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Monday, June 20, 2016

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Make History by Overcoming a 3-1 Deficit to Win Game Seven on the Road

In one night, LeBron James ensured his place alongside Jim Brown in the Cleveland sports pantheon and he elevated his already lofty position within pro basketball's pantheon. James followed up twin 41 point performances in games five and six of the NBA Finals with a rare game seven triple double as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 93-89 to complete an unprecedented rally from a 3-1 deficit.

That was an epic performance by a player who added immensely to his already impressive legacy that included two championships, two Finals MVPs and four regular season MVPs. Lebron James was not perfect but he came up LARGE when his team needed it most. His numbers were big (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocked shots, two steals) but that is beside the point because James' numbers are almost always big. What matters is James' impact when game seven and the series were on the line: in the fourth quarter, James scored 11 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished for one assist as he personally accounted for 13 of the Cavaliers' 18 points in the final stanza. James did not shoot well from the field (9-24) but that is to be expected in a tightly contested game seven--and I stated as much in my previous article when I asserted that what will matter is not James' "efficiency" but rather his aggressiveness. James did not settle for jumpers when he had the chance to attack and that is the major reason that the Cavaliers won. James unanimously won Finals MVP honors after averaging 29.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 8.9 apg in the series. James joined Julius Erving (1976 ABA Finals) as the only players in pro basketball history to lead both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in one playoff series--but, again, this is less about numbers and more about impact, because the deciding factor in this series is that James changed his mindset and approach after Cleveland fell into the 3-1 hole.

James was clearly the best player in this series--and is the best player on the planet--by a landslide but it should be noted that Kyrie Irving played at an MVP level in the Finals. Irving averaged 27.1 ppg versus Golden State and his 26 points in game seven included the three point shot that gave Cleveland the lead for good with :52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Irving completely outplayed the reigning two-time regular season MVP Stephen Curry. 

Kevin Love has consistently been the scapegoat for the Cavaliers whenever anything went wrong but he
had a positive impact throughout the series and particularly in game seven as a rebounder with a team-high 14 boards.

Draymond Green stepped up big time for Golden State (32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists) in game seven but his foolish actions throughout the playoffs that culminated in being suspended for game five of the NBA Finals are his fault alone. That said, Golden State had game seven at home, Green played very well and the Cavaliers still won, so it is ridiculous to say that the suspension swung the series. The Cavaliers proved that once James played with the requisite aggressiveness the Warriors had no answers individually or collectively.

Curry played well in the Finals by most players' standards, posting a 22.6 ppg average, but he did not place his stamp on this series by performing at an MVP level. The Warriors won the first two games easily without needing much from Curry, so Curry's numbers are somewhat skewed, but again this is less about numbers (as hard as that is for some people to understand in this so-called era of "analytics") and more about impact. Curry was a non-factor at home in game seven with the championship on the line (17 points on 6-19 field goal shooting looks better on paper than Curry actually played) and that is part of his resume now the same way that James' earlier Finals failures are on his resume; James has three great Finals performances to his credit and perhaps Curry will accomplish that as well but right now Curry does not "feel" like a two-time MVP in a world where Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won just one MVP each.

Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson was solid (19.6 ppg) but not exceptional throughout the series and he also was well nigh invisible in game seven (14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting). Thompson is an outstanding two-way player whose worth cannot be measured just by looking at his offensive numbers but he did not have the impact at either end of the court in this series that Golden State needed from him in order to repeat as NBA champions.

Switching from the key individual players to the team versus team perspective, perhaps the most remarkable team statistic from this series is that the Cavaliers held the Warriors' historically great offense to 11 points in the first quarter of game six to deliver a knockout blow in the first 12 minutes and then limited the Warriors to 13 points in the fourth quarter of game seven to capture the only close contest of the series. James' fingerprints were literally all over that defensive dominance (in terms of some spectacular blocked shots and timely steals) but Coach Tyronn Lue also deserves credit for a great defensive game plan and the entire team deserves credit for executing that game plan.

It is also worth noting that the Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State 48-39 in game seven. Coach Lue resisted the temptation to go small when the Warriors went small during this series and as a result the Cavaliers pounded the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, which more than nullified Golden State's record-setting three point assault. The "stat gurus" blithely insist that "3 is more than 2," ignoring the reality that a team that can pound the paint can (1) generate extra possessions with great rebounding, (2) wear down the legs of three point shooters by making them work on defense and (3) erode the confidence of jump shooters by placing them under physical and mental pressure that they are not used to facing. Curry and Thompson are considered by many to be the greatest shooting backcourt in history but they combined to shoot 6-24 from three point range in what may turn out to be the biggest game of their careers. The Warriors succeeded last year where previous jump shooting teams failed because they complemented their offensive fireworks with defensive dominance and because the teams they faced lacked either the mindset or the personnel to effectively utilize size against the Warriors in the paint; this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder used size/paint dominance to push the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals and then the Cavaliers used size/paint dominance to wear down the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

From a historical standpoint, this series will likely be remembered first for how it redefined James' legacy, second for how it removed the Warriors from the greatest team of all-time conversation and third for how it affected the perception of Stephen Curry's two MVP awards. James is now 3-4 in the NBA Finals and could very possibly end his career at 4-4, but a loss to Golden State would have dropped him to 2-5 and all but ensured a sub-.500 career record on the sport's biggest stage. The Warriors proved to not be the best team of 2016 and, at least by my reckoning, can no longer be seriously considered in the greatest team of all-time conversation. Curry has already won a championship and he is a better defender than Steve Nash ever was so Curry's MVPs are not as suspect as Nash's but--as mentioned above--it just feels wrong that Curry owns as many MVPs as O'Neal and Bryant combined.

Much will be made of the Cavaliers ending Cleveland's 52 year drought for professional sports championships but the Cavaliers franchise is not even 52 years old and the majority of that drought had nothing to do with James. It is significant that James returned to Cleveland after the "Decision" p.r. disaster and fulfilled his promise to win a championship with the Cavaliers and it is even more significant that James did so by attacking the hoop aggressively in the climactic portion of the series; James' ability to change the passive mindset that haunted him in several of his previous Finals' appearances is the biggest single news story about this championship.

On a personal note, the first time that the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals I covered games three and four in person with a credential from NBCSports.com. Those were the first Finals games I attended in person and I thought that they would always be the most special Finals games of my life for that reason--but I watched this game seven at home on Father's Day as my soon to be 22-month old daughter Rachel fell asleep on my lap. This Father's Day Weekend was all about Rachel for me, pushing Bar Exam prep, the NBA Finals and everything else to the side. My life has changed a lot in the past two-plus years and I don't know what the future holds, so if this game seven recap in some way does not fully match up with the moment or with my previous recaps I am sorry about that but I don't regret it, because the alternative would have been to send the message to Rachel that this game matters more to me than she does--and that is not the case. She will not remember this day or this weekend but when she is older she will know and feel that I always put her first and that I have restructured my entire life to put her first--and she will know that my favorite NBA Finals memory will always be not the first Finals that I attended in person but rather the first NBA Finals that I shared with her.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM

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Friday, June 17, 2016

LeBron James Makes a Strong Case That He is the Best Player on the Planet as Cavaliers Force Game Seven

Well done is better than well said.

Around this time last year during the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James was asked a question about his confidence and he defiantly responded that he is always confident because he is the best player on the planet. During post-game media sessions in the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James has pointedly refused to take that verbal bait and he has rallied his Cleveland Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit versus the Golden State Warriors to a 3-3 tie by letting his play do his talking.

James followed up a scintillating 41 point outburst in game five with an even more impressive 41 point performance in game six as the Cavaliers routed the Warriors 115-101. What made this 41 point performance more special? This is not about numbers but about impact; make no mistake that James had a lot of impact in both games but in game six he not only set the tone at the start but he scored 18 straight points in the second half to short-circuit a potential Golden State rally that could have not only won the game but also clinched the title for the Warriors.

James has put up good numbers throughout the series but he played far too passively in games one and two as the Warriors cruised to a 2-0 series lead. James did not consistently attack the hoop to score during those games. The Warriors have no player who can guard James individually when James is in attack mode and the Warriors have no team defensive scheme that can stop him, either. The only player in this series who can slow down James is James himself. When James catches the ball on the block and powers decisively to the hoop with the intention of scoring, he scores or gets fouled; when James power dribbles into the paint on the break or quickly after catching the ball on the wing, he scores or gets fouled. Also, James is now utilizing his midrange and three point game perfectly; he is not settling for those shots when he has the opportunity to attack the paint but he is taking those shots with confidence when the defense dares him to do so.

James joined Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to score at least 40 points in back to back NBA Finals games (West accomplished this on two separate occasions). It is worth noting that Julius Erving scored at least 40 points in games one and two of the 1976 ABA Finals, while Connie Hawkins had at least 40 points in games four and six of the 1968 ABA Finals but missed game five due to injury.

James started game six aggressively and he maintained that aggressiveness throughout the contest. The Warriors elected to begin the game with a small lineup--their so-called "Death Lineup"-- instead of replacing injured starting center Andrew Bogut with another big man and the Cavaliers repeatedly punished the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, with James leading the way as the Cavaliers outscored Golden State 31-11 in the first quarter.

James is a dominant scorer, not the "pass-first" player that some claim him to be and that James often defines himself to be--but he is without question an all-around player in addition to being a dominant scorer and in game six he showcased the full range of his talents: he shot 16-27 from the field while also passing for 11 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, swiping four steals and blocking three shots.

Size and physicality bother the Warriors. We saw that during the Western Conference Finals when the Oklahoma City Thunder bludgeoned the Warriors in the paint en route to taking a 3-1 series lead. The Thunder could not figure out how to close out games five, six and seven but they provided a blueprint to compete with and possibly beat the Warriors--at least for teams that have big players who are also mobile. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson fit that bill to perfection--and when the Warriors go small, those guys are the two biggest players on the court. Cleveland shot .519 from the field in game six, including .600 (30-50) from inside the three point line. The Cavaliers also won the rebounding battle 45-35, as Thompson corralled a game-high 16 rebounds to go with his 15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting. Draymond Green returned from suspension to grab 10 rebounds but no other Warrior had more than four.

Other notable game six performances include 23 points by Kyrie Irving--who led Cleveland with 20 first half points before taking a back seat to James in the second half--and 30 points by Stephen Curry. Two-time MVP Curry matched his league-leading regular season scoring average but he did not have a great game by his standards; he only had one assist and two rebounds, he turned the ball over four times and after he fouled out with a little more than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter he became so irate that he threw his mouthpiece, drawing an automatic ejection when the mouthpiece struck a fan. Curry downplayed the significance of the toss, saying that he was aiming for the scorers' table as he has in the past but he just missed. However, Curry's palpable anger and frustration is not only misplaced with a championship on the line but very ironic considering that just a few days ago the Warriors were mocking James for supposedly being a crybaby. Curry's backcourt mate Klay Thompson added 25 points and Leandro Barbosa contributed 14 points off of the bench but the rest of the Warriors did not show up.

The way that the Cavaliers are pushing the Warriors around--both in the literal, physical sense and also psychologically--lends some credence to the old-school critique that the Warriors would not have been a 73-9 team in the 1990s or 1980s. If Curry and his cohorts think that the Cavaliers are too rough or the game is being officiated too loosely then they would not have stood a chance against the championship teams from the NBA's golden age. Tristan Thompson has no postup game and cannot make a free throw but he ate Green's lunch in the paint. How would Green have fared against the likes of Kevin McHale? I think that McHale said it best a while back when he declared, "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." Like Thompson, McHale had the mobility to defend on the perimeter and the size to battle in the paint--but McHale also had a deadly postup game and a deft free throw shooting touch.

I do not know what will happen in game seven but I do not consider this Cleveland team or this year's Oklahoma City team to be historically great teams and both of those squads showed that at the very least they could push Golden State to the limit. If Golden State caps off this season with a championship that is quite an accomplishment but I have seen enough to convince me that Golden State is a notch below the truly great championship teams of the past 35 years such as (in reverse chronological order) the 2001 Lakers, the 1996 Bulls, the 1987 Lakers, the 1986 Celtics and the 1983 76ers.

What does all of this mean for the legacies of the 73-9 Warriors, a Cleveland franchise that has never won a title, LeBron James and Stephen Curry? The only honest answer is that it is too soon too tell. The complete story has not been written yet. The Warriors have looked dominant at times but they have looked flustered and dominated at other times. The Cavaliers have the right personnel and game plan to win this series but Cleveland sports franchises are notorious for stumbling in the biggest moments. LeBron James is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all-time and he has produced many classic playoff performances but he also owns a 2-4 Finals record that is littered with subpar performances in key moments. Curry has had a solid series overall but he has yet to really place an MVP imprint on the proceedings and this comes on the heels of last year's Finals when he also failed to showcase the full range of his skills. Larry Bird won the 1981 NBA title in no small part thanks to the Finals MVP efforts of Cedric Maxwell but most MVP/Hall of Fame level players who win championships either win the Finals MVP or only fail to do so because an MVP/Hall of Fame level teammate captured the honor. If Curry wins back to back titles without being the Finals MVP either time that will be a historical anomaly.

This game seven will likely be long-remembered. I believe that the James-Curry rivalry will be considered historically significant as time passes, because either or both may still add to their MVP and championship totals. 

My mind tells me that a reigning champion like Golden State is not likely to lose at home in game seven. It is very tough to win on the road in game seven against a top notch team. My all-time favorite game seven won by a road team is Philadelphia over Boston in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers blew a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals and when they lost game six at home in 1982 to once again squander a 3-1 lead everyone thought that the 76ers were doomed heading into the Boston Garden--but Andrew Toney poured in 34 points and Julius Erving scored 29 points as the 76ers won, 120-106. It would be 13 years--and 20 game sevens--until another NBA team won a game seven on the road.

My heart tells me that a great player properly motivated with the right mindset can impact the outcome of a basketball game more profoundly than can a great player in any other team sport. James' jumper might be off in game seven. Consequently, he might shoot something like 11-27 from the field--but the numbers will not matter as much as the attitude, the shot selection and the timing: if James attacks the paint relentlessly and shoots open jumpers without settling for jumpers when driving lanes are open then the Cavaliers can pull off an upset that seemed unthinkable when the Warriors were up 2-0. The odds are against James and the Cavaliers but this is how legends are made. I am not a big believer in the idea of elevating the importance of one game when a player has already produced a large body of work but if James lifts Cleveland to the title by authoring a third straight dominant game (defined, at least for me, by impact and not numbers) then this game will be a milestone event in James' career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

James, Irving Excel as Cavs Avoid Elimination

What is the difference between LeBron James attacking aggressively and LeBron James playing passively? The answer to that question is not found in the boxscore but rather via the eye test: watch game five of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James attacks aggressively and watch game four of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James plays passively.

Facing elimination on the road, James delivered an outstanding performance in game five as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors 112-97. James finished with 41 points on 16-30 field goal shooting. He also had 16 rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers. Kyrie Irving matched James' point total while shooting 17-24 from the field to become just the second player (Wilt Chamberlain is the other one) to score at least 40 points in an NBA Finals game while shooting .700 or better from the field. It is rare for two teammates to each score at least 40 points in the same NBA game and this is the first time that two teammates each scored 40 points in the same NBA Finals game.

As Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter and Tim Legler noted after the game, James set the tone from the start: he aggressively attacked the paint and when defenders played off of him to discourage him from driving he unhesitatingly took and made jump shots from both midrange and beyond the three point line. Thomas said that when the best player sets the tone then everyone else follows. Thomas stressed how important it is for the best player to look to score early in the game.

Doug Collins made the same point before game five when he reviewed what happened in game four. Collins cited James' gaudy looking game four statistics but said, "These aren't winning numbers...It׳s not about looking at the statistics afterward." Collins declared that for the Cavaliers to win this series they need for James to be the best player on the court at least four times but that after four games in the series he had only done it once.

James scored 25 points on 10-18 field goal shooting in the first half of game five. He had nine rebounds and no assists. He was the first player to attempt 18 field goals in one half of a Finals game since Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Finals. Any time Bryant had a half like that, guys like Mike Wilbon would wrongly blast Bryant for shooting so much and not having any assists but at halftime Mark Jackson correctly praised James: "We've been waiting to see this LeBron James all series long." Jackson pointed out that the lack of assists did not mean anything because the Cavaliers were utilizing actions that created scoring opportunities for James and that James was rightly attacking to score instead of looking to pass. James was taking good shots, so it did not matter that he was not accumulating assists.

Jeff Van Gundy's halftime analysis was also right on point. He said that the analytics guys (who I call "stat gurus") would not approve of James' shot selection because he took several midrange jump shots (the dreaded "long twos" that the "stat gurus" are trying to eliminate from basketball) but that James was right to take such shots when the defense gave him so much space. This is exactly the point that I made several years ago when I compared James and Bryant: Bryant was more valuable (and more successful in terms of winning championships) than James because Bryant consistently took and made midrange shots; Bryant's willingness and ability to do this opened up the entire floor for Bryant and his teammates. The San Antonio Spurs have had a great defensive team for almost 20 years but they struggled to deal with Bryant because of his mastery of the midrange game. In contrast, the Spurs went 2-1 in the NBA Finals versus James in large part because James could not or would not take and make such shots.

Overall, the first half of game five was some of the best and most enjoyable NBA basketball I have watched in quite some time. The 61-61 score was the highest halftime point total in the Finals since Magic Johnson led the Lakers to five titles during the Showtime era. I remember when NBA Finals games routinely had halftime scores with both teams scoring more than 50 points. Those games were so much fun to watch.

In addition to James' fine first half production, Irving blistered the nets with 18 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, while Klay Thompson shot 6-8 from three point range and led the Warriors with 26 points.

A key moment in the game happened early in the third quarter, when Golden State center Andrew Bogut injured his left knee while blocking a shot. After Golden State failed to score in transition, Cleveland enjoyed a 5 on 4 advantage as Bogut writhed in pain just off of the court behind the Warriors' basket. Instead of attacking the hoop, James passed the ball and Kevin Love missed a long three pointer. Bogut left the game after the ensuing stoppage of play and he did not return to action. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr elected to go small for most of the rest of the way but Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue rightly avoided the temptation to go small as well. Lue kept Love and/or Tristan Thompson on the court and the Cavaliers used their overall size plus the driving abilities of James and Irving to good effect to punish the Warriors in the paint.

The Cavaliers built a double digit lead and were ahead 93-84 entering the fourth quarter. At that point, James had scored 36 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, while Irving had scored 29 points on 12-15 field goal shooting. As mentioned above, James set the tone for Cleveland's attack and Cleveland would not have won without him performing in that fashion but it is interesting that in this do or die game Irving, not James, turned out to be Cleveland's closer. Irving pumped in 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter, while James limped to the finish (metaphorically speaking, not literally) with just five points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the final stanza.

Van Gundy often states that shot selection should be judged on quality not outcome (i.e., it is possible to make a bad shot or miss a good shot). Irving took the same kinds of shots in game five that he took in game four. Irving is demonstrating during this series that he is not afraid of the moment and that he is willing to attack offensively on a consistent basis, providing more proof that Mike Wilbon's criticism of Irving's game four performance/shot selection was misguided and ill-informed. James' commitment to attack wavers from game to game--and even within a single game, as we saw last night--but Irving consistently has an attacking mindset. Irving reminds me a little of Andrew Toney. Irving is flashier than Toney (though Toney had a devastating crossover move) but otherwise they are very similar: both attack to score, both are deadly at the hoop, in the midrange and beyond the arc (though the three point shot was not a big weapon during Toney's era) and both are very capable passers despite not having a pass-first mentality. Toney was physically stronger than Irving and Toney was a more consistent defender who could, at times, be relied upon even to defend larger players.

While it is tempting focus primarily on James, Irving and Thompson (who finished with 37 points), it must be noted that Stephen Curry--winner of the past two regular season MVP awards--has yet to put his stamp on this series. Curry finished game five with 25 points on 8-21 field goal shooting. Curry's defense during the Finals has been inconsistent at best and while his commendable movement off of the ball has created shot opportunities for his teammates it is not enough for an MVP to just be a decoy. Golden State had an opportunity to clinch the championship at home and instead of taking over the game Curry was, at best, the fourth best player on the court. Unlike James, Curry does not have a problem with being aggressive; Curry is not playing differently than usual but his effectiveness has dropped and he should not get a free pass either because his team is still leading the series or because the dominant narrative is that in terms of individual legacies this series is mostly about LeBron James. Curry should be expected to perform at an MVP level and he should be held accountable when he fails to do so.

The Cavaliers still face an uphill struggle to win this series; they must beat Golden State at home in Cleveland and then win game seven on the road. Bogut's availability is unknown at this time but Draymond Green will return to action after serving a one game suspension in game five. Green's suspension is a polarizing issue but my take is that the NBA has two choices regarding Green's repeated karate chops and karate kicks to the groin area and his assorted other dirty plays: the NBA can either go the NHL route by letting players "police" such activity (which would mean that Green's victims would be permitted to retaliate in kind) or the NBA has to punish Green in escalating fashion until he decides to control his behavior. Green should have been ejected and suspended for his kick to Steven Adams' groin during the Western Conference Finals; there is no way that was an accident and even if it was an accident I agree with Frank Isola's point that such contact is still unnecessary and excessive to the extent that it should be punished. In other words, if it was not on purpose then it was dangerously reckless.

Kenny Smith once said that if you do something bad once that does not make you a bad person but if you do bad things repeatedly then maybe those actions represent who you are. I have not heard Smith's take on the Green issue specifically but I think that Smith's general observation is correct. Regarding Green, he has done multiple actions on the court that are flagrant and/or dirty, including repeatedly delivering blows to opposing players' groins. Green's conduct is unacceptable. If he had done this in the 1980s, he would have gotten his butt kicked. Rick Mahorn said if Green had done that to him once he would have cracked Green upside the head as hard as he could and taken whatever punishment the league dished out. Green's conduct is dangerous and inexcusable because (1) hitting someone in that area could cause permanent damage and (2) if the NBA does not get this conduct under control someone is going to go the Mahorn rout and crack Green upside the head, which could rapidly degenerate into a full-fledged fight/riot the likes of which the NBA has not seen since the infamous Malice in the Palace.

Some people say that LeBron James instigated the incident by pushing Green down and then stepping over him. James was appropriately punished for his conduct: he received a foul and a technical foul on the play. There is no excuse for Green targeting James' groin, regardless of how much or how little contact Green actually made. It is ironic that Green allegedly called James a word that rhymes with "itch," because I cannot think of a move that is more "itch"-like than repeatedly hitting other men in their genitals. Such actions do not prove Green's toughness and I am sure that he would not act this way outside of an NBA arena where he has referees and security personnel to protect him.

