncouth form of basketball, whereby he lowered his forehead and bulled his way heedlessly to the basket. A strange argument: Ginobili is certainly one of the quickest, most acrobatic players around. But at 205 pounds, he’s hardly an overwhelming physical presence, and Karl’s chief complaint seemed to be that Ginobili had become impossible to guard. “He hits you as much as you hit him,” Karl whined at one point. The rattled Nuggets began to deal harshly with Manu, treating each of his ventures into the lane as an invitation to violence. Carmelo Anthony (who was drafted two spots ahead of Wade after leading Syracuse to the NCAA title) was ejected toward the end of Game 3, a game won almost singlehandedly by Ginobili’s 32 points, for curtailing one Ginobili drive with a WWF-type clothesline.
Ginobili, a southpaw, plays a reckless, flamboyant, freewheeling, highlight-reel game not usually associated with white players. His offensive repertoire of jukes and shimmies and squirming layups, impossible hanging banks and behind-the-back passes, punctuated by baseline drives that lead to sly reverse dunks, is rivaled in inventiveness perhaps only by Lebron James (drafted four spots ahead of Wade) and Kobe Bryant, but while Kobe often seems content to heave up a low-flying 25-footer, Ginobili is more likely to fake the shot and head for the basket. He’s also likely to try an implausible pass and fire the ball out of bounds. Within Coach Gregg Popovich’s tightly controlled scheme, he provides what baseball pitchers refer to as effective wildness: an element of entropy, unpredictability, that prevents opponents from getting too comfortable. He’s become the ideal complement to the stoical, sleepy-eyed machinations of Tim Duncan.
But if Manu Ginobili has become the stereotypical black baller, then the Detroit Pistons may have become the stereotypical squad of talentless white boys who thrive on hard work and gumption. Egoless on offense, with different scoring threats (Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace) on different nights, they succeed by distributing the ball to the hot hand, rebounding ferociously, and playing team defense of a hyperintelligent, ball-denying, floor-slapping sort. They have no superstar, no Big Aristotle or “Flash” Wade, but they certainly don’t need one, having won the championship last season, and it’s not clear what they would do if they had one. Detroit could have drafted Wade or Anthony in 2003; instead they chose seventeen-year-old Darko Milicic, the leggy Serb whose platinum-locked presence on the end of the Detroit bench, and on the court at the end of blowouts, has become the NBA’s version of a running gag. Each time Darko takes the floor, Rasheed Wallace collapses in hysterics. And yet you rarely hear a Pistons fan lament the loss of Anthony or Wade. It’s almost as if Detroit fans, and the players themselves, believe that too much talent might diminish their chances; that even as egoless a star as Dwyane Wade would disrupt their hardnosed chemistry. Sexier teams like Dallas and Sacramento and Portland seem to build their squads by accretion, always looking to add one more big name, one more big salary, to put them over the top; the Pistons stay perfect just the way they are, in all their scrappy gym-rat glory.
But will perfect be good enough tonight in Miami? Maybe so, now that Wade’s ribs have been added to Shaq’s thigh, not to mention Damon Jones’s heel and Udonis Haslem’s finger, among the Heat’s many troubles. Though Shaq seems to be healing—he showed hints of his old self during garbage time in Game 6—he’s clearly not at full strength, and his true value to Miami throughout the playoffs has been more as a guru than a go-to guy. Wade will surely suit up, if not because it’s Game 7 then because his dad will make him, but he may not be agile enough to overcome the relentless chest-to-chest defense of Lindsey Hunter. The Pistons are battle-tested champions, their prowess in elimination games is well-known, and they seem to have remained remarkably unfazed throughout their coach’s wanton flirtations with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Therefore we recommend you pick the Pistons. We, however, are picking the Heat. Miami’s two bruised heroes will win this one through a kind of alchemy. If Wade can’t carry the team, Shaq will, and if Shaq can’t carry the team, it will somehow still get done. Heat 95, Pistons 93.