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Sunday, April 23, 2006

King James Reigns Supreme in his Playoff Debut

LeBron James posted the first postseason triple double in Cleveland Cavaliers history (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) while leading the Cavs to a 97-86 victory over the Washington Wizards in game one of their Eastern Conference First Round series. James' advertising slogan is "We are all witnesses" and an energized sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena witnessed a masterful performance by James, who at 21 years, 113 days old became the second youngest player in NBA playoff history to post a triple double, trailing only Magic Johnson, who accomplished the feat at 20 years, 238 days old on April 8, 1980 in a 119-110 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns. Both players did this in their very first playoff game, although Magic was a rookie and LeBron has just completed his third season.

You have to see James in person to fully appreciate his unique combination of size, power, speed and finesse. James is listed at 6-8, 240 pounds and is probably heavier than his listed weight. Future Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone was listed at 6-9, 256 pounds. James has the chiseled build of a power forward, but he plays small forward and has the ball handling responsibilities of a point guard. When James drives to the hoop, opposing players bounce off of him as if he were surrounded by a force field. As if that capability alone would not be devastating, LeBron's speed in the open court is nothing short of breathtaking. On one play in Saturday's game, LeBron raced ahead of the pack and raised his hand to call for a lob pass. The pass was delivered off target and LeBron was not able to complete the dunk, but he used his speed to beat everyone else to the ball and then powered up for a layup as if the defense was not even there.

You don't want to make too much of one game, but this win does in fact have great significance on two fronts. From the Cavaliers' perspective, a game one victory is important because since 1983-84 NBA teams have a 271-59 record (.821) in playoff series after winning the first game. We can all remember playoff series in which a team lost the first game and came back to win--last year this very same Wizards franchise lost the first two games in the first round and then won four straight versus Chicago to advance to the second round--but those are unusual cases. Cleveland should not be overconfident by any means but history is on the Cavaliers' side. From a larger perspective, LeBron's level of play in this game is reminiscent of Michael Jordan's 63 point game versus the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. There are obvious differences--that was not Jordan's first playoff game and Jordan faced much stronger opposition--but that game was Jordan's coming out party. He had already established himself as a very good NBA player, but the 63 point game showed that he could become unguardable at times. The next year he averaged a career high 37.1 ppg and five years later he won his first NBA title. Lebron barely scored half as much as Jordan did in the 1986 game but his performance was every bit as commanding. When scoring was needed, he provided it; when rebounding was needed, he got the ball; when the Wizards sent waves of defenders at him, he deftly spoon-fed his teammates for dunks or wide open jump shots. He completely controlled the game, frustrating and seeming to demoralize the Wizards. The question remaining to be answered is whether or not LeBron can play at such an epochal level every night. The Wizards tried every imaginable individual defender and numerous double-team combinations and LeBron picked the defense apart as if little children were guarding him. It reminded me of what Del Harris--at the time the Houston Rockets' Coach--said years ago after Julius Erving torched Houston for 44 points: "We couldn't have stopped him with a hockey stick."

Donyell Marshall supported LeBron with 19 points and seven rebounds. Larry Hughes had an awful shooting game (1-9 from the field) but he was one of the defenders who harassed star Wizards' guard Gilbert Arenas into a 7-20 shooting night. Arenas finished with 26 points, six rebounds and three assists. Eric Snow made the Wizards pay for leaving him to double team LeBron by making 5-7 from the field and scoring 14 points.

In his pregame standup, Cavs' Coach Mike Brown mentioned that he called one of his mentors--San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich--the previous evening to get some advice before his first playoff game as an NBA head coach. Brown declined to be specific about what Popovich said but stated that the general idea is to keep an even keel and not add to any pressure that the players may already feel.

Brown also singled out three things that his team needed to do to win:

1) Limit their turnovers
2) Don't get beaten for easy scores in the transition game
3) Keep the Wizards' big men off of the offensive glass

In his remarks to the media after the game, Coach Brown expressed satisfaction that the Cavaliers were successful at all three of these things, but cautioned that this was only a "good first step in a long process."

On the other hand, in his postgame statement Wizards' Coach Eddie Jordan could barely conceal his disgust with his team's performance. Asked whether LeBron's triple double or Snow's shooting hurt the Wizards more, Jordan responded, "What hurt me more? My team not playing the way they're supposed to play. That hurt me more than anything and it hurt us. It's a problem right now that we have got to correct. Our team didn't have the body language, didn't have the unselfish play. We were undisciplined, we lost our focus and, again, I want to first give credit to the Cavaliers: certainly, they played playoff basketball and we did not."

This game has no direct bearing on the MVP race, because all of the official ballots have already been submitted--but LeBron has clearly thrown down a gauntlet and made his case for being the best player in the game. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, two other leading MVP candidates, square off against each other at 3 p.m. on Sunday when the Lakers visit the Suns. You know that they watched LeBron's performance and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Both players are too smart to try to deviate from what makes them and their teams successful, but within that context they will make their own cases to be the game's best player. Then, on Tuesday night, LeBron will try for an encore to his stunning playoff debut. Basketball fans are in for a real treat in the coming days, weeks--and years.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

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