Green's absence does not in any way tarnish Cleveland's win. Green took himself out of action by repeatedly committing flagrant fouls, so his unavailability is no different than a player fouling out or getting injured. Those things are part of the game and if the Warriors or their fans are angry then they should direct their anger at Green, whose conduct could potentially cost the Warriors the championship. A big part of winning a championship is staying poised. If all it takes to get Green to lose his poise is to "disrespect" him by stepping over him then if I were an opposing coach I'd send my 12th man in the game to "disrespect" Green in the first quarter. If Green felt the need to be macho when James stepped over him then Green could have just said the magic word to James--"scoreboard"--and pointed to the numbers showing that Golden State was about to take a 3-1 series lead. Or, Green could have done what so many other "macho" NBA players do: he could have pointed his finger at James and acted like he wanted to fight while making sure that 10 other people stood between them. Green knew exactly what he was doing when he took aim at James' groin and Green felt comfortable doing this because he has gotten away with it before (or because he is so mentally weak that he got caught up in the moment instead of putting his team first).

Green's teammates predictably rallied behind him publicly but I would be willing to bet that the coaching staff--if not the players--has told Green in no uncertain terms to not take any other actions that could potentially rewrite the ending to Golden State's dream season.

Golden State is a tremendous team that likely will eventually win this series but at this point no one can honestly say that James does not have enough help. The Cavaliers won both games during which he was fully engaged and played in attack mode and the Cavaliers would likely be leading the series if he had been fully engaged from the start of the series, as Collins suggested. This is not about James scoring a certain number of points or taking a certain number of shots. This is about James driving to score (not pass) and about James unhesitatingly taking midrange shots when the defense completely shuts off his driving lanes by clogging the paint. Cleveland has no chance to win if James spends most of the game driving to pass and if he refuses to shoot in favor of giving the ball to teammates who are less open than he is. How James plays the rest of the way will give some indication if his game five performance was more about winning a championship or simply about making a one game statement. Is James content to show the world what he is capable of doing or will James accept nothing less than winning the championship? To win the championship, James might have to shoot 10-30 from the field, if by being aggressive James changes Golden State's defense and tilts the floor in a way that creates offensive rebounding opportunities and other open shots for his teammates. This is not about being "efficient"; this is about a superstar's willingness to be consistently aggressive and live with the results.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 PM

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Is LeBron James the Modern Wilt Chamberlain?

No team has ever surrendered a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, so for the Cleveland Cavaliers game four at home was as important--at least in a practical sense--as a game seven. Cleveland led the defending champion Golden State Warriors 55-50 at halftime and still led 83-81 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. During the next nine minutes of play, LeBron James shot 0-4 from the field (two attempts were three pointers from well behind the arc) with a turnover. James split a pair of free throws with 1:12 remaining to cut the margin to 96-89. James scored six points in the final minute--on three uncontested drives--to pad his final scoring total to 25 points but at no time during the final 1:12 did Golden State lead by fewer than seven points, a comfortable three possessions cushion.

Thus, Golden State won 108-97, closing out the game (and likely the series) with a 27-14 run down the stretch, while James was largely invisible, save for three late, inconsequential buckets.

James, a four-time NBA regular season MVP and the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet," disappeared from sight during a pivotal fourth quarter that likely decided the outcome of the NBA Finals. Some people have suggested that James was tired, but the reality is that previous greats of the game shouldered equally heavy burdens in terms of minutes played and overall responsibilities. That decisive nine minute fourth quarter stretch was an opportunity for James to grab this series by the throat and force his will upon the proceedings. In such a situation, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant would have gone down shooting--or they would have attracted so much defensive attention with their aggressiveness that their teammates had wide open shots. 

James did not do that at all. He shrank from the moment, in the biggest moment of all. Maybe he will have a monster game five on the road, maybe not--but game four was an opportunity to extend the series to at least six games and to plant at least some doubt in the Warriors' minds.

James' final box score numbers look tremendous: 25 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, 13 rebounds, nine assists. Seemingly the only blemish would be his seven turnovers, but there are good reasons that I  do not rely on statistics--whether basic or "advanced"--to evaluate players.

I remember an NBA Finals telecast from decades ago during which Bill Russell noted that what matters is not so much how many points a player scores but when the player scores them. Russell was speaking specifically about the impact that Julius Erving had not only because Erving was a high scoring player but also because Erving scored at crucial moments when the outcome was up for grabs.

Watching James play for more than a decade has given me at least some insight about why some of Wilt Chamberlain's contemporaries rank him below Bill Russell even though Chamberlain's individual numbers dwarf Russell's. James has repeatedly demonstrated that context and timing matter more than raw statistics. The Cavaliers built their game four halftime lead even though James was quiet during the first 24 minutes (seven points); this demonstrates that the Cavaliers are not solely dependent on James to be productive and competitive but it also represents a wasted opportunity: if James had been aggressive in the first half, the Cavaliers may have opened up a double digit lead that would have given them a bigger cushion and also possibly affected how the Warriors played in the second half--but, instead, the Warriors were understandably quite comfortable at halftime, as Golden State Coach Steve Kerr noted after the game.

Russell once said that after the outcome of a game was decided, he would sometimes let Chamberlain score. It was all psychological warfare to Russell, who wanted to placate Chamberlain and let Chamberlain feel satisfied about winning the personal duel as long as Russell's team won the overall war. In a recent ESPN the Magazine article, Jackie MacMullan wrote that Kobe Bryant--inspired by this Russell tactic--used to pull a similar "rope a dope" on Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. Bryant laughingly told her that he would "neither confirm nor deny" this, but MacMullan claims to have verified this with several of Bryant's former teammates and coaches.

James has an almost unhealthy awareness of his personal statistics. When his teams lose, he is quick to blame injuries or his teammates' lack of production or any factor other than his own effort. The most infamous example of this is the final playoff series of his first stint in Cleveland, when he churlishly responded to questions about his indifferent game five performance by stating that he had "spoiled" the fans with his excellence over the years. I cannot recall Russell or Erving or Jordan or Bryant blaming the fans for a playoff loss or calling the fans "spoiled" by their own greatness.

Chamberlain, like James, was the best player on two championship teams while also falling short in several other trips to the NBA Finals. Chamberlain was much more dominant than James and for the most part Chamberlain fell short against another greatest player of all-time candidate (Bill Russell) who was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates led by a Hall of Fame coach, while James has lost to some teams/players that cannot be compared to Russell and his Celtics.

Ultimately, based on the available footage I have seen, the people from that era who I have interviewed and the research that I have done, I give more credence to those who state that Chamberlain was more dominant than Russell and a better all-around player than I do to those who claim that Chamberlain was overrated--but James has provided vivid proof that gaudy individual numbers in a losing cause do not necessarily prove that a superstar is blameless and has been saddled with an insurmountably inferior supporting cast.

Not surprisingly, the media coverage of game four spun in many directions--but without question the most bizarre take was offered by Mike Wilbon. Wilbon is a respected and accomplished sportswriter but I have never understood why ESPN touts him as some kind of basketball expert. Wilbon often gets his facts wrong and his analysis is typically way off-base.

When SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt asked Wilbon for his perspective on game four, Wilbon ignored James' disappearing act and then blasted Kyrie Irving (who scored a team-high 34 points on 14-28 field goal shooting while committing only one turnover in 43 minutes) in a way that Wilbon probably has not blasted anyone since he used to blame Kobe Bryant for supposedly shooting too much. Wilbon declared that he had never seen anyone play as selfishly as Irving did in the fourth quarter and that under no circumstances should Irving take more shots than James. Then, mercifully, Wilbon's microphone went out and Van Pelt turned to Brendan Haywood in studio. Haywood, who was a teammate of James and Irving last year after winning a ring versus James in the 2011 Finals, tried to be diplomatic but he completely disagreed with Wilbon, noting that Irving had a great game and that someone "has to have that Michael Jordan moment" when James "is not being aggressive."

