LeBron Lights Up MSG: 52-11-10The basketball world buzzed with anticipation about what wonders LeBron James might perform in New York in the wake of Kobe Bryant's record breaking 61 point game and, like the great ones almost always do, James was more than up to the task: he dropped 52 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on the Knicks in a 107-102 Cleveland victory (2/6/09 edit: the NBA has taken a rebound away from James, so he officially had a 52-11-9 performance). James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 behind the arc) and 16-19 from the free throw line while joining Michael Jordan as the only two visiting players to have two 50 point games at Madison Square Garden; James is also the first NBA player to have a triple double while scoring at least 50 points since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975 (yes, kids, Andrew Bynum's coach was that good).
Bryant and James should be savored as the two best players in the game today but it is inevitable that people will compare James' performance with Bryant's, so I will offer my take on that subject. Of course, I will do this a little differently--actually, a lot differently--than just about anyone else. For instance, in the postgame show on the MSG Network, Al Trautwig talked about how James smiles more than Bryant and seems to be enjoying himself while Bryant is "a lot more intense." Who cares? What does that have to do with anything? Does anyone think that Bryant does not enjoy playing basketball or that James is not intense? What interests me is to compare and contrast the skill sets of the league's two best players.
Bryant's Lakers beat the Knicks by nine, while James' Cavs won by five. Bryant played 37 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +19, while James played 44 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +7. Plus/minus numbers can be "noisy," particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that Bryant's plus/minus exceeded his team's victory margin by 10 while James' plus/minus only exceeded his team's victory margin by two.
Bryant shot 19-31 from the field (including 3-6 from three point range) and 20-20 from the free throw line.
James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 from three point range) and 16-19 from the free throw line.
Taking those stats in reverse order, both Bryant and James did a good job of both drawing fouls and making their free throws.
Bryant is a reliable threat from three point range (.500 in the game, .341 during the season), while James is an erratic three point shooter (.286 in the game, .298 during the season).
According to my (unofficial) count, Bryant shot 4-5 in the paint (.800) and 12-20 (.600) in the midrange game; James shot 7-8 (.875) in the paint and 8-18 (.444) in the midrange game. That latter area is what still sets Bryant apart from James: As ESPN's Tim Legler said last night, "Kobe Bryant is the only offensive player in the NBA who does not have a weakness. There is nothing he cannot do on the court offensively." James is a tremendous force in the paint but he shoots a subpar percentage from virtually every other zone, as I detailed in a previous post. Against the Knicks, this difference did not matter too much but it is a major reason why Bryant was able to lead the Lakers past the Spurs in last year's playoffs while James' Cavs were swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals: elite defensive teams sag off of James, taking away his driving lanes and passing angles, thus forcing him to shoot jumpers. When James is hitting the midrange shot he is unguardable but he has yet to master that shot on a consistent basis, so it is hard to understand what the Knicks were doing defensively, particularly in the fourth quarter of a winnable game (the Cavs only led 82-78 after three quarters). James shot 3-3 in the paint in the final stanza but 0-4 outside of the paint, yet Knick defenders repeatedly crowded him and all but forced him to drive. On the possessions when Wilson Chandler correctly backed off from James, James offered several half hearted fakes before missing jump shots after Chandler did not come closer; James clearly wanted to drive and was justifiably reluctant to shoot. On subsequent possessions when other Knick defenders bodied up to James he blew by them and scored or drew fouls. The most bizarre defensive possession was when Chandler backed off of James, the shot clock ran down and all of a sudden Nate Robinson--looking like Troy Polamalu on a safety blitz--ran over to trap James; naturally, James simply passed to Robinson's man and Daniel Gibson knocked down an open three pointer. Why would Robinson leave a knock down shooter to double team James behind the three point line? That just makes no sense.
James finished with 10 rebounds, while Bryant did not have any rebounds, so James obviously wins this category even if you take out the inconsequential board that James snared as time ran out (he admitted after the game that a teammate told him he needed one rebound for a triple double but he good naturedly refused to identify who tipped him off). James is normally a small forward and he spent some time versus the Knicks at power forward when the Cavs went small, so he played a lot closer to the basket at both ends of the court than Bryant did.
James had 11 assists and three turnovers, while Bryant had three assists and two turnovers. The low turnover totals for both players are remarkable considering how productive they both were. It is important to understand that the Cavs and Lakers run completely different offenses. Almost every Cleveland possession begins with James handling the ball, while the Lakers run the Triangle Offense and other players besides Bryant can initiate the attack. No Cav other than James had more than three assists, while four Lakers had at least four assists versus the Knicks.
Trying to rank one of these performances over the other is like arguing about whether Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is a "better" work of art. Bryant showcased his full scoring repertoire and he made the passes in the Triangle Offense that eventually led to scoring opportunities for other players; his zero rebounds are a statistical anomaly (he had nine rebounds versus Toronto tonight). James powered his way to the hoop, made just enough outside shots to keep the defense honest and did a remarkable job of filling up the stat sheet in other categories besides points. When I watched James do his thing in the wake of Bryant's great game I did not think so much about who is better as I reaffirmed my conviction that these two players have separated themselves from everyone else in the NBA.
The Sunday showdown between the Cavs and the Lakers is "must see TV."
posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM