In NBA's Game 6: A Mythic Matchup Game 6 of the NBA Finals is about to tip off. Miami Heat's LeBron James and Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki have achieved a drama of mythical proportions.
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In NBA's Game 6: A Mythic Matchup

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In NBA's Game 6: A Mythic Matchup

In NBA's Game 6: A Mythic Matchup

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: The Dallas Mavericks are one win away from their first NBA championship ever. And if that happens tonight, it would be a huge disappointment for the Miami Heat who've been touted as the team to beat for the last year.

NPR's Mike Pesca is our man in Miami for game six and game seven - if there is a game seven. He's with me now. Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: So the Heat have their backs against the wall at this point. We didn't really expect this, did we, the collective we?

PESCA: Yeah. I think that before the season, like you said, people were just penciling them into the championship already. And that's ridiculous, because even though they have the three great players in LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, there's more to a basketball team than three players. And people were saying, oh, you know, Rachel, you and I could play on that team. And even though you have that sweet jump shot, no, that wouldn't work. We wouldn't be a very good team.

So as the season went on, the Heat weren't good, and then they were good, and then it seemed, oh, maybe the Heat will become this fait accompli. The Mavericks have had a lot to say about that.

MARTIN: So if the Mavericks win, would this be a Maverick success or would it be a Heat collapse?

PESCA: That's the exact argument that sports fans are having and are really happy to have because it's been mythic. It's been mythic not in the sense that these guys really are heroes or superheroes, but it's been mythic in the storylines, the tropes of what defines mythology. I mean, here you have the Heat, and they were seemingly insurmountable. And the Mavericks were built as a team. They have a great player in Dirk Nowitzki, but they're much more of a team. And because it's so mythic, every time that the Mavericks do well, it seems a little bit like dragon slaying.

And what we do is we take these Miami Heat losses and we talk about character. Everything that LeBron James doesn't do is reported as a referendum on the guy's character. So right now, down three games to two with his back against the wall, which is exactly how you want the myth to play out, LeBron James has to sort of assert himself as a person we're saying rather than just a basketball player. I mean, he's as scrutinized as anyone in the world of sports.

So when I look at LeBron James and I look at what he's up against, I mostly see a guy whose task isn't as easy as it seems. And now, we haven't really talked about the Mavericks at all. All they are is the obstacle to LeBron's...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, the Mavericks.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Like, come on, they're a big part of this.

PESCA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: We should pay attention to them.

PESCA: Right. And, you know, Dirk Nowitzki himself, he's unbelievably important to the team. He does take a lot of shots. Sometimes, taking a lot of shots is criticized as being selfish. When LeBron James takes too few shots, he's criticized as being passive. I think I've figured out what explains it, and it's, if the shots go in.


PESCA: And Dirk's are going in, and LeBron's aren't, although more to the point, he's simply not taking them to the satisfaction of people who want him to step up and assert himself.

MARTIN: OK. So it's your job to be impartial as NPR sports correspondent. You are going to be at this game. You have just given us a very rigorous defense of LeBron James. Is it fair to say that you will be pulling for the Heat?

PESCA: No. No, no. I root for the story. And it'll be fascinating to see how the story shapes out. I don't root for one story or the other. So if LeBron wins, the story is not complete. We've got to go to a game seven. Maybe I'm rooting for that. But, you know, if the Mavericks win, it will be this question hanging over everything that LeBron James does. Even if LeBron James scores 45 points but the Mavericks still win, people will fairly, I think, criticize the game he had in game four, the game he had Thursday night.

And also, let me say that my defense of LeBron James was a defense of the conceptualization of LeBron James. If you want to hate LeBron James, that's fine.

MARTIN: I'm allowed to? OK.

PESCA: Yeah. That's what makes sports fun. I find it useful to sort of raise the other side of those issues...

MARTIN: Fair enough.

PESCA: ...and to say that what you're talking about in terms of shrinking from pressure can be seen in a lot of other ways, like being unselfish. But you know what, it all becomes part of the story.

MARTIN: Moral lessons from NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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