Haywood concluded, "I like the way he (Irving) played," adding, "If LeBron was asking for the ball on the block or getting into the lane and being aggressive then I would say 'Hey Kyrie you have to defer.'"

Haywood then rightfully put Van Pelt on the spot and asked Van Pelt what he thought of Wilbon's commentary. Van Pelt wanted no part of directly attacking his more famous and influential colleague but at least Van Pelt had the guts to say, "I don't understand why LeBron doesn't take it to the hoop every time he has someone smaller on him."

That is the issue in a nutshell. This series' impact on James' legacy is not based on how many points James averages or how good his supporting cast is compared to Golden State's supporting cast; James, as his team's best player, has an obligation to relentlessly attack the paint to score and his failure to consistently do this tarnishes his legacy, particularly since James has fallen short in similar fashion on this stage several other times. If James relentlessly attacked the paint, he would (1) score, (2) put Golden State in foul trouble and (3) force Golden State to double team him, which would in turn enable Cleveland's role players to shine.

James built this roster and hired this coach. James cannot blame his teammates when he spends most of the game--including the decisive nine minutes of the fourth quarter--standing passively outside the three point line or else driving with the primary intention of passing even if his teammates are not open. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both said it repeatedly during the telecast: James must drive or post up with the intention of scoring and then only pass if the pass creates an advantage.

There is so much talk about how this series could impact James' legacy that it is easy to forget that the "other" team in the series is not only on the verge of capping off a record-setting 73 win season by winning back to back titles but that squad features a great player who is building his own legacy. Prior to scoring a game-high 38 points in game four, Stephen Curry had not covered himself in glory in the 2016 Finals and it is fair to ask why his play was not as scrutinized and criticized as James' play or as Kobe Bryant's play had been in years past. Typically, an MVP is expected to perform at a high level in the Finals--and Curry is not "merely" an MVP but he is a two-time reigning MVP who is just the fourth point guard (Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Steve Nash are the others) to win a regular season MVP. Curry's pedestrian performances in games one and two could perhaps be excused by the fact that his team won so easily that greatness was not required but in game three Curry played poorly when his team had an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch.

The interesting thing about Curry is that he has been the best, most consistent regular season performer in the league the past two years but his postseason play has not quite matched that level and he clearly does not have the size, strength and two-way maximum potential possessed by James. Put another way, James' best game would clearly be better than Curry's best game. We expect less from Curry despite the accolades he has received and thus we are more apt to give Curry a pass. That does not mean that it is wrong to criticize James for the shortcomings that I detailed above, but it does mean that two-time MVP Curry should be expected to perform at an elite level and he should be criticized when he fails to do so.

The main thing that can be said in Curry's defense--and this is far from insignificant--is that Curry does things to help his team win that do not show up in the boxscore; Curry moves without the ball, he sets screens and he is always active. Curry will make the pass to initiate an action even if it is likely that someone else down the line will get the assist. James orchestrates things such that his passes lead directly to shot attempts, increasing the chance that he will get an assist. That is not necessarily a bad thing but his team would be better served in many instances if he posted up, drew a double team and then passed to a teammate who then made a skip pass for an assist. Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant opened things up for their teammates during championship runs by consistently making those kinds of plays and they were both deadly passers even though their assist totals were not always gaudy.

I have watched LeBron James intently for his entire NBA career. I have seen many of his games in person and during his first stint in Cleveland I had the opportunity to speak to him before and/or after some of those games. There is no question that he is smart, driven and supremely talented. He is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, without question or hesitation.

Yet, he is also the most puzzling and frustrating of the truly great players who I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand. The only historical analogy that I know of for the way that James' individual numbers give an inflated reckoning of the true quality of his performances would be Wilt Chamberlain. Perhaps that comparison is not at all fair to Chamberlain; many of Chamberlain's contemporaries swear that Chamberlain was much better than Russell and that if their situations had been reversed Chamberlain would have won just as much as Russell did. There will never be a definitive answer to that question and I mean no disrespect to Chamberlain, a childhood hero of mine who is perhaps my favorite basketball player whose prime took place before I was born.

All I can say is that my impression of James matches up with the critiques that some people provided of Chamberlain; the Chamberlain critiques may not be fair but from firsthand knowledge I know that it is fair to say that James has not maximized his individual talent or his championship potential, based on his inexplicable reluctance to attack mismatches in these Finals and in previous playoff series. The bottom line is this: if LeBron James is unwilling or unable to catch the ball on the block, drop step to the baseline (or quickly spin to the middle for a jump hook) and score/get fouled until the Warriors are forced to double team him then he is not as great as his supporters say he is, no matter what individual numbers he posts. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes cannot stop an aggressive, engaged James in the post, nor can any of them can stop James from catching the ball at the elbow, taking two power dribbles to the hoop and scoring. Jordan and Bryant were not as physically imposing as James but they both controlled games and series by aggressively and relentlessly attacking from the post and/or the midrange area. James' inconsistent midrange game and his default tendency to passivity when facing elite teams in playoff series are two major reasons that he must be ranked below Jordan and Bryant in pro basketball's Pantheon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 PM

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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

How Much Blame Does LeBron James Deserve for Cleveland's 0-2 Deficit?

You may have heard the cliche "A series does not start until the home team loses." By that way of thinking, the 2016 NBA Finals have not started even though the defending champion Golden State Warriors enjoy a 2-0 lead. Don't believe the hype, because 31 teams have previously fallen into a 2-0 hole in the NBA Finals and only three of those teams came back to win the series: 1969 Boston Celtics (in the last of Bill Russell's record-setting 11 title runs), 1977 Portland Trail Blazers (in the first title of what may have become a dynasty were it not for Bill Walton's balky feet and knees), 2006 Miami Heat (in the last of Shaquille O'Neal's four title runs, as Dwyane Wade emerged as a superstar).

Cleveland may very well extend this series but it is highly unlikely that the Cavaliers will beat the Warriors four times in five games. Channeling Rick Pitino, it is fair to say that Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Dwyane Wade are not walking through that door.

No, the future Hall of Fame Cavalier who is walking through that door is LeBron James, whose NBA Finals record is about to drop to 2-5.

The excuses for James are adding up even more quickly than his turnovers and missed shots. I was going to wait to recap this series until it was over but (1) as noted above, the overwhelming likelihood is that this series is over (in terms of outcome, if not duration) and (2) so much nonsense is being spewed that I feel compelled to provide some correction.

A Sports Illustrated piece suggested that the Cavaliers' problem is that James is saddled with the weakest supporting cast that he has ever carried to the NBA Finals? Really? We are supposed to believe that the supporting cast that went 12-2 during the Eastern Conference playoffs--the supporting cast that includes two All-Star caliber players in the prime of their careers, plus a host of talented veteran role players--is the problem? In the many years that passed before LeBron James won his first championship, I repeatedly asked the question, "How much help does LeBron James need to win a title?" During James' first stint in Cleveland, he had a 66 win team and a 61 win team--and those teams coasted to the finish line because they had lapped the field or else they could have easily won several more games. The Cavaliers had so much talent at that time that guys like Shannon Brown and Danny Green--who both later played significant roles for championship teams--could not even get on the court. Yet James could not even take those teams to the Finals.

Now, James has even more talent around him than he did back then. He has his hand-picked roster and his hand-picked coach. Until Kevin Love suffered a concussion in game two, the Cavaliers were fully healthy.

