Rachel B. Glaser, Buzzer Beater, 2023.
On Monday night, the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics in definitive fashion in Game 7, winning the Eastern Conference Finals on Boston’s home court. It was a Heat fan’s fantasy. Caleb Martin played like a sleek god with magic powers. The three-pointers looked easy. With few shooting fouls, the game flowed swiftly and without controversy. For a Celtics fan, it must have been a slow nightmare, beginning with Jayson Tatum’s ankle roll in the first possession and ending with the starters on the bench, resigned to a nineteen-point loss. It was the opposite of the chaotic Game 6 of the series, which was one of the most thrilling and heartbreaking games I’ve ever seen.
Game 6 began with the Celtics continuing their momentum from their win in Game 5. They looked skilled and confident. Jaylen Brown hit his first five shots. The Celtics led for most of the game. Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo had a rough shooting night, but Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Kyle Lowry, and Duncan Robinson kept them afloat. Watching with my husband and our friend, I spoke with conviction about an ambiguous injury I was sure Jimmy was dealing with. I wondered if someone had kidnapped his daughter and ordered him to throw the game. “Get the ball to Caleb Martin!” I yelled, though a few weeks ago that name meant nothing to me.
Jimmy came alive in the fourth quarter. The Heat were trailing by two with sixteen seconds to go. In what seemed like the last possession, he was fouled while shooting a three. The clock stopped at 2.1 seconds, but after the Celtics’ challenge and the replay, the refs put more time on the clock. Jimmy made all three free throws, putting Miami up by one. The Celtics had the ball with three seconds to go. Derrick White inbounded it to Marcus Smart, who missed a three, and with a tenth of a second left and Max Strus trailing him, White looped around to the basket, grabbed the rebound, and in one deft motion, banked the ball in. It was a stunning, gutting loss. How could the Heat possibly recover? White’s putback replayed in my mind in the hours after, and the next day, and the next.
I don’t like roller coasters, or scary movies, but man do I love the frenzied, fish-flopping-on-land feeling of the last minutes of a painfully close playoff game. It is an experience of great art that creates an agonizing giddiness I’ve never felt from anything else. If a game is close when the fourth quarter begins, it’s like being given a decadent dessert. A perfectly ripe fruit. Suddenly everything feels crucial. How many fouls does Player A have? When will Player B get their shot back?
As the twelve minutes dwindle down, the excitement builds exponentially. The anguished fan alternates between faith and defeat with every play, shouting “No more threes!” and “Drive to the hoop!” They curse at Player A, who has just shot an ostentatious stepback three. But the ball goes in, so the fan thanks God for the player and their cold-blooded nerve, their pipe dream of a shot.
“There’s still a lot of game left,” the announcers say around the four-minute mark. At three minutes to go, there is a suspension of all other goings-on in the world. All that is happening is The Game. At the two-minute mark, the fan becomes delirious. Any mistake is criminal. Every whistle fills the fan with hope and dread. Time dissolves from the game clock, ushering us into the frantic joy and misery of the final minute of the game. We’ve reached the verdict, the reveal, the sweet gooey center, the sublime moments when randomness and fate wrestle between ads for ketchup and hair loss treatments.
The commentators are enraptured. Something triumphant or ridiculously annoying is about to occur. Though nothing is needed of the fan, the fan feels as though they must concentrate. If they could clear their head and believe in their team, it might help! Too much is being asked of the team! And of the players! And even of the fan! All is being decided by an erratic bouncing ball, a fickle rim, a slippery floor, and exhausted players. Some fans rock back and forth on the couch, trembling and cursing. Others leave the room in distress to sit in their closets and wait.
Player A must stop Player B at any cost! But not that way, or that way, or that way. Whistle! Foul! Free throws! Possible flagrant! The feet shifted! The arm was slapped! The face was elbowed! I worry about the future mental health struggles of whatever player is at the free-throw line as millions of eyes wait to see if the ball will go in. How terrifyingly stark and simple the game has become. One might stop and wonder why it feels so holy when the ball passes through the hoop and slips down the woven net. Does it have to do with birth? Sex? Death? Miracles? What is this cult we’ve all succumbed to?
The player scores both free throws, but there are enough seconds left for one more play. In the final tenths of a second before the backboard lights up, the ball is tipped in! Team A wins! It’s horrifying or glorious, depending on who you’re rooting for—or maybe you don’t care either way because your team was eliminated weeks ago, or your friend is making you watch the game, or you just wanted to feel alive again, to hang precariously in the balance. A playoff basketball game is one of the purest forms of physical drama. It’s a war where no one gets killed. A dance that throws people to the ground. A puzzle that shifts with every inch of motion.
The Finals start tonight, in Denver. My friends all seem to think the Nuggets will take the series in four or five or six games, but I’m done ruling the Heat out for anything. Maybe they’ll win the championship and the Super Bowl, and solve the debt crisis, and write a Bond movie! Anything can happen. Caleb Martin could score fifty! Nikola Jokić could break the record for most assists in a single game—thirty! If we’re lucky, we might get to squirm and sweat in that terrible, wonderful fourth-quarter limbo.
Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the story collection Pee On Water, the novel Paulina & Fran, and two books of poetry. She is writing a series of dispatches about the NBA Finals for the Review. View more of her NBA art here.
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