The Associated Press recap of the Miami Heat's business-like 100-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series describes the play above as follows:
In a play that showed what makes the Heat great, [LeBron] James stumbled and flipped an underhand pass to [Dwyane] Wade for a ferocious dunk that cut [the 76ers' lead] to 68-64.
"It definitely started a run for us," James said. "Luckily I was able to get rid of the ball before I traveled and D-Wade was able to slam it home."
A number of other stories written in the aftermath of the Heat silencing the Wells Fargo Center crowd also reference the play — understandably so, since it's sick as hell — and likewise emphasize the stumble and the stagger.
"Like that play, the night wasn't always pretty. It didn't go as drawn up," wrote Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "But it was effective at the end enough to carry the game. That was Thursday's storyline."
Sure, that makes sense. Effective, efficient, yeoman's work, yada yada. Except that what comes before the stumble is some "oh my God" stuff. Seriously: Re-watch that, then follow me through it.
That's a 6-foot-9, 270-pound meteor going full steam ahead on a fast break, then hitting the air brakes and going through his legs and around his back with his left hand. In like an eighth of a second. Playing in a phone booth, with about a quarter-inch of space between his own chest and that of defender Jrue Holiday. And then, calmly, fluidly shifting course to the right to find enough room to make a clean pass.
The physics of that play don't make sense. In a world governed by Newton's principles, ballboys should have had to spend 15 minutes locating and recovering the million small chunks of Holiday left strewn about the court by the collision. (This would also happen in an alternate reality where JaVale McGee dribbles the ball up the court in the playoffs.) No one else makes that play — near-doppelganger Blake Griffin probably comes closest, but I don't think he's got the handle for it. It's unique. It's special.
But because we've been watching unique, special stuff come out of the likes of LeBron for seven years, the sheer enormity of the combined elements needed to create that moment — the speed, the strength, the handle, the agility, the court vision — doesn't register quite as brightly or loudly, it seems. (In print, at least — the overwhelming response to the play from the writers and fans I follow on Twitter seemed to be, "Wooooooooooooooooooooow." Maybe the medium mutes the message here.)
That the play finished with James whipping a picture-perfect laser into the hands of a cutting teammate for a basket is, of course, what translates into two points, which is, of course, what matters most on the scoreboard. That it finished with Wade hammering the ball through the hoop is, of course, what makes it a highlight for the postgame and early-AM clips packages; 99.9 percent of fans wouldn't care if things didn't wrap up with a dunk. All of that's fine.
But what makes that play matter, I'd argue, is that it reminds us that the limits of what's reasonable and possible on the basketball court tend to seem very clear — all bright black borders and rigid right angles — until something happens that breaks them.
When you see something that makes you say, "I didn't know that could happen," that recalibrates your reality a little bit. Your understanding of physical achievement is different afterward; you have to say, "Well, OK, now that's a thing that's real." The way you'll watch basketball five minutes from now is different from the way you watched it five minutes ago. And that's amazing.
A culture built on brief bursts of highlight reel material tends to look at stuff like this, say it's cool, and then immediately move on to something else. That's totally understandable, because there's always someone else — Wade, or Blake, or Durant, or Guy Dupuy, or Usain Bolt, or whomever — doing something else that's worth your 30 seconds. Every once in a while, though, it's also worth taking a second or 30 to remember that, in some small way, experiencing plays like this can literally alter the way you understand things. Some game, huh?
International readers ("Int'l read'rs"): If the clip above isn't rocking for you, please feel free to peruse the ridiculousness elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association.
- Miami Heat