No, the "LeBron James does not have enough help" story line belongs squarely in the fiction section, because it is not plausible as non-fiction.

ESPN's Brian Windhorst decided to bury the lead. Instead of focusing on how poorly James is playing, Windhorst started his post-game two analysis with this sentence: "LeBron James once destroyed the promising core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison by beating the Washington Wizards three years in a row in the playoffs." What exactly does that have to do with the 2016 NBA Finals? Windhorst then went on to wax poetic about how James supposedly dismantled the Pistons and the Celtics, capping off with the bizarre comment that the San Antonio Spurs "had their souls crushed in the 2013 Finals and James performed the coup de grace personally in game seven. He will always have that one and the Spurs will probably never fully get over it."

Sure. The Spurs were so soul-crushed that they routed James and his Miami Heat 4-1 in the 2014 Finals, posting historic margins of victory that looked like they would stand for decades but may be eclipsed by the end of this week as the Warriors obliterate James' Cavaliers. I think that Tim Duncan finds some comfort in his five championship rings and his 2-1 Finals record over the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet." If Duncan's soul has been crushed he is hiding it very well.

As for the Wizards, that overrated collection of unfocused talent dismantled internally, exemplified by Gilbert Arenas challenging a teammate to a gunfight, not realizing that this teammate was a Crip who a few short years later would be sentenced to 23 years in prison for manslaughter. The quirky media darling Arenas is lucky that Javaris Crittenton did not blow Arenas' head off. The Wizards were never going to make it past the second round even if they never faced LeBron James.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Wizards.

As for the Pistons, while James had a tremendous series against them in 2007 it is clear that the Pistons were at the end of their run by the time James arrived on the scene; Larry Brown had already departed and key members of the championship core soon followed him out the door as well. Bizarre decisions such as trying to build around Rodney Stuckey had more to do with Detroit's decline than anything that James did.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Pistons (and it is odd that Windhorst believes that the Cavaliers' victory against the eighth seeded Pistons this season is somehow an extension of James' alleged dismantling of the Pistons).

What about the Celtics? The Celtics' Big Three (plus Rajon Rondo) was put together to win immediately, not sustain excellence. The Celtics captured the 2008 title and returned to the Finals in 2010. James did not take the Cavaliers to the Finals at all between 2008-10 and he did not win a championship until 2012, after he fled to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Celtics.

Windhorst's paean to James fits in with ESPN's modus operandi for years: praise James no matter what (don't forget which network hosted the ill-considered "Decision"), while also taking shots at any potential or perceived rival to James (hence the ridiculous attacks on Kobe Bryant by Henry Abbott, Michael Wilbon and others over the years).

Forget the Wizards. Forget revisionist history. The stark truth is that LeBron James has already been on the wrong end of two of the most lopsided losses in Finals history: a sweep in 2007 and a loss by a historic ppg margin in five games in 2014. Now, James' Cavaliers have lost by an unprecedented margin in the first two games of the 2016 Finals. This is not just about James' Finals record but also about how poorly he has performed on the sport's biggest and most important stage.

Windhorst's ESPN colleague Dave McMenamin, whose reporting has improved in recent years, found the real story of the 2016 Finals, quoting a source close to the Cavaliers as saying after game two, "No heart, no toughness, no resilience. Those three things are LeBron included."

Yes, that is about right. At times, James has been the biggest and tallest player on the court. There is no one in the series who can guard him one on one in the post. As Shaquille O'Neal would say, it should be "barbecue Bay Area chicken" when James gets the ball. Instead, James has been content to drift outside to (1) watch Kyrie Irving put on a dribbling exhibition, (2) drive to the hoop tentatively only to pass the ball instead of trying to finish at the rim or (3) hold the ball in the post, enabling the Warriors to dig in and smack the ball away.

James needs to either (1) go quickly to the hoop after he catches the ball in the post or (2) when he catches the ball on the perimeter, immediately drive to the hoop with the goal of scoring, not passing.

Although James has made some highlight reel worthy defensive plays, overall his defense has been atrocious. Many of the layups given up by the Cavaliers are the result of James being out of position.

I don't care if James averages a triple double in this series, which he may very well do. The numbers he is posting are meaningless because he is not playing in a way that would give his team a realistic chance to win.

If the Warriors are going to play small, James has to punish them in the paint. The Oklahoma City Thunder proved that the Warriors have no answer at either end of the court when faced with players who have size and athleticism. If the Thunder could have figured out how to stop throwing the ball away at the end of games then they would have dethroned the Warriors.

The Cavaliers absolutely have enough talent to beat the Warriors but they lack the right mindset to even compete at this level--and that starts with James.

One more point must be made. I have tremendous respect for Jerry West as a player, executive and talent evaluator. West, who went 1-8 in the Finals as a player, sympathizes with James, who (as mentioned above) is about to fall to 2-5 in the Finals. West recently said that it is ridiculous to criticize James for his Finals record. It is understandable that West would stick up for James; as a consultant to the Warriors, West probably does not want to give James any added fuel/motivation and on a personal level West is no doubt offended by the idea that a great player should be judged by his Finals record. While West would be right to say that he personally should not be judged by his Finals record, James' Finals record is much different (and much worse) than West's.

Here are West's scoring averages and field goal percentages for each of his Finals appearances, along with the results of those series and some parenthetical notes:

1962: 31.1 ppg .456 3-4 Boston (lost by three points in game seven)
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 2-4 Boston
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 1-4 Boston (no Elgin Baylor)
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven)
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 2-4 Boston
1969: 37.9 ppg .490 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven); won NBA's first Finals MVP and is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP
1970: 31.3 ppg .450 3-4 NY
1972: 19.8 ppg .425 4-3 LAL (Chamberlain won the Finals MVP)
1973: 21.4 ppg .442 1-4 NY

Keep in mind that West was a 6-3 guard playing in a more physical era when shooting percentages were lower and the three point shot did not exist in the NBA. West elevated his game while facing the greatest dynasty in NBA--if not professional sports--history. Three times, West's L.A. Lakers lost to the Celtics by three points or less in game seven. West's only lopsided Finals losses came in 1965--when Elgin Baylor did not play due to injury--and 1973, West's last full season. A bitter irony for West is that his worst Finals performance took place during his only championship run, as injuries restricted West while the Lakers capped a then-record setting 69 win season with a seven game triumph over the Knicks.

West was a tremendous Finals performer who was at his best when it counted the most. It is not his fault that his teams failed to win more than one title.

Here is a recap of James' Finals career to date:

2007: 22.0 ppg .356 0-4 San Antonio
2011: 17.8 ppg .478 2-4 Dallas (fifth leading scorer in series after winning regular season MVP)
2012: 28.6 ppg .472 4-1 OKC (first championship, first Finals MVP)
2013: 25.3 ppg .447 4-3 San Antonio (second championship, second Finals MVP)
2014: 28.2 ppg .571 1-4 San Antonio
2015: 35.8 ppg .398 2-4 Golden State (squandered 2-1 lead)
2016: 21.0 ppg .421 0-2 Golden State

In the Finals, James' field goal percentage consistently drops (other than in 2014), his turnovers increase and he often refuses to attack the paint even when there is no one on the court who can guard him. He has won two titles and two Finals MVPs, but he has also lost to teams led by Finals MVPs Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala. Overall, James has failed to place his stamp on the NBA Finals. The narrative suggesting that James has carried inferior squads to the Finals and thus should not be blamed for losing in the Finals ignores the reality that when James' teams reach the Finals it is his game that regresses. The above numbers are suggestive and illustrative but they do not tell the complete story. Watch the games with an educated eye and ask yourself some questions:

The Cavaliers have an All-Star point guard and LeBron James is their best post-up threat, so why does James insist on bringing the ball up the court against the Warriors? Consider this: The Chicago Bulls became a championship team when Michael Jordan stopped trying to get triple doubles and ceded the ballhandling duties to Scottie Pippen. Pippen initiated the offense and Jordan went to work in the post.

Why is LeBron James often standing by the Oracle logo when the Cavaliers are on offense? Every possession during which James does this is a wasted possession. If the Cavaliers do score on such a possession it is "offense by accident," because when James is that far away from the paint the Cavaliers are playing four on five. I don't want to hear about how badly James's teammates are supposedly playing when James is a conscientious objector on so many possessions.

Why does LeBron James hold the ball when he catches it in the post? No Warrior can guard James in the post. If he would catch the ball and immediately power to the hoop, he would score or get fouled almost every time. That would take a mental and physical toll on the Warriors. It would slow the game down, put the Warriors in foul trouble and allow the Cavaliers to set up their defense. When James holds the ball, he invites the Warriors to trap and recover, which leads to turnovers and rushed shots.

Why does LeBron James often pass the ball after driving to within two feet of the hoop? During one sequence in game two, James drove to the hoop but instead of finishing strongly, he passed the ball outside. The possession ended with Irving driving to the hoop and getting stripped after reaching the same spot where James had been a few seconds earlier. Such passes by James are not unselfish and they do not make him a pass-first player. The smart play is for the person with the highest percentage shot to shoot the ball. The self-proclaimed best player on the planet should be unstoppable in the paint, particularly when he is the biggest player on the court.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players in pro basketball history. That will not change even if he does not win another NBA Finals game. However, his inability or unwillingness to consistently rise to the occasion on his sport's biggest stage will forever be a baffling blotch on an otherwise sterling Hall of Fame resume.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never faced each other in the NBA Finals during the years when they were battling for the title of best player in the NBA (though we did see James go 0-1 in the Finals versus former MVP Dirk Nowitzki and 1-2 in the Finals versus former MVP Tim Duncan). It may turn out to be the case that 20 years from now when we look back at James' career his legacy is defined in no small part by his Finals matchups versus Stephen Curry. Reigning two-time MVP Curry will face four-time former MVP James in a rematch of the 2015 Finals, a series won by Curry's Golden State Warriors in six games after trailing James' Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1.

Overcoming deficits is nothing new for Curry and the Warriors; in the past two postseasons they have not only rallied against the Cavaliers in the Finals but they also bounced back after trailing 2-1 versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the 2015 playoffs and--in an instant classic series that will long be remembered by basketball fans and historians--the Warriors just recovered from a 3-1 hole to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

The Warriors posted a 67-15 record in 2014-15 before setting the all-time mark with a 73-9 record in 2015-16. They are, paradoxically, a dominant team and a team that has displayed some vulnerabilities and weaknesses; the Thunder squad that upset the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the second round of this year's playoffs came as close as a team could come to dethroning the Warriors without completing the task, building halftime leads in games six and seven before collapsing down the stretch.

Meanwhile, James has authored a streak of personal in-conference dominance that has not been seen since Bill Russell patrolled the paint. Russell led the Boston Celtics to eight straight NBA Finals--and, more significantly, eight straight championships--from 1959-66. Other than some of Russell's teammates, no player made it to six straight NBA Finals until James accomplished the feat this year, taking Cleveland to the championship round in back to back seasons after previously leading the Heat to the Finals from 2011-14. Yes, the Eastern Conference has lacked both star power and dominant teams during James' era but those facts do not diminish the historical significance of what James has achieved. He has displayed admirable durability, consistency and motivation, three traits that are essential for a player or a team to contend year after year.

Speaking of those three traits, please indulge a brief digression concerning the Oklahoma City Thunder and their two MVP candidates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant and Westbrook have led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in four out of the past six seasons; while that run cannot be compared to James' run, it should not be dismissed, either. The Western Conference has been the dominant conference in the NBA for several years, yet when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy they have perennially carried their team to the brink of the NBA Finals (and to a Finals trip in 2012). The ideas that Durant and Westbrook cannot play together or cannot win a championship together are ridiculous, because they already have an impressive track record of success. If Durant leaves the Thunder this summer then that will be a sign that--like James Harden, who previously left the Thunder for the opportunity to lead Houston to a series of first round playoff exits--Durant's top priority is not winning a championship; similarly, it would be foolish for Thunder management to voluntarily break up the Durant-Westbrook duo. The Thunder need to tweak their late game execution and perhaps their substitution patterns but a team that ousted the Spurs and nearly eliminated a historically great Warriors team should not be dismantled.

Back to James and the Cavaliers. James has rarely been seriously threatened in the Eastern Conference playoffs in recent seasons but in my Eastern Conference Finals Preview I noted that Toronto is "the type of team that has challenged James in the past during the playoffs (a good team that is hard-nosed and has several good but not great players). Tyronn Lue is a rookie coach and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Cavaliers face adversity during this series, particularly if that adversity comes in the form of James becoming disengaged/disinterested (as has happened repeatedly during LeBron James' career after the first round of the playoffs)."

While most analysts expected the Cavaliers to trample the Raptors--a sentiment that gained popularity after the Cavaliers routed the Raptors in the first two games of the series--I felt that Toronto had the right elements to at least bother the Cavaliers. Many commentators struggled during the series to explain how Toronto took games three and four but those ebbs and flows did not surprise me--and it also did not surprise me that in a do or die game five the Raptors did not have quite enough firepower to deal with a fully engaged LeBron James (the enduring mystery of James' career is to predict/anticipate which big games will capture his interest versus which big games will cause him to be inexplicably passive).

James is reflexively described as a "pass first" player but his best trait--and the trait that has helped him win two NBA titles--is that he is almost impossible to stop when he attacks the paint with the primary goal of scoring. James scored a series-high 26.0 ppg on .622 field goal shooting during the Eastern Conference Finals; he had some moments of inexplicable passivity (moments that helped the Raptors notch two victories) but it was evident that when he either posted up or relentlessly attacked the paint off of the dribble the Raptors had no answer. The signature performances of James' playoff career all involve dominant scoring runs, while the bizarre losses that mar his playoff resume share one common trait: James refused to shoot and/or settled for shots far outside of the paint.

James' All-Star caliber teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have both played well this postseason, though Love has been less consistent and less aggressive than Irving. Irving is a dynamic scorer who is underrated as a passer and defender (he is not a great passer or defender but he is better in both areas than he is often credited for being). Love can score anywhere from the block to the three point line, he can rebound, he is an excellent passer (particularly excelling at delivering pinpoint outlet passes) and this season he has even shown flashes of defensive competence. Love has also discovered the truth in Chris Bosh's prediction when James signed with Cleveland two years ago: it is not always easy to play with James and doing so often requires sublimating your game/statistics to James' desire to control the ball. Love appears to be a sensitive player who does not have an assertive personality; it is telling that statistics show that Love's field goal percentage during a game can be predicted based on whether he makes or misses his first shot. If James were truly a pass-first player like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd, then James would look for Love early in every single game and make sure to get him going. Think back to how Johnson bolstered the young Vlade Divac's confidence and helped mold him into a player who could start at center in the NBA Finals. Instead, Love gets the ball when and where James or Irving deign to give it to him and that dynamic--combined with Love's lack of an alpha dog personality--explains why Love's numbers are so inconsistent.

Kevin McHale once said that he would love to play against the Warriors because "those guys couldn't grow enough to guard me." Both James and Love enjoy decided matchup advantages in the post against the Warriors and exploiting those advantages would enable the Cavaliers to control tempo and create foul trouble. If James or Love score 10 points on 5-6 field goal shooting in the paint in the first quarter of game one of the Finals then the Cavaliers will be in good shape; if James refuses to post up or passes out of single coverage in the post to three point shooters who are also single-covered then the Cavaliers will be in trouble.

"Stat gurus" argue that the math favors teams like the Warriors that emphasize three pointers over two pointers. As someone who loves to fire up three pointers in recreational league play--and who understands that a 40% three point shooter is more efficient than even a 50% two point shooter--I can relate to this sentiment but NBA basketball is about much more than just numbers and pie charts. If you force three point shooters to repeatedly get in a defensive stance and to battle in the paint against bigger foes then you can wear them down and ultimately chip away at their shooting percentages. This is not just a theoretical concept; we just saw the Thunder come within inches/minutes of dethroning the Warriors by playing this way--and it took record setting three point shooting by the Warriors combined with shaky decision making by the Thunder to save the Warriors.

While the NBA game is not nearly as physical as it used to be, both Conference Finals had some confrontational moments. One interesting aspect of the Eastern Conference Finals which did not attract much media coverage is how James dealt with hard fouls/physical play. In the previous series versus Atlanta, Jeff Teague cheap-shotted James, sending James flying into the stands where James crashed into some courtside spectators who fortunately were not harmed. James just dusted himself off and returned to the court, sparing us the fake macho displays of so many NBA players who run toward an opposing player as if they want to fight, knowing full well that an armada of players, coaches and referees will prevent any real punches from being thrown; the number of NBA players in the past two decades who truly wanted to fight and who truly knew how to fight comprises a very small list, including but not limited to Jerry Stackhouse, Charles Oakley and Alvin Robertson. Mind you, there is no place in the sport for fighting but I can at least respect a man who feels like he is being challenged/disrespected and who is willing/able to stand up for himself--but I have no respect for the "fugazi" guys, to borrow the term Tim Thomas used to describe Kenyon Martin (who never met a guy half his size that he was not afraid to act tough around, as long as there were people in the vicinity to prevent a fight from breaking out).

The NBA rules are set up to prevent fights by suspending players who throw a punch (even if the punch does not connect) or who leave the bench area while there is an altercation on the court. Therefore, smart players know that no matter what happens the best thing to do is keep your cool. LeBron James, when asked during the Eastern Conference Finals about his restraint in situations when other players might retaliate, quoted a Jay-Z lyric: "If I shoot you, I'm brainless but if you shoot me, you're famous." James added that when he feels angry or has an urge to retaliate he reminds himself to not be "brainless." James has demonstrated such restraint throughout his career, up to and including the aforementioned cheap shot by Teague. James knows that he is a basketball player, not a boxer or a professional wrestler.

James' restraint and his comment bring to mind the 2007 San Antonio-Phoenix series when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw (a current Spur who was then a Sun) were suspended one game each for leaving the vicinity of the bench during an altercation. Running on to the court when there is a fight or a potential fight may feel macho at the time but it is actually a stupid and selfish demonstration of lack of self control, because the NBA rules clearly state that such an infraction automatically leads to a suspension. Suns' fans who whine about the punishment should instead berate Stoudemire and Diaw for being "brainless." LeBron James--and Stephen Adams, whose private regions were twice used as target practice by Draymond Green during the 2016 Western Conference Finals--proved that a player does not have to throw a punch to be tough; real toughness is demonstrated by staying focused on the task at hand, which is doing whatever you can do within the rules to help your team win.

Green's kick to Adams' groin in game three of the Western Conference Finals was absolutely a dirty play; even if it was not intentional, it was at the very least reckless and dangerous: I have played basketball since I was a little kid and I have never kicked anyone in the groin as part of my follow through on a shot, nor have I seen anyone else do that either. Adams and the Thunder did not react in a "brainless" way but instead hit Green and the Warriors where it hurts the most: the scoreboard.

In my Western Conference Finals Preview I laid out the blueprint for an Oklahoma City victory over Golden State:  "(T)he Thunder's dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to play at an All-NBA First Team--if not MVP--level while the Thunder's platoon of big men dominate the paint." Yet, I picked Golden State to win because I considered Golden State to be a historically great team, while the Thunder appeared to be "merely" at the level of a "normal" championship contender.

That analysis proved to be very much on point. The Thunder showed that the Warriors can be rattled by size; even the Thunder's "small" lineup featured the 7-0 Durant (do not believe his "official" height of 6-9) and the 6-10 Serge Ibaka, plus long-armed perimeter players like Westbrook and Andre Roberson. The Thunder's "big" lineup pounded the Warriors on the boards at both ends of the court and often deterred the Warriors from shooting in the paint. The key against the Warriors is to not get discouraged when Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson hit shots from 25-30 feet away, because those guys are so good that they are going to make those shots no matter who is guarding them. Over the course of a game and a series, size can wear down the Warriors, but it is important for the opposing team to not get so rattled by a 12-0 run that they relegate all of their big men to the bench. The Thunder pummeled the Warriors with size en route to taking a 3-1 lead and, realistically, the Thunder outplayed the Warriors the majority of the time during the series--but what the Thunder lacked was the ability to close out games down the stretch, a problem that also plagued the Thunder during the regular season. The way that the Warriors outlasted the Thunder reminded me of how boxer Sugar Ray Leonard won some fights by picking up points on the judges' scorecards with end of the round flurries even though he had actually been outboxed for most of the round; the Thunder "outboxed" the Warriors for most of the series and yet succumbed to short flurries, usually at the end of quarters.

If the Cavaliers try to play small ball versus the Warriors, the Cavaliers could get swept; the Cavaliers must utilize their size, slow the game down and punish the Warriors in the paint. James must station himself on the block on offense and either score 40 points or else kick to open three point shooters if the Warriors double team him. The Warriors have no one who can check James one on one in the post and when the Warriors go small they have no one in the paint who can prevent James from finishing at the rim. The Cavaliers might consider using Love to anchor the second unit, running their offense through Love in the post when James takes a rare breather. When James or Love posts up, Tristan Thompson should be crashing the boards from the other side of the lane. A key element to the success of this strategy is the ability to make effective entry passes to the post without turning the ball over, something which at times seems to be a lost art in the NBA.

The conventional way to view this series is that James and the Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to six games last year without Love and Irving, so this year the Cavaliers are in a great position to win--but that ignores how/why the Cavaliers did well against the Warriors: in the first three games of the 2015 Finals, the Cavaliers utilized center Timofey Mozgov to good effect in the paint at both ends of the court but then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt capitulated to playing small-ball when the Warriors went small in game four. The Warriors cannot effectively go big, so their only option/adjustment when they face adversity is to go small and play faster--but the smart thing to do when the Warriors do that is to stay the course and not get rattled. Look at game seven of the 2016 Western Conference Finals; the Thunder led at halftime and even after the Warriors hit some incredible shots in the third quarter the game was still up for grabs--but the problem for the Thunder is that their players (and perhaps their coaching staff) panicked and acted as if a three point deficit was a 20 point deficit. The game was still there for the taking but the Thunder lost focus and started arguing with each other instead of focusing on the task at hand.

Will the Cavaliers have enough poise and discipline to stick with a big lineup? Will James be willing to play in the post and accept the challenge of scoring in the paint if the Warriors elect to single cover him? Those factors will determine how competitive Cleveland is in this series.

James has no excuses this time around: he has his handpicked coach and his handpicked roster, plus both of his All-Star sidekicks are fully healthy. James has the necessary tools in place to beat the Warriors but I expect the outcome this time to be the same as the outcome last year: Warriors win in six games. James will have the gaudiest individual numbers of any player in the series but Stephen Curry will make the key game-winning plays to cap off a dream season with his first Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:14 AM

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